Sunday, March 13, 2011

Heather Mac Donald vs. Religion and Deconstructionism

Clay Waters – himself a formerly-religious person, I think, though I wouldn’t want to mischaracterize his views – last month pointed out a New York Times article about Heather Mac Donald being an atheist conservative.  That’s one of many things about Mac Donald that pleases me and, as it happens, I learned another when I saw her speak to the Phillips Foundation the day before that article came out: She says she was motivated to go into political writing by her disgust at the Continental philosophy and deconstructionism rampant at Yale when she was an undergrad. 

A decade later, it was in large part the rampant deconstructionism at Brown – arguments by obscurantist French theorists aimed at showing that all language and symbol-use is a mind-controlling web best decoded through a combination of Marxism, feminism, and phallus-obsessed neo-Freudianism – that motivated me to fight back and start writing regularly in defense of reason, morality, and civilization, as I still do (and as my friend Alyssa Pelish recently reminded me, one of my big inspirations was Jonathan Swift).

I think it’s worth pausing to consider the fact that neither my motivation nor Mac Donald’s would fit into the usual religious narrative – nor the usual deconstructionist narrative – about how atheists and capitalists think.  Religious conservatives like to paint atheists as nihilists, undermining everything and sneering at purportedly-evident Truths, while deconstructionists depict capitalists as unreflective dupes of the system who would as readily buy into religious lies as we do into mind-controlling advertising. 

In fact, it is religion that is (necessarily) averse to truth, and deconstructionism that is in love with its own self-absorbed, mesmerizing-and-flattering poetics.  If atheists sometimes seem pushy to religious people, it’s only because atheists do not have as much need to flee from arguments as religious people do.  And no shampoo ad in history has ever made as snooty a pretense of offering you instant sophistication as has Continental philosophy, with its ritualized incantations about metonymic signifiers and instantiations of hierarchized hegemony – offering, as David Lipsky put it in a short story shortly after graduating from Brown, to reveal the sinister clockwork behind reality, at the price of leaving you a haunted, cynical, sexy, and hip – often black-clad – shell of your former self, possibly with tenure and cigarettes. 

Far from atheist-capitalists being afraid of the truth, we’re the ones always happy to discuss it – and to learn more – while defenders of faith and socialism alike, as their lies become more painfully obvious, are the ones driven to the last-ditch defensive measure of hiding behind postmodernist obfuscation.  In essence, religion and Continental philosophy alike are now
compelled to say: “Oh, you say it’s true science can explain things without any need to invoke the supernatural?  You say it’s true that free-market economics explains society more effectively than Marx?  Well, then, maybe nothing is true anyway.  Who’s to say what’s true these days, what with all our modern ideas...and products?” 

Religious people and Continental philosophy buffs deserve each other, in short, whereas civilization deserves to be rid, at long last, of both camps.  Instead, the two occasionally join forces now.  If Foucault could cycle through dozens of different horrific belief systems – including support for Iranian revolutionary Islam – why not use Continental philosophy to defend Christianity or whatever else floats your boat? 

My fellow Proud to Be Right contributor James Poulos has been known to mix theology and Continental theory – what becomes of faith after the materialistic Enlightenment, after all? – but that’s all the more reason I’m pleased to see him keeping it pithy and concrete on Twitter and online video these days.  Long First Things essays, by contrast, can lead to madness.  I’m against madness, whether of sorts traditionally associated with the left or right. 

And I thought that way even before being a libertarian.  Mac Donald isn’t technically a libertarian even now – and she amusingly paused to apologize to me for it during her speech last month – but she’s anti-bullshit, like an awful lot of instinctively-moderate people (regardless of where they end up on the conventional political spectrum) and that goes a long way.

However, since so many Continental theory types are convinced that they are not obfuscators but rather are more adept than us blinkered bourgeois rationalists at thinking about ambiguity (especially regarding complex social constructions such as gender), tomorrow let us take a moment to appreciate a defense of bourgeois virtues written by a transsexual.  


Dustin Philipson said...


I am a little confused. A couple blog entries ago you were calling for a unity for all folks, world wide, who are weary of big government. You even stood in defense of Islam, who tend to include anti-government sentiment with in their religious teachings. But now your going to make a comment as divisive as "...civilization deserves to be rid, at long last, of [religious people]"?!

I mean so many of your fellow libertarians (including myself) are religious, trying to fight the good fight along side you. I agree with you Todd that we libertarians can achieve a lot together, through secular means. So what if Glenn Beck and I, and other christian/religious libertarians, have a personal conviction that it is our religious beliefs that keep us from becoming "libertines" in our pursuit of libertarian ideals made reality.

I really like your blog, and I love it that atheists and religious folk alike can take a stand against expanding government control. So why can't we live and let live? Why do you have to insist on these Bill Maher-esque rants. We get it dude. You are totally turned off by the idea of God. Can we move on from this and find the common ground?

A Greg Gutfeld quote graces the top of your blog. I should add that Greg is actually more than a little sympathetic toward religion (read his section on religion in his book 'The Bible of Unspeakable Truths'). I'm pretty sure he is a practicing Catholic. Two guests that frequent his show are Catholic Priest Jonathan Morris and Steven Crowder, actor, comedian and social commentator who also happens to be an Evangelical Christain.

