Liberalism, religion and the Enlightenment 138

In which Peter Wehner argues with Todd Akin, and we argue with both.

We often read Peter Wehner with pleasure, and often agree with his opinions. Here our agreement with his argument in an article at Commentary is only partial.

His title is Liberalism, Religion and the Enlightenment.

Representative Todd Akin, a Republican from Missouri, was recently asked about NBC’s removal of the words “under God” from a clip of the Pledge of Allegiance during coverage of the U.S. Open. “Well, I think NBC has a long record of being very liberal, and at the heart of liberalism really is a hatred for God and a belief that government should replace God,” Akin told radio host Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. “This is a systematic effort to try to separate our faith and God, which is a source in our belief in individual liberties, from our country. And when you do that you tear the heart out of our country.”

There may be people who “hate God”, but they are not atheists. One doesn’t hate what doesn’t exist.

Liberals may believe that “government should replace God” in being, presumably, the Power over the people. But we believe in the need to limit the power of government; and that government should be as small as possible, no larger than is absolutely necessary to fulfill its only legitimate function: the protection of the people’s liberty, nationally and individually.

“Our faith and God which is a source in our belief in individual liberties”. Not the only source in Akin’s view then, but only “a source”. Even so, he’s mistaken. There is no way that a fictitious being can be the source of anything. Does “the heart of our country” depend on an illusion to keep beating?

Apparently what Akin said gave offense to some liberals – an emotional reaction. Akin felt constrained to apologize.

Akin, who is running in the GOP primary for Missouri’s Senate seat, initially told a radio station, “I don’t think there’s anything to apologize for. I’m not going to apologize for what I see liberalism doing.” But he then released a statement saying he and his family would never “question the sincerity of anyone’s personal relationship with God. My statement during my radio interview was directed at the political movement, liberalism, not at any specific individual. If my statement gave a different impression, I offer my apologies.”

There are several things to sort through in all this, starting with this: NBC’s intentional deletion of the words “under God” revealed a ridiculous discomfort and animus toward even the most common and generic reference to God, one millions of schoolchildren use every day. What NBC did was stupid; it deserved to be roundly criticized.

We agree up to a point. Saying “under God” when reciting a well-known quotation need have no more significance than a chorus of “la la la”. But we wouldn’t criticize its omission too roundly.

But not in the way that Representative Akin did. After all, there are countless liberals – from Dorothy Day, to Martin Luther King Jr., to Mario Cuomo, to Tony Campolo – who did not/do not harbor a “hatred for God.” Nor is modern liberalism synonymous with militant atheism, even though there are some liberals who are militant atheists (just as there are a few conservatives who are as well).

Right. Only most of us aren’t “militant” about not believing in the supernatural. We just don’t, and question why anyone does.

That said, there is no question that liberalism has manifested an aversion toward, and concern about, religion – an aversion and concern rooted in part in the Enlightenment.

Liberalism as such? Is there something about liberalism that needs to involve an aversion to religion to be consistent? Classical liberalism – laissez-faire economics – does not require either belief or non-belief. But in America today “liberalism” is a misnomer for the politics of the Left. Far from being concerned with upholding Adam Smith’s “natural order of liberty” (the free market), it is a collectivist creed of the egalitarian kind. Marx, its chief prophet, preached against religion. There are other collectivist creeds that are not egalitarian and owe nothing to Marx, such as Islam. (Though there are now some weird cults that mix Islam and Marxism – more an emulsion than a solution, we guess.)

“Rooted … in the Enlightenment”. If he means that the Enlightenment made atheism intellectually respectable again after a thousand years and more of Christian thought-policing, fair enough.

Wehner goes on:

The Enlightenment, it’s important to recall, was [inter alia] a response to religious wars and religious persecution that dominated the European continent. In response, the Enlightenment emphasized man’s use of reason and the empirical sciences as the means by which he was able to achieve freedom and prosperity, happiness and knowledge. It did great good.

We heartily agree and roundly applaud.

At the same time, many of the Enlightenment’s leading figures — Descartes, Bacon, Voltaire, Hobbes, Newton, Paine, and Locke — tried, in varying degrees, to replace God with science, to make man the center of all things, to replace religion with reason, “man’s only star and compass,” in the words of Locke.

He should not leave out Spinoza, for whom God was nature, or nature’s laws.

Science should “replace” God. We find it inexplicable that some – albeit a small majority – of scientists are religious.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, in his famous Harvard commencement address in which he attacked modern Western societies, declared that “anthropocentricity” — man as the center of all things — was the legacy of the Enlightenment. And that, in turn, led to what he called the “spiritual exhaustion” of the West.

A meaningless phrase, “spiritual exhaustion”. What spirit? How exhausted?

There is something –

What exactly?

to the warning issued by Solzhenitsyn. And in our time liberalism has shown if not an outright hatred for God, then a deep concern about religion as a source of intolerance, as fostering social conflict, and as threatening public peace.

You don’t have to be a liberal to notice that the religious are intolerant, and that intolerance fosters social conflict and threatens public peace. Wars are still being fought over religious differences.

Many liberals — not all, but many — want to keep the public square free of religious influences or language (see NBC’s decision). Religious beliefs are fine, so long as they are kept private.

We can agree with that view.

Wehner sees some of the danger in religion:

It is not as if liberalism’s concerns about religion are completely illegitimate or detached from historical events; religious faith has led to fanaticism and a prosecutorial zeal.

However, he continues –

But that is certainly not the whole story. And religion, rightly understood, is a friend of a liberal, decent society.

What religion is a friend to a decent society (leaving aside the word liberal for the moment, since it can mean opposite things)? Is Islam which prohibits critical examination, subjugates women, and is so intolerant that it kills dissenters when it can, a friend to decent society? Is any religion an aid to the discovery of truth when it depends on irrational belief?

And what does “rightly understood” mean? A “right understanding” of Christianity, for instance, has never been agreed upon by all Christians.

He tries to seal this point by alluding to the Founders.

That is something virtually all of America’s founders understood. “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” is how George Washington put it in his Farewell Address. “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”

We agree of course on the need for morality. We know that there are a couple of religions which preach morality, and that some people try to obey the preaching. But we cannot see how religion as such maintains morality. We have observed that appallingly immoral acts have been, and are, carried out in the name of religions, including those that preach morality.

None of them [the Founders] would object to the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Probably not. But whether some of them would reserve a skepticism about their meaning, no one can be certain.

On this point, we quote one of our readers, Keith, commenting interestingly on our post Atheists: proud, scared, combative, victimized? (July 2, 2011):

Recently there was the big stink about NBC omitting “under god” from the pledge. At work the discussion raged that “they” were attacking religion again. I pointed out that I had seen a segment on FOX regarding the pledge, about how it was written by a socialist to sell flags, about how he also created a raised straight arm salute to go with his pledge and about how our founding fathers would have been against the idea of forcing anyone to pledge allegiance to anything. They also didn’t know that “under god” was added during the Eisenhower administration meaning that for 60 years prior people pledged without god.