The Shifting Religio-Political Complex

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

-H. L. Mencken

There is a tendency for people to want line up their political and religious commitments into neat boxes that align well. By this I mean that someone who has a particular religious commitment but does not have any particularly strong feelings about, say, economics, is likely to fall into sharing whatever economic views are most prevalent among his or her co-religionists. We like to think that we are applying some sort of anodyne logic in this process, but I think we have a good enough grasp on human nature to know that this just is not true. Our attachments to a particular community or our emotional responses are more likely to dictate our choices than anything like logic. This is not to say that we should not attempt to reason about politics or religion but merely to recognize that our faculties are up against significant obstacles in this regard, and, more often that not, we deploy logic or reason as post-hoc justifications for our emotional responses.

That said, one of the more common alignments of the past couple decades in North America (and particularly the United States) has been the religious/social/military/foreign policy/economic conservative. This is why one saw a glut of preachers try to go out and proclaim that the 2003 Iraq war was the will of God or something to that effect. But is it a given that these groups ought to be aligned under the rubric “conservative” anyway? I think the New Atheists may be catalyzing a shift in political allegiances. Consider this recent clip of Bill Maher (warning: Maher swears):

Is this not the sort of thing that is the hallmark cultural conservatism – talking about the need preserve our way of life against the foreigners? Now in one sense, I agree that I would rather live in Canada than under the Taliban, but it is also worth noting that this is indicative of a larger trend in how the New Atheists (and Maher appears to be their talk-show host) are approaching cultural issues. The New Atheists make quite clear that they would prefer Western Enlightenment values over particularly Islamic values but really any sort of overtly religious value system. Sam Harris has argued (problematically) that science can be used to ascertain correct moral values and thus, in his mind, remove the need to tolerate any alternate moral or ethical system.

If the conservative Christian portrait of atheists as a bunch of secular liberal moral relativists might have borne some relationship to reality in the 20th Century, it seems thoroughly out of date in the 21st. That being the case, many of them sound like cultural conservatives demanding that a “way of life” be preserved from evil foreign influences – even to the extent of using military force. Let’s not forget that Christopher Hitchens has remained one of the strongest proponents of the invasion of Iraq. I know that Hitchens was absolutely indignant when a CNN host mislabeled him as a “conservative” but in some sense he is a proponent of a cultural conservatism for enlightenment values.

What happens though if “conservatism” is increasingly stretched so as to make room for war on terror-supporting atheists? Do Christian conservatives link arms with the New Atheists and simply read “Islam” for every case where they criticize religion as a whole?