by John Kirke 2/27/14
I’m no thorough scholar of conservative thought, but I do occasionally pick up a gem. In 1970, William F. Buckley co-edited a book with Charles Kesler, originally titled American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century and revised under the title Keeping the Tablets (which I own), and for that book he wrote an introductory essay, “Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?”
I don’t think any conversation about conservatism and atheism is quite complete without a few key lines from that essay.
Can you be a conservative and believe in God? Obviously. Can you be a conservative and not believe in God? This is an empirical essay, and so the answer is, as obviously, yes. Can you be a conservative and despise God and feel contempt for those who believe in Him? I would say no.
Buckley continues, “If one dismisses religion as intellectually contemptible, it becomes difficult to identify oneself wholly with a movement in which religion plays a vital role.”
And, on the other hand, he writes that, because Christians hold that faith is a gift and there’s no accounting for who does and doesn’t receive that gift, “The proreligious conservative can  welcome the atheist as a full-fledged member of the conservative community even while feeling that at the very bottom the roots do not interlace, so that the sustenance that gives a special bloom to Christian conservatism fails to reach the purely secular conservatism.”
I’m not sure I completely agree with WFB here, since I believe that Paul’s letter to the Romans authoritatively teaches that God’s existence has been revealed to all, but it’s good to see that this sort of question has been around, and I do agree with his main point, that you cannot be conservative and an anti-theist, as opposed to a mere agnostic or atheist.
At NRO, Charles C.W. Cooke recently wrote an essay on the intersection of atheism and conservatism. It’s remarkable to me that it doesn’t appear any conservative theists are getting much traction there in the comments, and I’m commenting here in part because I don’t think there remains much worthwhile discussion at NRO’s comment threads. (It also doesn’t help that I can’t trust that comments there won’t disappear without warning.)
Cooke’s piece has all sorts of problems, and they need to be enumerated.
1. I think Cooke is misrepresenting American history. He points out the relatively late date of references to God in the Gettysburg Address, the pledge, and the motto “In God We Trust,” all to claim that we are “one nation under the Constitution,” but he doesn’t mention that the Constitution’s preamble references the “blessings of liberty.”
(Blessings from Whom? The word has an obvious theistic connotation.)
And, he mentions the deism of Thomas Jefferson whose reference to “Nature’s God” may have allowed for a prime mover who otherwise didn’t interfere with creation, but he ignores those claims in the Declaration of Independence that point to a MUCH more active deity – a deity who endows mankind with certain inalienable rights (an endowment that dovetails with the Preamble’s “blessings of Liberty”), and a deity upon whom the founders depended.
The Declaration concludes by asserting the Founders’ “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” and that’s an an odd thing to claim if their belief was in a watchmaker who set the cosmos in motion and then walked away.
These founding documents were drafted between the first two Great Awakenings, and so it’s absurd to treat them as the result of an unadulterated post-Christian enlightenment.
And, the same First Congress that passed what would become the First Amendment also passed a resolution calling for a national day of prayer and thanksgiving. The earliest legislature of our supposedly “secular state” affirmed, “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.”
It’s sheer revisionism for Cooke to suggest that overt theism didn’t appear in our politics until the Civil War.
2. I think Cooke goes too far in trying to shoehorn atheism into conservatism. It’s one thing to say the two are compatible, another altogether to suggest that the former emerges from the latter.
Occasionally, I’m asked why I “believe there is no God,” which is a reasonable question in a vacuum but which nonetheless rather seems to invert the traditional order of things. After all, that’s not typically how we make our inquiries on the right, is it? Instead, we ask what evidence there is that something is true. Think, perhaps, of how we approach new gun-control measures and inevitably bristle at the question, “Why don’t you want to do this?”
It shouldn’t need to be said, but there’s a huge difference between deference to newly proposed regulations and deference to the belief in the transcendent – a belief that has persisted for literal millennia across nearly all cultures, from the most primitive to the most sophisticated.
He writes, “much of what informs my atheism informs my conservatism also,” but there’s very little that’s authentically conservative in his “latent skepticism of pretty much everything” and his “dislike of authority and of dogma.”
Those attributes may make Cooke ANTI-LEFT, but that’s not enough to be conservative (see Rand, A. and Derbyshire, J.) and his anti-authoritarian skepticism isn’t conservatism by any cogent definition.
(He mentions other conservative atheists, including George Will, Charles Krauthammer, S.E. Cupp, and the HotAir blogger Allahpundit. Krauthammer is more of a deist who thinks outright atheism is implausible (start at 3:45), but set him aside. On marriage, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Will strongly defend a position that he has said is “literally dying” in terms of demographics; Cupp believes that the GOP ought to make the conservative case for “same-sex marriage;” and Allahpundit would have voted no on California’s Proposition 8 if he had had the chance. It’s certainly true that there are conservative theists who support the radical redefinition of marriage, however much their doing so violates the clear teaching of their faith, and I don’t believe one must appeal to religious dogma to defend marriage, but I wonder if I’m not going too far in speculating that those who reject the long-held belief in the divine find it easier to reject other things, including the long-held recognition of the complementary nature of the sexes.)
