Atheist website

(Note: the below discussion began yesterday in the entry, “Getting it backward,” and I’ve now moved into this new entry.)

Heather Mac Donald, John Derbyshire, and someone named Razib have formed a new blog called Secular Right: Reality and Reason. Here is their mission statement:

We believe that conservative principles and policies need not be grounded in a specific set of supernatural claims. Rather, conservatism serves the ends of “Human Flourishing,” what the Greeks termed Eudaimonia. Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.

When Gintas told me about this website the other day, I looked at the mission statement and told him that at least it didn’t sound like village atheism. But reading it again I’m not sure. The problem is in the very notion of a “secular right,” of a publicly and actively atheist conservatism. These are contradictions in terms. How does one maintain any adherence to American conservatism once one has taken a public stand that conservative principles “need not be grounded in a specific set of supernatural claims”? Let’s start with the Declaration of Independence. If you don’t believe that the root of self-government is the self-evident truth—and the specific supernatural claim—that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” then what relationship do you have with the Founding of the United States and the unique American understanding of liberty? And how can you then be a conservative?

It’s one thing for people privately not to believe in God, but still maintain adherence to the common loyalties we have as Americans. But if you publicly deny and attack and thus try to make other people disbelieve the specific supernatural claims on which our form of government is based, such as that our fundamental human rights to liberty and self-government come from our being created by God in his image, such as that man is a flawed and fallen being and therefore the powers of human government must be carefully restrained, I don’t see how you can call yourself a conservative or a person of the right, at least in the American context.

By definition, an outspoken public stance against religion and the existence of God is incompatible with conservatism. People taking such a stance may have conservative positions on this or that issue, but I don’t think they have the right to call themselves conservatives. They don’t have the right to change the definition of words, any more than someone has the right to say that there is such a thing as same-sex “marriage.” Marriage by definition is between a man and a woman. A conservative by definition is a person who respects, or at the very least defers to and doesn’t publicly attack, the fundamental principles and beliefs of his society.

Gintas writes:

I don’t see the connection between the relatively moderate mission statement and the content of the posts, and especially the comments. For example this post.

It’s about how the world’s dangerous places and how they’re religious. It’s Derbyshire (village-atheist) axe-grinding. Are there even any non-religious places? You could find the 20 safest places, list the religion, and find that these 20 places are religious.

LA continues:

And here’s something about the mission statement that I didn’t pick up when I read it before:

Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.

To restate: making the world the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of immanent, materialist reason.

The wording is subtle, it’s not in-your-face, but the message is unmistakable. These people are saying that America and the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist. They’re not just saying that religion intrudes in areas where it doesn’t belong or that religion sometimes leads astray and that man’s reason may a better guide in some areas than religion. They’re saying that wherever religion and belief in God exist, the world is worse than it would be than if it were guided by pure, godless reason.

Not only are they rejecting traditional morality, which is not based on pure reason alone but on religion, custom, and a sense of the transcendent, that same traditional morality that is indispensable to marriage and the avoidance of illegitimacy (an issue that Heather Mac Donald supposedly cares a lot about); they are indicating their hostility to the entire Western tradition of Reason and Revelation. They don’t accept the Revelation part, and everything in our thousands-year-long history that is of religion, that makes reference to God or gods, that is not of materialist, scientific reason, they will, if it comes within their ken, put down, devalue, and discard. Whether it’s the Iliad (in which the heroic ideal is to become for brief moments like a god), or the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome (completely based in religion), of the plays of Aeschylus (inconceivable without the religion sense), or the Parthenon (a temple to Athena); or whether it’s the Israelites’ escape from Egypt, the Revelation of Sinai, and the creation of the Israelites as a people under God, or the Hebrew Bible, or our entire moral and social system that comes from the Hebrew Bible, for example the spiritual equality of the two sexes as made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27), or the meaning of marriage Genesis 2:24); or whether it’s the teachings and personality of Jesus Christ, or Jesus’ command to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s, his revolutionary articulation of the world into the secular and spiritual that is among other things the basis of limited government; or whether it’s the establishment of the Christian Church in Rome, or the Christianization and re-civilization of Europe by the Roman Church after the barbarian conquests and the fall of the western Roman empire, or whether it’s the Frankish kingdom’s defeat of the Muslim invasion of France, which would not have happened if the Franks weren’t Catholics defending Catholic Europe from Islam (and by the way Charles Martel got the money to support his army by selling off Church assets, for which he was almost excommunicated, until his victory over the Moslems led the the Church to forgive him).

