Commentary Magazine


Topic: atheism

Gay Marriage and the Myth of Progressive American Secularism

Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

Read More

Over the last few days a story has made the rounds about the state of Idaho coercing pastors into officiating same-sex weddings or risk a fine and jail time. The story has changed a bit, but its disturbing core remains. And there’s an aspect to this scandal that shows what’s been missing from our debate over the thought police’s consistent targeting of religious believers.

On Saturday, the faith group Alliance Defending Freedom posted a press release about the Knapps, a married couple both of whom are ordained ministers. The Knapps own and run the Hitching Post Wedding Chapel in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. The state recently passed an anti-discrimination law that applies to the state’s businesses. Hitching Post is a for-profit chapel. Thus, according to state officials, the law plainly applies without exception to the Knapps.

The ADF press release was a bit ahead of itself. “Officials threaten to punish senior citizen couple – both ordained pastors – if they decline to officiate same-sex ceremonies,” it said up top. But the threat, really, was as-yet implied. The state did, however, confirm that the law applies to the Knapps, and the Knapps have since refused to perform a wedding ceremony for a same-sex couple. The clock, then, is ticking–though as of Monday the Knapps had not been charged. They are suing the state to ensure they won’t be, by asking a federal judge to bar enforcement.

Over at the Federalist, Robert Tracinski makes an astute observation:

No one ever expects the Secular Inquisition.

Except that we actually did expect it. In fact, it’s inherent in the fundamental basis of the left’s arguments for gay marriage.

Tracinski has no objection to gay marriage, and in fact considers himself “an advocate of secularism—including secular morality and a secular basis for liberty.” He therefore opposes coercing couples like the Knapps because he doesn’t want his “views similarly discredited by association with the oppressive acts of a new Secular Inquisition.” When he says “similarly discredited,” he is referring to the fact that the Spanish Inquisition “served to discredit religion by associating it with brutality.”

Perhaps. But there’s another way of thinking about this: we should operate under the assumption that there is no secular party in this drama at all.

On October 1, Mosaic Magazine republished Irving Kristol’s 1991 COMMENTARY essay on “The Future of American Jewry.” (Mosaic has just published an e-book of Kristol’s writings on Judaism.) It is a trenchant–and just as relevant today as it was then–take on American Judaism and its entanglement with secular humanism.

About the emergence of the “American creed” of toleration mixed with relegating religion in America to a more private role, Kristol wrote:

Historians call this phase of our intellectual history, now more than a century old, “secularization,” and they point to analogous developments in other lands to sustain the thesis that secularization is an integral part of modernization. It is impossible to argue with this thesis, for which the evidence is overwhelming. But it is possible and legitimate to question the explanatory power of the concept of secularization. Something important happened, that is certain. Secularization is doubtless as good a shorthand term as any to describe what happened. It is not, however, a useful concept if one wishes to explain what happened. For what we call secularization is an idea that only makes sense from a point of view that regards traditional religions as survivals that can, at best, be adapted to a nonreligious society.

Instead, he explained, in what might be the single best one-paragraph précis of left-liberalism then and now:

When we look at secularization without an ideological parti pris, we can fairly—and, I would suggest, more accurately—describe it as the victory of a new, emergent religious impulse over the traditional biblical religions that formed the framework of Western civilization. Nor is there any mystery as to the identity of this new religious impulse. It is named, fairly and accurately, secular humanism. Merely because it incorporates the word “secular” in its self-identification does not mean that it cannot be seriously viewed as a competitive religion—though its adherents resent and resist any such ascription. Such resentment and resistance are, of course, a natural consequence of seeing the human world through “secularist” spectacles. Because secular humanism has, from the very beginning, incorporated the modern scientific view of the universe, it has always felt itself—and today still feels itself—“liberated” from any kind of religious perspective. But secular humanism is more than science, because it proceeds to make all kinds of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological.

Kristol wrote that in 1991, but in some ways was ahead of his time. Seventeen years later the Democratic Party nominated for president a man who appealed directly to the left’s religious zealotry by painting himself as a progressive prophet and redeemer. Announcing that his looming nomination victory “was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal” is the language of a religious fanatic, which Obama is and which his followers are as well.

And this is a religious country. Obama won, after all, promising various forms of redemption to his supporters. But the Obama phenomenon was only possible because the demand for such a false prophet existed in the first place. In fact, anyone who has observed American politics and religious discourse in recent years will be aware that when it comes to evangelism, those professing to be godless or secular or progressive are the most thorough. (For a clever take on this, watch Portlandia’s hipster version of door-knocking missionaries. Example: approaching Seattle residents with the line, “We were wondering if you were interested in accepting Portland into your life.”)

