Religion versus freedom 3

A few generations ago,when  children asked “Where do babies come from?”, they were likely to be told storks brought them. Some wag of a statistician once defended the story by demonstrating with a chart that an increase in the number of  births in Germany over a certain period was accompanied by a matching rise in the number of storks.

We were reminded of this by an argument put out by Dennis Prager today at Townhall, where the conservative writer (with whom we often agree when he is not talking about religion) tries to make a causal connection between two unrelated conditions: being religious and being free.

He writes:

In a recent column, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow … [made the point that] all rich countries except for the United States are secular and that all poor countries are religious … [but not] in order to celebrate America’s “anomalous” religiosity.

He should have. America’s anomalous religiosity is very much worth celebrating — not because it leads to affluence, but because it is indispensible to liberty. Had Blow made a liberty chart rather than an affluence chart, he might have noted that the freest country in the world — for 234 years — the United States of America, has also been the most God-centered.

Let’s accept his two propositions as facts: that Americans are more religious than the people of any other prosperous Western country, and  that they are freer than other nations. Prager does not prove that the first condition is the cause of the second. He tries to, but fails. The same two facts could be cited to demonstrate that there is no connection between the two; that liberty can flourish even where there is widespread superstition and adherence to irrational ideas.

But let’s see how he tries. He says:

Because the Creator of the world is the source of our freedom, no state, no human being, no government may take it away. If the state were the source of liberty, then obviously the state could take it away.

Then a few paragraphs later he points out that the state, human beings, the government are taking our liberty away:

The left seeks an ever-expanding state with, by definition, ever-expanding powers. And a fundamental aspect of that program is the removal of God and religion from as much of American life as possible. This is pursued under the noble-sounding goal of ensuring “separation of church and state.” But whatever the avowed aim, the result is the same: secularize as much of society as possible, its institutions and, most importantly, its values. … Since then, the leftwing attack on religion in America has proceeded at a rapid clip …Examples [he gives some to show that Christian symbols, customs, Bible-readings are being removed and/or discouraged] are too numerous to list. And now, commensurate with the removal of God from American society, the most leftwing government in American history is expanding state powers to an unprecedented degree.

And, he says, as the country “becomes more secular, it becomes less free.”

So although “the Creator of the world” is the source of our freedom, the state is nevertheless taking it away?

He shifts his ground. Americans have freedom not because “the Creator of the world” bestowed it, but because people believe that he did. He is driven to this because he suddenly remembers that Islam is “God-based” yet not free. It’s something he needs to account for. He hastens to say:

Yes, I know that the Islamic world has also been God-based and that it has not been free. But that is because Allah is not regarded as the source of liberty, as the America’s Judeo-Christian God has been, but as the object of submission (“Islam” means “submission”).

Islam’s God is a different God? There’s more than one God? No, no! He seems to be saying it but surely cannot mean it. Well then, if the difference does not lie between two different Gods, where does it lie?

It lies, he asserts, in the minds of the believers. For those who “regard” God as the source of liberty, he is. For those who do not, he is not.

Finally Prager attempts to illustrate the truth of his claim that religion is necessary to freedom by declaring that “every totalitarian state except Muslim ones … seeks to abolish religion”. But that’s simply not true. Hitler did not try to abolish religion. (See our post Hitler and Catholicism, September 17, 2010.) The Catholic Church itself was totalitarian in the Middle Ages. Religion and unfreedom are not opposites.

Furthermore, we contend that religion, especially if it makes unnatural demands on the conscience, and threatens eternal punishment, is itself an enslavement of the mind, a form of slavery quite as odious as any other.

Posted under Christianity, Commentary, liberty, Religion general by Jillian Becker on Tuesday, October 12, 2010

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This post has 3 comments.

  • Bill

    We are a unique few – Conservative atheists.

    Here's my beef (and that's a pun, as I just finished my second beef taco this evening): most conservatives are too blinded by their social issues to do bring us more fiscal conservativism. Fiscal conservatism is put on a back burner and what do we get? A Mike Huckabee type of conservatism. I don't want that. I want a Barry Goldwater type.

    • Me too. One good thing about Prager is that he's not a young Earth creationist. Lewis Black's best standup routine was about how a fundamentalist once told him fossils were put in the rock by Satan's minions to fool us. You can't argue with that…literally, because no argument will penetrate that world view.

  • My beloved Dennis Prager. Dispenses advice on male-female relationships from the vantage point of a third marriage. Still, I'm somewhat nonplussed to agree with most of what he says about that and other issues.

    On religion, I've become a kind of ally of his even though I'm technically a-theistic. The thing is, I don't blame him for his faith. Most people believe in their gods because they can't help it. The details of religion are down to culture, but (I think) the propensity for belief per se is hard-wired. Clearly progress can be made, since even in the U.S. the fastest growing religious category is “none.” On the other hand, the people in the “none” category probably believe in crystal power or magnetic bracelets or some other hocus-pocus. Only something very, very strong could explain the persistence of faith (exact form immaterial) among 21st century westerners. Since I don't believe in God, I'm prepared to entertain the hypothesis that it might be a genetic propensity.

    Whatever the reason, I think we'll have religion with us for a long time. Even in godless Europe the trend is more away from the demands of church attendance rather than toward hard atheism. What people seem to want is a big, avuncular, undemanding person in the sky to take care of them even when they flout his rules. To the extent Europeans (or American Leftists) adhere to a faith, it tends to be Leftism itself (i.e., political correctness and socialism and environmentalism).

    But what about freedom? De Tocqueville pointed out that for democracy to work people have to control themselves. Without self-limiting norms, a citizen population requires ever more explicit laws prohibiting ever more creative ways of plundering each other or the state. There's a natural creep toward multiplication of statutory prohibitions and commandments, as we are seeing even in the land of the faithful. The one thing religion can do is remove some of the need for such regulations. When there was more fear of Hell, for instance, there were fewer bastard births. Now we have “single-parent families” drawing government aid and relying on child support laws to force deadbeats to do what they used to do on grounds of religion. I think I'd rather have them more scared of Hellfire. (What's that? We should just expect people to give up their faith and behave rationally? Uh…how to put it?…that'll happen the day after Hell freezes over.)

    Now, it very much matters what religion we're talking about. Medieval Catholicism was totalitarian, as you point out (think of autos da fe and Galileo under house arrest). Islam today appears to be drifting back toward an even less tolerant version of itself than usual (though it's worth remembering that Saladin was far more tolerant than his Christian antagonists).

    So, in my view, Prager apparently goes much too far in his piece if he argues that “religion” per se makes people free. Whether or not freedom and religion have been associated throughout history is an empirical question; if they appear to be today, well, that could be a sampling error. Still, it's not crazy to see some connection between moderate religion and freedom, at least under the Tocquevillian model.