By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
It was no surprise that there was considerable give-and-take in the comments section that followed Charles C.W. Cooke’s column in the online edition of National Review on February 26. Cooke, a graduate of Oxford and staff writer at National Review, argued that Brent Bozell, the director of the conservative watchdog group the Media Research Center, was gravely wrong when he criticized the Conservative Political Action Conference for inviting a group called the American Atheists to participate in its annual gathering in Washington in March.
Bozell had written that the invitation to the atheist group was “an attack on conservative principles” and “an attack on God Himself. American Atheists is an organization devoted to hatred of God.”
Cooke rejected Bozell’s position in no uncertain terms, using himself — along with George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Heather Mac Donald of the Manhattan Institute, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto, and television commentator S.E. Cupp — as examples of prominent conservatives who openly admit to being atheists.
I don’t know if this charge about Will, Krauthammer, and the others is entirely fair. I have heard them refer to themselves as “nonreligious,” but suspect they mean by that some form of agnosticism rather than full-blown atheism. But that is neither here nor there for the topic at hand. Cooke is an atheist who calls himself a conservative. He is not alone. I suspect that most readers of this column know individuals who take the same position as Cooke. Cooke argues he should not be “excommunicated from the Right” because of his atheism.
He insists that he does not harbor any “dislike” or lack of respect for those who believe in God. He does not think believers “any less intelligent” than himself. Beyond that, he concedes that religion “plays a vital and welcome role in civil society” and “has provided a number of indispensable insights into the human condition” and “acts as a remarkably effective and necessary check on the ambitions of government and central social-planners.”
He concedes that “it is Progressivism and not conservatism that is eternally hostile to variation and to individual belief, and, while we are constantly told that the opposite is the case, it is those who pride themselves on being secular who seem more likely and more keen to abridge my liberties than those who pride themselves on being religious.”
Cooke knows that there are those who will ask if he understands the implications of his position. He writes of how he is often asked, “If you don’t consider that human beings are entitled to ‘God-given’ liberties, don’t you believe that the unalienable rights that you spend your days defending are merely the product of ancient legal accidents or the one-time whims of transient majorities?”
He has an answer: “God or no God, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence are all built upon centuries of English law, human experience, and British and European philosophy, and the natural law case for them stands nicely on its own.”
He insists that a belief in human rights rooted in the work of “Locke and Newton and Cicero and Bacon and, ultimately, upon one’s own reason” can stand “without having an answer as to what created the world.”
The question, of course, is whether this line of thinking holds. Is it true that one need not believe in God to believe in the rights of the individual and a free society, such as that which developed in Western Europe and the United States?
Well, empirically, Cooke is correct. He is an example of just such an individual. That said, I would ask Cooke to consider what Edmund Burke meant by the phrase “unbought grace of life.” Burke used the term to admonish the 18th-century Enlightenment intellectuals who attacked the Europe of Altar and Throne and the traditional values of the Christian West in the name of liberty, equality, and the dignity of the individual citizen.
Burke pointed out that it was no accident that the idealists who championed these views were people who lived in the Christian West they were seeking to overthrow. In the passage that follows, Burke is reacting to the beheading of the Queen of France by the reformers parading under the banners of liberty, equality, and fraternity:
“Little did I dream . . . that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone.”
Precisely. Atheists, who profess their belief in individual rights, representative government, and the belief that it is healthy for a society to enshrine in its customs and laws what Cooke describes as “remarkably effective and necessary checks on the ambitions of government and central social-planners,” owe it to themselves to ask why these beliefs developed in the Christian West — and not under Asian and Arab potentates and Polynesian and sub-Saharan despots justifying their oppressive rule with animist mumbo-jumbo.
Cooke and the atheists who agree with him believe in human rights and the dignity of the individual not because of conclusions they reached through an application of unaided human reason. They believe in those things because they live in a society shaped by the values of the Christian West. It is no accident that Cooke has found that “it is Progressivism and not conservatism that is eternally hostile to variation and to individual belief, and, while we are constantly told that the opposite is the case, it is those who pride themselves on being secular who seem more likely and more keen to abridge my liberties than those who pride themselves on being religious.”
Take away the heritage of the Christian West and that is what you get.
I hesitate to speak favorably of the History Channel’s production The Vikings. It contains levels of violence and sexuality that many will find unpalatable. That said, the series features an intriguing exploration of the clash between the Christian values of a captured British monk and the pagan view of life of “Bjorn,” the young, firstborn son of the Viking leader. As the series unfolds, viewers experience the decency and kindness of Bjorn being overwhelmed by the brutal understanding of masculinity of his Viking elders. We see him developing a bloodlust shocking to see in a young and angelic-looking boy.
The point: The values enshrined by our society matter. They shape us. They form our sense of decency and shame. Charles C.W. Cooke should keep that in mind. His respect for human rights and individual freedom is not something he was born with. It came from the unbought grace of living and maturing intellectually and spiritually in a society that remains buttressed by strong elements of the heritage of the Christian West, in spite of the best efforts of the secular left to undermine them.
He should also keep in mind what happens to a once-Christian society when that heritage loses its power to ennoble its citizenry. We have examples: France during the Reign of Terror, Germany under the Nazis, Russia under the Bolsheviks.