I could go on for thousands of words, but I think the point has been sufficiently made. Our history, our civilization, the BEST that we have been, is intertwined with God, gods, and religion at every point. Yet the village atheists of Secular Right would dispense with it all, and they want the rest of us to dispense with it as well, because in their wisdom they know that secular reason could have done a better job of it than religion—these intellectual adolescents who think they know everything but know nothing.

So it’s not just that they have no right to call themselves conservatives. It’s that they are hostile to that which makes up our historic civilization, the Christian West, as well as to the specifically religious dimension of the American Founding, without which there would be no rights as we understand them, and no limited government as we understand it. The reason America is significantly less statist than Europe is that, in the American understanding, rights proceed from God (see the Declaration of Independence) and thus are beyond the reach of the state, while, in Europe, rights proceed from the will of man (see the French Declaration of the Rights of Man) and thus can be obliterated by the state, which also proceeds from the will of man.

December 2

Sage McLaughlin writes:

Gintas is right. The blog might sell itself as simply non-religious, but its content is explicitly and furiously anti-religious. What a pointless exercise. It’s a “Religion Watch” blog that presents itself as something meaningfully conservative. I am willing to bet that precious little space there will ever be spent positively arguing for the first principles on which it is based, i.e., empiricism, scientism, materialism, etc., much less defending them from the many and devastating critiques to which they’ve been subject over the years. And even if such arguments are put forward, what is the connection with conservative politics? Everything in it (other than the mission statement) could just as easily have been written by a liberal.

The “reasoning” on that blog (again, as pointed out by Gintas) is so amateurish that it’s an embarrassment. It’s a sloppy and dishonest piece of work, too. For example, the mission statement says that what makes the blog’s writers so distinctive is that they take the empirical world as they find it. Well, so do religious conservatives, on the whole. What they really mean is that they take the empirical world to be the only thing reason is capable of finding and reliably comprehending in the first place, and thus “conservatism” is nothing more than realism about the empirical world. Obviously, that’s not the same thing, and to put their real agenda in such terms would reveal lots of obvious logical weaknesses in their view of things that they’d prefer to keep obscured by haughty and self-congratulatory rhetoric. To present themselves as the cool, disinterested voice of reason as such is just sheer pretention, and the whole project strikes me as ridiculous (and doomed to a short existence).

Bruce B. writes:

That “somone named Razib” is, I’d assume, the fellow from He visited VFR a long time ago, here and here.

Ben W. writes:

You mention the negation of Western civilizational history as a consequence of the absolute secularization of conservatism. I expect that this history will be replaced by an emphasis on Darwinian evolution (biological, historical, psychological and cultural).

This is the tactic used by Alan Dershowitz in his book, “Blasphemy,” in which he takes on the supernatural aspects of the Declaration of Independence and asserts that these claims should be superceded by a Darwinian understanding of progress and history in our time.

The “conservative” atheists will latch on to the Darwinian paradigm.

Andrew W. writes:

Razib Khan is a Bangladeshi living in the United States. He blogs at the website “Gene Expression”, one of the more popular race-realist sites on the ‘Net. He’s a rather unsavory fellow in my opinion, as he supports an immigration policy that would favor the immigration of his co-ethnics, while at the same asserting that white displays of racial consciousness are illegitimate. In the past, links from “American Renaissance” to “Gene Expression” have been routed to an interracial porn site, similar to how all links from VFR to “Little Green Footballs” are routed to that stupid cartoon.

LA replies:

So Heather Mac Donald has adopted as her blog partner a South Asian equivalent of Charles Johnson?

As far as Derbyshire’s being connected with such a person is concerned, I’m not surprised, because, as I have shown, he is a nihilist. Or, rather, to paraphrase Barack Obama, Derbyshire is a bitter nihilist, clinging to his resentment of religion. As examples of Derbyshire’s nihilism, see:

Derbyshire’s rejection of conceptual thought, cont. Derbyshire, reviewing Spencer, says any resistance to Islam is futile Traditionalist conservatism versus nihilo-conservatism

And here is a collection of my earlier articles on the theme of Heather Mac Donald versus God. I like and respect Mac Donald, I approvingly link her non-atheist articles, and recently I had hoped that she had had her fling with attacking the core beliefs of our culture. But I was wrong.

Andrew W. replies:

Yes, it doesn’t surprise me about Derbyshire either. Mac Donald, though, I had higher expectations for.

Hannon writes:

I can’t add much to your satisfying explication of this seemingly superfluous new endeavor, but it struck me that there is a false timeliness about it. As if they imagine they are riding the crest of a great wave of “new awareness” or a new age for man—their idea is due now, or perhaps overdue. Again, a fundamental departure from what we normally think of as a conservative outlook, secular or otherwise.

