Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Can You Be an Atheist and a Conservative?

Via Andrew Sullivan, John Derbyshire answers in the affirmative:

There are many people like us: people who cherish limited government, fiscal restraint, personal liberty, free enterprise, self-support, patriotic defense of the homeland and its borders, love of the Constitution, respect for established ways of doing things, pride in Western Civilization, etc., and yet who cannot swallow stories about the Sky Father and the Afterlife, miraculous births and revivifications. What does the one set of things have to do with the other? We are secular conservatives. What else are we? Figments of our own imaginations?

Sullivan comments that there's no conceptual reason why secularism and conservatism couldn't go together, but points out that in America conservatism and religion have become more and more entwined over the years, to the point where Christianity is very nearly an integral part of the Republican party.

I smiled at one value Derbyshire lists: respect for established ways of doing things. Why necessarily respect a way of doing things simply because it's been done that way for a long time? Either it's a useful, sensible law/method, or it's an inferior one. "We've always done it this way" isn't a good argument for continuing to do it that way, especially if the world around you is changing. But that sort of unquestioning respect for ideas based on longevity is very much in line with religious thinking. Derbyshire asks what these values have to do with religion, and there's his answer.

14 comments:

Sebastian said...

"Why necessarily respect a way of doing things simply because it's been done that way for a long time? Either it's a useful, sensible law/method, or it's an inferior one. "We've always done it this way" isn't a good argument for continuing to do it that way, especially if the world around you is changing. But that sort of unquestioning respect for ideas based on longevity is very much in line with religious thinking."

No, you're misunderstanding the conservative social argument. The argument is that social arrangements have *evolved* over a long period of trial and error. The conservative urges caution and humility in tampering with them because there are often unexpected and damaging 2nd and 3rd order problems which are unexpected to the progressive tinkerer.

That isn't to say that no change can happen, but that it would be best to have it slowly and in a controlled experimental fashion rather than replacing things wholesale based on the fashionable political ideas at the time.

Philip said...

The conservative urges caution and humility in tampering with them because there are often unexpected and damaging 2nd and 3rd order problems which are unexpected to the progressive tinkerer.


That's a nice theory, but in any of the most contentious arguments between social liberals and conservatives - abortion, gay marriage, women and homosexuals in the military - the conservative argument is rarely if ever "that might be a good idea, but let's proceed with caution". Can you imagine a social conservative leader in America today ever making that kind of argument for gay marriage? You think anyone wants to repeal Roe v Wade so abortion can be phased back in?

JP said...

Why necessarily respect a way of doing things simply because it's been done that way for a long time?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second-system_effect

Sebastian said...

"You think anyone wants to repeal Roe v Wade so abortion can be phased back in?"

It actually fits in EXACTLY with the frame I just talked about. Without Roe v. Wade abortion policy was set by the states, each of which could experiment with different policies and learn from each other over time.

Philip said...

Without Roe v. Wade abortion policy was set by the states, each of which could experiment with different policies and learn from each other over time.

I see what you're saying, and I'm sure some moderate conservative thinkers believe it should be a state decision. But I've yet to meet a conservatice who wants abortion to be allowed anywhere. And I've certainly never heard that argument from a Rebublican.

Sebastian said...

I think perhaps you just aren't listening very carefully. Roe v. Wade nationalized and made rigid what had previously been a fairly fluid evolutionary process in the states regarding abortion. The interesting thing about Roe is that without it I would be unsurprised to find that most states would have converged onto something that is much more in line with public opinion and that abortion wouldn't be a hugely relevant political issue now.

Republicans arguing against Roe have to do so in a national forum because it can only be overturned by the Supreme Court--a national body.

But overruling Roe just returns it to the states and the evolutionary status quo.

But that is straying a little off topic. My original point remains that there are indeed good reasons to *default* to the position that because something has been done a certain way a long time that there might be something to it.

Social traditions have evolved to fulfill certain important needs. Yes they may change in response to modern realities. But that doesn't mean that they are useless or to be casually discarded. Take the hunger signal for example. It fulfills a useful function, but with modern food availability can contribute to obesity. Should we attempt to deal with that? Of course! But the history of scientific responses to dieting over the past 50 years ought to give you pause about how casually and forcefully we should implement it.

Derek James said...

My original point remains that there are indeed good reasons to *default* to the position that because something has been done a certain way a long time that there might be something to it.

The crucial point to consider is that what really matters is the value/effectiveness of a particular way of doing things. Old ways constantly need to be reevaluated, in case there are more sensible ways of doing things.

Sticking with the current way of doing something just because it has always been done that way is frankly moronic. Either it's effective and sensible, or it's not. To stay with the status quo for its own sake is as stupid as changing for the sake of change.

Thus I stand by my original comment that Derbyshire is saying something very silly when he talks about "respect for established ways of doing things". Sometimes it makes sense to change; sometimes it makes sense to keep with the status quo. But the status quo does not inherently deserve respect simply because it is the status quo. It should be judged on its merits, not its longevity. If you can't think of your own examples of why this is so, I'll blog or comment again with a heaping truckload.

