Sunday, December 7, 2008

Secular Right

What to make of Secular Right?

On the one hand, a secular liberal like myself, who feels that the division between church and state should be absolute, is heartened and encouraged that there is more evidence that the right is coming to the same position. (For context of discussion, I'm not at all opposed to tax exempt status for religious organizations, provided they have an appropriate focus on charity, and while I suppose from a purely intellectual standpoint I would prefer not to have Christmas trees in public buildings and such, I find it incredibly hard to actually get animated about that sort of thing.)

At the same time, however, I have to ask: is Secular Right necessary? John Schwenkler is exactly right. Let me say, as a secular leftist who is in the habit of arguing with conservatives on almost all fronts, the number of conservatives who actually make arguments of the type "God says..." are vanishingly small, at least in any sort of prominent or mainstream position. I'm sure if you dig around on Redstate or similarly movement-y websites, you can find people willing to argue from such a position. But I see hardly any arguments of pure religiosity on mainstream conservative websites or magazines. Dedicated conservatives, like any politically saavy and educated people, want to win arguments, and even the most devout among them tend to understand that no one, even other Christians, tend to be moved by "for the Bible tells me so" political arguments. Very often, naturally, these people will believe in both the secular argument and the religious one, and my instinct is that the religious core of beliefs would overwhelm intellectual or philosophical counter argument, in a moment of crisis. (As is only right, if you really believe in a divinity.) I also often encounter arguments about the pragmatic and observable negative consequences of declining religious observance in our society. But these are far from being simple arguments from theological assumptions.

Whats more, again, this is an outsiders perspective, but I just don't think you can support the claim (if in fact this claim is being made) that secular conservatives are disqualified or discouraged from robust participation in the conservative enterprise. Surely, the mainstream rightwing media apparatus seems quite amenable to acceptance of atheist conservatives, provided the tow some of the right ideological and political lines. (Certainly it's the case that being an atheist is not nearly the hindrance that, say, questioning Sarah Palin is.) There have been prominent atheists at National Review, and its team of geniuses at The Corner. There are and have been secularists at The Weekly Standard. (Bill Kristol is no one's idea of a religious nut, of any tradition.) FOX News has secularists. The prominent rightwing websites are largely hospitable to conservatives without religious belief. Within the actual political apparatus, there are some prominent leaders who are secular. It's true that elected officials still often have to profess religious belief to be electable, but that is a condition of American politics, not merely conservatism. Karl Rove, easily one of the three or four most powerful conservatives and Republicans of the last ten years, doesn't have religious belief.

So it seems to me that, depending on how you define the mission of Secular Conservative, the site may be a solution in search of a problem. The question, though, the operative question, is whether the atheist in question is a "without god" atheist (an a-theist) or a "deny god" atheist (an anti-theist). A dedicated antitheist is going to have a significantly harder time operating within the conservative media world than a atheist. Someone out to destroy the lie of god, or whatever the self-serving rhetoric that is currently in vogue is, will have a tough time finding a voice on FOX News, it's true. Perhaps that's the correct position for an atheist to take. As you're aware, I think it's not, though, and that such people fundamentally misunderstand what atheism is. Atheism has no mission. It seeks to create no affirmative change. It is simply an a recognition of absence. It's not even really an "it", from a certain perspective. The only project atheism should be concerned with is the project of cleanly and finally separating the spheres of religion and governance. This is a crucially important job, and one that the atheists and antitheists are on the right side of. Certainly, I don't underestimate the degree to which conventional conservatism is resistant to this attempt. But this is a mission that can be and is pursued equally by religious people, and indeed the actual existence or non-existence of god is irrelevant to the task.

