Tuesday, October 12, 2010

De Tocqueville to the Rescue

      Over on The Atheist Conservative, the staff have taken to task Dennis Prager for a piece he published recently on Townhall. The piece on TAC, one of our fellow Skeptical Conservative sites, is (as usual) superb. The full post is worth reading, but the gist of it was that Prager claims it’s no accident Americans are the freest and most religious people in the West. TAC cried rubbish. Here follows your author’s commentary:

      “My beloved Dennis Prager. Dispenses advice on male-female relationships from the vantage point of a third marriage. Still, I’m somewhat nonplussed to agree with most of what he says about that and other issues.

      “On religion, I’ve become a kind of ally of his even though I’m technically a-theistic. The thing is, I don’t blame him for his faith. Most people believe in their gods because they can’t help it. The details of religion are down to culture, but (I think) the propensity for belief per se is hard-wired. Clearly progress can be made, since even in the U.S. the fastest growing religious category is ‘none.’ On the other hand, the people in the ‘none’ category probably believe in crystal power or magnetic bracelets or some other hocus-pocus. Only something very, very strong could explain the persistence of faith (exact form immaterial) among 21st century westerners. Since I don’t believe in God, I’m prepared to entertain the hypothesis that it might be a genetic propensity.

      “Whatever the reason, I think we’ll have religion with us for a long time. Even in godless Europe the trend is more away from the demands of church attendance rather than toward hard atheism. What people seem to want is a big, avuncular, undemanding person in the sky to take care of them even when they flout his rules. To the extent Europeans (or American Leftists) adhere to a faith, it tends to be Leftism itself (i.e., political correctness and socialism and environmentalism).

      “But what about freedom? De Tocqueville pointed out that for democracy to work people have to control themselves. Without self-limiting norms, a citizen population requires ever more explicit laws prohibiting ever more creative ways of plundering each other or the state. There’s a natural creep toward multiplication of statutory prohibitions and commandments, as we are seeing even in the land of the faithful. The one thing religion can do is remove some of the need for such regulations. When there was more fear of Hell, for instance, there were fewer bastard births. Now we have ‘single-parent families’ drawing government aid and relying on child support laws to force deadbeats to do what they used to do on grounds of religion. I think I’d rather have them more scared of Hellfire. (What’s that? We should just expect people to give up their faith and behave rationally? Uh...how to put it?...that’ll happen the day after Hell freezes over.)

      “Now, it very much matters what religion we’re talking about. Medieval Catholicism was totalitarian, as you point out (think of autos da fé and Galileo under house arrest). Islam today appears to be drifting back toward an even less tolerant version of itself than usual (though it’s worth remembering that Saladin was far more tolerant than his Christian antagonists).

      “So, in my view, Prager apparently goes much too far in his piece if he argues that ‘religion’ per se makes people free. Whether or not freedom and religion have been associated throughout history is an empirical question; if they appear to be today, well, that could be a sampling error. Still, it’s not crazy to see some connection between moderate religion and freedom, at least under the Tocquevillian model.”

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