Atheists have begun to bring that spirit to life. Last year, the Associated Press detailed the rise of “atheist mega-churches” around the world. (Complete with “Born Again Humanist” bumper stickers.) That movement inspired a column in (where else?) the Guardian railing against the idea of a church for nonbelievers. As the column’s author Sadhbh Walshe, a devout nonbeliever, wrote:

I would have thought the message of atheism (if there needs to be one) is that churches and ritualized worship (whatever the focus of that worship might be) are best left to the people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.

Ah, but Walshe is right! The trappings of religion are for “people who feel the need to have a God figure in their lives.” And that is, it appears, most people. Especially in Western countries with religious heritage but aggressive and modern nihilistic instincts. The “secular” left needs a God figure just as much as the religious right. The difference is that the religious right eschews Inquisitions, and the left is just learning how effective they can be. Just ask the Knapps.

Read Less

Humility as a Democratic Virtue

In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

Read More

In the New Republic, John Gray, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, has written a withering review of Richard Dawkins’s autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist.

Professor Gray, a self-professed atheist, criticizes his fellow atheist Dawkins for knowing “practically nothing of the philosophy of science, still less about theology or the history of religion.” His attack on religion “has a crudity that would make a militant Victorian unbeliever such as T.H. Huxley … blush scarlet with embarrassment.” But beyond that is Dawkins’s “tone of indulgent superiority.” He “shows not a trace of skepticism anywhere in his writings.” In comparison with Blaise Pascal, a man of relentless intellectual energy, “Dawkins is a monument to unthinking certitude.” Dawkins is, according to Gray, a dogmatist whom he contrasts with Charles Darwin, who understood science was “a method of inquiry that enabled [Darwin] to edge tentatively and humbly toward truth.”

On this matter of humility, I’m reminded of what Benjamin Franklin, near the end of his life, said. Although having some concerns about the Constitution, Franklin sacrificed them for what he called “the public good.” In urging a unanimous vote approving the Constitution, he made this marvelous appeal: “On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility…”

Humility, it turns out, is quite an important, if underrated, democratic virtue.

Our system of government is based on the belief that no one has all the answers and so no one gets all of the power. Since none of us has the whole of truth, the question is how we can construct our lives in a way that moves us a bit closer to it. Part of the answer requires us to escape our political, philosophical and theological silos, at least now and then, in order to gain the perspective of others to help us see things to which we may be blind. Humility presupposes that there is collective wisdom and that we have something to learn from others, including from those with whom we might have fairly deep disagreements.

To be sure, I don’t expect mass conversions from one political faith to another. Rachel Maddow isn’t going to adopt the philosophy of Rush Limbaugh. Nor do I believe that the truth is always at the mid-point between opposing points of view. As a political/philosophical conservative and a Christian, I have made certain fundamental judgments about life, human nature, and reality. But what humility can do is create the conditions to better understand the values and premises that shape other people’s narrative, their worldview, their “script.”

A person who has made this point particularly well is the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. One of his gifts is the ability to explain the assumptions and belief systems of people who hold very different views. That doesn’t eliminate the differences; but what it can do is to help us better appreciate the factors that lead people to arrive at very different places and therefore keep us from demonizing one another. (For those who care about such things, partisan antipathy has risen quite dramatically in the last two decades. We’re more inclined than in the past to believe that our political opponents aren’t just wrong but malicious.)

Here’s another observation made by Professor Haidt worth considering: We often “sacralize” issues and even reason itself, to the point that it can become an obstacle to discerning truth. How? Because like lawyers preparing a legal brief, we employ reason to confirm bias. “The only cure for the confirmation bias,” Haidt says, “is other people. So if you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason.” In recounting his own professional experience, he says, “we end up being forced to work together, challenging each other’s confirmation biases, and truth emerges.” Professor Haidt goes on to say, “Wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”

Humility properly understood, then, leaves us open to having our views scrutinized, refined, and enlarged. Call it the anti-Richard Dawkins approach to things: doubting our own infallibility, a bit of charity in our judgment toward others, a willingness to consider other points of view. These traits are easier to admire in others than to embrace ourselves. But they are ingredients of a healthy democratic culture and, based on those whom I most respect, elements to more fulfilling lives.

Read Less

RE: The Nasty, Brutish World of Richard Dawkins

I certainly agree that with Pete that Richard Dawkins’s advice on aborting a Down syndrome fetus was somewhere beyond morally obtuse, and he fully deserves the blowback he’s gotten for it.

