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The Conservative Agnosticism of George Will

With his signature bow-tie and aristocratic manner, it’s easy to picture George Will warbling hymns every Sunday in the pew of some old marble church in Georgetown.

The long-time conservative columnist majored in religion as an undergraduate, and follows [1] religious debates with interest. Will has defended the unborn [2], and opposed the death penalty; he regularly excoriates [3] the pro-choice movement, and gets worked up over the contraception controversy with Catholic institutions.

So you could be forgiven for pegging Will for a Catholic—or at least, Episcopalian or  Anglican.

But you would be wrong. Here’s Will, in a new piece for National Affairs, entitled “Religion and the American Republic”:

I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority. I am a member of a cohort that the Pew public-opinion surveys call the “nones.” Today, when Americans are asked their religious affiliation, 20%—a large and growing portion—say “none.”

In an era when American conservatism is often confused with religiosity, a top conservative pundit’s confession of unbelief is startling. (Granted, Will has declared [4] his unbelief before, though somewhat reluctantly and upon questioning, on The Colbert Report in 2008.)

Will’s recent admissions recall his 2005 column called [5] “The Christian Complex” in which he urged Bible-thumping Republicans “not seem to require, de facto, what the Constitution forbids, de jure: ‘No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust.'”

Will’s latest essay [6] continues this defense of unbelievers in American politics: He argues that an individual’s faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God. He colors his arguments with tidbits about our heterodox founders: Washington would not kneel to pray or take communion; Adams was a Unitarian; Jefferson cared not whether his nephew’s studies “end[ed] in a belief that there is no God.”

Par for the course, so far, for a public nonbeliever; you can find similar arguments at your local Center for Inquiry [7]. But from there, Will travels ground seldom tread by today’s avowed unbelievers: he warmly praises American religions both for the democratic impulses they impart and for the intermediary role they play between citizen and state. And if natural rights don’t require religion, they are “especially firmly grounded when they are grounded in religious doctrine.”

The nones of America should “wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life,” he concludes.

Here Will differs sharply from today’s professional nonbelievers, who regard religious belief with something akin to revulsion, and who channel the old progressive view that religion must be eclipsed for humankind  to secure a long and prosperous future. The George Will model combines unbelief with a fondness for religion, not a fear of it.

Will’s increasing openness about his doubt mirrors an increasing acknowledgement of unbelief in American public life, also reflected in recent presidential remarks reassuring America’s churchless that “If you choose not to worship, you’re equally as patriotic as somebody who does worship.”

The president offering this olive branch to the heathens among us? Not Barack Obama, but rather the man who prompted so many dark prophecies of theocracy: George W. Bush.

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#1 Comment By Justin St. Giles Payne On July 8, 2013 @ 10:47 am

The George Will model combines unbelief with a fondness for religion, not a fear of it.

What I find surprising is that a religious believer wouldn’t see this as the incredibly condescending presumption that it is. Will is basically saying that he doesn’t believe that the religious beliefs he celebrates (but does not share) are true, it’s just that they’re a useful sop for the masses of Americans who aren’t as clued-in as he. In other words, Will’s position on religion is one as equally instrumental as the famous quote of Marx: religion is just the opium of the people.

At least the “unbelievers” do religion the credit of treating its truth claims as significant and worthy of inspection, and religious believers the credit of assuming they deserve the truth. I just can’t understand the acceptance of the religious of the breathtaking arrogance of “faithiests” like Will.

#2 Comment By JMW On July 8, 2013 @ 11:17 am

I basically agree with Justin’s comment, but I have always found the residual Christianity of Matthew Arnold, George Santayana, and others fascinating. It is not necessarily a condescension. For most of these thinkers, truth, goodness, and beauty were realities but not convertible, i.e. something could be good or beautiful and not be true. Santayana held that true metaphysics told us that the world was a flux of matter; but, within that flux had emerged life, and the flower of life was Greek thought and, above all, Christianity. The thought of Plato and Aquinas was essentially moral (rooted in kalokagathia, “beauty-goodness”). The metaphysics of Aristotle was not metaphysics but moral instruction. Santayana did not admire these writers from afar, they formed his whole way of life. A satisfactory position? By no means, and I think the tendency to valorize it as a kind of “tragic humanism” may cause harm to all of us; but I still feel obliged to confess it is not necessarily one that can be reduced to a Hobbesian use of religion to awe and subdue the populace.

#3 Comment By Thomas J. Lawson On July 8, 2013 @ 11:23 am

Why is there an immediate jump from being non-religious to being labeled an unbeliever? If Will and other “Nones” disbelieve in anything it’s man’s interpretation of God. Will could be a pantheist or a deist. It is malicious intent to label people unbelievers simply because they don’t worship the traditional way. God is not dead, but dogma is most assuredly in palliative care and headed for a hospice.

