Saturday, September 22, 2012

Conservatism without religion

Political and social conservatism is normally associated with (traditional) religious belief, and conservatism without religion can be seen, with some justification, as a slightly anomalous position.

Irving Kristol called it 'thin gruel'. This is one way of looking at it: merely as a watered-down version of conservatism.

But removing, say, Christian beliefs from Western conservatism involves (I suggest) more than just a weakening or watering down. It involves deeper changes - and choices.

For example, does one stay with Christian morality or wipe the slate clean and develop a different morality entirely?

Many non-religious conservatives have looked back to the Greco-Roman world for inspiration, to a time when Western culture was flourishing and had not yet succumbed to Christian doctrines, rituals and ways of thinking. Morally, it was a very different world.

The moral assumptions of the post-Christian world are however, more often than not, Christian assumptions, as the general population in Western countries has arguably internalized large chunks of Christian ethics.

Furthermore, so-called progressive thought is arguably a secular version of one particular aspect of Christian morality. The whole Marxist and broader left-wing tradition is based squarely on certain Christian moral ideals, and could be seen simply to represent an attempt to apply Biblical notions of justice and equality in the here and now - or at least the near future - rather than banking on a supernatural savior.

I think the relatively recent shift of the mainstream churches to the political left can be explained in a similar way. They have in effect ceased believing in a compensatory spiritual realm.

So there is radical and radical. There is standard, left-wing political radicalism which seeks to overthrow the 'unjust' status quo and replace it with a new world order based on (Biblical notions of) justice and equality.

And then there is the deeper radicalism of conservatives who have not only rejected Christian beliefs but Christian morality as well.

But, because most of them have such good manners, and so will refrain from saying what they really think, it will remain largely hidden from view.


  1. Don't tease me. Most haven't any idea what a non-Christian morality even looks like. Many of us might like to go there. Oh, well, I guess a little research is in order.

    1. I won't try to sustain here the somewhat enigmatic tone of my post - which admittedly exaggerates or oversimplifies a couple of things. Of course, we can't really 'wipe the slate clean'; the term 'Christian morality' can be understood in different ways; and there is a lot of overlap between most historical systems of morality.

      In reality, the choice I refer to is largely about priorities. How highly does one rank particular traits or characteristics? (Various kinds of courage, resilience, self-reliance, pride in achievement, good manners, humility, generosity, kindness, sensitivity, honesty, a sense of fairness, etc.)

      But there is also the question of how we interpret some of these concepts. (For example, is generosity an obligation?) And the question of what, more generally, a person's obligations are.

      The Christian/Biblical emphasis on self-sacrifice and alleviating suffering has helped to make the West relatively humane, but it has also led to guilt feelings and other distortions (like left-wing radicalism and some disastrous social experiments).

      I am also skeptical of the whole human rights approach to 'social justice' and equality which derives from Christian notions. I favor a more circumscribed view of equality. (Equality before the law is a valuable principle, for example.)

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  3. How great a difference do you think there is between classical and Christian ethics? You seem to imply a large difference. On that view, there really is a "radical" non-Christian ethics waiting to be taken up.

    I'm not so sure. The four classical virtues (justice, practical reasonableness, moderation and courage) don't seem to me radically at odds with Christian values. And parts of Aristotle, for example, echo the Gospels rather unexpectedly. (OK, echoes don't go backwards in time.)

    Some versions of Christianity today do seem to have degenerated into naive benevolism.

    1. Platonism and Stoicism and other classical elements do constitute a large part of the historical tradition we call Christianity, but the Biblical traditions are, in my view, very different.

      The figure of Jesus in most of the NT is a pretty radical and demanding teacher clearly working within a particular Jewish tradition (drawing on some of the prophets and on the apocalyptic literature). Paul puts a different slant on things but is keen to distance himself from 'the Greeks'.

      Christian morality or ethics can certainly be understood in different ways, but that radical, hardline Biblical tradition, picked up (and reinterpreted) by various reformers along the way (Calvinists, Puritans, Jansenists, etc.), is an abiding one.

    2. You may be right but it's hard to see the content of what you are saying. There's a bunch of boxes here but we might each fill them with different contents.

      The key issue, i suspect, is love. The classical authors saw it as like friendship, a form of mutuality; Jesus and Paul and the later Christians, I think, saw it as non-reciprocal care for others.

    3. That's what I was getting at by referring (in an earlier comment) to "the Christian/Biblical emphasis on self-sacrifice and alleviating suffering."

      But I suggest that you need a belief in an all-powerful and loving God to make it work. In the absence of such a belief, that rather beautiful idea morphs into less beautiful ideas (e.g. left-wing radicalism or sentimental do-goodism).

      All of which leads me to look for a different kind of ethics.