Friday, September 21, 2007

Dear Ann Coulter

While killing time in a bookstore, I came across Godless: The Church of Liberalism by Ann Coulter. According to the blurb: “Liberals' absolute devotion to Darwinism, Coulter shows, has nothing to do with evolution's scientific validity and everything to do with its refusal to admit the possibility of God as a guiding force.”

It’s news to me that liberals are devoted to Darwinism. I’ve seen just as much Darwin-bashing on the political left as I’ve seen on the political right. More so, in fact.

But another thing bothered me with Anne’s book. It was her equation of religion with conservatism, especially in the realm of social issues. She is not alone in this regard. Most social conservatives seem to feel that religion is their one and only mainstay. It’s almost as if they feel that their values must be accepted on faith alone and cannot be defended by rational argument.

This point was made recently by columnist Heather Mac Donald:

… So in the American Conservative piece I wanted to offer some resistance to the assumption of conservative religious unanimity. I tried to point out that conservatism has no necessary relation to religious belief, and that rational thought, not revelation, is all that is required to arrive at the fundamental conservative principles of personal responsibility and the rule of law. 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?

Is Heather Mac Donald less of a social conservative because she is not religious? Conversely, is the political right more socially conservative when it talks the talk of religious folk? Heather addressed these questions in her recent article “What is Left? What is Right?":

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. Our Republican president says that he bases "a lot of [his] foreign policy decisions" on his belief in "the Almighty" and in the Almighty's "great gifts" to mankind. What is one to make of such a statement? According to believers, the Almighty's actions are only intermittently scrutable; using them as a guide for policy, then, would seem reckless.

Over thirty years ago, social conservatives hitched their wagon to religion through groups like the Moral Majority. They succeeded electorally, being key to the election of several right-of-center governments. Indeed, they—and not economic conservatives—have been the main voting base for such governments. Yet they have lost out to economic conservatives in shaping public policy. How come?

It’s just that most people out there don’t believe in the Bible. To win them over, you have to come up with something better than: “Because the Bible says so!” Faith-based arguments simply don’t cut it when the time comes to present talking points and influence policymaking.

Ann, it’s not because of Darwin that social conservatives today have so little impact. The fault lies more in the dubious alliances they’ve made in order to elect governments more responsive to their concerns. It also lies in not having arguments that make sense to secular people. Before lashing out at Darwin, you should take a cold hard look at this faith-based strategy. It isn’t working.


Unknown said...

Hi Peter,

I'm stoked to find your blog. Tiny quibble: Her name is Heather Mac Donald. There's a space.

Anonymous said...


Correction made. I hope to keep posting here every week now.

Anonymous said...

Barry Goldwater had no time for the so called 'religious right'. He once said:

"I don't have any respect for the Religious Right. There is no place in this country for practicing religion in politics. That goes for Falwell, Robertson and all the rest of these political preachers. They are a detriment to the country."

I said "so called" religious right as their "right wing" credentials are only recently minted.

Historically "biblical fundamentalists" have not always associated with the political right. William Jennings Bryan famous for his defense of creationism at the Scopes 'Monkey Trial' was very mush a populist and left leaning progressive. He was lampooned, perhaps a little unfairly, by journalist and writer Henry L Mencken who was a libertarian. Some have called him a Tory Anarchist.

I say "unfairly" as it is of course possible to read more into Scopes than was actually there. The textbook Bryan was reacting against would certainly be banned today, not for it's evolutionism, but for it's social darwinism and advocacy of eugenics. So maybe we shouldn't be too harsh on him.

In the late 19th century, virtually up to WW1, there was a strong Christian Protestant millenialist movement that lobbied for and won significant government social and economic interventions. Today they would be categorised as 'left'. This has been documented extensively by Richard M Gamble in his book 'The War for Righteousness'. So there is no reason for 'economic' or indeed 'social' conservatives to imagine that the Christian lobbies will always be on their side.

As for creationism, I think it is primarily a Evangelical Protestant hobby horse. The Catholic Church in contrast seems a lot more open minded about the whole thing. The US has a large evangelical protestant population however, unlike almost every other western nation, so it is understandably an issue there.

In a sense there is strange symbiosis between evangelical christianity and the social and moral vices it protests against. My brother in law is a psychologist working in Sydney's western suburbs. He notes that evangelicalism, at least here, is very prominent in families split by divorce. He says people from more stable family backgrounds seem to have a higher degree of immunity!

Chesterton wrote of The Unimportance Of Evolution. Although in the piece, writing at the time he did, he made the mistake of seeing Darwin as somewhat outdated. I think this a forgiveable error as he wrote before the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis emerged. But his main point, the evolutionary theory is simply irrelevant or unimportant to religious thinking seems to me to be quite wise. I certainly don't mean by this that evolution is unimportant to science.

"I say that Evolution, in the true sense of transformism or animal adaptation, is simply not important enough to have anything laid down about it: it is simply a matter of material or technical curiosity like a hundred others. The Pope is not there to pronounce upon how the camel got his hump or how the elephant got his trunk, in the manner of the Just-So Stories; it is, in comparison with the things to which he is dedicated, a perfectly healthy and even childish game."