This is a bit uncharitable. But my suspicion is that there is something else afoot here. There is, of course, a vibrant contrarian streak within conservatism. I've said before that I think many young people become college Republicans not just because they encounter new ideas, writers and influences, but because they look around them in the college world and, seeing nothing but liberals, are energized by the opportunity to tweak the noses of the masses. This tends to result in more extreme, more militant thinkers, and thus College Republican syndrome. What I suspect happens, though, is that even within an affinity group like conservatism, some want to further divide the world between worthy and unworthy camps. The intelligent atheists/religious rubes division is a particularly attractive one to those with this attitude, as there is considerable grist for the mill of self-aggrandizement and adversary philosophy. This isn't a critique of sincerity of belief. I'm not saying many secular conservatives don't "really believe" in an atheist worldview. I'm simply speculating on the motivations behind what they consider the emphasized parts of their worldview should be. If tweaking the nose of liberals is fun, tweaking the nose of religious conservatives might be more fun, and that desire to elevate through separation might compel someone to endorse a more actively anti-religious "project" of atheism.

Let me take care in saying, though, that I don't mean to suggest that everyone involved with Secular Right is arguing that conservatism is filled with purely religious arguments, or that atheist conservatives can't catch a break within the movement. That's simply how the site has been sold to me, and I'm sure that's an incomplete and limited description. I'm sure that there are many involved who simply want to create more space fore conservative thought and argument free from religious trappings, and that, a widening of the possible perspectives prevalent in conservative thought, I believe will be to the benefit of our discourse.

For what it's worth, the site's explanatory statement is

We believe that conservative principles and policies need not be grounded
in a specific set of supernatural claims. Rather, conservatism serves the
ends of “Human Flourishing,” what the Greeks termed Eudaimonia. Secular
conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the
making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of


Danny said...

One need not be 'anti-theist' to be anti-creationist. Most secular republicans are fine with the religious right trumpeting their psuedo-scientific idiocy as a small price to pay, but guys like Razib and Derbyshire are science writers and this sort of thing rubs them the wrong way.

E.D. Kain said...

Or perhaps it is PR. Perhaps there is this idea that many people on the Left side of the spectrum believe that all conservatives are in fact "right-wing bible thumpers" or that the image of the witch-fighting, demon-smashing Sarah Palin has smeared the whole edifice of the Right. I would argue that social conservatives have more of a damage control situation with Palin than the secular conservatives...

In any case, I imagine this is really just an effort to say to the world, "Look, there are secular conservatives out there. You don't need to be a religious person to be conservative."

MikeF said...

I had the same reaction as ED Kain. Seems to me that the site exists more to attract left-wing or moderate people who are reluctant to engage with the right because they expect a barrage of Bible verses instead of reasonable arguments.

That said, after reading a few of the posts there does seem to be a fair amount of religious right nose-tweaking.

ryan said...

Yeah, I've been pretty non-plussed by the whole project. Sure, you could do that, but why would you want to? I mean, no one really had much of a beef with you in the first place. Secular arguments? Ever heard of, oh, I don't know, the The Mont Pelerin Society? Hello?

The only way you're going to drum up any significant opposition is if you go around deliberately tweaking theists and theistic commitments, and then your project is not "The Secular Right" but "Atheist Wannabe L'Enfant Terrible". At which point I just stop paying attention, because that particular project isn't very interesting.

Matoko said...

Freddie the core problem with conservatives is not the religious base, but the fact that they believe have The Right to impose their particular morality on the rest of us through legislation.

Razib said...

Ever heard of, oh, I don't know, the The Mont Pelerin Society?

the secularity of libertarian thinkers isn't a surprise. but derb & heather are not libertarians.

ryan said...

@Razib: Neither is the Heritage Foundation, but it's supported by Pelerin, or at least people associated with it.

Razib said...

Neither is the Heritage Foundation, but it's supported by Pelerin, or at least people associated with it.

you're dumb ;-)

Cascadian said...

I think there is definitely a place for re-developing a conservative philosophy separate from theo-speak. I don't think it important that the conversation be limited to either atheists or anti-theists, but that the terms of the debate and the teleology of the project be separate from religious based arguments or ends.

If this is redundant, if the Corner is in fact a legitimate and preferable place for these debates to unfold, I'm sure the SecularRight site will wither.

I'd bet, however, that there are many who, frustrated with the current bounds of debate in most venues, will frequent the site.