On Auster, Dante, and being an atheist conservative

I’ve been reading old articles on Lawrence Auster’s blog View from the Right and came across his review of the then-new blog Secular Right, in which he pretty much denies that “secular right” is even a coherent concept. Here are some key excerpts (italics are Auster’s; boldface and ellipses are mine):

The problem is in the very notion of a “secular right,” of a publicly and actively atheist conservatism. These are contradictions in terms. . . . It’s one thing for people privately not to believe in God, but still maintain adherence to the common loyalties we have as Americans. But if you publicly deny and attack and thus try to make other people disbelieve the specific supernatural claims on which our form of government is based, such as that our fundamental human rights to liberty and self-government come from our being created by God in his image, such as that man is a flawed and fallen being and therefore the powers of human government must be carefully restrained, I don’t see how you can call yourself a conservative or a person of the right, at least in the American context.

By definition, an outspoken public stance against religion and the existence of God is incompatible with conservatism. People taking such a stance may have conservative positions on this or that issue, but I don’t think they have the right to call themselves conservatives. . . . A conservative by definition is a person who respects, or at the very least defers to and doesn’t publicly attack, the fundamental principles and beliefs of his society.

Auster goes on to say that the people behind Secular Right (John Derbyshire, Heather Mac Donald, and Razib Khan) are not only unconservative but, by virtue of being outspoken atheists, are actually hostile to Western civilization itself.

These people are saying that America and the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist. They’re not just saying that religion intrudes in areas where it doesn’t belong or that religion sometimes leads astray and that man’s reason may a better guide in some areas than religion. They’re saying that wherever religion and belief in God exist, the world is worse than it would be than if it were guided by pure, godless reason.

. . . [t]hey are indicating their hostility to the entire Western tradition of Reason and Revelation. They don’t accept the Revelation part, and everything in our thousands-year-long history that is of religion, that makes reference to God or gods, that is not of materialist, scientific reason, they will, if it comes within their ken, put down, devalue, and discard. Whether it’s the Iliad (in which the heroic ideal is to become for brief moments like a god), or the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome (completely based in religion), of the plays of Aeschylus (inconceivable without the religion sense), or the Parthenon (a temple to Athena); . . . or the Hebrew Bible, or our entire moral and social system that comes from the Hebrew Bible, . . . or whether it’s the teachings and personality of Jesus Christ, . . . or whether it’s the establishment of the Christian Church in Rome, or the Christianization and re-civilization of Europe by the Roman Church after the barbarian conquests and the fall of the western Roman empire, or whether it’s the Frankish kingdom’s defeat of the Muslim invasion of France, which would not have happened if the Franks weren’t Catholics defending Catholic Europe from Islam . . . .

I could go on for thousands of words, but I think the point has been sufficiently made. Our history, our civilization, the BEST that we have been, is intertwined with God, gods, and religion at every point. Yet the village atheists of Secular Right would dispense with it all, and they want the rest of us to dispense with it as well, because in their wisdom they know that secular reason could have done a better job of it than religion — these intellectual adolescents who think they know everything but know nothing.

So it’s not just that they have no right to call themselves conservatives. It’s that they are hostile to that which makes up our historic civilization, the Christian West, as well as to the specifically religious dimension of the American Founding, without which there would be no rights as we understand them, and no limited government as we understand it.

According to Auster, to be an atheist — or at least to be openly atheistic — is to be hostile to the entire Western tradition. Because the West has always been based on religion in one form or another, anyone who is against religion is against the West. But in fact “the” Western tradition comprises a succession of mutually incompatible movements — Classical religion and philosophy, Catholicism, Protestantism, the Enlightenment — each of which was more or less openly hostile to its predecessors. To the extent that Greco-Roman culture was “completely based in religion,” it was a religion which Christians saw as completely incorrect. The Parthenon is, to Christians no less than to atheists, a temple to a false god — a being which does not actually exist and ought never to have been worshiped. If atheists often feel that “the whole world would be better off if the whole human race stopped believing in God and if religion ceased to exist,” serious Christians tend to feel the same way about paganism and idolatry.