Read More

I certainly agree that with Pete that Richard Dawkins’s advice on aborting a Down syndrome fetus was somewhere beyond morally obtuse, and he fully deserves the blowback he’s gotten for it.

I also find puzzling that someone who prides himself on his devotion to science should be an avowed, indeed noisy atheist. Atheism, after all, is as much a religion as any other in that it is a belief system that can’t be tested, which is the definition of religion. You can no more prove the nonexistence of God than you can prove His existence. Of course, Dawkins’s book The God Delusion, has sold more than 2 million copies and been translated into 31 languages, so perhaps it was a commercial decision to be an atheist.

I suspect Dawkins might be getting grumpy in his old age (he’s 73), an age when hugely gifted people sometimes begin to become more and more extreme in their views. About ten years ago, Dawkins wrote a fascinating book called The Ancestor’s Tale. It was a history of life on earth, but one that went backwards in time, not forward. It was sort of a paleontologist’s version of Merrily We Roll Along, a Kaufmann and Hart play (and Sondheim musical) where each succeeding scene is set earlier in time. It’s an idea that didn’t work for Kaufmann and Hart, or Sondheim, but it works splendidly for Dawkins. But there was one thing very odd about it. Every hundred pages or so, Dawkins would throw in a completely gratuitous insult

to George W. Bush. In 2004, such insults were a dime a dozen, but it was startling, to say the least, to find one in the middle of a discussion of the Cambrian explosion or the Permian extinction.

But that said, Dawkins is a great scientist and an even better science writer. His gift for making complex subjects and subtle arguments accessible to the intelligent layman is second to none. The book that brought him to fame, The Selfish Gene, has been in print of almost forty years. It is one of those rare books that has you saying, “Ah, now I understand,” on almost every page.

So Dawkins, I think, is just further proof that we are all human, both sublime and ridiculous.

Read Less

The Nasty, Brutish World of Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, a prominent atheist, and a moral fool.

Read More

Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, a prominent atheist, and a moral fool.

I say that in part (but only in part) because a woman seeking advice from him via Twitter confessed that she wouldn’t know what to do if she were pregnant with a child with Down syndrome. “Real ethical dilemma,” she wrote. But not for Dr. Dawkins. He tweeted this back: “Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

Now that is a revealing adjective, isn’t it? Note what Dr. Dawkins isn’t saying. He didn’t say (as he later claims, when clumsily and misleadingly trying to clean up his mess) that he was merely recommending that the woman abort the child. Nor did he say it’s a morally complicated decision that should evoke sympathy. Or that it’s an agonizing matter she should, say, pray over.

No siree. From his Moral Mt. Olympus Dr. Dawkins decrees that parents who decide to give birth to, and unconditionally love, a Down syndrome child are committing a moral wrong, a moral evil.

Which raises some questions: Having given birth to a Down syndrome child, what should happen to that child? Under the theory that it’s better late than never, should the infant’s life be terminated post-birth since it was immoral to allow him to be born in the first place? If not, why not? On what basis does Dawkins decide people have moral worth? What’s the intelligence quotient that allows one to be welcomed in life rather than terminated? What other imperfections morally compel us to abort a child? And why stop there? What physical and mental imperfections should be eliminated by society in order to help us meet the ethical standards of Richard Dawkins? (Those standards, for the unaware, include a defense of “mild pedophilia”.)

Dr. Dawkins doesn’t seem to understand that Down syndrome children can live rewarding lives and can themselves touch the hearts and souls of others; and that there are parents of Down syndrome children who come to see the extra chromosome as not only associated with delays and impairments but also sweetness, joy, wonder, patience, and love.

For Dawkins, human dignity is not intrinsic; people’s worth is judged on whether or not they have 46 (thumbs up) or 47 (thumbs down) chromosomes. If children have intellectual disabilities or developmental delays–if they have flattened facial features, short necks, small heads–then off with their head. Or, to be more precise, suck out their brains, which collapses their skulls. In the nasty, brutish world of Richard Dawkins, this is what the mother and father of a Down syndrome child are morally obligated to do.

In our neighborhood there’s a young man with Down syndrome whom we often see running. My 10-year-old son and I have several times talked about him and how we admire him. Just the other week David asked me what the person’s condition was, and I explained to him what Down syndrome is. We spoke a bit about how a person’s worth isn’t based on intellectual abilities; it’s based on being a child of God. And that character matters more than intelligence.

Last night, after reading the comments by Dawkins, I asked my son what in particular he liked about this fellow. He replied, “I like that he’s so dedicated even though he has a sickness [Down syndrome].” He added, “I like that he’s so dedicated when so many other people who don’t have Down syndrome aren’t that way.” And then he added, “He’s kind of inspiring.”

