Coming Out

Skeptical Conservatives, weary of the Theocon’s Disdain, are Emerging from the Closet


by Christopher Orlet (March 2007)


"Man is by his constitution a religious animal; atheism is against not only our reason, but our instincts," observed Edmund Burke, the godfather of modern-day conservatism. Burke was reflecting on the Jacobins attempt to create a French secular state. His great fear was that some crude, destructive superstition would succeed Christianity.

Normally I defer to Burke in all things, and I have no quarrel with his opening salvo. Many neuroscientists theorize that the human brain is indeed hardwired for religious belief. One Dr. Dean Hammer even claims to have identified a “God gene.”  But I, for one, am not so ready to concede that atheism is "against our reason.” Historically I have had the theologians on my side. To Martin Luther reason was “the Devil’s bride” and the “whore of the devil” whose eyes “must be plucked out.”

What then would Burke have made of his spiritual and intellectual heirs who have recently and publicly emerged from the closet of skepticism, and thereby suffered the enmity of the so-called fundies and theocons? We’re talking about a Who’s Who of conservative writers and pundits: Stephen Chapman, Theodore Dalrymple, John Derbyshire, Heather MacDonald, Andrew Stuttaford and James Taranto.  And there are others--like Florence King--who are not so much courageous as indifferent to what religious conservatives--or any one else for that matter--think.

I suspect Burke--despite his Anglican/Catholic sympathies--would have understood their exasperation. In his last years Barry "Mr Conservative" Goldwater certainly had had enough of the bullying of American politicians by the Religious Right. The Arizona senator vowed to "fight them every step of the way." Were he around today Goldwater might be surprised at the number of his allies on the Right.

The National Review's Stuttaford, a self-proclaimed agnostic, hints that there are more skeptics among conservative ranks than are dreamed of in Fr Richard John Neuhaus' worst nightmare. Theodore Dalrymple had a similar realization after participating in a recent conservative forum:


I was surprised afterwards that several of the audience approached me…They said that they, too, were without religious faith, in short atheists, and it was a relief to them that someone, otherwise of like mind with the majority of the audience, had confessed it.


Heather MacDonald is the latest confessor. MacDonald recently told an interviewer for the Weblog Gene Expression that "up to half of the conservative writers and thinkers whom I know are non-believers. And yet because of the rule that one may never question claims made on behalf of faith, they remain in the closet." This, and MacDonald's earlier piece for The American Conservative, led to many loud catcalls for her excommunication from the communion of conservative Republicans.

Overlooked in this internecine rumble is the Right's long and rich tradition of skepticism, going back to such heavyweights as George Santayana, Ludwig Von Mises, F.A. Hayek, Robert Conquest, Milton Friedman, Sidney Hook, Ayn Rand, HL Mencken and Mordecai Richler. But for many contemporary conservatives coming out could well mean an end to their careers--since no “true” conservative can be an atheist. Therefore they keep mum.

These days that is not so easy. President George W. Bush is arguably the most spiritual president since the administration of Woodrow Wilson. It was the Rev. Dr. Wilson who proclaimed, “God ordained that I should be the next president of the United States.” Wilson was fervent in his belief that Jehovah personally presided over the union of these several states. "I believe that God implanted in us the vision of liberty," said Wilson. "I cannot be deprived of the hope that is in me that we are chosen to show the way to the nations of the world how they shall walk in the paths of liberty." This same homily could well be uttered today by George W. Bush (though White House spokesmen would likely deny it). The two leaders share a great deal in common, not least that Bush is a devoted follower of Wilson's global democracy mission, which has led the U.S. into a dubious messianic venture to spread freedom worldwide.

Many of these recent high-profile debuts have been spurred by the successes of the Christian Right-- mostly southern Pentecostals—who are seen as controlling the fortunes of Republican politics. (Of these P.J. O'Rourke has written: "I almost don't have the heart to make fun of these folks. It's like hunting dairy cows with a high-powered rifle and scope.") MacDonald, however, does not fault the Christian Right, President Bush or right-wing politicians for the skeptics' reaction. Rather she blames the "preening piety of conservative pundits.”

They are legion and they are influential. Many fundie pundits regard America primarily as a Christian nation and credit everything in Western Civilization from truth to beauty to the Christian tradition. Everything good, anyway. Some, like Wall Street Journal’s Dan Henninger claims a religious provenance for the “American” virtues of “fortitude, prudence, temperance, justice, charity, hope, integrity, loyalty, honor, filial respect, mercy, diligence, generosity and forbearance,” as if none of these existed before the Sermon on the Mount. (Some one should direct Mr. Henninger’s attention to a course in Nicomachean Ethics.)

