Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Conservatism and atheism

There’s lots more on this subject over at The Corner. See especially Mark Steyn, Goldberg channeling Buckley, and Goldberg channeling Voegelin. (Von Heyking can tell us whether JG’s emailer got Voegelin right.)

I’d add this: a proselytizing atheist who exudes contempt for religious believers and wishes to debunk religion at every turn thereby gives evidence of a belief that society can prosper either in the light of reason or in the light of self-consciously understood myth. I don’t think that either stance is conservative.

On the other hand, a non-believer who professes respect for religion, either out of an acknowledgement of his own fallibility and finitude or out of a recognition that widespread enlightenment is impossible, is, for all practical purposes, a conservative.

Discussions - 8 Comments

Someone might say that plenty of liberals also have respect for religion (such as the late Carey McWilliams or even Joe Lieberman--neither of whom was for all practical purposes a conservative).

Of course. That all bold atheists are "liberals" does not mean that all religious believers are conservatives. Or, more precisely, what they’re conserving isn’t necessarily connected with the principalities and the powers.

Joe: One of Voegelin’s favorite responses to such comments was that "just because I’m not stupid enough to be a liberal, doesn’t mean I’m stupid enough to be a conservative." JG’s correspondent glosses over a lot of differences between the intellectual roots of liberalism and totalitarianism. For instance, see the end of New Science of Politics for EV’s praise of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. If he sounded slightly critical toward liberals while in the US, one should contrast his praise of liberalism to German audiences, especially after he returned to Munich in the late 1950s, when he did his part in Germany’s de-nazification program. He gave a series of lectures highlighting the spiritual dimensions of freedom that anyone familiar with Tocqueville would appreciate. I think David Walsh captures EV’s idea correctly when observes that liberalism is a tradition, that is to say a doxa, and the corruptions we observe today (and EV in his time) are the result of attempts by so-called liberals to transform that doxa into an episteme without recognizing that politike episteme is something inherently different.

All this seems beside the point to me.
Evangelical atheism or even born-again atheism is not a force in American politics. All our politicians appeal to God. The big problem is that the rough moral consensus Tocqueville described made possible by the omnipresence of American Christianity is gone, although virtually every one of our diverse moral opinions today has some theology (even if with a gnostic or therapeutic spin) attached to it. Tocqueville would think that political liberty would be virtually impossible given the moral chaos we have now. Sidney Hook atheism is much more conservative, not to mention more honest, than much of our politicized theology today (even though he’s a hawk on foreign policy, I can’t say the same about Christopher Hitchens’ wacky hyper-republican atheism). God save us from atheists who think they’re geniuses at spinning politically salutary civil theology.

So, Peter, would you subscribe to the notion that the post-Christian West is living off the carcass of piety (borrowed time as it were)? I’m sometimes of that opinion.

that’s partly right, of course. but the west isn’t even post-christian in some ways. according to nietzsche and flannery o’connor, we’re all worshipping at the church of christianity without christ--or the church of untethered, narcissistic pity.

or to be cute: that pity is the carcass of true piety.

Well, I think that’s true for the Liberals...they have substituted humanism for Christ. I’m a bit more concerned about the "MTV" generation...looking a whole lot like Sodom & Gomorrah to me. Some of this stuff would make a Roman blush!

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