National Review: the flagship magazine of American … atheism?

(Note: It seems I can’t get away from Romney, even when I’m not writing about him. In comments below the main entry, Howard Sutherland and another reader make a reasonable case that NR’s publication of the atheist article was motivated by a desire to help Romney.)

First NR unleashed on us John Derbyshire, the one-time self-described watery Anglican who was shown the true light of atheist Darwinism (though he dishonestly claims he’s not an atheist) by Steve Sailer’s biodiversity group, where he learned that all human things are nothing but the product of random genetic mutations and natural selection. Then NR gave a platform to Heather Mac Donald, an intelligent and valuable journalist who suddenly came out of the closet as a village atheist pouring forth her contempt for religious people and her unappeasable, uncomprehending resentment against the very fact of religion. And now NR has opened its pages to one Jason Lee Steorts, who “disproves” all religious ideas by reducing them to this-worldly, immanent propositions which are obviously ridiculous and untrue by the light of … this-worldly, immanent materialism.

The reality is that we are bathed, we are immersed in the non-material every instant of our existence. Our life, our consciousness, our ability to form words and concepts, our very sense of selfhood, all these things exist in a realm outside of matter, a realm invisible to material investigation and therefore nonexistent according to Steorts. An atheist is like a man standing in the sun with an umbrella over his head insisting the sun doesn’t exist and despising people for saying that it does.

The modern West is the first atheist culture in history. The mission of conservatism is to resist liberalism and unbelief. But now NR—once upon a time an essentially Catholic magazine—has made itself a mouthpiece for atheism instead of serving as a refuge against it.

- end of initial entry -

Howard Sutherland writes:

How low can you go? I guess the long march of liberalism through everything is all about finding out.

It had been a long time since I had looked at NRO. I followed your link there and was reminded of why.

The NRO-dniks seem to have a great hunger for a hero. It was GW Bush for several years, but he is very damaged goods and yesterday’s man anyway. Now that they have settled on Romney, expect more hagiography (K-Lo-style) and tortured rationales for why Mitt is the Chosen One. I’m guessing most of the NR regulars in the New York office are Catholics or Jewish, so not likely to be too comfortable with Mormonism. So, if they can’t boost Mormonism as a way of helping Romney, they’ll feature people like Steorts in an effort to remove religious beliefs and practices altogether from the acceptable issues list. If, indeed, they are conservatives, that is short-sighted in the extreme and a complete betrayal of their professed principles.

But I don’t think they are conservatives. They are political journalists and party cheerleaders. HRS

LA replies to HRS:

You’re saying that there’s a causal link between their endorsement of Romney and their publication of an extreme atheist: since they can’t endorse Romney’s religion, they’ll get rid of religion altogether. The argument seems forced, at first, but, as I think about it, not without a certain reasonableness.

But as I think about it further, the argument doesn’t work. Romney’s whole thing is an expansive, ecumenic religiosity as the basis of the American civic religion. The Steorts article is about dismissing all religion. So I see no connection between the Romney endorsement and the publication of Steorts.

Howard Sutherland replies:
Point taken, but Steorts is doing two things. First he attempts to discredit faith in anything intangible—that fancy of his you demolished in one paragraph.

But the second part of his column is, if not openly echoing NRO’s Romney endorsement, designed to help benighted (as Steorts must think us) believers of any sort overcome any scruples about Mormonism that might keep them from supporting Romney.

Lowry and the rest of the NR brain trust have decided Romney is the man for 2008, and they have identified his Mormonism as a potentially serious problem. While they may hope Romney’s inclusive, nearly content-free, stump ecumenism will do the trick, they aren’t convinced. Enter Steorts to argue that, for the discriminating voter, the thing to do is set questions of religious belief and practice aside altogether.

If that’s what the NR people are up to, it is very bad news as most people still consider NR the American conservative flagship magazine and, now, web site. Your original criticism is dead-on, and I think the change you deplore is, in this instance, driven by tactical considerations as NR puzzles over how best to help Romney. HRS

LA replies:

If what Mr. Sutherland is saying is correct, that is horrifying. And yet it would fit the standard pattern of modern liberalism, which is that increasing inclusion of diverse minorities in society requires the elimination of any majority culture and its standards by which the minorities might be criticized or rejected. In this case, to prevent the minority religion Mormonism from being judged and rejected, the majority religion Christianity must be downgraded.

Lawrence Beasely writes:

I don’t know Jason Lee Steorts’ writing very well at all, but looking at his April 25th NRO article, “Personal Jesus,” in which he criticized Spong, I doubt that he’s an atheist or a materialist. But it seems to me that his article is just another indication that at least some at National Review are willing to offer absurd and unseemly arguments to defend Mitt Romney.

