For the past few weeks RealClearPublicAffairs has been running what they are calling the 1776 series. I recommend reading them all. Here’s the description:
The 1776 Series is a collection of original essays that explain the foundational themes of the American experience. Commissioned from distinguished historians and scholars, these essays contribute to the broader goal of the American Civics project: providing an education in the principles and practices that every patriotic citizen should know.
This week I’ll be providing some commentary that some of you may differ with (hardly the first time I’ve done that!) as this week we’ll look at Religion and the Moral Foundations of American Democracy by Carson Holloway. Full disclosure: I’m an atheist. Selected excerpts, with my comments:
According to social scientists, traditional religiosity is in decline in contemporary America. Fewer Americans identify as members of long-established churches. Fewer Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis than in generations past.
This is certainly true, and not just in America, but over the developed Western world in general. Is it a bad thing? Well, as an areligious person myself, I can only give a qualified answer: “That depends.” But let’s move on.
Some Americans view these developments in purely empirical terms, as evidence of a changing culture. Others, critics of traditional religion, take the decline of American religion as a desirable trend, a sign of liberation from outmoded beliefs and irrational superstitions unsuitable to a modern, rational age.
While I am not an evangelical atheist – I never have harbored any notion that I was smart enough to tell anyone else how to live – I do tend to agree with that latter statement. But here’s where this essay, to my mind, wanders off course:
Neither of these assessments, however, is consistent with the mainstream American political tradition. That tradition views religion not as a private concern, the decline of which would be a mere sociological curiosity, nor as a relic of an unenlightened past with which the contemporary world can happily dispense. Instead, it regards religion as an essential element of America’s political culture. According to this venerable understanding, the American regime cannot attain its ends—that is to say, America cannot truly be America—in the absence of widespread religious belief and practice among its citizens.
Look at that last sentence:
According to this venerable understanding, the American regime cannot attain its ends—that is to say, America cannot truly be America—in the absence of widespread religious belief and practice among its citizens.
I don’t think this is the case.
This essay seems to operate on a pro forma assumption that religion is the only possible basis for morality. That’s a canard. From an essay of my own from some time back:
Speaking for myself – and I presume to speak only for myself, in itself a moral decision – I do not need a higher power to tell me what the right way is to behave. I already know the difference between right and wrong. I live a moral life not because someone or something else requires me to, but because I choose to do so, because it is the right thing to do. I have distinct ideas on how a moral person should comport themselves in a free, moral society. Moreover, I have very distinct ideas on how human society should conduct itself, morally. How do I define right and wrong? Conducting yourself in a moral manner is right. Conducting yourself against accepted codes of moral behavior is wrong.
On what things do I, as a moral person, base my morality? I base morality on that highest of human conditions, the only one that truly reflects the concept of natural rights: Liberty. I base morality on the fundamental right to the fruits of one’s own effort: Property.
Holloway continues: We may be tempted to look complacently on the decline of American religion, thinking that rights and freedom are modern and desirable, while religion is a burdensome relic of the past. The American Founders, however, and the political tradition they initiated, would warn us that such thinking is mistaken. Religion supports the morality necessary to a free society—and so, as Washington taught, we have both patriotic and pious motives to encourage religious belief and practice. As Alexis de Tocqueville, a friend and friendly critic of American democracy, wrote in 1835, “Despotism can do without faith, but liberty cannot. . . . And what is to be done with a people that is its own master, if it is not obedient to God?”
What de Tocqueville (who I generally find inspiring and have quoted regularly) is engaging in here is an ipse dixit (“he said it himself”) assertion of fact without evidence. It is perfectly possible and, I would say, preferable, to have a moral society based on nothing more than a universal acceptance of the two principles I have listed above: Liberty and Property.
Now, with that said, atheist I have been and will remain, but you will find no stauncher defender of freedom of conscience than I. It is an inextricable part of the principle of liberty; you cannot have freedom without freedom of conscience, which includes your freedom to believe and my freedom to not believe.
That is something, I think, that the author overlooked.