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The Secular Right

By Robert Tracinski

We all know the basic alternatives that form the familiar "spectrum" of American politics and culture.

If a young person is turned off by religion or attracted by the achievements of science, and he wants to embrace a secular outlook, he is told--by both sides of the debate--that his place is with the collectivists and social subjectivists of the left. On the other hand, if he admires the free market and wants America to have a bold, independent national defense, then he is told--again, by both sides--that his natural home is with the religious right.

But what if all of this is terribly wrong? What if it's possible to hold some of the key convictions associated with the right, being pro-free-market and supporting the war, and even to do so more strongly and consistently than most on the right--but still to be secular? What if it's possible to reject the socialism subjectivism of the left and believe in the importance of morality, but without believing in God?

That question has been raised, most recently, in a courageous article by Heather Mac Donald. In a symposium on the nature of the right, she argued on behalf of "skeptical conservatives" who "ground their ideas in rational thinking and (nonreligious) moral argument." For the past two weeks, this has touched off a debate on National Review Online (catalogued here), at the religious conservative magazine First Things, and elsewhere.

This is not the first time the right has had to search its soul on this issue--and it's high time they did so again, because now, more than ever, we need to discover what it would mean to have a secular right.

Mac Donald makes some terrific points in criticizing religion as a foundation for the right, but she is wrong to describe the secular right as "skeptical conservatives." A truly secular right should not be based on "skepticism," not in any fundamental sense.

Philosophically speaking, skepticism does not mean merely doubting the truth of one particular claim or idea. It means doubting all truths and all ideas, so that every fact or theory is just someone's opinion. It means doubting the power of reason as such. Skepticism is the natural ally of subjectivism--and it is, in actual fact, the guiding philosophy of the left.

One of the great myths spread by religious conservatives is the idea that the political left is founded on an overweening confidence in the power of reason. But any notions about a hyper-rational left can be refuted by ten minutes' conversation with an actual leftist. It can also be refuted by an examination of the ideas of the left.

Sure, the left used to cloak their views in the economic jargon of "scientific socialism." But beneath its pseudo-scientific veneer, the old Marxist left was contemptuous of the individual mind, regarding men's ideas and values and mere by-products of collective, materialist forces. They viewed man, not as a rational animal, but as a mindless brute--think of the muscle-bound, thick-browed workers portrayed in Soviet propaganda posters--and they embraced, or at best apologized for, the methods of the brute. Comrade Stalin didn't rule by reason; he ruled by force and terror.

It is no wonder that the charade of "scientific socialism" collapsed forty years ago with the emergence of the New Left "counterculture," whose symbol is the drugged-out, addle-brained hippie. And as for the high-brow academic left, today's philosophical trends on the left are Postmodernism and Multiculturalism--extreme forms of skepticism and subjectivism which deny that there is any rationally provable truth and tell us that all cultures are equally valid. Some on today's left even follow Multiculturalism to its logical conclusion, finding sympathy for Muslims who feel "oppressed" by our lack of "respect" for their religious strictures--a kind of unholy alliance between secular subjectivism and religious dogmatism.

There is more affinity between these two ends of the political and cultural spectrum that the adherents of either would care to admit. Heather Mac Donald notes that "The presumption of religious belief--not to mention the contradictory thinking that so often accompanies it--does damage to conservatism by resting its claims on revealed truth. But on such truth there can be no agreement without faith." In a long and rambling reply to Mac Donald, Catholic conservative Michael Novak keeps promising an answer to the question, "how can you actually prove that Christianity is true?"--and he can produce nothing better than, "it answers something deep in the human spirit." Which means: "because it makes me feel good." So what exactly is the difference, in practice, between faith and feelings, between religion and subjectivism?

This gives the lie to the central promise of the religious conservatives: that they will provide a solid foundation for morality. Subjectivism, they point out, unleashes men to commit any atrocity, while religion offers men the safety of unquestionable moral rules. But what protection is really offered by moral rules backed by faith--rules on which men cannot ever agree? History offers the answer, recent history most particularly. The headline of a brilliantly conceived satire from The Onion captures it nicely: "War-Torn Middle East Seeks Solace in Religion." The Middle East, and especially the Muslim world, is famous for the intensity of its religious belief--and also infamous for the intensity of its bloodshed and suffering.

Religious conservatives warn that a morality based on reason and observation is not sufficient, because men will not all agree on what reason and the evidence proves. But when have men ever agreed on religion? And without reason and evidence to settle the argument, they usually resort to force.

The real alternative to secular subjectivism is not religious faith, but observation of the natural world--the world that can be seen and understood through reason. Despite a confused dismissal of "natural law," Heather Mac Donald is correct when she suggests that "reason and a commitment to evidence provide ample grounds for leading a moral, responsible life." But she seems to have something of pragmatist view of morality, arguing, for example, that marriage should be encouraged because sociological studies say that children are better off with two parents.

But to derive a secular morality, we need more than narrow conclusions drawn from sociological studies. We need broad philosophical principles drawn from the grand lessons of history. For example, we can observe, in the rise of West since the Renaissance and in the corresponding decline of the Islamic world, what happens when men embrace reason, unfettered scientific inquiry, and technological progress--versus what happens when they cling to religious dogmatism and disparage secular learning. Or, alternatively, we can observe in the history of the Cold War what happens when one bloc of societies recognizes the individual rights of their citizens, allowing them to act on their own initiative in the pursuit of profit--versus what happens when another bloc imposes a totalitarian dictatorship, expunging private property and private profits and forcibly imposing central economic planning.

The lessons of history reveal the basic requirements set by man's nature for his survival, success, and happiness here on earth. That is the secular foundation for morality.

Today's academic philosophers--steeped in the subjectivist dogmas of the left--have not been up to the job of grasping and explaining these lessons. But astute readers may recognize which philosopher I think was up to the job. My own defense of the secular right is based on the ideas of Ayn Rand, the novelist, philosopher, and famous defender of capitalism who originated a secular philosophy she called Objectivism. Ayn Rand's ideas are hardly a secret--her novels still sell briskly, fifty years on--and the strangest part of the current debate about secularism and the right is that no one has yet seen fit to mention her.

The right needs to have a long, open, honest debate about the role of religion. We need it now more than ever because we are in the middle of a war with an enemy that is defined by his religious fervor and by his attempt to make his religion dominate the "public square," to borrow a catchphrase from the religious right. If we don't understand the real nature and value of Western, Enlightenment secularism, then we can't fully understand what is at stake in this clash of civilizations, and in the long run, we won't know how to win it.

Robert Tracinski writes daily commentary at TIADaily.com. He is the editor of The Intellectual Activist and TIADaily.com.

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