Philip said...

Social traditions have evolved to fulfill certain important needs. Yes they may change in response to modern realities. But that doesn't mean that they are useless or to be casually discarded. Take the hunger signal for example. It fulfills a useful function, but with modern food availability can contribute to obesity. Should we attempt to deal with that? Of course! But the history of scientific responses to dieting over the past 50 years ought to give you pause about how casually and forcefully we should implement it.

I guess I need an example (it seems abortion isn't a good one). What's a case of a contentious issue in recent American history where the liberal position has been to carelessly discard an established practice?

Sebastian said...

"What's a case of a contentious issue in recent American history where the liberal position has been to carelessly discard an established practice?"

1970s 'modern' crime rehabilitation techniques which tried to throw out the punitive in punishment. Pseudo-scientific fun leading to crime that didn't subside until well into the late 1980s.

Various educational fads especially those involving reading and language acquisition in the 1980s.

I'm not sure why you think abortion isn't a good one. The abanonment of the legislative process in each state on abortion for a pseudo-scientific trimester system made up by Supreme Court justices.

The turn to no-fault divorce law in California without adequate protections for the care of minor children (not corrected until at least 15 years later).

The California energy 'deregulation' which didn't allow routine long-term contracts in the price of energy and instead forced daily spot pricing well against established industry practice (and I don't mean electrical industry practice, I mean any industry--you should always have long term contracts available for a large portion of your crucial delivery product).

The repeated HUD disasters of the 1970s and 1980s in which the Johnson-era administrative apparatus routinely destroyed neighborhoods in the name of urban development instead of trying to understand how local neighborhoods worked and what they were good at doing.

The 1979 Chrysler bailout, instead of allowing it fail like most other losing businesses, which locked in losing management into all 3 Detroit auto companies such that they could lose enough investment capital to this day that they could have purchased Toyota, Mitsubishi, and Volkswagon outright instead of flushing that money down the toilet.

None of these mistakes would have been nearly as bad if attention had been paid to why we normally don't do such things.

And if you don't like some of my examples, instead of picking those apart, why don't you look at the ones that are left, unless you think they can all be dismissed.

Sebastian said...

"Sticking with the current way of doing something just because it has always been done that way is frankly moronic. Either it's effective and sensible, or it's not. To stay with the status quo for its own sake is as stupid as changing for the sake of change."

That isn't what "respect for established ways of doing things" means. It means that you should be humble your desire to analyze and change things. If your answer to everything you don't like about your opponents in politics is along the lines of "they don't care about people the way I do" or "I can't see any point whatsoever in doing it that way" you probably haven't looked very carefully and can't be trusted to have looked at the 2nd and 3rd order effects of your proposal.

I think the crime changes in the 1960s and 1970s are a classic example. In less than 15 years experts had a huge portion of the criminal justice system reoriented from 'retribution' to 'rehabilitation' with disasterous results. This happened because the experts didn't understand human psychology nearly as well as they believed, and their hubris caused them to discard established structures which had worked fairly well for at least hundreds of years.

Kenny Wyland said...

I think perhaps you just aren't listening very carefully. Roe v. Wade nationalized and made rigid what had previously been a fairly fluid evolutionary process in the states regarding abortion.

I fail to see how allowing the states to decide this issue is inherently better. States make stupid and wrong decisions at times (see my state at the Prop 8 crap). The Federal govt should step in when dealing with rights of all citizens.

Philip said...


1970s 'modern' crime rehabilitation techniques which tried to throw out the punitive in punishment. Pseudo-scientific fun leading to crime that didn't subside until well into the late 1980s.


You said the magic word: 'pseudo-scientific'. If it was bad science, that was the reason not to try them. Not simply because it was different.

I'm not sure why you think abortion isn't a good one. The abanonment of the legislative process in each state on abortion for a pseudo-scientific trimester system made up by Supreme Court justices.

I just don't see states rights playing a significant role in the current American dialog on abortion. Very few conservatives want it to be legal anywhere. They would add an amendment to the U. S. Consitution making abortion illegal if they could.

I appreciate all your examples. I'll have to do more research though - they're too far back and I'm simply not familiar with them.

I'm not arguing that a conservative can't value a measured approach to change. Clearly any change to established law has to take into account both what the best law is, and how best to enact it. And some push for untested changes too quickly.

I just don't think that dichotomy has much if anything to do with the current divide between liberals and conservatives in this country.

Sebastian said...

"You said the magic word: 'pseudo-scientific'."

Sure, but fads in science are very prevalent. That goes doubly true for social sciences, which are the sciences most likely to inform political debates.

"I just don't think that dichotomy has much if anything to do with the current divide between liberals and conservatives in this country."

Maybe not between Democrats and Republicans, but that isn't the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Can you be both conservative and an atheist? The answer is no, you cannot. Conservatives are prejudiced against atheists and therefore this is a contradiction in terms.