There's a fascinating debate taking place among conservatives affiliated with National Review surrounding the question of the legitimacy of Christian belief and whether one can be an atheist and still be a conservative. The debate was triggered by this column by Heather Mac Donald in the American Conservative. Michael Novak here and Mac Donald replies to Novak in this thoughtful and challenging essay.
Heather Mac Donald is very bright, very well-educated, and usually right, but I think this is one time when she's not. In her first piece, the one which began the discussion, she makes the error of essentially arguing that because the existence of God is not a sufficient condition for people, and nations, to be moral that neither, therefore, is His existence a necessary condition for morality. She wishes to stress that one need not be religious in order to be conservative. Some of what she says in the column is certainly true, but there are some things, too, from which I must dissent. Here are a couple of examples with commentary.
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.
The presumption of religious belief - not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it - does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith. And a lot of us do not have such faith - nor do we need it to be conservative.
Nonbelievers look elsewhere for a sense of order, valuing the rule of law for its transparency to all rational minds and debating Supreme Court decisions without reverting to mystical precepts or "natural law."
Skeptical conservatives do not look into the abyss when they make ethical choices. Their moral sense is as secure as a believer's. They do not need God or the Christian Bible to discover the golden rule and see themselves in others.
Perhaps this is true, perhaps the moral sense of unbelievers is as secure as that of a theist, but as I've frequently argued here at Viewpoint, most recently here, it doesn't seem likely. Suppose we ask Ms Mac Donald why the golden rule is right in the first place or why anyone should try to see himself in others. Why does she think that these maxims should be embraced? Is it that they're morally right? Granting that I'm being a bit unfair by putting words in her mouth, perhaps the exchange might go something like this:
Believer: Why should anyone practice the golden rule?
Mac Donald: Because it's obvious that we shouldn't treat others in ways we wouldn't want to be treated.
B: Why not, why is that wrong to do?
M: Because people get hurt that way. Living by the Golden Rule keeps us from harming each other.
B: Yes, but why is it wrong for one man to harm another?
M: Because no one wants others to harm him.
B: That's certainly true, but that's not a reason why I, for instance, shouldn't harm someone else if it's to my benefit and if I can get away with it. Why would I be wrong to do that?
M: That would be terribly selfish.
B: I agree, but why is selfishness wrong? What makes it morally wrong to act exclusively in your own interest?
M: If all people lived that way society would self-destruct and that would not be in your self-interest.
B: Maybe not, but then you're agreeing that what's right is what's in my self-interest. If it's in my self-interest to hurt someone else, and if I can do it without suffering harm to myself, then it wouldn't be wrong to do it. In fact, it would be right.
M: But it's wrong not to care about others' well-being.
B: It is? Why is it? Why shouldn't I just care about my own well-being? Even if I accept your claim that I should live by the golden rule out of my own self-interest and therefore not do anything that would make society chaotic all that follows is that I should just live for myself while encouraging others to live by the golden rule. That way I get what I want and society holds together so that I can enjoy it. There would be nothing morally wrong with doing this, would there? In other words, a man who has power and the desire to exercise that power over others is doing nothing wrong by doing so.
M: That would be tyranny.
B: Yes, but reason gives me no basis for thinking that "might makes right" is somehow wrong. I can only think that it's wrong to treat others hurtfully if others have inherent rights, and they can only have inherent rights if those rights are invested in them by a transcendent moral authority, a creator. In other words, it's wrong to treat others hurtfully because, as John Locke pointed out, we are created in the image of God and are loved by God. Each of us is His property and God forbids us to harm what He loves. If there is no God, then there's nothing wrong with being a tyrant. If there is no God, there's no right and wrong at all. Reason can tell us how best to pursue certain ends, but it cannot tell us, by itself, whether those ends are good or evil, right or wrong.
To put it differently, the skeptic has no grounds for opposing tyranny other than that she simply doesn't like it. She may believe that tyranny is not the best way to produce a happy society, but whose happiness is the skeptic concerned about? The happiness of the masses? Why, on the skeptic's naturalistic assumptions, should the happiness of the masses be privileged over the happiness of the rulers?
Ms Mac Donald's skepticism reduces her moral judgments to arbitrary expressions of personal tastes and preferences. There's no reason why others should find them persuasive unless they share her subjective predilections.
She adds this:
Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular. Just compare the treatment of prisoners in the 14th century to today, an advance due to Enlightenment reformers. A secularist could as easily chide today's religious conservatives for wrongly ignoring the heritage of the Enlightenment.
To accept a claim like this, however, we must ignore an awful lot of history. We must turn a blind eye, for instance, to the bitter 20th century fruits of the enlightenment - most notably national socialism and communism with their holocausts, killing fields, and over 100 million dead around the globe.
It's true that in some ways we've become a kinder and gentler people. We no longer practice slavery, we have legal procedures to try to insure justice, civil rights legislation, and extensive welfare systems to care for the poor and the sick, but it's not clear that any of these are particularly due to enlightenment skepticism and considerable evidence to conclude that they emerged out of a maturing Judeo-Christian worldview (Indeed, as did the enlightenment itself). See, for example, the arguments made by Alvin Schmidt in his book Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization.
Ms Mac Donald concludes with this observation:
A secular value system is, of course, no guarantee against injustice and brutality, but then neither is Christianity.
This is true enough. Too many Christians in this country suffered too few qualms about slavery, the treatment of the Indians, or the use of fission and fire-bombing in WWII (products, incidentally, of enlightenment science). But I would go one step further and say that a secular value system, by removing any transcendent ground for values, makes a system founded on injustice and brutality not only more likely, but also free from any possibility of moral disapprobation.
If Christians act unjustly or brutally they're acting contrary to their fundamental beliefs and principles. If an atheist acts unjustly or brutally he violates nothing other than the arbitrary and subjective standards established by others and which have no moral authority over him whatsoever.
It is the conservatism's' recognition of this which places Ms Mac Donald's views in the minority among her fellow conservatives.