Chesterton also noted that the materialist / skeptical attack on Christianity began sometime before Darwin. So presumably dethroning Darwin, even assuming that were possible, would do little to cure the social and philosophic ills that concern creationists.

"It is simply a manifest fact that the modern sceptical attack on Christianity had begun a hundred years before it took any particular turn towards biology or the modern material sciences. Voltaire and his contemporaries derided the Catholic system exactly as Lucretius or Julian might have derided it, on general grounds of skeptical philosophy. But Voltaire derided almost as much the beginnings of modern material science, and roared with laughter at the very notion of a fossil fish bone being found in the mountains."

"The whole rationalistic attack on Christianity was in full blast, and had been going on for quite a long time, before it was suggested that the fish bone also could be used as a weapon against the Cross. Europe was full of free-thinkers, and organized into vast societies, especially secret societies, for attack upon the Church, before any English naturalists began to advance evolutionary arguments against the Mistakes of Moses. The imperfect hypothesis of Evolution, the mistaken hypothesis of Darwinism, were seized upon eagerly as weapons by men who had already been all their lives in the war. These men tried to exaggerate and misrepresent the scientific suggestions, so as to turn them into contradictions of the great principles of faith and morals of which I have spoken. But few of them would really stretch so far and most of them have already snapped."

I think even many conservative inclined atheist and agnostics would be well within their rights to join Chesterton in some of his critique. Or at least give him two out of three cheers.

For example the evolutionary idea, itself popular before Darwin, was often hijacked by "progressivists" to claim a kind of inner dynamic, an onward and upward march of progress as a kind of unwritten law of nature, of which their batch of proposed social and economic reforms were just the next step of social evolution. H.G. Wells and Marxism come to mind, but it exists in some nascent form in every opponent of (say) market oriented economic reforms who labels such "turning the clock back". Actual Darwinism of course says no such thing as progress, at least in the sense meant here. And it's that 'progressivist' mentality that I think Chesterton is arguing against.

Anonymous said...

The quote from Barry Goldwater might be more appropriate if he had been speaking as a social conservative. Unfortunately, he was speaking simply as an economic conservative who felt indifferent to social issues. His position (like that of most economic conservatives) was that these issues were irrelevant to the success of a free market economy. Such an economy would arise spontaneously as long as governments got out of the way.

This is a point on which I profoundly disagree with economic conservatives. Yes, markets have been ubiquitous throughout history, more so than governments. But without a certain cultural base, they tend to be limited to certain goods and services under certain conditions in certain circumscribed locations (i.e., the marketplace). In most past and present societies, lack of trust, use of violence to settle disputes, and unwillingness to save for future consumption have prevented the marketplace from evolving into a self-regulating market economy.

This is the point that Gregory Clark has made in his book, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World. In England, the market economy did not arise until certain middle-class values had spread throughout the population, i.e., thrift, non-violence, trust and honesty in transactions, etc.

As a social conservative, I feel estranged from both the left and the right. Both have an almost fetishist belief in "the economy." Yet the economy ultimately depends on the way flesh-and-blood people interact with each other. Without certain shared values, the free market will degenerate into the kind of gangster capitalism that exists in many countries today.

Anonymous said...

Within England Gregory Clark's theory hold true. In relation to the outside world, England never did and never could have eschewed "lack of trust" or "use of violence to settle disputes",
(all International Relations revolves around these things - check out John Mearsheimer Conversations With History Google Video). According to Keynes Walter Raleigh's loot was the font of Englands foreign investments.(Chomsky- Year 501)
I payed good money for a book (Black Mass:Apocalyptic Religion and the death of Utopia) that advances the Religious Right theory you subscibe to. Read Kevin Macdonald and Sam Francis on neocons if you want to understand who sets agendas.

Anonymous said...

George Bush is said to read the bible every morning ,and little else, but reading the bible is only central to one denomination block - protestants.
Catholic teaching is that God has provided the Church to interpret His meaning in the bible, "no one who does not believe this can call themselves a Catholic". Haggee someone who was often cited as evidence of "Denominationalist" thinkings infuence on the Republicans (on Israel not coincidently) disowned when his veiws on Catholic came out.

Anonymous said...

Correction - "Dispensationalist"

Catholics are not going to accept biblical quotes, especialy from those who think they are the whore riding on the beast.

Hagee the nut was unlikely to win many supporter amongst a huge block of religious voters so why is he identified as central to the Religous Right (attested to by McCain accepting his endorsment).

Neocons are in charge and they are attracted to him because his thinking on the middle east is compatable with theirs. This makes him and what is called religion seem deceptively strong.

Gray's Black Mass points out the Godfather Leo Strauss worried about the nilihism of Weimar and what it led to.
An authority on the subject pointed out that approval of religion (not their own necessarily) is at the core of neocon thinking.

The religous right is a Brockenspectre projected by the media understandibly chary of identifying the source of the current "mainsteam" in both parties.
Social Conservatives have lost out where their veiws diverge from the neocons, who are in fact liberals by the standards of(as you say) "thirty years ago".

Todd said...

This cannot have effect in actual fact, that's what I think.
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