Indeed he is. That person’s life has as much meaning as does Richard Dawkins’s. I would also wager a good deal of money that if he isn’t the intellectual equal of Dawkins, he is morally superior to him. And I for one would much rather have the young man with Down syndrome in my neighborhood than Richard Dawkins.

Read Less

Nietzsche vs. Intrinsic Human Worth

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, whose book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas was reviewed in COMMENTARY, published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly on how Friedrich Nietzsche was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image. In summarizing the German philosopher’s views, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes:

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do… this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.

While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.

From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.

Read More

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, whose book American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas was reviewed in COMMENTARY, published an essay in The Wilson Quarterly on how Friedrich Nietzsche was embraced by Americans eager to see in him a reflection of their own image. In summarizing the German philosopher’s views, Ratner-Rosenhagen writes:

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that if a culture was clutching calcified truths, one needed to sound them out relentlessly. And that’s exactly what he tried to do… this “philosopher with a hammer” (as he came to identify himself) spent his career tapping that hammer against Western ideals turned hollow idols. Central to his philosophical project was challenging the notion of eternal truth. Nietzsche sought to demonstrate that nothing is inherently good or evil, but rather that all values are culturally and historically contingent. Likewise, he argued that all claims to truth are nothing more than “human, all-too-human” desires for a particular version of the good life, not mirrors of a supra-historical reality.

While Nietzsche sought to dismantle the notion of universal morality, so too did he try to upend his readers’ faith in God. He shocked them with the declaration that “God is dead,” and disturbed them with his insistence that God had not created man in his image; it was man who had created an image of God in order to give his life meaning, purpose, and a moral center. According to Nietzsche, the entire basis of modern Western culture was a slippery slope of lies: transcendent truth, the Enlightenment faith in reason and scientific objectivity, absolute morality, a Supreme Maker. These were mere fictions, products of human imagination and the struggle for power.

From time to time, Nietzsche put down his hammer as he tried to imagine a world after moral absolutes. Even he wondered what would happen once every article of faith had been shed and every claim to universal truth exposed as a human construct.

Nietzsche was right to wonder, and Ranter-Rosenhagen’s work raises an old and enduring set of questions. Is there such a thing as a universal moral law, truths that are objective and permanent rather than subjective and contingent, ethical codes that are anchored in God rather than human choice, human desires, and human invention?

During the years, I’ve asked friends of mine, including several very intelligent and well-read atheists, the grounds on which a person who doesn’t believe in God makes the case for inherent human dignity. Absent a Creator, what is the argument against capriciousness, injustice, and tyranny? How does one create a system of justice and make the case against, say, slavery, if you begin with two propositions: one, the universe was created by chance; and two, it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”?

To press the point a bit further, why would a materialist or a relativist have any confidence that their beliefs are (a) rooted in anything permanent and (b) applied to themselves and to others? It’s not obvious what the response is to a Nietzschean who says, “Your belief is fine for you, but it is simply non-binding on me. God is dead – and I choose to follow the Will to Power. You may not agree, but there is no philosophical or moral ground on which you can make your stand.”

Steve Hayner, president of Columbia Theological Seminary, once told me something that adds an important layer to this discussion. We believe we have worth because we are created in God’s image, he said. But even more basic is the declaration that we have value simply because God values us. Gold is valuable because someone values it, not because there is something about gold that is intrinsically of worth.

Sure, gold is aesthetically beautiful and has particular physical qualities which set it apart (it is highly conductive, non-corroding, et cetera). But gold would not be valuable if it were not thought to be so by someone. In this case, value is attributive. Similarly, human beings are of worth simply because we are valued by God. Indeed, God demonstrated the value of humanity by His continuing involvement with us.

It is the attributive quality of worth which underlies Christian and Jewish anthropology. Comparative worth opens the door to an economic or utilitarian assessment of the value of an individual. Intrinsic worth may also be open to some debate. But attributive worth, according to Hayner, is not derived from culture or circumstances. Here, worth comes from the understanding that all people are precious in God’s sight.

It’s still unclear to me, then, on what basis we can argue that people can have intrinsic or attributive worth if we deny God and transcendent truth. I’m not claiming it can’t be done; I’m simply asking what a non-theistic moral code would be grounded in. Those who embrace atheism/anti-theism and the philosophy of Nietzsche would do well to understand, as he did, just how ugly and terrifying a world after moral absolutes would be.

It turns out taking a hammer to God doesn’t damage Him; but it does damage us.

 

Read Less




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.