Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

The Rare Bird

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

The Word from the Conservative Atheist

Gene Expression is a curious site.  The site may be where one can find the latest musings genetics and science, but then again, it might be about something else entirely -

    We are a collection of individuals interested in exploring the cutting edge of genetics and its intersection with other disciplines and everyday life (or the inverse!). We are liberal, conservative, libertarian, white, brown, Asian, male, female, Jewish, gentile, religious, nonreligious, American, non-American and many other labels. We are united by a reverence for the exploration of the heterodox in an empirical and analytic fashion drained of excessive emotive enthusiasm or revulsion. We are part of the remnant!

The remnant of what, exactly?  Perhaps of the Enlightenment - if "the exploration of the heterodox in an empirical and analytic fashion drained of excessive emotive enthusiasm or revulsion" is what the Enlightenment was all about. Don't ask Diderot. He's dead.

The heterodox is a term not much used these days - "contrary to or different from an acknowledged standard, a traditional form, or an established religion." These people may be troublemakers, as the term means a bit more than the reactionary "unorthodox" and unconventional.  It suggests not just a directly opposite view to what everyone is buying into at the moment, but a whole range of different ways of thinking about the accepted - and the term polymorphous perversity comes to mind (see also The Primal Whimper: More Readings from the Journal of Polymorphous Perversity for a fine send-up of Freud and his ilk).

In any event, this site has its "don'ts" - they say there will be no snark, no partisan hackery, and certainly no ethnic pride nor any political correctness. Also forbidden are both "ostentatious appeals to authority" and "obnoxious appeals to expertise."  Cool. Also forbidden are "specialization tunnel-vision" (Diderot the encyclopedia writer would approve) and social constructionism (Hegel would not approve - individuals and groups simply do not participate in the creation of their perceived reality, as reality, the one we have to work with, is pretty much the only one we get).

The site's "do's" are pure Enlightenment, including respect for others and "think twice or thrice" - along with "challenge your intuition" and "cite facts others can check." Key too is "always wonder what if you were wrong" - always good advice, though out of fashion at the White House.  We're talking "methodological naturalism" here - your basic scientific method. And there's a nod to the Edward O. Wilson book, and concept of, Consilience - "Historically, all of the sciences were once united under the rubric of 'natural science.' Over time, they became fragmented and specialized. Nevertheless, Wilson argues that there is a genetic and neurological basis for knowledge and that all subjects of human inquiry can be reunited under the umbrella of 'consilience.'"  Ah, everything fits together, somehow.

Maybe it does, and maybe it doesn't. But this is the place you will find a curious political item, an interview with a conservative atheist.  Ah, you thought they had all found the new and improved militant Jesus and accepted Him as their personal savior.

This then would be the rarest of rare birds. And this particular rare bird is Heather Mac Donald (the profile linked here will take you to clips of her on Fox News, chatting on Fox and Friends and Hannity and Colmes). She is the John M. Olin fellow at the Manhattan Institute - with an impressive background. (Luke Ford offers this exchange with her - she grew up out here, down the way in ritzy Bel Air, and attended the Westlake School.)

She's known to be a "realist," for example, on immigration reform.  Against the argument that "Hispanics - the vast majority of aliens and the real center of the immigration debate - bring much-needed family values and a work ethic to the American polity; refusing to grant them legal status would destroy Republican hopes for a large new voting bloc," she disputes the claim of "redemptive Hispanic family values," as their out-of-wedlock birthrate is, for example, forty-eight percent, twice that of whites - and argues against granting amnesty on both historical and theoretical grounds.  And on law enforcement she argues - "The police have a disproportionate number of interactions with blacks because blacks are committing a disproportionate number of crimes." You don't mess with her.

If this heterodox way of looking at things weren't bad enough (in some eyes), the real kicker what she wrote in The American Conservative in August 2006 - she came out of the other closet and said she was a proud conservative, and, but the way, an atheist.  Jesus has little to do with conservatism. Actually, Jesus has nothing to do with conservatism -

    Skeptical conservatives - one of the Right's less celebrated subcultures - are conservatives because of their skepticism, not in spite of it. They ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument. And the conservative movement is crippling itself by leaning too heavily on religion to the exclusion of these temperamentally compatible allies.