I thought this was an excellent and terse sketch of what a conservative is:

“A conservative by definition is a person who respects, or at the very least defers to and doesn’t publicly attack, the fundamental principles and beliefs of his society.”

LA replies:

Just as Reason magazine published that amazingly triumphalist article, “The Libertarian Moment” (discussed here), stating that the whole world is now moving in a libertarian direction.

As for my definition of conservatism, it is minimal, and requires further qualifications. The main problem with that definition is, what does a conservative do if his once-traditional society is radicalized? Does he defer to the fundamental principles and beliefs of liberal society? And that indeed is the problem with many conservatives.

N. writes:

I think that weblog is a great thing, if it gives Derbyshire some place other than The Corner to post his village-atheist blatherings. Isolating all that adolescent, I-drink-your-milkshake, I-am-Voltaire-reborn, I-am-a-paragon-of-logic adolescent posturing in one, easy to avoid location, is clearly a public service.

LA replies:

Well, it’s true that I have been saying for years that my main objection to Derbyshire is not what he writes, but that he writes it at the leading conservative website, thus harming conservatism, and I said that I wished he would just go off and write at some atheist website. Which he’s now done. However, he’s still insisting that his atheism is “conservative.”

LA writes:

I’ve sent the link to this present entry to Heather Mac Donald with this note:

I had hoped that your fling as a village atheist was over. I’m very sorry to see that I was wrong. When you attack the basis of our civilization, the basis of traditional morality, and even have the audacity to call yourself a conservative while doing so, you force the defenders of our civilization to attack you.

I will continue to link and discuss approvingly your worthwhile, non-atheist writings.

Alan Roebuck writes:

At VFR, you offered a partial definition of conservatism. How about this definition, taken from The Manifesto of the American Traditionalist Society:

The essence of proper (that is, traditionalist) conservatism is respect for the objective order of reality. The essence of liberalism is the desire to transgress this order. Reality contains an objective order, meaning an order that does not originate within the individual and that for the most part does not even originate within mankind. This order is conventionally divided into a natural order, a moral order (ethics), a spiritual order (religion and the divine), an intellectual order, a social order (the ways of our people), and so on. Proper traditionalist conservatism consists of a respect for this order and a desire to protect its proper expression in the life of our nation. Liberalism, in contrast, is essentially the desire to transgress this objective order, and replace it with a subjective order that originates within the individual. This transgression naturally leads to libertinism in the individual, and Balkanization—which inevitably leads to tyranny—in society.

LA replies:

Great—who wrote that?

(Answer: it was written by Mr. Roebuck in an unpublished draft.)

Kristor writes:

The Secular Right mission statement says, “Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.”

Any fool can see that it would be stupid to take the world as other than it is, or to proceed through life without reasoning. These ideas are not controversial (although neither are they particularly conservative).

But the writers at Secular Right really mean something quite different. They mean that there is nothing more to the world than what the senses can deliver to us; that the senses do not deliver any information about God; and therefore that God does not exist; so that no rational person should take account of him.

Let me first demolish their premises, and then proceed to a reductio ad absurdam of their substantive conclusion.

If there is nothing more to the world than what the senses can deliver to us, then all our interpretations of our sense experience, and our inferences about the world derived therefrom, do not themselves exist, even as illusions. Thus, e.g., other persons do not exist, and there is therefore no moral order; nor, in fact, do things of any sort truly exist, so that there is no causal order. But it goes deeper, for if our interpretations and inferences don’t really exist, then we don’t really have interpretations or inferences at all, nor do we really think. Thus the bloggers at Secular Conservative are not really feeling any of the convictions they profess.

Do the senses indeed provide no information about God? How could we demonstrate that this was the case? If God exists, then—under any coherent and rational conception of God—he influences everything that happens, without exception, so that no sensation whatsoever could fail to deliver information about him. In that case, God would be the sine qua non of sensation per se. But by definition, then, every conceivable experimental result would manifest his existence. It would therefore be impossible to devise an experiment that could demonstrate his existence (or his non-existence). Thus the fact that God is not empirically demonstrable does not argue for his non-existence, nor does it show that the senses provide no information about him.

OK, now for the reductio. This will be fun. If the conclusion that God does not exist is true, then the world exists without reason; it just happened. But that the world—“world” being our name for “what is happening”—has no reason means that there is no reason at all for anything in it. But if there are no reasons for anything, how can reasoning take place?

The philosophical theist does not begin with the idea that there is a supernature, and then proceed to develop his theology. He begins with interpreting his experience, and realizes almost immediately that it cannot in principle be understood at all unless God exists. Not only should rational people take account of God, willy nilly they cannot reason at all, even badly, without doing so.

