Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Skepticism vs. Religion -- but Mainly vs. Capitalism


For about five centuries now, the “enlightened” humanists have been railing against religion (fine), tradition (perhaps that’s hasty), and capitalism (dead wrong), lumping far too many issues into one basket and making it difficult even for an atheist-anarchist like me to give them more than one cheer.

As I’ll likely note in my introductory comments at tomorrow’s momentous Debate at Lolita Bar on the infinitely important question “Does Religion Make People Better?” one of intellectual history’s greatest ironies has to be the fact that the very founder of (post-classical) utopian thinking, Sir Thomas More, was (by twentieth-century right/left standards) a paradoxical mix of rigid Catholic orthodoxy, boldly innovative criticism of government, and complete opposition to property rights — this last being a point he makes as explicitly as Rousseau or Marx, forever earning this anti-divorce, Catholic-conservative martyr a place in the pantheon of socialist visionaries.

Though the survival of freedom has often hinged on playing intellectual forces such as church and state against each other — whether in the Middle Ages or the Cold War — I think it may be high time we found the courage to lump both church and state together and be rid of both, even if it means risking having no allies at all for a time. With rampant government spending and religious-fanatic terrorist armies (and authoritarian regimes) loose in the world, it would be nice to hear more people admit that a combination of atheism and unfettered markets might be a comparatively moderate and pleasant way to live.

(On a related note, Jacob Levy mentions a lecture by Joan Scott arguing that despite appearances, secularism has not always aided women, since restricting religion to “the private sphere” has sometimes given it free reign precisely where oppressive males do the most damage. This is similar to the premise of tomorrow’s anti-religion debater, Austin Dacey, in his book The Secular Conscience — reviewed positively in the new issue of quasi-rival magazine Skeptic — that restricting religion to the private sphere simply delays and retards arguments about religion’s real merits or flaws. Tomorrow’s debate will haul the topic back out into the public square, at least for a couple hours.  In Jacob’s post after the Joan Scott one, by the way, he briefly mentions our bet about whether Obama will grow government more than Bush.)


It is no surprise to me, by the way, that despite the left’s pretense of being the “rational” ones, they often end up giving a religion-like veneer to their messianic political crusades. Witness witless “Rev. Billy” Talen, a New York City comedian/street performer whose whole shtick is just pretending to be a preacher while ranting in revivalist fashion against capitalism and consumerism — and against Starbucks coffee that uses milk from hormone-treated cows (as seen in the last John Stossel special I worked on, Tampering with Nature, in the summer of 2001, before moving on to defend similar high-tech practices at ACSH).

Rev. Billy is like those annoying, repetitive Robin Williams bits where Williams slips into sounding like a southern preacher for no good reason, except without jokes and without veering into any other characters or modes at all. And because, as Hayek warned us, the worst rise to the top in politics, he’s also — yes — your 2009 candidate for mayor of New York City, if you have the misfortune to be affiliated with the morally misguided and economically ignorant Green Party (which at least makes us libertarians look sane). But hey, I’ve vowed not to vote for term-limits-busting Bloomberg, even after being a guest in his apartment once, so maybe I need to give this faux-preacher fellow a second look.

It’s a complex, multifactorial world. And if, after all the above, you need a nice dose of just-plain skepticism, my friend Chuck Blake recommends this profile of eccentric and brilliant scientist Freeman Dyson from the New York Times. For more about greens, come back tomorrow for my April Fool’s Day Book Selection(s) entry.


Sean Dougherty said...

It takes some doing to make people from New Jersey feel sorry for your electoral choices.



Lefty said...

That Reverend guy lives in my neighborhood – I see him walking around all the time.

Also, speaking of the NY Times, there was another article this past Sunday that might pique your interest. It was about the libertarian-inspired “tax-denial” movement, and features an activist firebrand who tried to bomb to the IRS.

Seavey, I must warn you: while I enjoy reading your musings online, if you ever turn to terrorism I will be forced to declare myself your implacable foe.

Here’s the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/29/magazine/29taxes-t.html?ref=magazine

Todd Seavey said...

Rest assured, I could hardly set a good example of the violence- and coercion-free world I want to live in while engaging in terrorism. I look forward to the day when no one need fear burglars, muggers, miscellaneous assailants, high school bullies, terrorists, senators, tax collectors, or imagined supernatural and extraterrestrial menaces, not to mention overhyped environmental threats. But in the meantime, I will endeavor to be an open-minded host tomorrow.

Dirtyrottenvarmint said...

Since the state religion of the Western world is progressive secular humanism as defined by political elites who use it as a tool in order to claim that i) they know what’s best for the rest of us, and ii) they’re going to tell us what to do because that will lead to more “progress”, it may be correct to say that in our case, freedom hinges on playing this Church and State against each other. The more obviously beneficial action would be to get rid of them both entirely.

On the other hand this has emphatically not been the case throughout history, in which quite often the power of governing despots was restrained only by the traditional moral authority of religious leaders. Note that “atheism” as practiced by reasonable atheists is a religion. It is based on faith in something that cannot be proven (the nonexistence of divineness) and a corresponding subscription to a code of moral conduct. Religion is the authority of a traditional moral philosophy; it doesn’t (necessarily) have anything to do with standing in a temple and singing hymns praising some entity with a thunderbolt in its hand.

Secularism, that is, the idea that traditional morality has no authority in the material or sociopolitical realm, has _never_ aided women, since without a moral philosophy reinforced by cultural tradition the strong man will take what he wants, when he wants it, enforcing his will by brutal methods. Religions _protect_ women by infusing a culture with a moral code that demands things such as protection of the weak, the pregnant mother, the child. Religions such as Judaism and Christianity that require one man and one woman to enter into a lifetime contract in order to have children have been extraordinarily beneficial to human females, who might otherwise be fend for themselves while gestating and carrying for what is one of the most resource-demanding infants in the animal kingdom. (Marriage is not a genetically advantageous strategy for a man.)