Mac Donald versus God

Summarizing a recent symposium at NRO about the war, I referred to Heather Mac Donald (pronounced the same as MacDonald) as “the never-foolish.” That is a judgment I must now regretfully retract. In her contribution to a symposium at The American Conservative (which was supposed to be about liberalism and conservatism, not about God), and now in a subsequent discussion at The Corner, she has launched an attack on religion which, to be charitable, is on the intellectual level of a village atheist, revealing a woeful ignorance not just of religion but of the historical and philosophical bases of our civilization. Her arguments are on the same level as mine when, at age 13, I determined that there was too much suffering in the world to be conformable with the existence of God, and proudly announced to my parents that I was an atheist. Making such arguments, privately, in one’s adolescence is one thing; making them, publicly, in one’s forties is something else. But in fact her arguments are sillier than mine at age 13, since she bases her position primarily not on the truth or falseness of religion, but on the more naive things uttered by some Christian believers, which she (in her embarrassing ignorance of the subject) takes to be identical to Christianity itself.

He who knows only his own generation remains always a child, said Cicero. The same applies to him who knows only his own narrow experience and his own undeveloped thoughts. Declaring, as Mac Donald does, that the overwhelming majority of her fellow Americans, as well as all the Christians and Westerners who came before us, including Paul, Augustine, Bernard of Clairvaux, Aquinas, Tyndale, C.S. Lewis, the Irish monks, the builders of cathedrals, the evangelists of continents, are simply irrational, and that she knows better, is the mark of an intellectual adolescent.

Mac Donald’s apparent need to “come out of the closet” on this issue is unfortunate. She has never pronounced on large philosophical, moral, or civilizational questions before, and, indeed, seemed not to have strong or passionate views on any subject, but has kept her writings within a fact-based, journalistic framework. Privately, however, she did have this one “big” gripe eating away at her—the utter folly and hypocrisy of believing in God and most of all the folly and hypocrisy of thanking God for anything good—that she has been itching to unload herself of for years (as can be seen from this interview on an obscure website in 2003), and now she’s done it.

I first corresponded with Heather Mac Donald almost 15 years ago, to congratulate her on a superb article on multiculturalism she had written for The New Criterion. She is an intelligent, high-quality journalist who has focused on some of the most important issues of our time, such as illegal immigration. She should have kept her uninformed views of religion to herself.

- end of initial entry -

Gintas J. writes:

Note how Mac Donald in the TAC Symposium simply ignored the symposium questions and set about what was really on her mind: “The right doesn’t appreciate skeptics. Like … Me!!!” Your characterization of Mac Donald’s essay as juvenile is spot on.

I’ve figured out that skeptics are useless for building anything. I say this as an Engineer. An engineer will typically see all sorts of problems in designing and building something, but they are obstacles that he must work around somehow. A skeptic will sit over his shoulder and question the laws of physics. Useless!

Sage McLaughlin writes:

“Unfortunate” is a perfect descriptive. Her work in other areas, usually of the wonkish public policy sort, has been impressive. Her understanding is, evidently, a mile wide and an inch deep. It’s disheartening, really, because she is obviously bright. But here and throughout the discussion she sounds like a kind of highly credentialed barbarian, or as C.S. Lewis might describe it, a “trousered ape.” Too bad.

Mr. McLaughlin had also written earlier:

“I agree that we are pushing the concept of individual autonomy to ever more extreme lengths, for better or worse (a dynamist like Virginia Postrel would argue that on balance more individual choice is always preferable to less, and I am increasingly inclined to agree, despite the negative repercussions for the family).”

That quote comes from neoconservative Heather Mac Donald at the Corner, in a post about why she thinks Christianity—and religion in general—is basically incidental to the greatness of Western Civilization, and is in fact something we’re all probably better off without. Mac Donald goes on to claim, bizarrely, that there is an inherent “tension in arguing simultaneously that Western individualism is a legacy of Judeo-Christianity while blaming our turn away from that religious tradition for our excess of individualism.” She argues, in essence, that it is our eagerness to abandon traditional ways of doing business that makes the West so wonderful. Sound familiar? Combined with her earlier entries in this debate, it pretty much shatters any pretense that this woman or any of her colleagues at AEI are in any meaningful sense of the word “conservative.”