What I’ve learned this week is that it’s okay for Romney to proclaim that he believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, but it’s not okay for Huckabee to mention that Mormons believe Jesus and Satan are brothers. Kathryn Lopez repeatedly called the comment an “unholy” attack, and Mark Hemingway wrote that Huckabee (somehow) misrepresented Mormonism even as he conceded that it was an accurate statement.

But it’s okay to support Romney because he’s a Mormon, as Mike Potemra suggests:

“In my decades” worth of meeting people from many different religious backgrounds, I have found that in every faith tradition-Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, what have you-there is roughly the same proportion of nice people and jerks. To this rule there is one conspicuous exception: Mormons. I have yet to meet a single Mormon who has been a jerk-and I have met many LDS believers. As someone who grew up in Rudy Giuliani’s faith, and is now somewhere between Mike Huckabee’s and John McCain’s, I find Mitt Romney’s religious background a factor that makes me more, rather than less, likely to vote for him.”

But, as Steorts wrote, it’s not okay to think that Mormonism is any less rational than any other faith.

At First Things, Neuhaus wrote a very thoughtful article arguing, “It is not an unreasonable prejudice for people who, unlike Alan Wolfe et al., care about true religion to take their concern about Mormonism into account in considering the candidacy of Mr. Romney.” [LA replies: I said the same thing at the beginning of the entry, “The Reasonableness of Romney’s opponents.”]

Neuhaus wrote, further:

“Anxiety about the strengthening of Mormonism by virtue of there being a Mormon president is not unreasonable. One may or may not share that anxiety, but it is not unreasonable. Those who think it is unreasonable are, more often than not, people who think it is unreasonable to take religion so very seriously.”

I think this is what is so disappointing about the behavior on display at NR, is that it demonstrates that they don’t take religion seriously—or at least, seriously enough to show an ounce of respect to those Christians who do have serious reservations about Mormonism. In their December 3rd issue, they had an excellent article by Stephen Barr rebutting materialism. For them to turn so quickly against serious devotion to small-o orthodoxy is stunning, and for them to do so for such a questionable candidate as Romney is disappointing.

Lawrence Beasely continues:
In a quick follow-up to my last email, I absolutely agree with Howard Sutherland that Steorts’s article was published to bolster Romney, and I think Steorts makes that purpose clear in his conclusion.

“Try to keep the robot in mind as you hear commentary on Mitt Romney and Mormonism. Lots of people take it as a given that Mormonism is nuts; the tolerant ones just think this shouldn’t keep Mitt out of the White House …

“My intent is not to disparage anyone’s religion. But if you are religious, and you don’t see how an intelligent person could believe what Mitt Romney does, I suggest you think long and hard about the extent to which your own beliefs can be justified by reason. Then try to remember what Jesus said about motes and beams.”

That last bit about motes and beams is interesting, because, while the gist of the article is that Mormonism is no more irrational than Christianity, invoking motes and beams implies that Steorts thinks Mormonism is MORE rational than Christianity.

You write, “Romney’s whole thing is an expansive, ecumenic religiosity as the basis of the American civic religion.”

That’s true, but that doesn’t mean that NR won’t employ a contrary argument if they think doing so helps Romney.

Kristor writes:

Steorts insists that religious belief must be credible to a wholly rational thinker on wholly rational grounds. What are the wholly rational grounds for a reliance on rationality?

Every discourse whatsoever (whether or not it is conducted in the terms of a formal language such as a logic) must begin with axioms, which cannot be justified in the terms of the discourse itself. Thus, e.g., unless one believes that the world is rational, one cannot justify rationality as a means to knowledge. Hume unanswerably demonstrated that it is impossible to prove on the basis of sensory experience alone that the world is rational. Yet to live, to act in any way—and this includes the act of thinking—we cannot but believe that it is. It is impossible to think reliably that thinking is unreliable in principle.

Parts of the world can explain other parts of the world, but the world cannot explain itself. Unless there be some ultimate foundation for explanation, which does not itself stand in need of explanation, no explanation whatsoever can be complete. But an incomplete explanation is no explanation at all. Thus unless there be some such ultimate foundation for all explanation, it will be impossible for us to understand anything, even provisionally, and justify a claim that we have any epistemological purchase on things. This is just another version of Hume’s famous argument.

Thus it is not theism that must demonstrate its rationality, but atheism.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 14, 2007 02:04 AM | Send

Email entry

Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):