    Conservative atheists and agnostics support traditional American values. They believe in personal responsibility, self-reliance, and deferred gratification as the bedrock virtues of a prosperous society. They view marriage between a man and a woman as the surest way to raise stable, law-abiding children. They deplore the encroachments of the welfare state on matters best left to private effort.

    They also find themselves mystified by the religiosity of the rhetoric that seems to define so much of conservatism today.

And that ends with this -

    A secular value system is of course no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity. America's antebellum plantation owners found solid support for slaveholding in their cherished Bible, to name just one group of devout Christians who have brought suffering to the world.

    So maybe religious conservatives should stop assuming that they alone occupy the field. Maybe they should cut back a bit on their religious triumphalism. Nonbelievers are good conservatives, too. As Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center has advised, it should be possible for conservatives to unite on policy without agreeing on theology.

That last possibility is remote, of course.  You can find a review of the reaction in this survey of the sad disappointment with this woman, like this grudging nonsense from Jonah Goldberg -

    The reality is that all cultures tend to have a set of religious mythologies and motifs which suffuse their assumptions about the world around them. There is no atheist culture, even avowedly atheist states like North Korea or China tend to settle into a form of cultic god-king autocracy (the Kims or Mao). An absolute rejection of supernatural agents in every shape, way or form is very rare. And, even among those of us who claim to reject any belief in such things, there are often reflexive moments where we behave as if they are ghosts in the night. Yes, I myself do this, though I do often make it a point to walk through a cemetery when possible to reaffirm my lack of belief in magical godlings. But, I believe most humans have a deep seated propensity to believe in supernatural agents, religious belief of some sort is nearly universal. Institutional religious take that innate belief, and channels it into precise coda and formulae which reinforce ingroup-outgroup tendencies.

    Religions, as we understand them in the modern world, are not really basal or core religiosity on a psychological level, but rather, are memeplexes which take the religious impulse and reshape it in concert with other psychological tendencies (e.g., sensory arousal, group conformism, etc.). I say this all to assert that morality is also one of those tendencies and beliefs absorbed by the institutional religions. While Jewish and Christian thinkers assert that morality and ethics comes down from on High, I would assert (and I think Heather as well) that they emerge from the synthesis of our intuitive moral sense (shaped by our evolutionary background) and rational and social faculties which develop from cultural preconditions. But all this leads to two conclusions. First, any conception Heather might have that religion can be marginalized from the conservative movement is probably false (I doubt she really believes this, and suspect her recent stridency is more tactical than anything else), insofar as the vast majority of humans have a powerful propensity toward religiosity. Second, Heather is correct in contending that fundamentally there is nothing in conservatism, or a good moral life, which necessitates a particular religion, or any religion at all.

Is that clear? No? 

The Gene Expression interview is clearer -

    I wrote The American Conservative piece out of frustration with the preening piety of conservative pundits. I attended a New York cocktail party in 2003, for example, where a prominent columnist said to the group standing around him: "We all know that what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith." This sentiment has been repeated in print ad nauseam, along with its twin: "We all know that morality is not possible without religion." I didn't then have the courage to point out to the prominent columnist that quite a few conservatives and Republicans of the highest standing had no religious faith, without apparent injury to their principles or their behavior.

    Around that time, I had started noticing the puzzling logic of petitionary prayer. What was the theory of God behind prayer websites, for example: that God is a democratic pol with his finger to the wind of public opinion? Is the idea that if only five people are praying for the recovery of a beloved grandmother from stroke, say, God will brush them off, but that if you can summon five thousand people to plead her case, he will perk up and take notice: "Oh, now I understand, this person's life is important"? And what if an equally beloved grandmother comes from a family of atheist curs? Since she has no one to pray for her, will God simply look the other way? If someone could explain this to me, I would be very grateful.

