Monday, November 29, 2010

The Right Skeptics

     Over the past few months, atheist gadfly Christopher Hitchens has been dying of cancer. Mr. Hitchens is facing his terminal illness with great courage and insight. If the way we face death is a sign of character, Hitchens has added to the moral credit column in his balance sheet. In fact, Hitchens appears to have the kind of courage normally associated with the Stoic sage of antiquity, given that he is staring down death without benefit of religion. Though far from a Stoic in his daily living before now, Hitchens reminds us that there are alternatives to religion as a solace for mortality. Hitchens’ ability to accept his own mortal end proves it can be done. Others, like Corporal Patrick Daniel Tillman, prove that unbelievers are capable of highly idealistic behavior. Tillman turned down a $3.6 million NFL contract to enlist as an Army Ranger. He felt the same patriotic zeal that motivated many religious and nonreligious people to volunteer for military service after 9/11. Nonetheless, despite these and other instances of courage and devotion by unbelievers, some religious conservatives continue to deny even the possibility of sincere Skeptical Conservatives. They blame their rejection of the secular right wing on the impossibility of moral absolutes among atheists. Ironically, their behavior shows them just as guilty of accepting consensus as the basis for morality.


     As regular readers know, the editorial attitude at RESPVBLICA is generally sympathetic to religion. This is partly because the prevalence of religious faith makes it highly likely there is a heritable predisposition toward belief. This is also because, in general, religious sanction has often been useful in promoting good behavior and curtailing bad. As De Tocqueville noted, a free republic requires its citizens to regulate their own behavior, and religion has successfully done so much of the time. Finally, the overall sympathy for religion expressed here derives partly from wistfulness about the lack of faith. Consider: On the one hand, Christianity offers a life of community in which the Creator of the universe takes a personal interest, followed by blissful eternity in His presence along with everyone you have ever loved. On the other hand, atheism offers a short life in an indifferent universe, where evil is never balanced in the moral ledger, followed by oblivion. If the matter were simply one of choosing the better deal, what fool would choose atheism?

     Given that perspective, many skeptics experience their lack of faith as an unwilling unbelief. They know perfectly well that if they could only believe, they would obtain all the benefits of belonging and solace available to the faithful. It is just that they find religion incredible. The faithful want us to believe in more than just a god. We are supposed to believe in their God. Not only are we to disregard the absence of proof for even a generic higher power, we are to accept the Biblical or Koranic details of a particular creed. Among Christians, acceptance of C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity” is not enough. We have to sign on as Catholics or Protestants or Mormons or Evangelicals. Among the Jews, we have to choose between Reform or Orthodox or what have you. As for the Muslims, they are still killing each other over the nuances of faith separating Shi’ite from Sunni. All this is simply too much to swallow for the skeptic. All creeds can’t all be right, and there is no logical basis for distinguishing among them.

     Many young atheists discard God because they want to be free to misbehave. They want to indulge themselves in ways the norms of Christianity, for instance, tend to discourage. “What right does the Church have to tell me I can’t sleep around? Or light up a joint? Or get drunk every night?” Having the normal young person’s disregard for mortality, they do not yet need religion’s solace. Later, they tend to find permissive New Age substitutes for traditional religion, or they return to the fold. On the other hand, many do remain atheists to the end, a thoughtful minority who evidently lack the God gene. But whatever the reason, those who cannot profess religious faith are all too often distrusted by those who do. A case in point comes from the 1988 presidential campaign.

     At a campaign stop in 1987, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush expressed his view of atheists this way: “No, I don’t know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic.” Though speaking for himself, he managed a succinct summary of the view of many religious conservatives. For them, as for most people, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. This axiom explains the support of Leftists for such insults as the Ground Zero Mosque. It also explains why most nonbelievers adhere to the Left, given the cold reception from many on the Right.

     Of course, the example of Corporal Tillman, noted above, instantly disproves the Bush view. If unbelievers are incapable of patriotism, how can Bush explain Tillman? For that matter, how does he explain the existence of the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers? The Bush view is parochial and rude, but in Tillman’s case anti-atheist sentiment caused a more particular insult. As is well known, Tillman died in a friendly-fire incident in Afghanistan. Afterward, one of his superior officers spoke to a reporter from ESPN.com about the inability of the family to accept the death of their heroic son. According to the web site, then Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich said of the family,
“[w]hen you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don’t believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more — that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don’t know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough.”
At least he acknowledged the emotional burden of facing true mortality, something his religion spares him from facing. Still, why would an Evangelical Army officer, secure in his faith and his patriotism, go out of his way to be rude to the grieving family of a slain war hero? One reason may be the role Colonel Kauzlerich played in the aftermath of Tillman’s death, which the Army first reported as caused by enemy fire. Quite possibly, another reason is the fear many religious people have of those who acknowledge no ultimate moral authority in the universe.

