When it comes to inclination, or emotion if you will, I tend to be more conservative than liberal. There are some things about the right in the US today that rub me the wrong way, though. For example, they’re constantly harping about their love of Liberty, but they don’t define the term quite the same way as Webster. When it comes to religion, for example, it means you’re free to think just like them. Beyond that, there are certain constraints on your “liberty.” According to their idiosyncratic definition of the term, you are endowed with freedom “of” religion, but not freedom “from” religion. If, like me, you are unfortunate enough not to believe in supernatural beings, as far as your liberty is concerned, “certain restrictions apply.” In spite of the fact that you can no more voluntarily decide to change your mind in matters of religion than you can voluntarily change you skin color or ethnicity, you can no longer be considered a citizen in the full sense of the term. As an atheist, you are relegated to one of the last remaining officially approved outgroups, and are, at best tolerated.
Some artifacts of this attitude recently turned up in an article by the conservative essayist, Victor Davis Hanson. The article in question, entitled “Europe in the Rearview Mirror,” deals with the familiar theme of European malaise, and includes the following observations on religion:
Yes, I know Europe is sick, ill with loud secular agnosticism and atheism, aging and shrinking, wedded to an unworkable redistributive socialism.
We seem to have forgotten that what is admirable in the U.S. is not just the result of the vast American landscape, a natural selection of the more audacious and risk-taking immigrants, frontier life, and the resulting rugged individualism, but because the Founders were nursed on the European Enlightenment, Christianity was imported from Europe, and Anglo-Saxon law was built upon in a new continent.
I wonder, what are my chances of enjoying anything like genuine liberty among people who consider my religious opinions an “illness?” Let’s consider the implications of these statements by Davis. The possibilities are,
a) Mr. Hanson is a prophet. In other words, God has fluttered down from on high and spoken to him personally, giving him detailed instructions about how all of us are to live our lives in order that our societies may not become “ill.” Surely he would not dare presume to declare that some millions of his fellow citizens were a “sickness” on his own authority. After all, has he not spent a good portion of his career railing against just such people – those he and the rest of the right call self-appointed “elites?” Surely he would not willingly join such an elite himself. After all his anathemas specifically directed at such gentry, it would be the grossest hypocrisy. If, on the other hand, Hanson really has been endowed with the authority to declare millions of his fellow citizens a “sickness” directly from God, by all means let him announce it to the world.
b) Hanson is not a prophet, but is merely personally convinced of the truth of Christianity. However, rejecting the taint of elitism, he does not presume to dictate to the rest of us what we should believe in matters of religion. In that case, it logically follows that his argument is essentially utilitarian. In other words, he is of the opinion that we should all pretend to be Christians whether we actually are or not because otherwise our society will become ill. If so, then we must conclude that, as far as Hanson is concerned, the question of whether what we believe, or at least pretend to believe, is true or not is irrelevant. It is the duty of every citizen, regardless of their actual convictions, to pretend to believe that which is most conducive to the health of society.
Unfortunately, I suspect I will always be ill-suited for life in a society which requires me to base my actions on premises that are untrue. However, if the criterion for acceptance of these premises is their promotion of the health of society, and avoidance of social “ills,” then Christianity is a most unlikely candidate. After all, admitting that the country our forefathers left us was, indeed, admirable, are we really to attribute the fact to the coincidence that many of them happened to be Christians? Were not the founders of the countries currently occupying central and South America Christians as well? Would Hanson be so bold as to claim that, thanks to their Christian faith, these countries have never been sick a day in their lives? What about two of the greatest success stories of western civilization, Greece and Rome? Presumably, based on his writings, Hanson knows something about them. Were the Greek city states Christian? Was Rome Christian except in the decades of her decline and fall? What of the Crusades? Were the Christian states they established all free of “illness?” Was the murder of the the citizens of Jerusalem after its conquest, not to mention 50,000 “witches,” a sign of health? From the senile stupidity of the Papal States to the suicidal proclivity of scores of monarchs by “divine right” to hold their subjects in a state of abject ignorance, I could cite thousands of other historical data points that demonstrate that, far from promoting the “health” of society, Christianity has been the source of its most virulent diseases.
Certainly, if we are an “illness,” Hanson must question the patriotism of American atheists. Well, I’m an American atheist. I also attended the United States Military Academy at West Point and volunteered to serve, and actually did serve, in the armed forces of my country in Vietnam, at a time when serving ones country in that way was hardly a popular thing to do. I was there from 1971 to 1972, at a time when Hanson was just of an age to be a soldier. My question to him is, “Where were you?” You, who reserve to yourself the right to decide who among us are patriots and who, on the other hand, will make our country “ill,” you, who have always been full of such fulsome and unctuous praise for our nation’s armed forces, where were you?