More here from The Corner. Follow the whole conversation. It’s jaw-dropping, and astoundingly small-minded, stuff. And notice how many times she uses the word “empirical” whenever she encounters an issue of any philosophical depth whatsoever. It is like a talisman for her, one which shields her from ever having to discuss anything beyond what some technocratic expert or social scientist—like herself, naturally—can certify.

More than all that, there’s this remark:

“And if the freedom that we have created in the West is indeed God’s gift, it sure took a long time for us to open it.”

Can anyone who makes such a statement, who so obviously expects the world to be given to us as a fully-discernible unity, ever be called conservative? She simultaneous acknowledges that Western Civilization and all its benefits—which for her seem to boil down to one thing only, namely “individual freedom”—were the work of millennia, and that we can safely dismiss the entire moral foundation of that heritage without losing anything much of real value. (Earlier in the discussion she concedes that, of course, Bach is nice, so maybe religion can bear some marginally redeeming fruits now and again.)

When I told Sage that Mac Donald is affilated with the Manhattan Institute, not AEI, he wrote back: “Hmm. I could have sworn she was an AEI fellow, but maybe I was thinking of Hirsi Ali (just kidding).”

Constance S. writes:

Lawrence, you are being amazingly charitable in your comments on Heather Mac Donald. After almost three days of suffering through her blasts of condemnation against God and against Christians, and tiring of her pathetic self-pity, I finally e-mailed The Corner this note:

“Heather Mac Donald is a bitter, argumentative woman. This is not dialogue; it is bullying, whining and obsessive bickering on her part. Let me know when she leaves and maybe I will visit The Corner again.”

Perhaps if I had read your comments first, I might have been hesitant to send it; then again, maybe not.

Ben writes:


Throughout the ages, men and women have made statements and made the same declarations against God and his Word as Mac Donald has. She is just repeating the platitudes used against God since day one acting as if they are some new revelation. However, God still stands unscathed from all attacks.

I give her platitudes a big Yawn. Christians are irrational? Wow new insight!

LA replies:

She’s incredibly foolish and ignorant. She’s lived in America all her life, yet knows nothing about the thinking of Christians but just caricatures it. She has embarrassed and damaged herself with conservatives over this. But she doesn’t care, because she had a bug about this and had to say what she said.


I don’t see how you can be a conservative and at least not see Christianity as the glue of Western civilization. I don’t see how you can be a conservative and at least not hold total respect for Christianity and have an understanding of how important it is to our entire culture…. past and present.

The kind of ignorance she displays is mind boggling. It’s fine for her not to be a believer, but it is not fine to hold this kind of ignorant view towards Christianity, the rock of Western civilization.


Here’s a basic guideline I’ve stated before. You can be an agnostic or even an atheist and still be a conservative, if you respect Christianity and the Christian traditions of our culture. But if you oppose and despise Christianity and see Christian belief as a mental defect, you cannot be a conservative, because you are alienated from the historic basis of our civilization and from the religion of the vast majority of its people.

Obviously this does not mean that to be a conservative one must respect and approve all manifestations and expressions of Christian belief. It means that one is basically sympathetic with Christianity, rather than hostile to it. In the same way, being a conservative means that one identifies with and has an affection for the historic Western civilization, notwithstanding any particular criticisms one has of specific aspects of it. It means that one feels Western civilization as one’s own, rather than as something that is alien to oneself.

For example, when the typical modern Westerner lets loose with the usual litany of historic Western and Christian sins, the Crusades, the Inquisition, slavery and so on, he is doing it to express his basic hostility toward Western civilization. By contrast, a traditionalist conservative, even if condemning of certain things about Western civilization, still regards the civilization as his own, he’s on its side, he’s on its team. It is his civiliation, his heritage. When he reads about Charles Martel’s Christian army defeating the Muslim army at Tours, he thinks, “Our side won, thank God.” This basic quality of affection and identification with our historic civilization, as a continuum extending through time of which we ourselves are a part, is the existential core of conservatism.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at August 18, 2006 04:25 PM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):