     The faithful often make the point—and it is correct—that without divine sanction, morals are ultimately a matter of consensus. The point to make back to them is that in practice, many religious people actually follow a consensus view of morality. Think how many “cafeteria Catholics” you know. Notice how the Episcopal Church has “accommodated” modern times by ordaining women and homosexuals. Remember how many mainstream denominations have adapted their liturgy to be more acceptable to the congregants of today. Claims of absolute morality notwithstanding, in practice many Christians, Jews, and moderate Muslims have rather easily shed what used to be firm articles of morality in conforming to modern, permissive, and liberal ideals.

     Of course, some of the faithful have noted this trend in the mainstream denominations and formed their own, ostensibly purer, sects. They, at least, are being consistent, but even their morality tends to be more 20th century than not. If it is pre-1960, it is clearly not pre-1860. Name if you can any Christian sect today that advocates slavery, which had been declared consistent with Christian teaching for over eighteen hundred years before the Abolitionists began to re-think things. All credit to them for doing so, but their new ideas departed from previously ironclad Christian moral doctrine. Or again, name a Judeo-Christian sect today that advocates capital punishment for adulterers: “And the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.” Leviticus 20:10. Or for homosexuals: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Leviticus 20:13. Homosexuals remain “worthy of death” even in the New Testament (Romans 1:26-32), but the fiercest Christian opponents of homosexuality stop short of killing.

     Why? Why do even fundamentalist Christians resist following the supposedly eternal moral truths of their faith? They do so—and we skeptics are thankful they do—because even they accept a large part of the modern moral consensus. They excoriate radical Islam as evil, but Islamic extremists are in many ways closer to the original law of Christendom and Jewery than today’s Christians and Jews themselves. If moral assertions articulated by religion are timeless truths, then religions should never make moral concessions. But in fact they have. So their behavior is inconsistent with their expressions of moral absolutes, and behavior is the better statement of creed. By their behavior, it is obvious many religious people rely just as much on consensus and contingency as unbelievers do. And for that matter, many unbelievers, like Pat Tillman, behave in accord with noble moral convictions derived from consensus. Which brings us back to Hitchens.

     Tillman was a hero in the best sense. He risked—and lost—his life in service to his country. By contrast, Hitchens’ life has been full of self-indulgence. Until recently. Somehow, he has managed to find the courage of his convictions. Here is how he described his situation in an interview on National Public Radio:
“‘I’m here as a product of [the] process of evolution, which doesn’t make very many exceptions. And which rates life relatively cheaply,’ he says. ‘I mean, most human beings who’ve ever been born would have been dead long before they reached my age. And I would think in most of the rest of the world—well, I know it—is still true. So to be relatively healthy at 62 is to be dealt a pretty good hand by the cosmos, which doesn’t know I’m here—and won’t notice when I’m gone. So that seemed the only properly stoic attitude to take.’”
     Stoic? Hitchens? Famous for burning the candle at both ends, as he put it himself, nonetheless he is displaying a genuinely stoical attitude now that he is finally confronting the abyss. The ancient philosophy of Stoicism has enjoyed a modest renaissance in the past dozen years or so, beginning (perhaps) with Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel, A Man in Full. Before that it was best known as the quietly held conviction of Admiral James Stockdale, whose 1993 Courage Under Fire recounted the value of Stoicism for a prisoner of war. The philosophy counsels indifference to pleasure—hardly a trait associated with Hitchens—but also grace under pressure, the calm acceptance of the inevitable. People can leave life with dignity, or not, as they choose; but leave it we all must. This is the insight Hitchens has grasped. That even such a wild child as he can do so at the end suggests the philosophy may have some utility for those who profess no faith.

     Stoicism is just one approach to morality, one pre-Christian system of thought that has demonstrated its ability to sustain thoughtful people in place of religion. Because its messages of self-control and duty fit easily into the behavioral norms of Christianity, many nominal Stoics have also been Christian. However, the philosophy has also clearly helped those without faith. It has helped shape the Western moral consensus. For many people, philosophy of whatever flavor is an insufficient substitute for passionate religious conviction. It is weak tea. But for many others, it is a system of norms successfully counseling moral behavior without an appeal to religion.

     With all these examples of moral behavior among the unchurched, and even of fully developed and effective moral systems of thought, how can conservative Christians continue denying the existence and legitimacy of Skeptical Conservatism? In doing so, they needlessly distrust reliable allies. To the extent they continue espousing the Bush view, they will continue driving many skeptics to the Left. After all, people tend to go where they are welcome. For those who find the Left prey to its own quasi-religious ideologies, the Skeptical Conservative affiliates remain as a real, and Right, alternative.

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