    I also wondered at the narcissism of believers who credit their good fortune to God. A cancer survivor who claims that God cured him implies that his worthiness is so obvious that God had to act. It never occurs to him to ask what this explanation for his deliverance says about the cancer victim in the hospital bed next to his, who, despite the fervent prayers of her family, died anyway.

Ah, logic. It can be a killer.  But I doesn't matter, as "the religious gloating of the conservative intelligentsia only grew louder" -

    The onset of the Iraq war expanded the domain of religious triumphalism to transatlantic relations: what makes America superior to Europe, we were told by conservative opinionizers, is its religious faith and its willingness to invade Iraq. George Bush made the connection between religious beliefs and the Iraq war explicit, with his childlike claim that freedom was God's gift to humanity and that he was delivering that gift himself by invading Iraq.

    I need not rehearse here how Bush's invocation of the divine gift of freedom overlooks the Bible, the persistence throughout history of hierarchical societies that have little use for personal autonomy, and the unique, centuries-long struggle in the West to create the institutions of limited government that underwrite our Western idea of freedom. Suffice it to say, the predictable outcome of the Iraq invasion did not convince me that religious belief was a particularly trustworthy ground for political action.

So she wrote her piece, and there was all that disappointment in her.

But she just wanted to toss in that logic and empiricism stuff.  And she herself is even unhappier now -

    I find it depressing that every organ of conservative opinion reflexively cheers on creationism and intelligent design, while delivering snide pot shots at the Enlightenment. Which of the astounding fruits of empiricism would these Enlightenment-bashers dispense with: the conquest of cholera and other infectious diseases, emergency room medicine, jet travel, or the internet, to name just a handful of the millions of human triumphs that we take for granted?

And regarding all the reactions to her piece about her atheism -

    I had led such a sheltered life that I had never come across people like the letter writer who chastised me for not mentioning "God's sacrifice of his Only Begotten Son" in my discussion with Michael Novak. For the letter writer, this sacrifice constituted unassailable proof of Christianity. That type of reasoning was new to me.

    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.

And of course that leads to the Bush administration - was it bad for conservatism? No -

    Since Bush was not a conservative, arguably he did no harm to conservatism. His failings were not those of conservatism but rather of a Wilsonian absolutism: faith in the universality of his favorite religiously-based abstractions and in the ability of government to impose those abstractions globally.

And where is this all leading? Theocracy? No, not there -

    I am not ordinarily an optimist, but I take heart from the incensed response to the existence of a mere three contemporary books debunking religion. While the proportion of Americans who believe in Biblical revelation remains depressingly high and doesn't yet show much sign of decline, the reaction of religion's conservative apologists to a few atheists sticking their heads out of the foxhole suggests to me a possible nervousness about religion's hold in the future. First Things editor Joseph Bottum calls secularists "superannuated"  Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger claims a religious provenance for the following "American" virtues: "fortitude, prudence, temperance, justice, charity, hope, integrity, loyalty, honor, filial respect, mercy, diligence, generosity and forbearance." Yet Classical philosophers and poets celebrated many of these "religious" virtues as vigorously as any Evangelist or Christian divine, and these ideals are in any case human virtues, which is why religion can appropriate them. As for Henninger's suggestion that mercy and hope had to wait upon Christianity to make their appearance on the scene, I would need more evidence. Do these overbroad claims for the necessity of religion suggest that the theocons are running scared? Perhaps.

    Up to half of the conservative writers and thinkers whom I know are non-believers. And yet because of the rule that one may never ever question claims made on behalf of faith, they remain in the closet. At some point, however, they may emerge to challenge the idea that without religion, personal and social anarchy looms.

Ah, from her lips to God's ear.  Something is up.

COMMENT - Tuesday, January 16, 2007 - from Rick, the News Guy, in Atlanta -

Although not a Conservative, I think I like the way this Heather Mac Donald person thinks. Still, in crucial ways, I am inclined to agree with her conservative critics.

First, on what we agree:

I have my own funny stories about what is sometimes the twisted logic of Christian faith, my favorite involving members of my own family.

