Mac Donald “depressed” by Americans’ belief in God
Heather Mac Donald is an intelligent writer of whom I once said that she never said anything foolish. That turned out to be the case only so long as she maintained a journalistic focus on discrete, fact-based issues. Then, unfortunately, Mac Donald decided for the first time in her writing career to come out as a “thinker,” specifically as an atheist “thinker,” specifically as an atheist “thinker” who is against religion and wants it to go away, even as she insists that she is a conservative and that she is being treated unfairly by conservatives who (and this is a big shock to her—many things are a big shock to her) do not look kindly on people who openly express their desire for the disappearance of Christianity.
She tells the website Gene Expression in an interview: “[T]he proportion of Americans who believe in Biblical revelation remains depressingly high and doesn’t yet show much sign of decline…”
So, Mac Donald is not merely, as she claims, offended by overly aggressive assertions of religious belief by conservatives. She’s not merely, as she claims, against the idea that only religious people can be moral and conservative. And she’s not merely, as some sympathetic conservative readers may imagine, against the excesses of biblical religion. She’s against biblical religion, period. She’s against anyone believing in the God of the Bible, period. She’s against anyone believing, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” That’s biblical revelation, after all, and she’s depressed by the fact that lots of people think it’s true. Yet, striking the victimological note that has been coeval with her recent professions of atheism, she still feels conservatives have been treating her unkindly for her merely raising what she calls “empirical arguments” about God’s non-existence, arguments that, as I’ve shown, are on the intellectual level of a village atheist, exhibiting stunning ignorance, narrow-mindedness, and lack of experience in dealing with issues of this nature.
As remarkable as her attack on religion is her sudden effusion of a very uncharacteristic optimism about the state of society. She tells the interviewer:
“For all the barbarity of popular entertainment and the historical ignorance of the American public, American civilization and the West generally are at the top of their games-contrary to war on terror hysteria that holds that we face an “existential threat” from Islamists. The rate of technological innovation is higher than at any point in human history and will undoubtedly only accelerate in the future. We are reaping a whirlwind of unfathomable benefits from scientific research.”Throughout her entire writing career Mac Donald has been part of the neoconservative movement, which had its origins in the insight that certain liberal ameliorative efforts have had devastating effects on society. She has written about the spreading social chaos associated with illegitimacy which in turn was promoted by changes in welfare and morality. She has written about the chaos unleashed by illegal immigration including the Mexican government’s deliberate campaign to subvert our borders and our laws, and our society’s lack of will to do anything serious about this. She has written about anarchic gang crime. She has written about the multicultural war to delegitimize our culture and nation. Anyone reading her articles over the last 10 or 15 years would say that Mac Donald has a fairly grim, typically conservative sense that liberalism is in the saddle of our culture and is causing vast harm. But now all that seems to be reversed. Now Mac Donald has suddenly turned into a High-Tech Pangloss living in the best of all possible worlds. How did this transformation come about? It came about this way. Having come out publicly as an atheist, she had to find something positive to posit against religion. And so, following a path pursued by many others over the last few centuries, she turned material progress into a religion, which in turn cancels out the conservative insight into social problems. Affirming the belief in pure materiality as a counter-truth to Christianity, she says that America and the West are getting better and better, in a material sense, indeed, they are at the top of their game, in a material sense; that there is no deep cultural crisis; and that the belief that Islam poses a threat to our civilization is mere “hysteria.” Why is it hysteria? Because “technological innovation” and “scientific research” are making things better and better! It’s hard to see how technological innovation cancels out the threat of Islam, but Mac Donald believes it is so.
What she has done is to turn technological advance into the mindless feel-good cult that she falsely accuses Christianity of being. She lambastes Christians for believing in God despite all the nasty things that happen in the world. But she herself believes in the all-encompassing goodness of scientific advance which proves to her that evil and enemies can have no power over us and that our culture is going great.
Thus, as a result of her cult of materiality as the highest reality, she believes that any natural disaster disproves the existence of God, while man’s scientific and material advances disprove any cultural disaster. Since God is supposedly in charge of nature, if anything goes wrong with nature (a tsunami, say, or, for that matter, even a lightning bolt striking just one person dead), then there is no God. But since man is in charge of technology, if technological things are going well, then everything in man’s world is going well, including culture, because materiality is all. There are no civilizational threats facing us—because we’re advancing technologically, and technological control over matter is the highest thing there is.
Having rejected God and religion, Mac Donald has adopted technological superstition as their replacement. You would think that a person with all her education would know something about the illusions and calamities caused by the Enlightenment belief that man can use technology to remake the world and that material advance suffices for man’s happiness. But, as Mac Donald says repeatedly of herself, she is an innocent. She knows none of this. Her historical, philosophical, and religious formation is zilch, not to mention her complete lack of common sense in dealing with these issues (as seen, for example, in her insistence that conservatives include atheists like herself even as she announces that she wants to eradicate conservatives’s most precious beliefs and the source of their values); plus, as Michael Pakaluk said of her at National Review Online, “Mac Donald’s mockery of common religious sensibilities … is so unfeeling as to border on the inhuman.”