Still for many it will be impossible to imagine conservatism apart from Christianity, just as Burke could not envision Western civilization without the Nazarene.  To MacDonald this is just another example of shoddy thinking: "Conservatism has no necessary relation to religious belief," she told an interviewer. "Rational thought, not revelation, is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law."

Theocons will argue that pure reason leads to “Hell, by way of the guillotine, the gulag and the gas chamber," and that for a moral guide Holy Writ alone will do. This, of course, assumes that humans lack the innate moral faculties of sympathy, kindness, fairness, self-control, etc. Fortunately conservative social scientist James Q Wilson has shown that human beings all share a "moral sense" rooted in human biology and evolution, and that moral faculties grow directly out of our mutual interdependence as social animals.

Indeed, many of the instincts we think of as Judeo-Christian values appear naturally in the animal world, such as self-sacrifice among kin, and sharing and reciprocity among non-kin. Anthropologists now believe that morality and the so-called Golden Rule were developed outside of religion to deal with the complexities of living in large-scale societies. Religion--rather than binding groups together--oft-times separates peoples (as is currently the case in Iraq). Darwin’s theory of group selection states that primitive tribes in which people were willing to help one another or sacrifice themselves for the common good were more cohesive and thus had an advantage over more selfish or individualistic tribes.

“In a world of genocide-minded Paleolithic bands,” writes Jonathon Shay, “reproductive success — or rather the prospect of reproducing at all — would have been greatly enhanced by the presence of individuals in the band with genes to support cooperative, altruistic, potentially self-sacrificial behavior.” Fortunately for early man what we have come to call Mosaic Law or Judeo-Christian values existed as tribal customs and taboos long before Moses carved them onto stone tablets.

A good example of how the Religious Right is negatively affecting the quality of conservative ideas is evident in the Right’s fallacious attack on the so-called “bloodthirsty atheist.” Theocons are often heard to say that "morality is not possible without religion." As proof of this, theocons like Dinesh D’Souza fatuously assert that Stalin, Mao and Hitler were “atheists,” therefore all atheists are evil. This is a typical inductive fallacy that an eighth-grader should recognize, and is rather like saying that Torquemada was evil. Torqemada was a Christian. Therefore all Christians are evil.

And what of fascist leaders who were not atheists? Francisco Franco added the phrase "by the grace of God" to his official title and was declared a saint by the Palmarian Catholic Church, a schismatic Catholic sect with its own pope.  Here conservatives often drag out another logical fallacy, the old “No True Scotsman” fallacy. That is, they simply contend that Franco was not a true Christian.  Case closed.

Similarly theocons explain the fact that most secularists do not go around indiscriminately butchering people by noting that they (secularists) live parasitically off Christianity's moral legacy. "[E]ven the most admirable of atheists is nothing more than a moral parasite, living his life based on borrowed ethics," notes the Christian writer Vox Day. (Vox conveniently ignores evidence that Judeo-Christian ethics were borrowed from pre-existing pagan cultures like the Egyptians and Babylonians). 

But even if we grant that the atheist is a moral parasite, he seems to me at least as virtuous and rational as the true believer for he has chosen to live a moral, virtuous life, not out of fear of eternal hellfire, or because some angry god commands it, but because he believes in treating others like he himself wishes to be treated knowing that this is the only basis for a sound, peaceful, orderly society.

Back in 1866 John Stuart Mill wrote that "stupid people are generally Conservative. I believe that is so obviously and universally admitted a principle that I hardly think any gentleman will deny it." It took a century to overcome this stigma, but conservativism has come a long way in the ideas department since Mill, and since the rise of the American conservative movement in the 1950s. In the past half century conservative economic, political and social policies have triumphed. But that grudging respect for conservative intellectuals has been tenuous, at best, and now seems in danger of eroding altogether. Since Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy successfully courted southern Evangelicals and “negrophobe whites,” resulting in his and Ronald Reagan’s landslide victories, Republicans and conservative intellectuals have been reluctant to say anything that would offend their new base. On the contrary -- when it comes to spiritual matters--they will brook no debate and have embraced that brand of anti-intellectualism evident in the Intelligent Design movement. Conservatives have, in a sense, made a deal with the diety, a James Dobson's Choice, trading their intellectual souls for political power. If true, the movement deserves to be left to its fate.

If MacDonald's numbers are right, half of our conservative pundits remain cowering in the closet. However I suspect a good many remain silent simply because they do not wish to be associated with atheist spokesmen who are so often, to put it mildly, jerks. Recently the Wall Street Journal's Taranto noted that the organization American Atheists had brought a lawsuit against the Utah Highway Patrol and the Utah Department of Transportation for placing crosses alongside a state highway memorializing troopers who had fallen in the line of duty.

“Maybe atheists would have an easier time winning acceptance if they didn't act like such jerks all the time,” writes Taranto.

Amen to that.


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