And this is why, as Gintas notes, religion is ubiquitous.

December 3

A. Martin writes:

Regarding this new website, “Secular Right,” I suppose I could be considered a member or their prospective demographic, as I am a scientist, an atheist, and a conservative. I found this sentence from their mission statement interesting: “Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.” One observation I have drawn from the empirical world, i.e., from the actual world I live in, is that Christian societies are better than any other kind, and that political philosophies based on materialist dogmas can be expected to lead to great evil. This seems to have escaped the notice of Derbyshire, MacDonald, and Co.

If they believe that Michael Behe or the Catholic League is a greater threat to a conservative society than Richard Dawkins or the ACLU, then it is difficult for me to understand in what sense they remain conservative.

LA replies:

Excellent point.

Why not post a comment there and ask them the very question you’ve just raised: Who do they think is a greater risk to a conservative society: Michael Behe or Richard Dawkins?

Carol Iannone replies:

If they were walking down a dark alley and heard a group of youths behind them, which would they rather, that the youths had come from a Bible study class, or from a lecture by Richard Dawkins about how man creates his own meaning and morality? Ha ha. Tee hee.

Gintas writes:

Their mission statement:

We believe that conservative principles and policies need not be grounded in a specific set of supernatural claims. Rather, conservatism serves the ends of “Human Flourishing,” what the Greeks termed Eudaimonia. Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.

So do they have any models of a thriving secular conservative society, to give them a reasonable expectation of success in all this? No, they are Utopians that way, ideologues living by axioms. When reality does not match their axioms, they ask, “what is wrong with reality?” Because of their axioms religion is an unnecessary thing, something that can be stripped away. In all this they are no different than liberals. There is no conservatism there. They are more utilitarian, though, than the optimistic liberals on the left. These are the hard-nosed, calculating, pessimistic liberals.

LA replies:

Gintas has cut to the heart of the matter. Since there has never been a society based exclusively on secular, scientific reason, except, to an ever increasing degree, for the modern West, and particularly Europe, which is in rapid process of self-destruction, what are these empiricists’ empirical grounds for stating that achieving the best society is only possible through the exclusive use of secular, scientific reason?

Gintas writes:

On Secular Right I asked for an example of a secular conservative society, and Derbyshire pointed out the USA up to WW1, and between 1921-1929.

I said,

Bradlaugh, that is a highly innovative interpretation. You’re joking, aren’t you?

Gintas writes:

I can’t really run with the Big Dog Philosophers, but over at What’s Wrong with the World they are making short work of Mac Donald.]

Spencer Warren writes:

Your critique of the atheist “conservative” statement is spot on. They are like Brooks. They substitute human will for transcendent truth above and outside of human will. Thus, they are closer to Lenin than to any conservative.

Also, in addition to man’s imperfections and fallen nature leading to the conservative view that government and schemes for human betterment must be limited, man himself in the exercise of his liberty must be limited. And this can come only through religion. As you know. the Founders often wrote that if man cannot control his appetites, strong if not unlimited government will do so in order to prevent anarchy.

Thucydides writes:

Heather MacDonald in her December 3 post to her new website continues the line of argument she employed with Michael Novak:

She wants to argue that God’s existence cannot be proven by scientific method. Yet the purpose statement is not directed to that issue, but rather to the question of whether ethical or political thinking can be pursued in the absence of “supernatural claims,” purely through our “faculties of reason.” The goal is “making… (the world) the best that it can be” by this means. If the contributors decide to seriously address this question, they will soon find themselves in philosophical difficulty.

This is the familiar Enlightenment project of founding morality on the basis of reason, a project pursued unsuccessfully by far greater minds than Mac Donald’s, including such figures as Kant, Bentham, Hume, and others. The result has been a state of complete disagreement among professional philosophers over what would be the right answer to basic moral controversies. This is all laid out in Alasdair MacIntyre’s magisterial “After Virtue.” For example, there is no means to reach agreement over what would be proper regulation of abortion, what are the proper limits to taxation and redistribution, or whether peace is best kept by military preparedness or a pacifist stance that sees negotiation as the only approach.

Reason, or at least reason as defined by Mac Donald, a kind of scientism which ignores the limitations of the human condition, is not and cannot be a source of values. It cannot generate a moral community. Hume, who is honored by being portrayed on the website, was among the many who made that point: ought generally cannot be derived from is. So where then do MacDonald’s supposedly conservative principles come from?

MacDonald and her associates are living off an inherited morality without realizing it—they imagine their particular views are the product of reason. They simply have no idea of the philosophical difficulties their position entails.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 02, 2008 10:32 AM | Send

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