Her multidirectional cluelessness is further indicated by this:
“As for the conservative intelligentsia, I was surprised—but that is my fault. I was ignorant and naive enough that somewhere in the back of my mind, I think, I might actually have assumed that presenting what strike me as pretty strong empirical arguments against the claim that God is just and loving, say, would end the matter. And I was unaware of the depth of commitment to the idea that religion is the source of values and that conservatism and religion are inseparably linked. For me, conservatism was about realism and reason.”She thought that all she had to do was present her arguments against a just and loving God, and everyone would agree with her, just like that, poof! Two thousand years of Christianity, three thousand years of Judaism, dispensed with by a couple of wise observations from Miss Heather MacDonald!
Not aware that the world has been going through these debates for centuries and millennia, and imagining that her own atheism is some brave new discovery, she seems fated to recapitulate every stupid and inhuman error of the last 300 years, as though we hadn’t been through this before.
But what is perhaps most appalling is that having confessed such stunning ignorance, she keeps getting up on her soapbox to inflict her ignorance on us again. Having heard, apparently for the first time in her “sheltered life,” as she calls it, that conservatives are deeply committed to the idea “that religion is the source of values and that conservatism and religion are inseparably linked,” she still says that she finds the persistence of religious belief depressing and she wants it to go away. How about that—a “conservative” who wants to destroy the very thing that people regard as their primary source of value!
Nevertheless she insists she’s a conservative, because conservatism, she says, is about “realism and reason.” In other words, conservatism is about logic plus materialism. But that is another word for rationalism, which, as Michael Oakshott, the author of Rationalism, put it, is another word for … liberalism. The application of technological reason to the re-organization and improvement of human life, and the belief that such technological reason is sufficient for a good human life, is liberalism, or at least a major strand of liberalism.
Logical thought is of course an indispensable part of conservatism, but does not define it. Man’s bare reason—unassisted by experience, by historical memory, by the wisdom of an inherited culture, by reverence for the natural, social, and spiritual goods that we ourselves have not created—is precisely what Edmund Burke found running amok in the French Revolution. But I guess Burke’s famous analysis of the French Revolution—the very fountainhead of conservatism—is another subject that Heather Mac Donald, conservative, doesn’t know anything about, and doesn’t care to know anything about. So we’re all going to have to look on wearily for the next few years as she writes article after article indulging her kindergarten level errors as though they were superior wisdom.
Conservatism has a much broader meaning than the unaided reason Mac Donald imagines. It is allegiance to a social order and the transcendent truths of which it is an expression. As Frank Meyer put it in the 1960s, conservatism is “a political, intellectual, or social movement” that “arises historically when the unity and balance of a civilization are riven by revolutionary transformations of previously accepted norms of polity, society, and thought. Conservatism comes into being at such times as a movement of consciousness and action directed to recovering the tradition of the civilization.”
Christianity and belief in the transcendent are obviously central to the damaged tradition of our civilization, but Mac Donald is offended by their very existence. Instead of seeking to strengthen the things that remain, she wants to uproot them altogether. She reduces society to material progress plus the libertarian shibboleth of “individual responsibility,” and thinks that that is sufficient to maintain our civilization. Also, as previously discussed at VFR, she rejects the idea of a good and just God because God allows inequities. Mac Donald is not a conservative, but a kind of right-liberal materialist reductionist who is critical of certain extreme and destructive aspects of contemporary liberalism, and so seems conservative. A person who despises religious belief and wants it to come to an end is not a conservative, and Heather MacDonald has no right to call herself one, and she has no right to complain about the less the welcoming response she is now getting from some conservatives.
Mac Donald makes it sound like there are a lot of frustrated atheist conservatives just waiting for a chance to break free of the insufferable stifling constraints that the Religious Right imposes. Just think of the political possibilities!LA replies:
When asked about something John Derbyshire, another recent out-of-the-closet “conservative” atheist, had said about religion, Mac Donald answers: “I defer to John Derbyshire in all things.” Either that’s a joke, or she means it.Jake F. writes:
You may also find this article interesting, if you like to follow how the materialist intelligentsia talk about religion in the public sphere these days.LA replies:
Interesting. Darwin would say that each little change is an “improvement,” in that it helps an organism live longer and have more offspring. But then Darwin does this funny thing. Somehow all of these little “improvements” come together into a larger trajectory toward something that seems, overall, “better.” Not just better in that all the species are now living longer and having more offspring, but better in some intangible and transcendent sense of beauty, power, life, complexity.Laura W. writes:
The last paragraph of Origin of Species is such a perfect example of how an atheist pulls mystical vocabulary out of his briefcase in an effort to prove the opposite is true. Just when he should be talking of an arid void, he brings up “grandeur,” “progress” and “beauty,” making what Francis Schaeffer called a leap into “contentless mysticism and awe.” He uses these “connotation words” as either cheap diversionary tactics or out of pure intellectual dishonesty.LA replies:
I’m hoping Laura can tell us more about this unthinking type of belief, how and when it started, examples of it, and so on.N. writes:
Laura W. raises a very important point, that I’d not thought of in such terms, but that I’ve been grappling with in other terms. Without getting in to details, I’m involved in my church’s Sunday school, because the children of some of the leadership knew very little beyond some Bible stories and a vague notion that “God Loves Me”. Some of us are working to rectify that, using materials from the hymnal and other official sources, and teaching methods that were perfected in the mid-17th century, but it is an uphill fight with the people who like to applaud during services & never make their children memorize anything.LA replies:
What N. says makes me realize a key factor in why atheism is increasing. When the religious people are so ignorant of the basics of their faith and uncapable of giving an intelligent account of it, when they reduce Christianity to some kind of feel-good religion of the self, when they boastfully proclaim that every good thing that happens in their lives is happening because of God (like that high school valedictorian who in her valedictory speech thanked Jesus for her top grades—how crass can you get?), then more and more people, e.g., Heather Mac Donald, are going to become contemptuous of Christianity and religion. (See what I said on this point in my exchange about “God and the tsunami.”)N. continues:
In the interview you pointed to, MacDonald makes a really stunning admission when she confesses that she never studied history, and really doesn’t know where to start now. Well, Edward Gibbon didn’t know any archeology or much history when he decided to figure out how Rome fell, and he managed to do a fairly good job. A true intellectual has some idea on “how to learn,” whether the topic is knitting, or sketching, or history.LA replies:
So, we’ve established that there is a disabling degree of ignorance among the believers, and a disabling degree of ignorance on the part of at least one highly educated and vocal atheist; and, indeed, other outspoken atheists in our time show ignorance that while not necessarily as flagrant as Mac Donald’s, is still very bad. When the citizens of our society do not know its basics and cannot discuss them, whether on an intellectual level or on the ordinary level of a reasonably intelligent American high school graduate of a hundred years ago, our society is in trouble. But how can we turn the situation around, when we are simultaneously distracted by mass entertainment, ensconced in unprecedented material and psychological comforts, which tells us nothing outside our comforts and pleasures matters, and mentally intimidated and paralyzed by modern liberalism, which tells us that we must not make decisive intellectual and moral judgments or ever discriminate between “us” and “them”?Larry G. writes:
It would never have occurred to me before reading VFR, but Miss Mac Donald’s ideas about God are very liberal ones. The existence of evil has long been used as an argument against the existence of God (and one I accepted myself for a long time). Evil things happen to Man, and God can prevent it, but does not, therefore God does not exist. In modern society, government takes the place of God. Suffering exists (of minorities, for example), and government knows of it, therefore government must step in and fix it or there is no justice (and certainly no peace). Conservatives might argue that it is better for government not to step in, and that people build character and ability while avoiding sloth and dependency by working out their problems themselves. A similar conservative argument might be made for God’s non-intervention in man’s life, since only by finding his own solutions can man grow in wisdom and capability. By working out for himself how the universe really works, man becomes closer to God.LA replies:
That’s a great point. As I’ve said to Mac Donald myself, what she demands is a perfect universe where everything is just as we like it and there is nothing bad and everyone is equal, and if the universe is not like that, then she either thinks that God doesn’t exist or that God is cruel and mean. In the same way, a liberal expects a perfectly equal, comfortable society, and any falling short of that state convinces the liberal that the society is basically bad and mean.Larry G. continues:
On a different subject entirely, and dovetailing with some of N.’s thoughts, you said:LA replies:
I did put together a reading list of my own favorite and recommended books, while expressing my embarrassment about my own appalling lack of learning. Burke is essential. I would recommend starting out by buying The Portable Conservative Reader, edited by Russell Kirk, and reading his superb selections from Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which are in the first chapter of the book.Thucydides writes:
You have written a very fine essay on Heather MacDonald, especially in taking note of the substitute providentialisms she adopts: the worship of Progress and Science, cults whose irrationality she does not seem to understand.LA replies:
Thank you very much for this. It is a heartening and moving and significant e-mail, because of your own situation as you describe it and your experience of this problem.Simon N. writes:
Being of the Sailer/Derbyshire/MacDonald “right-liberal atheistic conservative” strain myself, I was initially pleased by MacDonald’s plea that conservatism broadly defined does not require religious belief, that non-believers should be accepted within the ranks of American conservatism. Personally I greatly value the Christian church, the teachings of the New Testament, and our Western Christian tradition, I try to live my life pretty well according to the moral teachings of Jesus, but I don’t believe in the literal existence of any God, so by definition I’m an atheist. MacDonald appeared to be pleading for co-existence, something I certainly support.LA replies:
Thank you!Jay M. writes:
Thanks for your posts on Heather’s unbelief—I read her article in The American Conservative when it first came out, and believed then, as I do now, that she is responding to a caricature of Christian faith that is popular among biblically illiterate American Christians. She wrote:LA replies:
I’ve also discussed the Tower of Siloam in this connection, but gave it a somewhat different and perhaps unorthodox interpretation (though I hope it can be seen as conformable with orthodoxy).LA writes:
Blogger William Luse has a discussion on Mac Donald’s atheism posted last August.Laura W. writes:
The discussion on Heather MacDonald is interesting. The experiences of N. and others with religious illiteracy are telling. Thank you.LA replies:
That’s so interesting. Religion has become completely integrated into the relativist framework. I have my (emotional) preferences, and you have yours, and there’s no judging between them.Aaron writes:
You wrote: “Having rejected God and religion, Mac Donald has adopted technological superstition as their replacement.”Jeff T. writes:
Francis Schaeffer wrote two excellent books exploring the relationship of Christian faith to the presuppositions of modernity. The first, “Escape From Reason,” is a short one (about 100 pages) delineating the philosophical history of the disjuncture between Christianity and “rationality.” The second book, “The God Who Is There,” examines the presuppositions of modernity and how they are incorporated into all aspects of Western culture. Schaeffer is a good read for understanding the historical pervasiveness of liberalism.Alan R. writes:
A few comments:
Alan R.’s first argument hadn’t occurred to me. In effect, atheists like Mac Donald are using one part of higher truth which comes from God, man’s sense of the good, to deny the existence of God himself. If man’s belief in a good comes from God, and if God doesn’t exist, then the atheist cannot use his own perception of an absence of good in the world to deny God’s existence.
Derek C. writes:
Two thoughts on the topic: 1. MacDonald is worse than ignorant; she is dishonest. I’ve re-read your discussion with her about the 2004 Tsunami, and her latest pieces betray no acknowledgment of the points you raised. Instead of taking your points into account and coming up with responses to them, she still insists on going after the same set of strawmen; i.e., she uses statements about God from naive believers as if it were settled theology. You simply cannot profitably argue with someone like this.LA replies:
I guess it could be called dishonesty, but, in a funny way, I don’t think it rises to that level. I think she is so stuck in her hatred of Christianity that she’s not capable of thinking logically about the issue at all. For example, her total lack of appreciation of the obvious impact that her anti-Christian positions will have on Christian conservatives’ views of her (namely her notion that Christians should welcome her even as she is declaring her desire that Christianity disappear) suggests that she is too lacking in self-awareness to be consciously dishonest. I think she’s just striking out blindly.D.T. Devareaux writes:
I admit that as an adolescent I was an avowed atheist. As a young adult, with Knowledge and Science at my command, my atheism became decidedly more caustic; and while I wouldn’t characterize it as militant, there were times when, if the opportunity presented itself, I took great delight in making a monkey out of a Christian teacher or two. But somewhere along the way I grew up—just a little bit—but certainly enough to know that my attacks and the so-called intellectual bases for those assaults were at best juvenile and at worst borderline idiotic. I also credit my conversion of sorts to the vicious, unthinking diatribes of individuals like Dawkins. I say unthinking because it strikes me as patently stupid to argue that life is a cosmological accident, or that humans are merely chemical replicators propped up by calcium rods and protected by oily shells while maintaining that we fancy apes, having only just recently scuttled our way out of the primordial slime, have nonetheless managed to divine the secrets to existence itself. No God. No Transcendent. No purpose. The knuckle walkers and arboreal brachiators told me so.LA replies:
I am honored to be the recipient of such eloquent e-mails. Compare the quality of the comments in this discussion to most other blogs.Alan R. writes:
In response to my observation that atheists cannot deny God on account of evil because if there is no God, evil is man-made, you wrote: “[Liberals] say that man inherently knows that stealing is wrong and so on, and that such knowledge does not require God.”LA replies:
No, no, it’s not true. Don’t you know? I’m a mean person, an egomaniac, I want to discredit all people other than myself and eliminate all views except my own and become the king of the world.Mark D. writes:
1. Your reference to Michael Oakeshott is spot-on; MacDonald—insofar as she has explained herself—is a liberal with some aesthetic objections to some current social positions of advanced liberalism. As Oakeshott noted, a rationalistic reductionism, coupled with utopian faith in progress (materially defined), is liberalism.
Posted by Lawrence Auster at January 02, 2007 08:11 PM | Send