As I noted in my editorial in the October/November 2013 issue, “The Left Is Not Always Right,” secular humanists don’t always lean left on social issues—even though, on average, they skew further left than the U.S. population as a whole. Some in our movement lean conservative or libertarian; see Tibor Machan’s column in this issue or consider the essays by secularright.org cofounder Razib Khan and libertarian author Ron Bailey in our October/November 2012 cover feature, “Does Secular Humanism Have a Political Agenda?”
Such diversity is to be expected and, from time to time, showcased. Below, noted author and Bible scholar Robert M. Price delivers a brash cri de coeur on behalf of secular conservatism. Glade Ross and Dan Davis assail the libertarian viewpoint from distinct yet broadly progressive perspectives. Reader comment is, as always, eagerly awaited. —Tom Flynn
Sometimes I am asked how I can combine utter skepticism on religious topics with a conservative political stance, as if the two were somehow inconsistent. Here is an answer. I am not trying to change your mind, only to provide an honest answer to a good question.
Are religious skepticism and political conservatism mutually inconsistent? It seems so, I think, only to those who have rejected religion because it used to control their behavior and they chafed at it. They perceive religion primarily, even if only implicitly, as an authority they will not tolerate. This is why they want to debunk its claims. It is not necessarily for the sake of truth but rather simply to disarm it of its weapons. This attitude is quite consistent with their liberal political preferences. There, too, they do not want to be contained, restrained. They don’t want to be under any control. Now this position might seem more consistent with libertarianism, which seeks the shrinkage of government and government intrusion in the free lives of its citizens. But it is not, because the liberal wants everyone to espouse his or her views and does not mind legislating conformity to the liberal agenda. Sometimes called “pragmatism,” this hardball stance secretly despises democracy, considering it simply a handy tool to vote in a social order henceforth irreversible. Pragmatism comes to mean justifying the means by the ends.
Such liberals hate authority (except their own) and are therefore ashamed at the historic dominance of the United States of America. So, loathing their own country, seeing it as the product of a heritage of crimes against humanity, they quite naturally feel a natural sympathy with America’s enemies, cooperating with them to take us down a peg, to equalize everybody at the bottom line. If some have been industrious and productive, their gains will be given to those who have not been industrious and productive. Rightly compassionate toward the poor, liberals, however, want to cut to the chase and act as if everyone has had equal preparation. Affirmative-action quota systems are the result, and they turn out to worsen the problem, because they enshrine wishful thinking about the hitherto-oppressed. If we act as if those who benefit from affirmative action are competent and know what they are doing, the thinking goes, that will be equality enough; an egalitarian face on the matter, a bandage on the problem. Minority candidates’ lack of academic preparation is the result of the oppression, as well as the cause for its furtherance. No ethnic group is genetically, inherently inferior: that’s absurd. You’d be talking about different species instead of different pigmentation. Discrimination against any group is arbitrary, but it is equally arbitrary to pretend that their oppression has not disadvantaged them in terms of preparation and even more arbitrary to assume that, once given the position they might have deserved had they been suitably educated (which they weren’t through no fault of their own), they will automatically do as good a job as one whose inherited affluence has better prepared him or her. Equality has to be worked at, both through the oppressed individual’s heroic efforts and the government’s attempts to engineer a better education (with resources) for everybody. We aren’t going to end up equal if we are not provided an equal starting point. If someone is held back forcibly by referees and starts the race five minutes late, the redress is not to declare him or her the winner; it is to make sure the person gets the chance to prepare for the race and to run it fairly next time.
Why do liberals not see this? Because, like credulous religious believers, liberals are committed to a dogma and will not suffer any empirical evidence to budge them from it. Like the Protestant believing God has declared sinners to be righteous in Christ on the basis of their faith, the liberal declares by sheer faith that those who ought to be equal are in fact equal. But that is a fantasy. The reality is, by contrast, “salvation by works.” You have to work hard.