#4 Comment By tz On July 8, 2013 @ 11:42 am

I see Will’s praise for the results and actions of many believers – Christianity has roots in Judaism, so a Christian can look at it as either a horrible heresy or the prototype which is true, but not complete.

But the difference which cuts across all is sexual morality. No one worries about thou shall not kill/steal/bear-false-witness. Adultery (and fornication)? Marriage? Even within Christendom, divorce and contraception?

Fatherhood is not merely a Patriarchy, where if you replaced the men with women it would be the same – or perhaps it would be if men and women were the same.

But we have done the experiment and seen the results.

Yet the difficulty is that you cannot be an agnostic to truth – you either have to accept it or reject it. Are we happier now in the hook-up culture than the Walton’s form? Is it better for today’s children?

#5 Comment By Robert Long On July 8, 2013 @ 11:46 am

Hi Thomas, thanks for the comment. You’re correct that “nones” in general can and do believe any number of things about God. But you are wrong that “Will could be a pantheist or a deist.” George Will is not a pantheist or a deist: he is an agnostic and he has said so. Given that, I don’t think it’s a stretch to call his avowed agnosticism a form of “unbelief.” I can assure you there’s no “malicious intent” behind it!

#6 Comment By sickoftalking On July 8, 2013 @ 12:04 pm

Robert,

I don’t know how Will defines himself, but agnostic isn’t necessarily an exclusive category. There are agnostic atheists, who say they lack knowledge and thus chose not to believe in anything. But there are agnostic theists, for example, who admit they lack knowledge, but choose to believe.

I’d argue that a lot of people are what you’d call agnostic deists. People who won’t commit to what you’d call a “supernatural” understanding of God, but find no controversy in a God-as-an-allegory construct. That is, seeing God as a personification of certain metaphysical forces in the universe; a first cause, fate, providence, grace. They live by a materialistic understanding of the universe but are perfectly comfortable with the way religious language frames things. They see it as a poetic, or literary, rather than scientific, understanding of the universe.

Such people are likely to go to church or synagogue and get just as meaning and sustenance out of a religious service as a practicing theist.

#7 Comment By Matt On July 8, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

The nones of America should “wish continued vigor for the rich array of religious institutions that have leavened American life,” he concludes.

Well they can wish all they want, but if they’re serious they’d better get in the pews and at least put on a good show. Religious institutions don’t remain vigorous because people think the beliefs are useful for some social or political purpose, but rather because they believe their souls are in danger of the fires of hell.

#8 Comment By Michael Sheridan On July 8, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

I’m one of the “nones” too, but I have a whole shelf full of works on religion and at least one more on philosophy and ethics. Although I personally think the likelihood that any given dogma is “the truth” is vanishingly slight, I appreciate the fact that I don’t possess “the truth” either, so do not feel in a position to preach to others what they should or shouldn’t think, so long as they are equally tolerant. I am neither a believer nor an atheist. I am agnostic.

I have read the arguments of prominent atheists and they are generally weak. They frequently conflate belief in the scientific method (or, worse yet, “science”, a dangerously simple reification of an ever-expanding body of knowledge) and a disbelief in an all-powerful, beneficent single god (as in any of the religions in the Abrahamic tradition) with atheism. If they have proved (to their own satisfaction) that “God” (generally defined in some very simple and anthropocentric way) does not exist, they usually stop there and call the job done.

I don’t see survival of the soul after death as any sort of prerequisite for a spiritual life and don’t strongly expect to personally discover that there IS any existence after death, although I am quite willing to be pleasantly surprised on this. However, that point is not, to me, the core of what religion is about. I very much appreciate that most religions treat morality as the vitally important subject it is, even if they do not all agree on the details. More than that, they very often attempt something often ignored or taken for granted by the irreligious–they try to define what it is to be human.

So yes, I am fond of religion, very possibly in the same way as George Will. Possibly not, too–we don’t have much else in common. At any rate, others can see that fondness as condescension if they so choose, but although I admit to feelings of contempt toward certain prominent religious figures I consider hypocritical frauds, I do not feel myself placed in any way above true believers by virtue of my unbelief.

#9 Comment By TomB On July 8, 2013 @ 1:19 pm

It’s funny but like Will despite being a “none” (agnostic tending towards atheist) I too think religion is a fine thing and indeed has been under attack.

On the other hand I am bothered by what can seem all the good arguments and examples that can be made against the the assumption here—which Will made express—that religiosity strengthens us as a country. Especially as move forward into an ever more modern age.

Isn’t it pretty clear that, to a significant degree at least, there’s been a helluva tension between science and religion? Yes of course one can come up with ways to circumvent that tension, but note how such ways have to ever more be invented as scientific understanding has advanced. How much fight it has taken to get religion to retreat to such circumventions. And how much damage that has done.

Of course much of that damage has been in the rending of the civic discourse, which has been bitter and can even seem to have left some permanent scars on our civic unity. But damage also done to religious believers’ feelings towards this country. Not hard to find popular preachers and huge churches now coming damn close to saying that this country has been taken over by the devil or has just turned evil and blah blah blah.

At every step since Copernicus, say, and maybe even before that, with most if not every step(s) forward in science it has meant step(s) back in religion, and in many of those cases it has meant fighting.

As we now seem to be entering into an age of hyper-scientific progress—with biology indeed seeming to be one of the fields that is going to just explode in significance—is there some reason to believe that the past history isn’t some prologue now?

And as general rule when movements start losing arguments and adherents to a level threatening them, they only fight harder.

Or to put it another way, might the ultimate truth that history will reveal is that for all intents and purposes there really never has been the ability to synthesize science and religion and to thus pretend they aren’t incompatible? That in the end one simply has to choose?

Except, that is, for maybe some form(s) of “religion” that really look nothing like they are now, much less what they have looked like in the past.

#10 Comment By Derek Leaberry On July 8, 2013 @ 2:12 pm

Several years ago George Will assured his readers that the Hubble space telescope would prove the “Big Bang” without any doubt and make all religions pretty much elaborate hoaxes. We are still to watch the “Big Bang” on the Hubble and the universe is at least twice as old as we once thought. So even today Mr. Will waits for proof just as Linus waited for the Great Pumpkin.

#11 Comment By vandelay On July 8, 2013 @ 2:50 pm

“Will is basically saying that he doesn’t believe that the religious beliefs he celebrates (but does not share) are true, it’s just that they’re a useful sop for the masses of Americans who aren’t as clued-in as he. In other words, Will’s position on religion is one as equally instrumental as the famous quote of Marx: religion is just the opium of the people”

Will’s and Marx’s positions are very, very different. Marx, like most subsequent Marxists, despised religion and saw it as an institution that stood in the way of revolution, and therefore ought to be destroyed.

Will on the other hand obviously admires it, especially its function as a nongovernmental institution that engenders community and good will.

I’m sympathetic because my view is pretty close to Will’s. I don’t think religious believers are dupes, even though I don’t share their beliefs. Rather, I admire their faith and the positive effect that that faith has had on society, I just don’t share it.

#12 Comment By cka2nd On July 8, 2013 @ 3:23 pm

Mr. St. Giles Payne,

I think you are possibly being unfair to Mr. Will. If he had expressed similar sentiments about liberals, would you have objected and called him condescending? One can, after all, express an appreciation for the work done in the name of religion or for political reasons different from your own, without either compromising your beliefs or the expression of your disagreement with those folks you have praised. As a Trotskyist, I am a staunch athiest and oppose the establishment of religion, but I can have both an appreciation for the work of some religious folk and a civil conversation about our philosophical differences. Heck, I subscribe to TAC because a traditionalist Catholic conservative exposed me to it, and that didn’t stop our arguments or keep us from agreeing to disagree over why each of us oppose free trade agreements and gun control.

By the way, although you can find the full context for Marx’s quote at Wikipedia, he made that statement while recognizing the reality underlying it: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

#13 Comment By Clint On July 8, 2013 @ 3:35 pm

“George Will: I’m a heathen.
Stephen Colbert: Are you an atheist?
Will: I’m not decisive enough to be an atheist.
Colbert: You’re agnostic?
Will: Yes.”

#14 Comment By Viking On July 8, 2013 @ 3:48 pm

Thanks, Robert, this was an interesting piece. I didn’t view the Colbert interview, as the sound transmission on my computer gives me a lot of problems, but as I recall, Will remarked that he wasn’t decisive enough to be an atheist or religious, so he was agnostic. But was that five years ago?? Good Lord (not to insert my own religious beliefs into the conversation), how time flies when you’re having fun!

Justin, I agree more with JMW than with you. One can appreciate the good religion does without believing in it. Yes, it can be more cynical than that, as with Gibbon’s remark about the various religions being viewed by the common person as equally true, by the philosopher as equally false, and by the magistrate as equally useful. But you haven’t demonstrated, to my satisfaction at least, that Will views it like a modern-day Roman official. (Assuming that Gibbon was right about them, of course.)

TZ, of course you can be an agnostic about the truth. Who in this imperfect world can be sure what it is?

Sickoftalking, I guess I’m just generally disagreeable, because I’d argue with you too. I know a deeply religious woman whose little daughter was a victim of crib death, or SIDS. I’m fairly certain that the belief that she’ll see her again in Heaven gives her great comfort. I just can’t see how a poetic or literary understanding of God and the hereafter could do the same.

Viking

#15 Comment By westie On July 8, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

I thought George Will’s religion was baseball or lousy politics.

#16 Comment By Sean Scallon On July 8, 2013 @ 4:19 pm

Of course, because if George Will was anything like Hitchens he wouldn’t be “conservative columnist” because conservatives would have nothing to do with him. And he knows it. So his writing is rendered useless.

#17 Comment By Red Phillips On July 8, 2013 @ 4:52 pm

“In an era when American conservatism is often confused with religiosity,”

Based on his last three posts, I assume Mr. Long is now the designated unbelieving conservative here at TAC. Whether this is a role he was chosen for or one he took on for himself, I do not know. But there is a reason that American conservatism is often “confused” with “religiosity” (meaning I suppose someone who takes his faith seriously and attempts to live it out in his life.) It’s because the two things can’t be rightly separated. If America was in the past more Christian (In a particular sense. We’ll save arguments about whether this was intended to be a Chgrsitian Nation for another thread.) and if Americans were in the past more Christian (qualitatively and quantitatively) then any American conservatism is going to want to at least conserve against a further slide and at most seek a restoration. There have always been agnostics within the broad coalition of those seeking to conserve things, but an agnostic who wears his agnosticism on his sleeve and actively engages in attempting to disabuse believers of their belief is a different thing. He is instead a species of modernist (a perhaps illiberal modernist because unbelief potentially leads to some illiberal conclusions), because active unbelief and denial is a thoroughly modernist impulse.

#18 Comment By EngineerScotty On July 8, 2013 @ 6:02 pm

Will’s just another Straussian plutocrat who likes to use religion (and other sources of morality and popular outrage) to keep the plebes in their place. If you read him enough, you come to realize that he despises the hoi polloi and their vulgar ways, but sees the value in suitable application of bread and circuses.

He’s a highbrow Rush Limbaugh, little more. But a fine writer on the subject of baseball.

#19 Comment By Maire On July 8, 2013 @ 6:04 pm

“I approach the question of religion and American life from the vantage point of an expanding minority.”

Not really. As the article itself implies, Will represents a highly unusual case: a high-profile pro-life conservative who is also an unbelieving agnostic. While it is certainly true that the “nones” are expanding rapidly, these are overwhelmingly youth–the future–and they are emphatically NOT sympathetic to the religious causes celebres Will has taken up, nor are they likely to identify as conservative. Will represents a fast-dying breed: non-religious people whose formative years were the era where 90%+ of Americans were religiously affiliated, divorce was still a sin and abortion was illegal. It’s hardly surprising that “nones” Will’s age have a much more nuanced view of religion than millennials, whose exposure to organized religion (i.e., Christianity) consists of Daily Show-style outtakes and episodes of South Park.

As a Catholic and a millennial, it’s nice that Will is nice. But it’s not going to last.

#20 Comment By Interested Commentator On July 8, 2013 @ 6:20 pm

Mr. Phillips,

I do not think that Mr. Long has registered his religious belief yet in the past three columns, which have led to spirited some spirited and useful debate that we (or at least I am) are having trouble finding elsewhere on the internet. Does one have to be an unbeliever to find this debate interesting or useful?

As to your point that religiosity and conservatism (of the American brand) are inseparable, I don’t think that history bears this out. Though a classical liberalism (which is what most Conservatives would say they are trying to conserve) will always be respectful of the mores of society developed over generations and thus never overtly hostile to religious belief of many forms, there was a time when classical liberalism and religiosity were very much separated, especially in Europe. de Toqueville (a seemingly devout Catholic) talks with dismay of how liberalism was viewed with suspicion by most in the church because they associated it with the Enlightenment and irreligious reformers.

If the two cannot be separated, how is it that so many of the most articulate and principled expositors and designers of limited government systems have not been very religious, from Hume, to Madison to today’s George Will (okay, I realize he doesn’t yet come close to belonging with those two, but he is one of the great conservative writers of his era at least). This in no way discounts the contributions of the devoutly and overtly religious to limited government practice and thought, such as de Toqueville, Gladstone and many others.

#21 Comment By Justin St. Giles Payne On July 8, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

If he had expressed similar sentiments about liberals, would you have objected and called him condescending?

Absolutely. If Will had articulated a position that basically “liberal beliefs aren’t true, but it’s good if the stupids believe it anyway”, I would absolutely accuse him of the same condescension – because it’s deeply condescending. People deserve the truth about things of deep relevance to their lives, and I question the qualification of George Will – or anyone else, for that matter – to decide who gets the truth and who gets the soporific fairy tales.

#22 Comment By Fran Macadam On July 8, 2013 @ 6:38 pm

The biggest problem for religion – or for any set of “beliefs” – is that they are most often used to make you feel better about what you are going to do that is very bad to someone else.

Or to get you to think that something government wants you to do for those who control it, is good when conscience would inform otherwise.

#23 Comment By Richard Parker On July 8, 2013 @ 6:59 pm

I describe myself as “Culturally Christian.”

#24 Comment By Wes On July 8, 2013 @ 7:49 pm

“He argues that an individuals’ faith is not a requisite for good citizenship; that democratic flourishing does not require a religious citizenry; that natural rights do not require grounding in God…Adams was a Unitarian.”

But John Adams did famously say “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Now Adams didn’t say what people’s religion has to be and I doubt that he even cared. Adams obviously didn’t think that people had to practice orthodox Christianity as he was a Unitarian. Now people can indeed be moral, but not religious. But George Will is an exception. Few atheists and agnostics base their philosophical beliefs and worldview on natural law, which religions are grounded in.

#25 Comment By Interested Commentator On July 8, 2013 @ 8:10 pm

The other thing I would add is that I don’t think it is some great moral wrong to not yet be persuaded to belief in God. Though the Scriptures often condemn unbelief, they are often chastising faithlessness and the hypocritical religion in name. The Book of James mocks the idea of the “believer” in God who is faithless, that is to say does not faithfully follow the religion that God calls us to.
That being said, I believe that George Will’s belief is wholesome if not entirely correct. Better to state his admiration from the outside than pretend to believe in something that he is just not persuaded to believe, than to be a “man of faith” of the like of Putin, Clinton, Kennedy, or Gingrich.

#26 Comment By Thomas J. Lawson On July 8, 2013 @ 8:24 pm

Thanks for the clarification, Robert. You have to agree that your article does have a blurred line between Will calling himself a “none” and you jumping to calling that “unbelief” or “disbelief, so what exactly he and others are un- or disbelieving in is not made clear. Without knowing beforehand that he’s called himself agnostic a person would have to be forgiven for thinking that all non-religious Americans are de facto nonbelievers.

I happen to think that the majority of the “nones” out there are deists or pantheists just “giving a little whistle” and letting their consciences be their “God,” to paraphrase the great Jiminy Cricket. And that is fine with me. Those gods aren’t known to talk back; they’re just good listeners. Gods used as a sounding board and not as a source will keep society on the right path, I think.

#27 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 8, 2013 @ 9:08 pm

The question of our time is not whether something called “God” exists or does not exist. The question is: Is there something or is there nothing? Are there valid values to illuminate our path toward death or is everything permitted? Is part of us eternal or are we always in the empty bus station of life?

You can paper over this for only so long with shallow liberalism and glib scientism, but sooner of later you have to face it.

#28 Comment By Jane On July 8, 2013 @ 9:16 pm

I recommend reading “Letters from a Skeptic” by Dr. Gregory Boyd.

Will is representing the ever-expanding citizen of tolerance. But how much does one/can one tolerate before sound morals get compromised? Will’s agnosticism is his choice, however, his morals come from somewhere. Even atheists are good moral people, but where do they glean their morals and truths from?

We Americans are used to shopping around and taking the best things from this place and that place. We’re afraid of labels because there are people who misrepresent certain groups. At some point, we need to make a decision. Be thoughtful and critical thinkers, but we have to be forgiving enough because many, many people make mistakes and twist things out of context. As a professing Christian, I am repulsed and embarrassed at Bible thumpers and at angry street preachers, they perpetuate the stereotypical religiosity that makes many Americans and other world citizens gag, but I do commend them for speaking out on something they feel passionately about. Despite the mishandling and the ignorance it might project, they have courage because there is truth in the deep heart of their messages.

Maybe that’s why Will is fond of religion. There is a seed of truth he would like to acknowledge, but he might be apprehensive in admitting it because of the baggage of the people who end up misrepresenting a faith that seems to cause many to wonder and debate about.

We cannot keep drawing arbitrary lines. We cannot stay in the “safe” zone like Will. You are or you aren’t. You accept or you reject. But you cannot force. I can only give my anecdote.

#29 Comment By David T On July 8, 2013 @ 9:47 pm

In Europe, at least, there’s nothing strange about being a pro-clerical agnostic or atheist. Charles Maurras was an agnostic nearly all of his adult life. (T.S. Eliot wrote that Maurras “simply is concerned with the aspect of the Roman Church which is not necessarily Christian, because his point of view is that of an agnostic political philosopher.”)

#30 Comment By REMant On July 8, 2013 @ 10:20 pm

Will appears to venerate Madison and baseball. My father was a nonobservant Jew, my Catholic mother excommunicated for divorcing him. I was confirmed by the bishop of Salzburg, but stopped going to church after high school, where I was a member of a Scout troop sponsored by Presbyterians. Attended a Missouri Synod Lutheran church for a few years to read through the Bible in later life. When asked this question today offer the response The New England Theology I suppose. They were, I think, good republicans all.

#31 Comment By sickoftalking On July 9, 2013 @ 1:48 am

Viking,

If you believe that our life here on Earth is ephemeral and temporary, that our lives here — in a material sense — ultimately don’t matter, I’d argue you’ll much better handle the death of a child than if you’re clinging on to some vain illusion that everything lasts forever; that when we lose someone it represents a fatal, terminal blow.

And you might have some comfort reflecting back on religion, and the sense of the Eternal it conveys, and the idea that you may somehow physically greet that child again in an afterlife will not seem so relevant.

The most important thing about religion, to me, is the perspective it brings. I think you can come to that perspective through an abstract understanding, or through a concrete understanding.

All allegory does is put the abstract in concrete terms.

#32 Comment By David T On July 9, 2013 @ 7:13 am

Michael N. Moore: “Are there valid values to illuminate our path toward death or is everything permitted?”

If you think that the existence of God is what determines whether “everything is permitted” or there is an objective moral code, please read *Euthyphro.* And also [9]

#33 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 9, 2013 @ 12:20 pm

David T.,

I just got through saying that arguing about whether “God” exists of does not exist is pointless. Values are not objective and cannot be empirically proved or disproved. I suggest you read The Critique on Pure Reason by Immanual Kant.

#34 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 9, 2013 @ 1:28 pm

Scientifically, we should be pushing our elderly out on ice floes. This would be a value-free scientific solution to our fiscal crisis. From a Darwinian perspective, we males should be killing other males and raping their women, better to spread our seed. We should also stop feeding unproductive people and only allow the strongest and smartest people to breed. Why aren’t we doing this? : Because it conflicts with our unscientific moral sense.

Science is by its own definition value-free. It just measures things. It doesn’t judge. Values come from somewhere else and, if you want to jettison them, be prepared to ride an ice floe when you hit 60.

The only people who are more self-deceived than the believers in anthropomorphic gods are people who think Science can provide all the guidance people need. This is a very dangerous path.

#35 Comment By Viking On July 9, 2013 @ 3:54 pm

Sickoftalking, how does the belief that our lives ultimately don’t matter (even with the “in a material sense” qualifier) comfort anyone? And to whom is the phrase “when we lose someone it represents a fatal, terminal blow” directed? If to the believers in “some vain illusion that everything lasts forever”, I would argue that the reverse is true. To such believers, it’s only a temporary parting, tho still painful. It’s those who reflect on the meaningless of their and all other existences who are without any “invisible means of support”, as Bishop Sheen wittily put it.

On a related matter: very good letters, Michael N. Moore, thank you.

Viking

#36 Comment By sickoftalking On July 9, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

Viking,

Because you realize that if you care about keeping the material things you have forever, you’re being a fool. Once you understand that, you stop letting yourself be controlled by those emotions. You begin to understand that death is a part of life, and that you need to accept that to live your life. The comfort, as you frame it, is in reaching a place of inner peace.

Christianity is more influenced than this way of thinking than you’re allowing. Yes, there is a belief in an afterlife, but the goal of getting into Heaven or seeing others in Heaven wasn’t generally the point.

Medieval churches would have paintings of the danse macabre, which would show kings and wealthy men pleading before death to keep their status and their wealth in life. The point of this was to give the lesson that everything in life is vanity, and that we’re all equal in death. The king and the pauper were the same. It was those who realized this that would get into Heaven, and those that didn’t — and clung to the material things of life — that would not.

As Mephistopheles tells Doctor Faustus in Marlowe’s play: “Fools that will laugh on earth, must weep in hell.”

Epictetus – a stoic, but an influence on many early Christian thinkers – put it this way in his discourses:

“Ah, when shall I see Athens and the citadel again?”
Wretch, are you not content with what you see every day? Can you see anything better than the sun, the moon, the stars, the whole earth, the sea? But if, besides, you comprehend Him who administers the whole, and carry Him about in yourself, do you still long after pebbles and a fine rock? What will you do, then, when you have to leave even the sun and the moon? Will you sit crying like an infant?

He would also quote Pyrrho, a skeptic:

Pyrrho used to say: “There is no difference between living and dying.” Some one asked him: “Why, then, do you not die?” “Because,” answered he, “there is no difference.”

I was raised Jewish, and there’s virtually no talk about an afterlife; in Heaven, or in Hell. Generally, all you hear in Judaism that you “go back to God” when you die. There’s no promise of any reward or punishment, or some place you go to where you meet your loved ones.

The fact that there’s no reward or punishment doesn’t make Judaism nihilistic; as a religion, its full of values and meaning. The difference between a stoic attitude and a nihilistic attitude is that if you’re a stoic you believe in morals and values. You believe there are things that are good, beautiful, and true. As a nihilist, you don’t.

#37 Comment By urbisoler On July 9, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

I think of myself as agnostic but not as an intellectual. (I don’t have the memory banks for that elitist position.) I am not a student of the bible so am in no position to argue the point. I am an amateur student of “ethology” however and consider that we are animals of a high order – but “animals” nevertheless. It helps to explain why we behave the way we do – that is, in particular, our aggressive natures. The “high order” of our existence helps to explain the technological advances of mankind. But it is aggression that compels confrontation, as in competitive sport, or as in periodic warfare. It is grounded in “territoriality” and a host of ethological persuasions that define who we are.
Or, it may simply be the ramblings of mankind pretending to be superior to the lower order of animals. I don’t know but if death is the only way we will ever know, or not ever know, so be it. I am 80 and willing to find out. Ciao!!

#38 Comment By sickoftalking On July 9, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

I forgot this quote from Epictetus, which is probably most to the point:

“Be free from grief, not because of insensibility like irrational creatures, nor of inconsiderateness like fools; but like a man of virtue, making reason the remedy for grief.”

#39 Comment By TomB On July 9, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

Michael N. Moore wrote:

“Scientifically, we should be pushing our elderly out on ice floes. … Why aren’t we doing this? : Because it conflicts with our unscientific moral sense.”

And you know this how exactly?

Or, to put it a bit differently, how do you know that we don’t do this, and indeed every other sort of other thing that we ascribe to offending our “moral” sense, out of pure, rational, logical (and thus quasi-scientific at least) self-interest?

Self-interest, that is, that figures “if I today am for pushing old people out on ice-flows, I tomorrow shall be sitting on one”?

And the same with all the other things you ascribe to a “moral” sense?

After all in the non-human animal kingdom—presumably devoid of your “moral sense”—it might well be argued that the instance of purely individually “selfish” behavior is just totally swamped out by what is/what looks like co-operative behavior.

Hence zebras and others run in herds, birds fly in flocks, fish swim in schools….

The path to self-interest can obviously be a devious one.

And then there’s this: How come our “moral” sense extends with such near completeness only to other humans? Sort of a strange “moral” perspective that focuses so obsessively and laser-like on one’s own specific kind, but is near nonchalant about the treatment and even the total extinction of all other forms of life. Even those of near identical or very close (both genetic and morphological) forms, such as chimps and gorillas.

#40 Comment By Viking On July 10, 2013 @ 4:05 pm

Sickoftalking, thank you for your letter, it was most revealing. Let me correct one thing at the outset, which I failed to do in my previous reply, thinking it unimportant. That’s this business about keeping all material things thru all eternity. I never said that, and no religion of which I’m aware promises that. Rather, religions which have faith in a hereafter believe that there is an essence of the human being called the soul which transcends our material existence, and will go on to the hereafter while the corpse is decaying in the grave, or has been incinerated by cremation. Reject that if you will, as apparently you do, but please don’t conflate your materialistic beliefs with their spiritual ones.

As to your Judaism: were you raised Orthodox, or Conservative or Reform? The reason I ask is that I’ve read Dennis Prager’s “Think a Second Time” (DP is a Jewish American popular philosopher), and he takes up the issue of the hereafter in Judaism therein, an essay called “Is This Life All There Is?”. He wrote that he once hosted a radio show with a priest, a minister, a rabbi, and often a fourth religious representative, and that almost every non-Orthodox rabbi on it said that Judaism doesn’t believe in an afterlife. But that the “Encyclopedia Judaica”, in its entry “Afterlife” begins, “Judaism has always maintained a belief in the afterlife”.

Prager avows that Judaism gives no details of the hereafter, unlike, prominently, Islam, and Christianity too, if the Book of Revelations is considered canon. (Not all Christians believe it is.) This was so Jews would concentrate on the present world, to do the work of God in it. But the religion does see the necessity for something beyond our physical deaths.

I think that getting into Heaven was ALWAYS the point in Christianity. Your illustrations from actual Christians don’t seem to me to disprove that, but rather show the way to do so.

Viking

#41 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 11, 2013 @ 4:30 pm

cka2nd said: “By the way, although you can find the full context for Marx’s quote at Wikipedia, he made that statement while recognizing the reality underlying it: “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.””

I think the analogy Marx was making was that the Aristocracy and the Bourgeois could afford opium, but the working class could not. Opium was not a controlled substance in Britain until 1868 and, after that; it was widely distributed by pharmacists. Many British fortunes were made in the opium trade and it was a key element of British imperialism. Thus, opium did not have the pejorative connotation that “crystal meth” or “crack” would have today.

I actually find the Marx quote spiritually uplifting.

#42 Comment By Michael N Moore On July 11, 2013 @ 10:05 pm

The great Medievel mystic, Meister Eckhart, was asked: “Where does the soul go after death?” He replied with Zen clarity: “It is not necessary for it to go anywhere.” He was, of course, tried for heresy.

The best presentation on the soul in the modern world is “Ulysses” by James Joyce, another heretic. Why is that religious bureaucrats are always proven wrong?

#43 Comment By Russell Seitz On July 13, 2013 @ 12:50 am

George seems to have reverted to type. His recent confession recalls the views he expressed in the early 70’s, though in the post- Buckley era he rolled with the holiest to a degree that won him the generous approbation of the Bradley Foundation, to name but one organ of subsidy for the scholarly apparachiks of the Base.

#44 Comment By Andy On July 13, 2013 @ 3:01 pm

To paraphrase something John Derbyshire wrote in his book–some of the safest and most desirable places to live in America are the least religious i.e. the Pacific Northwest,and parts of the Northeast. Why is that? Biology and culture, a culture spawned in part from our Judeo-Christians roots no doubt, but a relatively successful culture without high-rates of church attendance. Think of Northern Europe as well. The problem I see with our increased irreligiousity is a declining fertility rate that will be our ultimate doom.

#45 Comment By Michael Kaiser On July 13, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

This piece is so lacking in integrity. The author knows very well what Will is saying yet twists it way out of context. Will is saying that he does not, at the moment, swear allegiance to any particular religion. His life, however, is very God-based, and God-based on a foundation of Judeo-Christian values.

#46 Comment By Paul Emmons On July 14, 2013 @ 1:27 am

>Even atheists are good moral people, but where do they glean their morals and truths from?

Where does God (or the gods)?

As David T. points out above (Euthypro etc.) this question has been pondered for aeons and and remains unanswered.

Even C.S. Lewis made a case for basic morality independent of a specific religious faith in The Abolition of Man. It is not subject to proof, only to one’s either living by it or not.

#47 Comment By Paul Emmons On July 14, 2013 @ 1:50 am

>Why is that? Biology and culture, a culture spawned in part from our Judeo-Christians roots no doubt, but a relatively successful culture without high-rates of church attendance. Think of Northern Europe as well.

These are such recent developments that one might mistake running on fumes for stable success. Perhaps the jury’s still out.

> The problem I see with our increased irreligiousity is a declining fertility rate that will be our ultimate doom.

We are also doomed worldwide if the fertility rate does not decline. Fortunately, it is declining, thanks especially to sending girls as well as boys to school, but maybe not fast enough to avert disaster. Figures are disquieting: one million people move into cities around the world every week. There are eighty-some cities in India with 500,000 or more inhabitants, and we can expect these to double in size within twenty years.

Even Rod has recently written a blog post observing that the complexity of modern life demands more deliberate and intense “parenting” than in the past, which demands in turn fewer children.

So what should we say: whites, please breed more and coloreds, please breed less? This sounds suspiciously racist.

#48 Comment By MP On July 15, 2013 @ 3:26 am

Will is delusional if he thinks there’s little religion in American politics. Prayer and the Bible were taught in public schools until quite recently, Creationism is still taught in many rural schools in the hinterlands, and anyone watching since the rise of the Moral Majority knows there’s plenty of religion in American politics right up until today.

Perhaps Will just doesn’t think so because when it shows up, it’s not doing anything that infringes on him, or he agrees with it. When it’s the basis for denying gay people rights or reproductive rights, it doesn’t bother him much.

But if you’re gay or a pro-choice woman, it’s painfully obvious that there’s a whole lot of religion in American politics.

#49 Comment By JP On July 17, 2013 @ 11:23 am

Ross Douhat wrote a recent book in which he says that most American Christians are heretics when compared to their parents or grand parents. So, we may be “religious”. But, we’re as a society becoming increasingly un-Christian. George Will is now 70 or older, I believe. His agnosticism does not prevent him from appreciating the beauty of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or the depth of the faith of the late John Paul II, and how it stood as a bulwark against secular oppression (ie communism). He wrote about both.

We should keep this in mind when pondering what Will actually believes. He’s an old school liberal, who understands the value of religion in a democracy. As a matter of fact, he once wrote that the only portrait in his study is one of John Henry Newman. Newman was a education reformer, and theologian who converted to Catholicism, became an ordained priest and later elevated to the position of Cardinal. George Will perfectly understands to dangers of democracy, and how tradition and religion can thwart its more radical tendencies.

Will’s agnosticism does not surprise me. He never debated his beliefs from a religious point of view. His perspective to me always was one from Enlightenment and Revelation. And as the apron strings of traditional Christianity have become loose, his writings and opinions are even more important.