The pagans of Greece and Rome perceived Christianity as a direct attack on their beliefs, culture, and civilization, a situation dramatized in the “Great is Diana of the Ephesians!” episode in Acts 19. The evangelist mostly plays the confrontation for laughs — Demetrius is a self-interested silversmith whose main concern is protecting his own job as a manufacturer of idols, and the crowd he raises are a confused rabble, most of whom “knew not wherefore they were come together” — but history has nevertheless vindicated them. “This Paul,” says Demetrius, “hath persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they be no gods, which are made with hands: so that . . . the temple of the great goddess Diana should be despised, and her magnificence should be destroyed, whom all Asia and the world worshippeth.” And, well, didn’t that happen? In hindsight, we can see that Demetrius was right, and that the seemingly reasonable townclerk (“ye ought to be quiet . . . these men . . . are neither robbers of churches, nor yet blasphemers of your goddess”) had gravely underestimated the existential threat Christianity posed to Diana, to her temple, and indeed to “all Asia and the world.”

And yet Christianity didn’t destroy Western civilization; it became Western civilization. Despite the fact that Christianity is by definition hostile to paganism, it still managed to assimilate and perpetuate much of Classical civilization and to define itself within a broader Western tradition. Augustine, Thomas, and Descartes were the heirs of Plato and Aristotle. The legacy of Virgil and Homer lived on in Dante and Milton. Despite the inherent incompatibility of paganism and Christianity, of Catholicism and Protestantism, there really is such a thing as what Auster elsewhere calls “the Classical-Christian tradition” — e pluribus unum. I would add that the Enlightenment also belongs to that same tradition, and that there is no obvious reason why out-and-out atheism might not also be included. For the would-be atheist conservative — or, if “conservative” is too strong a word, for the atheist who is in awe of the Western tradition and wishes to perpetuate it, but who wishes also to be loyal to the truth as he understands it, including the truth that there don’t actually seem to be any such things as gods — for such a person, the Christians of antiquity and of the Middle Ages provide an invaluable example of how to honor, appropriate, and continue a great tradition whilst at the same time unflinchingly opposing some of the core beliefs on which that tradition is based.

A particular source of inspiration for me is the fourth canto of the Inferno. Dante and his guide Virgil visit the First Circle of Hell, to which are consigned good and honorable men who, not being Christians, are nevertheless damned because “they lacked baptism” and “did not worship God in fitting ways.” For the most part they represent the great men of pre-Christian antiquity, though some medieval Muslims (Averroes, Avicenna, Saladin) are also among them. Being serious about his religion, Dante never flinches from the harsh judgment it demands: that, Christianity being the Truth, non-Christians are, at bottom, wrong — ignorant, superstitious, damned. “Though they have merits, that’s not enough.” However wise and good they may have been in some ways, they were in the end — even Aristotle, “the master of the men who know” — simply wrong about that which mattered most. And so Virgil, as he prepares to lead Dante into the presence of such intellectual giants as Thales and Democritus, Plato and Socrates, Homer and Horace, says simply, “Let us descend into the blind world now.”

But Dante is no Vizzini (“Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.”), and despite his principled rejection of some of these men’s most fundamental beliefs, he approaches them not with contemptuous dismissal but with awe. “Great-hearted souls were shown to me,” he says of those he meets in the First Circle, “and I still glory in my having witnessed them.” And when he is invited to take his place among the great (damned) poets of the past — Homer, Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Virgil — Dante’s attitude is an appropriate mixture of pride and humility. “And even greater honor then was mine,” he writes, “for they invited me to join their ranks — I was the sixth among such intellects. So did we move along [together] toward the light.” There is in Dante’s attitude none of the wishy-washy “all religions are true” universalism, nor of the “formerly all the world was insane” cockiness, which characterize so much of today’s philosophical and religious discussion. And, despite his categorical rejection of paganism, he nevertheless aspires to be worthy of the great pagans’ company, to continue the tradition they began, to “move along” with them “toward the light.”

