Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, November 11, 2004

ATHEISM AND TOLERANCE

Further thoughts on Nato's post. He writes:

There's nothing about atheism qua atheism that requires it to tolerate anyone. There's nothing in atheism that indicts mass murder, torture, rape, pillage, sophistry, or poor government, for the very simple reason that atheism is not an integrated world view, but rather consists entirely of the lack of any theistic belief. It prohibits nothing morally, and only obliquely indicts theistic belief on epistemic grounds.

Of course this is not really new information, but sometimes one must be reminded that atheism doesn't equate to secular humanism, which which it is usually associated. Of course, sometimes it's associated with communism, or Naziism, or Mormonism, but I generally regard those as mistakes. I lost faith in technocracy and other top-down management ideologies somewhat before I became an actual atheist.

Mormonism? Mormons are theists. But anyway...

Nato quotes the Council of Secular Humanism as evidence of secular humanists' tolerance. Having lived through secular humanist public schools, I'm skeptical, but I will say this: Some conscientious atheists, like Nato, become libertarian. Certainly, libertarians are tolerant in the extreme. But historically, atheists trend more to socialism than to libertarianism.

This correlation held in 19th-century Russia, where Dostoyevsky wrote of his character Alyosha that if he had not believed in immortality he would have joined the "atheists and socialists." And a Jewish friend of mine, whose relatives lived in pre-WWII Poland, said that everyone was either Orthodox or Communist.

It held in 1970s Iran, where the writer V. S. Naipaul was warned to introduce himself to the mullahs as a "Protestant" because if he said he was atheist or agnostic they would assume he was a communist. It held, broadly, throughout the 20th-century Third World.

And it holds in the developed world today. Post-Christian Europe is heavily socialistic. And most secular humanists and non-churchgoers in the US support the Democrats, who support heavy regulation and large government programs. Among atheists, I'm afraid libertarians like Nato are honorable exceptions.

I think this historical trend has philosophical roots. Once you stop believing in God, your ethics tend to default to utilitarianism. And utilitarians tend to lack principled reasons to constrain governments, and are led to some variant of socialism.

Socialism is a secular religion. It is a religion which lacks the deeply paradoxical and subversive ethos of holy poverty and nonviolence present in the Gospels, the ethos which assures that Christian spirituality perpetually exiles itself from power and creates a dialectic between faith and state. Not necessarily between Church and state-- the Church is sometimes absorbed into the State, or sometimes becomes a state-- but faith and state. The martyred Thomas Becket, drawing hordes of pilgrims, humbles his murderer the king.

In America, "political correctness" is a symptom of this problem. The left places so little value on freedom of speech that they impose neologisms like "African-American" (for black), "disabled" (for retarded), and many more. I don't think this is trivial: the invasion of language by politics is the quintessential signature of totalitarianism. In Europe the problem is more serious. The media are virulently biased in favor of the European project. In Germany Mein Kampf is restricted; I met a German who came to America and was surprised to find that here it was located on the bookstore shelves. Europeans are hysterical about the death penalty; they worship international law-- on these issues, they do not want to hear any dissent. Having lost the moral compass provided by Christianity (or even libertarianism) tolerance takes strange turns: see Andrew Sullivan's coverage of the strange case of the film-maker murdered by Muslim fanatics for an example. But for an example closer to home, take a look at these lines from Nato's earlier comment:

my brother would like to adopt children with his partner some day, I hope to have children free of preconceived notions about how they must be to fit their gender, I’d like my friends to be able to conduct their sexual lives in safe ways they see fit... None of these actions require anything of Christians, yet it seems a great number of said Christians (as well as Muslims, etc) feel the need to impose laws against them. (my italics)


How does Nato plan to free his children of preconceived gender roles? Won't they absorb those through normal contact with other children? And people can already have sex with anyone they want to as far as the law is concerned? No one is seriously proposing laws against pre-marital, extra-marital or gay sex. He's attacking a straw man here. Or is he? Even if his friends have sex with whomever they wish, a lot of people will disapprove. Is that what he, or his friends, object to? Maybe we need to force people to be tolerant, then. Force them to abandon "preconceived" gender roles. (Why is it so difficult? Perhaps the gender roles were natural all along?) Force them to keep their disapproval of homosexuality, or of free love, to themselves. Once we get the anti-modern views out of the way, then we can have real tolerance. Right?

It is because America is a Christian country that I expect to remain free.

4 Comments:

  • A few notes because I have to run.

    Re: Mormons: that was a joke, but a pertinent one, because I had a guy try to tell me Mormons were atheists because they didn't believe in "the real God." I sometimes really wish I carried a tape recorder with me everywhere - I think my Mormon friends would have been especially amused.

    Re: honorable exceptions: I'd say most Libertarians of whatever stripe are "honorable exceptions." There just aren't that many thorough-going libertarians out there, unfortunately.

    Re: atheists and socialism: I think atheists frequently default to the state as the big power that's going to make everything okay in the end, having not gotten rid of the big-power mindset. Right? Wrong? I don't know. It's my psychological interpretation. That said, in my old "freethinkers" group (I hate that use of that word) most of the atheists were libertarians. It's purely anecdotal evidence, but until I see an actual survey, it makes me shrug my shoulders about the statistical lay of the land.

    re: Raising children: According to the theories of mind to which I subscribe, no consciousness could be constructed without preconceived notions holding the works together, so you are necessarily right about a child taking gender roles from contact with the world. However, if I try not to exert parental pressure in nay particular direction and make sure my kids are exposed to a wide variety of ambitions, hobbies, interests, etc, then they can choose what appeals to them rather than what appeals to me, my wife, or TV shows we let raise our children in our stead. I could talk all day about raising children, though, so I'll stop there.

    re: sexual laws: Since we're here in the US, I won't bring up the religion-based laws against just about everything in countries around the world. However, I'd like to point out that "activist" judges recently threw out laws against sodomy. Because sexual activity between heterosexuals always has *some* chance of causing pregnancy, I'd like abortion to stay legal, and for the FDA to stop quashing the use of RU-486 for no medical reason. Probably we're not on the same page about the moral status of blastocysts, but it's also true that a minority wants to outlaw birth control. As it is, all they've managed to do is make it difficult for minors to get birth control some places, but somehow I don't think that's where they'd stop if they had more total control. Maybe that's not you, but it's other Christians, and I feel the need to defend myself and my loved ones against them rather aggressively - perhaps even preemptively, based on my best intelligence.

    Re: people disapproving: I am certainly not one for legislating against people's disapproval. On the other hand, I am definitely one for making sure that those peoples' personal disapproval does not turn into legal disapproval. Or legal unfairness. You remember Jim Crow laws had to be torn down by "judicial activism."

    But because America has deeply entrenched expectations of civil-liberties, I expect it to steadily free itself.

    By Blogger Nato, at 7:02 AM  

  • Another note, re: subversion of language: Have you noted how "liberal" has become an epithet in much of political discourse? From where did "partial birth abortion" come?

    I haven't noticed the left having considerably less respect for freedom of speech than the right.

    By Blogger Nato, at 11:42 AM  

  • I've taken up a flattering amount of your blog lately, but I figured I'd nevertheless direct you attention to my rather aggressive post which rambles about atheism and authoritarianism. It's filled with fighting words (good) and probably poorly edited as usual (not so good).

    By Blogger Nato, at 4:22 PM  

  • Nato writes: "atheists and socialism: I think atheists frequently default to the state as the big power that's going to make everything okay in the end, having not gotten rid of the big-power mindset. Right? Wrong? I don't know."

    Not quite right (in my opinion). There's no way to know for sure, but I think the reason atheists tend to become socialist is that the arguments for libertarianism are just weaker than the arguments for socialism (or social-marketism) once religious theism, with its more complex forms of morality, is abandoned. The individualism of libertarian ideas is anyway at odds with people's deep yearning for community. (My article "Work, Service, and Worship" offers a communitarian defense of free-market capitalism, with "policy recommendations" probably identical to libertarian, but with very different, and distinctly Christian, premises: I argue that with the fall of Adam, God caused us to need each other to avoid starvation in death, to spare us from the true hell of alienation.) Actually, materialism undermines the possibiliy of any morality, since moral truths and right and wrong are non-material entities, and materialism denies the existence of non-material entities. This is not to say that materialists are amoral in practice-- morality is indelibly written on our souls and will not disappear just because of false ideas in the mind-- but it means that materialists who think about morality (and we're all forced to) can generally do no better than a crude utilitarianism. The typical libertarian belief in "rights" is difficult for a materialist to sustain. So materialists tend to be utilitarian, and from utilitarianism it's a short step to wanting the government to make everyone happy.

    Nato writes:

    "However, I'd like to point out that "activist" judges recently threw out laws against sodomy."

    The exception that proves the rule. The anti-sodomy law was, as Nato points out, overturned, and no, this is not because they were "activist" judges; there were dozens of sufficient reasons to overturn that law, among others the rule-of-law ground that the law was never enforced anyway. Anyway, laws restricting sexual behavior long predate any of the world's major religions and cannot be attributed to them.

    Re: "I am certainly not one for legislating against people's disapproval. On the other hand, I am definitely one for making sure that those peoples' personal disapproval does not turn into legal disapproval."

    Well, good, but a lot of people aren't subtle enough to make this distinction. I think the debate about gay marriage is largely about legislating against disapproval. Civil unions offer all the same benefits, but if gay unions get the label "marriage," everyone else will have to use the term "marriage" to describe them, which will confuse a lot of people who disapproved of homosexuality because it occurred outside marriage. Let me articulate an idea with which Nato may or may not agree: legislation to enforce traditional prejudices is fundamentally less totalitarian than legislation to enforce newfangled sophistries. Take gender roles as an example. Traditional gender roles have a certain stability and hamonize with human nature-- that's why they become traditional. Most people would follow them anyway, so the repression only occurs at the margins of life, those who would want to escape them. I'm opposed to it. But when hubristic rationalists label traditional gender roles "preconceived" and pontificate that gender roles should conform to the patterns they derived from abstract principles, they are at war with human nature itself, and they will soon find "progress" frustratingly slow, and apply invasive state power to speed things up. Feminists could never bring about their ideal gender-equal society without a totalitarian drive to suppress human psychology.

    Nato writes:

    "Another note, re: subversion of language: Have you noted how "liberal" has become an epithet in much of political discourse? From where did "partial birth abortion" come?"

    This is totally different. Language is always evolving. As for "liberal" becoming an epithet, that's just because with the passage of time, (most) people have recognized the fatal flaws in what was once an appealing governing philosophy. It's the same way "Nazi" became an epithet because of bad things Nazis did (though of course in a far smaller degree). Liberals bused white suburban kids to scary inner-city schools; they have a condescending and scolding attitude towards most people's beliefs; their preferred policies slow down the economy, undermine values of personal responsibility, weaken national defense and soften law enforcement, causing rising crime. So "liberal" becomes an epithet. As for "partial-birth abortion," and "death taxes," while these terms were more or less inserted into the language by the conservative political machine, this is just a variation of the usual process of evolution of language: poets, scholars, thinkers, are always coining new words and phrases, and these come into circulation if people like them. With political correctness, it's different: teachers and professors live in fear of being tattled on by students and possibly being reprimanded or losing their jobs if they seem "insensitive" or hurt someone's feelings. The difference is between voluntary and forced language change.

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 8:57 AM  

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