As with the Obama health-care fiasco, government liberals are driven solely by a faith commitment to dogma: we need everyone covered, so the answer is to vote in a mammoth bill that will, by fiat, make everyone adequately covered—without rationing care, without killing the private-insurance industries, and without increasing the “Jack and Beanstalk” deficit that is shooting up like a rocket already. It is a Christmas list of a plan—all the things we want—and, like a child’s list of presents, there is no real consideration of costs. Liberalism is that faith that calls things that are not as though they were. It is a faith that will not allow war as an option because it always means diplomacy has failed, and diplomacy cannot fail—or at least the liberal will never admit that it has. It is a faith that hopes our unilateral disarmament and being nice to bloody-handed dictators will thaw them out and make them hug us and sing (yes, you knew it) “Kumbaya”—as if foreign policy were an Esalen T-group. When the hostile powers who have cynically negotiated with a liberal regime, thus gaining more time for preparation, finally show the true colors the liberal regime should have seen all along, the liberal, like the poor clueless liberal Baptist Jimmy Carter, will be shocked and sincerely so—as shocked as a Baptist ought to be if archaeologists discovered the bones of Jesus.
This is all venturesome faith that is doomed to be disappointed, just like the faith of Pentecostal and Christian Science parents who bet their children’s lives on their dogma, give them no medicine, and “believe” God will provide results. It is all doomed faith, like that of generations of Christians who looked for the Second Coming, which has never happened and will never happen. Get real. And, like the Christian Science parent, stop thinking it is your right to take the rest of us down with you.
I am happy to admit, as many have, that political conservatism is a philosophy of pessimism. It accepts entropy as a fact. The goal is not to build a utopia (because conservatives remember that Thomas More chose the name precisely because it was a pun from the Greek: Topos means “place,” while U represents both the prefixes eu (“good”) and ou (“no”). Utopia is therefore the good place that of course can never exist or can never be reached. It is like the North Star, a beacon light to steer by but not a target one im
agines will one day be reached. Reinhold Niebuhr, formulator of “Christian Realism,” understood this and spoke of the ethic of the Sermon on the Mount as, strictly speaking, unworkable yet applicable: it was a question of “the relevance of an impossible ideal.”
But liberals are strapping themselves in for a trip to utopia, and they refuse to disembark until they get there. But the ride doesn’t go that far. Thus they again embrace the unyielding “don’t confuse me with the facts” fanaticism of faith. No political order that does some or most of the good will suit them. All of them, especially capitalism, are no damn good; each is radically evil because it cannot achieve paradise for all. Capitalism marked a radical step forward and is just the sort of thing liberals should rejoice in, because it demonstrates that we can enlarge the pie of wealth, not just cut smaller and smaller slices for more and more people (or keeping the whole pie for a tiny elite). The middle class thrives under capitalism. There was no such thing as a middle class in the pre-capitalist world. For the liberal, it is all or nothing. And the only way to seem to have it all is to legislate a “say it and make it so” fantasy. If capitalism leaves some—relatively few— behind in poverty, well, that’s just not good enough! Everyone must be equal, and no one can be rich, even though that will squelch production, which will extinguish jobs old and new, and everybody will be left with equal shares of an empty pie plate.
Capitalism came as close as anything ever has to transcending one of the corollaries of Murphy’s Law: the Law of the Conservation of Evil. The idea is that every social system is like a pillow with a given amount of air in it. If you fluff it up here, you will automatically flatten it out there. Just choose which social problem you will ameliorate and be prepared to deal with the damage you will be doing elsewhere. Capitalism figured out a way of adding more feathers to the pillow. Yet this does not make the conservative believe that all problems are amenable to solutions such as this one. Spontaneous remissions and medical breakthroughs are no substitute for taking care of your fragile health. Conservatism seeks to conserve—especially to conserve the gains of lucky breaks—and doesn’t take wild risks by enunciating a goal and pretending any steps we take in the name of it will automatically get us there.
That is like the “faith” of the New Hebrides cargo cults. They saw Western colonial troops firing lethal weapons, receiving orders through radio sets, and praying to their God Jesus. So they decided to beat the Westerners at their own game—by magic! They whittled wooden rifles, not knowing the difference. They made radio consoles (with no machinery inside) out of orange crates, and they prayed to Jesus to bring them consumer goods on a great ocean liner, just like he must have brought them to the colonizers. This is the magical thinking of liberalism—magical thinking elevated to dogma, invulnerable to facts.
Global warming, caused by sinners, is only the latest example of the hysterical apocalyptic fervor of liberalism. The very notion of human beings being able to ruin the atmosphere by spraying deodorant seems to me tantamount to the enormous and infantile egocentricity of children that results in the superstition of breaking your mother’s back by a misstep in hopscotch. The pointlessly costly, Draconian steps liberals want to take to counteract this warming by a half-degree per century, well, that’s the cargo cult marching up and down the square with their broomstick rifles, going through the magic ritual. The cargo cultists, like the doomed troops of the Chinese Boxer Rebellion, occasionally confronted colonial troops, going up against them “armed” with the shield of faith—with prescribed magical war paint and chanted mantras—and were cut down like harvested wheat. Their faith may have seemed noble but was suicidal. This is what the conservative remembers as his liberal counterpart tries to solve the problems of war, climate change, and health care with orange-crate radios, wooden guns, and unshakable faith.
“But,” someone will say, “aren’t you the one who is flying in the face of the facts on this issue?” No, my impression is rather that global warming, once a plausible hypothesis, has sunk to the level of so-called creation science (a.k.a. scientific creationism), fudging evidence to reinforce its propaganda. The recent disclosure of e-mails between data-suppressing global-warming scientists has vindicated my suspicions on this score. It’s all pseudoscientific fraud, like pyramidology.
My skepticism toward the claims of religion is at one with my skepticism toward noble-sounding but futile liberal dogmatic faith.
My atheist friends and colleagues think me mad when I tell them I am voting for Republicans instead of Democrats. These friends of mine appear to be single-issue voters in that they think everything boils down to religion or nonreligion and that if we elect candidates with supernaturalist faith, we will be voting for theocrats who will erase the line between church and state and who will in the end persecute religious believers. This is very ironic, because, if I am right, these folks are themselves believers in sacred dogmas of pacifism, martyrdom, and self-hating asceticism. This might be judged as a battle between opposing dogmatic faith commitments. And then I must ask: which dogma is less injurious to America? Does Mitt Romney believe Joseph Smith found the Golden Bible of Mormon and Moroni after the latter appeared to him in the form of a glorified angel? Does Mike Huckabee believe in a seven-day creation instead of evolution? Does Sarah Palin speak in tongues? Does Newt Gingrich believe in the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary? You bet. I am, to put it mildly, rather skeptical of these beliefs, though as a scholar of the history of religions I do not have the luxury of sneering and deriding because I am compelled to take the neutral observer stance of the anthropologist toward all these things. As a humanist I know that all these beliefs, while manifestly false in a factual sense, are code that tells us about human nature and the people whose existential stance is symbolized in these beliefs.
But, more to my point here, I must ask whether these implausible, even zany beliefs are liable to affect the country. Palin said she would never try to evangelize her religious beliefs as president. And no avowed creationist president would or could do anything to banish evolution from the classroom. We already have locals doing that, and the battles are necessarily fought in the courts, not the legislature or the Oval Office. If no conservative Republican president (Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush) ever really went to bat against abortion, do you think they would risk the flack over creationism? It was sheer slander when liberals used to picture Reagan and G. W. Bush as using Hal Lindsey’s apocalyptic paperbacks as a blueprint for foreign policy (just as it was revealing to hear liberals reduce Bush’s belief in good versus evil to fundamentalism, confirming conservatives’ suspicions that liberals are morally nihilistic).
I can see none of these fanciful beliefs affecting national life or foreign policy. These creeds would affect government no more than Jimmy Carter’s reported belief in flying saucers. But the liberal dogmas I have outlined? They are already affecting us in an extensive and very dangerous way. As one who does not want to endanger America, which I love, by entrusting it to a government committed to risky dogmas of faith, I shall have no trouble voting for Palin, Huckabee, Gingrich, Romney, or Lou Dobbs when the time comes. As a doubter—a skeptic who prefers a sober look at reality—I will be relieved to see the end of the reign of the liberal Oliver Cromwell under whose power we now languish.