In my own reading of the great Christian literature of the past (and, very occasionally, of the present), the words of Inferno IV often come back to me. Opening up a volume of Augustine, of Traherne, of Dante himself, I think, “Let us descend into the blind world now.” These men were, in my judgment, simply wrong about some very important things, including, most fundamentally, the existence of God — but they were giants, masters of the men who know, spiriti magni, and it would be an honor to be worthy to join their ranks — not as a Christian, any more than it was as a pagan that Dante joined Homer and Virgil, but as part of a tradition larger and grander than any one creed — and move along toward the light.

Besides Dante, another useful model for how, as an atheist, to relate to religion is provided by St. Augustine and the metaphorical spolia Aegyptiorum he calls for in De doctrina christiana:

Moreover, if those who are called philosophers, and especially the Platonists, have said aught that is true and in harmony with our faith, we are not only not to shrink from it, but to claim it for our own use from those who have unlawful possession of it. For, as the Egyptians had not only the idols and heavy burdens which the people of Israel hated and fled from, but also vessels and ornaments of gold and silver, and garments, which the same people when going out of Egypt appropriated to themselves, designing them for a better use, not doing this on their own authority, but by the command of God, the Egyptians themselves, in their ignorance, providing them with things which they themselves, were not making a good use of; in the same way all branches of heathen learning have not only false and superstitious fancies and heavy burdens of unnecessary toil, which every one of us, when going out under the leadership of Christ from the fellowship of the heathen, ought to abhor and avoid; but they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them. Now these are, so to speak, their gold and silver, which they did not create themselves, but dug out of the mines of God’s providence which are everywhere scattered abroad, and are perversely and unlawfully prostituting to the worship of devils. These, therefore, the Christian, when he separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship of these men, ought to take away from them, and to devote to their proper use in preaching the gospel. Their garments, also,—that is, human institutions such as are adapted to that intercourse with men which is indispensable in this life,—we must take and turn to a Christian use.

Augustine’s approach is less humane, less graceful than Dante’s — he speaks in terms of plundering the paynims rather than of learning from the masters and “separates himself in spirit from the miserable fellowship” of those whom Dante was honored to join — and is in this way perhaps closer in spirit to many a modern atheist. But underneath the hostility lies the same call to move beyond the mere écrasement de l’infâme, to learn all that can be learned even from the “blind world,” to take in all truth everywhere with what David B. Hart, in his own description of the Christian spolia (qv), called “a kind of omnivorous glee.”

What makes this omnivorous glee possible? The overriding concern with truth as such, over and above any cultural loyalties, which has — if not always then at least impressively often — been a hallmark of the West. Contra Auster, I would say that to put the Western tradition above truth itself, to refrain from publicly attacking your society’s false beliefs simply because they are those of your society — to subject even philosophy to the standard “my country, right or wrong” — is to go a whoring after idols and, paradoxically, to betray the Western tradition.

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4 Comments

Filed under Christianity, Philosophy

4 responses to “On Auster, Dante, and being an atheist conservative

  1. not too late

    The real point is the vigor. When the values among the common folk will not sustain a thinking class, then you have problems. You can’t have a thriving thinking class with a bunch of lazy savages comprising most of the rest of society. They have to be organized and productive. Emphasis on productive. Soviet Union was organized but not productive. Sub replacement level fertility among the thinkers and vigorous grow among the lazy is not the picture you are looking for. Functional societies and cultures encourage growth among the productive and do not reward the lazy, mirroring the natural condition of the strong surviving. The religions varied but it is the results that matter.

  2. Best essay on secular conservatism I’ve read.

  3. Pingback: How crazy do you have to be to think you’re God? « Bugs to fearen babes withall

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