In some respects, Christianity isn’t conservative either. Read Mark 7, and you’ll find that, while Jesus of Nazareth was an outright reactionary in submitting to Scripture as God’s written word, Jesus was also a radical in subverting the oral traditions that grew around that Scripture like so many barnacles. Some of the central claims of the Christian Good News — that God became man and that God offers the gift of His own Spirit to dwell in man — is FAR more radical than the merely human solutions that so many Marxists promote in the guise of the social gospel.
I’m a Christian first and a conservative a distant second, and I’m not going to pretend that I can squeeze the comprehensive revelation of the former into the VERY partial philosophy of the latter. As humans we’re all works-in-progress, with contradictions and personal tastes, and it’s absurd to try to twist an external ideology to perfectly match your own identity.
(With Christianity being my primary identity, the goal is for me to conform to its teachings – more specifically, for me to become more Christlike. It’s NOT to make orthodoxy look more like me.)
It was kinda funny, so many years ago, when Jonah Goldberg asked readers, what’s the most Burkean line in Animal House? But it would be narcissistic for him to try to argue that all raunchy comedies are conservative just because that particular conservative likes them. It would make him no better than John Derbyshire or Rod Dreher, who both seem willing to recast conservatism into their own, idiosyncratic (and VERY different) images.
3. I’m not sure Cooke is as friendly to faith as he would like us to believe. On the one hand, he denies that the devout is “in any way worse or less intelligent than myself,” and he writes that American religion “is worthy of respect and measured inquiry on the Burkean grounds that it has endured for this long and been adopted by so many, and has been instrumental in making the United States what it is today.”
On the other hand, he rejects agnosticism and says he actively denies God’s existence “much as I think there are no fairies or unicorns or elves.” I myself have never known an atheist who compared God to fairies without subsequently comparing theists to children who believe in fairy tales.
It’s a difficult thing indeed to prove a negative, and yet Cooke makes the positive affirmation that there is no God, that the creation exists in the absence of a Creator. Is it really likely that he thinks the evidence is strong enough to lead to that kind of affirmation, but still weak enough that people can find good reason to believe otherwise?
4. I’m not sure Cooke even understands and acknowledges the antagonism that is possible in atheism. In part of his criticism of Brent Bozell’s statement, Cooke accuses Bozell of confusing disbelief in God with hatred of God. He writes that the confusion is “a mistake that not only begs the question but is inherently absurd (one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there).”
Evidently, Charles Cooke has never met or even heard of a parent who disowns a child over some grave offense. “I have no son” is a denial of the child’s existence that is quite clearly rooted in hatred for the child.
Okay, “one cannot very well hate what one does not believe is there,” but one can certainly pour contempt on somebody by treating him as if he were dead or non-existent. Denial cannot lead to hatred, but hatred can certainly lead to denial, and atheists aren’t exempt from the human tendency of being led by one’s emotions.
Whether Bozell was also begging the question gets back to Bill Buckley and the Apostle Paul. If WFB is right and even a partial divine revelation isn’t part of God’s common grace to all man, then certainly a person may deny God’s existence in good faith because he hasn’t been shown that He exists.
But if I understand Romans 1:18-20 correctly, Paul has taught that what can be known about God is plain to everyone – His eternal power and divine nature, if not His grace and His subsequent plan of redemption. The claim echoes Psalm 19, which teaches that the heavens declare God’s glory, and that their voice goes out through all the earth and to the end of the world.
Maybe I’m drawing conclusions that are too broad: maybe Paul’s point is that God’s invisible attributes have been made known to all groups with no distinction between Jews and Gentiles, but not necessarily to every single person without exception.
Perhaps the charitable thing is to hope that non-believers, agnostics, and even outright atheists are arguing in good faith. As a Christian I should pray that God does reveal Himself to everyone, recognizing that He may use His imperfect church (and this imperfect Christian) as His means of communication; I should also trust Christ’s promise that those who earnestly seek the truth will find Him. (Matt 7:7, cf. John 14:6)
In the meantime, a person who denies God’s existence can still be an ally in the conservative movement and can certainly be an ally on issues where we find common ground. We should judge each other, not just by our positions, but how we get there, and it is Cooke’s arguments for a conservative atheism that I find problematic.
John R.W. Kirke is a pseudonym of a Christian husband, father, and engineer who has written elsewhere under other names, including “Lawrence” in the comments at National Review Online. He remains deeply moved by the unpublished memoirs of Professor D. Kirke (1888-1949). • (3812 views)