First, you need to know that my older sister, Cynthia - who, like Mac Donald, attended Westlake School for Girls in "ritzy Bel-Air" - became totally blind shortly before her sixth birthday, probably due to medical malpractice. You also should know that when I was ten, I spent a brief spell in an Episcopal school, emerging from the other side as a fully-formed agnostic. The unintended blowback of this puzzled my Republican dad and resulted in a conversation with me that went something like this:

- "In this family," he told me one Sunday when we met on the stairs, "we believe in God."
- "Why?"
- "Because of Cynthia."
- "Cynthia? Why Cynthia?"
- "Because she's blind."
- "We believe in God because he made her blind?"
- "No, no! In this family, we believe in God because our Cynthia is blind, but because of Him, it could have been worse!"
- "Worse? What do you mean worse?"
- "Well, she could have been dead!"
- "But wait," said I. "Lots of people in this world are dead!"
- "And?"
- "So if there is a God, why didn't he just make those people blind, instead of letting them all become dead?"
- "What's that got to do with anything? Those people aren't even in our family!"

A postscript to this is that, although she herself spent most of her life as a registered Republican, Cindy's own religion is something called "Unity," the almost ad-hoc services of which never much talk about God at all. And to further underline the point that Heather is not such a rare bird after all, I know of two other members of my family who, despite their flaming conservative politics, are full-fledged atheists.

But still, all of the above flies in the face of what Heather and I disagree about: Conservatives traditionally do believe in God! It's part of what they are and always have been!

This is not to say that liberals don't - liberals, being more rational, are more likely than conservatives to go both ways on religion - it's just that conservatives don't cotton to the liberal belief that we, the people, can think our way out of just about any problem; conservatives believe that nature has its own tough love approach to almost everything, including all those "inequality" things that liberals try to fix with their "social engineering". In other words, according to traditional conservative philosophy, we'd all be better off if liberals would just leave everything alone and let the invisible hand of God slap everything into place, and in a way of His own choosing.

Yes, Heather may have become a conservative because of a belief in limited government, lower taxes, and so-called "personal responsibility," but these trifles are merely offshoots of classical conservatism, which traces itself back to its glory days, before there was government, much less government that taxed people, back when the western world was ruled by rich landowners and Christian bishops, and peopled by serfs who couldn't read, an era sometimes known as the "dark ages."

In regards to her comments on the Enlightenment:

The history of the modern conservative/liberal divide begins with the Renaissance, which was when Europeans got a whiff of the learning that was vouchsafed by the infidel world for all those years when the West was asleep. Once people realized that they had brains, they started applying them to the task of solving problems and running their daily lives. This, of course, did not sit well with the noblemen and bishops, who had enjoyed pretty much a monopoly on running everyone's lives up to that point. And then, several years later, the Enlightenment took over where the Renaissance left off.

What's often overlooked about both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment was that the driving forces behind both were the liberals of their respective days, looking for ways to allow civilization to progress, while the conservatives did everything they could to hold the line. And this portrait of the two ideologies holds true to this day.

So my advice to Heather Mac Donald is this:

If you insist on being a free-thinker, you are destined to always be treated like an invader inside the conservative tent, and that for all that, you might as well cross over to our side, where the whole idea of "thinking" has a long and cherished history!

(And that goes for you, too, Andrew Sullivan.)

From our marketing professor at that graduate school of management in upstate New York -

It seems to me the flaw in the ointment, so to speak, when claims are made that conservatism is predicated on religion, is an assignment of causality where only coincidence of co-existence can be demonstrated.  If conservatism and certain religious outlooks are comfortably compatible, that merely demonstrates a correlation, and going back to Statistics 101 we all recall that correlation alone should not be construed as a necessarily causal condition. 

So perhaps a conservative outlook comes first and is predisposition for certain religious beliefs, or perhaps both are manifestations of certain environmental factors, say authoritarian father figures, or remote mothering in the early months of life, something that leaves a whole in need of filling with tenets and laws (vs. reason and judgment).  Maybe we SHOULD let Freud weigh in after all.

This item posted - in its final version - January 21, 2007

[The Rare Bird]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik