7) You’ve labelled yourself a ’skeptical conservative.’ Would you also say you are hopeful about the trajectory that this republic might take into the future, or do you warrant that the corner is likely turned and we’ll be fighting a rearguard action for most of our lives?
I will interpret your question to mean whether I think secularism will strengthen in the U.S. over time. I am not ordinarily an optimist, but I take heart from the incensed response to the existence of a mere three contemporary books debunking religion. While the proportion of Americans who believe in Biblical revelation remains depressingly high and doesn’t yet show much sign of decline, the reaction of religion’s conservative apologists to a few atheists sticking their heads out of the foxhole suggests to me a possible nervousness about religion’s hold in the future. First Things editor Joseph Bottum calls secularists “superannuated,” in the aforementioned book Why I Turned Right. Wall Street Journal columnist Dan Henninger claims a religious provenance for the following “American” virtues: “fortitude, prudence, temperance, justice, charity, hope, integrity, loyalty, honor, filial respect, mercy, diligence, generosity and forbearance.” Yet Classical philosophers and poets celebrated many of these “religious” virtues as vigorously as any Evangelist or Christian divine, and these ideals are in any case human virtues, which is why religion can appropriate them. As for Henninger’s suggestion that mercy and hope had to wait upon Christianity to make their appearance on the scene, I would need more evidence. Do these overbroad claims for the necessity of religion suggest that the theocons are running scared? Perhaps.

Up to half of the conservative writers and thinkers whom I know are non-believers. And yet because of the rule that one may never ever question claims made on behalf of faith, they remain in the closet. At some point, however, they may emerge to challenge the idea that without religion, personal and social anarchy looms. ~Heather Mac Donald

I don’t want to keep harping on similarities between Ms. Mac Donald and Andrew Sullivan, because this really isn’t fair to Ms. Mac Donald.  She is, for the most part, a clear and logical thinker who can make compelling arguments based on solid evidence.  Sullivan is a egoist who likes to throw tantrums and wrap them up in philosophical covering.  For the most part, it is complete coincidence that both he and Ms. Mac Donald call themselves skeptics.  She demonstrates an intellectual rigour and coherence, whatever else you would like to say about her views, that Sullivan does not possess.  She at least has the decency to throw religion right out the window rather than mangle it and distort it to suit her own preoccupations as Sullivan does. 

However, the first part of this comment, which I first saw at The Corner, was the thing that annoyed me and got me to read the interview in its entirety because it struck me as such an unreservedly silly thing to say.  Since there is no one who better embodies unreserved silliness than Andrew Sullivan, a comparison with him was unavoidable, but in this case there is another similarity.  As some may have noticed, whenever someone criticises Andrew Sullivan (not counting me, as he has so far studiously ignored everything I have said) he will write a post citing the criticism and then commenting on it with a remark that goes something like this: “Ha ha!  Now I’ve got them on the run!  I have hit them where it hurts.  See how they mercilessly reject everything I have said?  See how they have eviscerated my rather embarrassingly poor argument?  They will soon be mine!” 

Ms. Mac Donald’s comment, though not nearly as obnoxious as anything Sullivan has written in this vein, reminds me of this.  Strong and perhaps indignant response is, according to this view, a sign of weakness and proof in this case that the grip of religion is slipping.  The theocons must be very perplexed about all of this.  In the space of a few months they have been accused of being virtual masters of the universe and on the verge of destroying secular America (that’s Linker’s thesis) and now they are said to be nervously watching the collapse of religion in America and are possibly “running scared.”  I happen to think both are wrong in different ways, but it is curious how two people equally appalled by religious conservatism can come to such radically different conclusions about the strength of their foe.   

This part strikes me as particularly odd:

Do these overbroad claims for the necessity of religion suggest that the theocons are running scared? Perhaps.

First of all, this has to be the first time I have ever heard anyone call Daniel Henninger a theocon, but leave that aside for the moment.  What is the evidence that “theocons” are “running scared”?  Because they have responded to a few atheists with many arguments?  The “incensed response” to Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, to take two of the three atheists in question, comes from the natural irritation that their insult-laden polemics cause and from what must be the offensive nature of their claims.  Any given atheist advances his view by telling the vast majority of people that they strongly believe in utter nonsense, and everyone else quite understandably responds poorly to being told, for all intents and purposes, he is a fool and a cretin.  If the response were anything other than incensed, then perhaps the meaning that belief in God held for people might be said to be weakening.  Rarely does one see the active, robust defense of something that is shared by a great many people taken as proof of that thing’s decline.  It is when religion no longer inspires and no longer commands loyalty and defense that something can be said to be declining and failing.  Reaction is evidence that something is alive and still able and willing to fight.  If religious conservatives sat still and did nothing while they were figuratively prodded and poked by atheists and secularists, that would be much more clear proof that the spirit had gone out of them and their beliefs were headed for the scrapheap.       

Religion is an important buttress to social order.  Is it possible to have social order without religion?  Yes, but it will often be of a more brutal, unethical and tyrannical kind.  It will be much less likely to be good order.  More to the point, it is not so much anarchy, but the crushing weight of some form or other of totalitarianism that man without religion has to fear.  Dostoevsky reminded us that man has a natural need to worship something.  If he will not worship God, he will worship other men, the state or things of this world.  Personal anarchy is not the great threat of a man without God.  Some atheists have been the most regimented, humourless, abstemious people on the planet.  It is personal debasement and personal degradation within a godless system that makes the conservative turn away in horror from what an atheist society will do to its members.  As Eliot famously and memorably said, “If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God), you should pay your respects to Hitler and Stalin.”  

Incidentally, if half of all conservative writers and thinkers whom Ms. Mac Donald knows are non-believers, where would she ever get the idea that religion has come to rule over conservatism?