When Greg takes an issue with religion in the following quote I know his beef is with the mixture of God and country (which Ayn Rand called the "swamp"), and not God himself.

"I became a conservative by being around liberals and I became a libertarian by being around conservatives. You realize that there’s something distinctly in common between the two groups, the left and the right; the worst part of each of them is the moralizing. On the left, you have people who want to dictate your behavior under the guise of tolerance. Unless you disagree with them. Then the tolerance goes out the window. Which kind of negates the whole idea of tolerance. That’s the politically correct moralizing. Then when you become a conservative, the other kind of moralizing comes from religion. But if you remove both of those from the equation, what you’re left with is libertarianism. From the right, you’ve got free markets. From the left, you have free minds. To me, that’s the only sensible direction. As you grow older, you kind of end up there." - Greg Gutfeld

I can totally get on board with Greg. A minority religious group shouldn't dictate the behavior of the majority. We religious libertarians agree with you about the toxic combo of religion and national policy. But personal conviction is a whole other issue. I realize its personal, and although I enjoy sharing my faith and discussing it, I realize that I can't force another person to believe/experience/enjoy the faith that holds such a deep personal meaning to me.

If we followed through with your plan of riding civilization of religious people, we would lose so many interesting voices with in the libertarian/small governmant camp: Greg Gutfeld, Ron Paul, Theodore Beale (Vox Day) Glenn Beck and even the late Rose Wilder Lane who was one of the mothers of Libertarianism and believer in God, just to name a few.

I think you and Norman Horn should have a debate or at least a friendly chat. He runs the web blog Libertarian Christians:

I leave you with a link to a great article by Steven Yates (who holds a Ph.D. in philosophy) 'How I Became a Christian Libertarian':

I hope it might soften your heart a bit towards us religious nut jobs.


Todd Seavey said...

I sympathize greatly, and don't want to weed out _people_, only bad ideas, but no amount of sympathy turns falsehoods into truths -- and the truth comes first, always. The most basic intellectual honesty means _not making assertions without evidence_, and that means faith is not an option, whether in God or unicorns. Still perfectly legal, of course, like paranoia and OCD.

I notice that it appears I lost two Twitter-followers already over condemning religion today (one semi-famous) -- and they, too, might suggest I sound intolerant. Yet I'm always happy to listen, and at some point religious people, in my experience, feel threatened and must stop listening -- or deploy what we might crudely call the Chick Argument of becoming sad that you disagree with them.

None of which ought to stop people focusing on the real enemy: government. But if, say, New Agers who believe crystals can ward off cancer condemn government because they hate the FDA, I think you'd agree I can welcome their anti-government efforts without having to take their beliefs too seriously. Whether it would be tactically easier to keep them as political allies if I flattered their neo-pagan sensibilities is another question, but in the long run, I think any intellectual movement without intellectual integrity is likely to unravel or go astray.

In the end, everyone has to take their lumps whether they support unproven governmental claims, unproven religious claims, or overhyped consumer goods. Can't stop the truth-telling.

Clay Waters said...

Todd, you are correct in my beliefs.

Dustin, I can't speak for Todd, but I read the Yates article and found it disappointing in:

It's lack of theological argument

His belief in a worldwide flood that is a scientific impossibility (not to mention how a flood that killed everyone off but Noah's crew could also have been documented all over the world).

His soothing idea that "free will" exists in the Bible, contradicted by the OT death penalty for heretics and blasphemers, and the many times God "hardens the heart" of someone or predestines someone.

Todd Seavey said...

By the way, without intending to find out either of these things, today I happened to stumble across references to George Will being an agnostic and Dave Barry being an atheist. With them and Hitchens in my corner, I'd be willing to take on the world if necessary.

Sean Dougherty said...

Had a very similar thought reading the WSJ coverage of the casino bus crash over the weekend. Apparently, the police where it happened sent an escort with relatives of the victims (mostly Chinese) to the site so they could perform a ritual designed to release the souls of the dead from the location. Now any rational person would know this is b.s. So why are our police resources being applied to assuaging some ridiculous fantasy/superstition? Does this speak to the lack of rationality on the police force? Or does it just count as "a nice thing to do" for people at an emotionally stressed time that is a just application of our tax money? Discuss.

Todd Seavey said...

Well, given all the other funerals and parades and the like that police watch over, I don't really have a big problem with that (indeed, we usually would not want police protection contingent on the beliefs of those being protected, as a socialist friend of mine was irked to discover when he found that, yes, police will stop you from punching neo-Nazis).

But that doesn't mean I would pretend, especially if the topic arose at a less stressful time, that the beliefs underlying the ritual are true -- much as I'd love to have the believers as allies if, say, trying to legalize all gambling -- which is the key thing for the entry above.

(And an aside: though cultural diversity alone is _not_ a sufficient argument against faith, since most people might just be wrong, I do wonder how my Christian acquaintances think this reliable thing called faith led almost everyone in the West to the right answer and all those Buddhists, Shinto practitioners, and Hindus out there to the wrong ones, with no impressive difference in "methodology" to speak of. Christianity just "speaks to the human condition" more, one angry and not particularly reflective Christian acquaintance told me, almost through gritted teeth.)