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Defending Atheists

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief as I read Richard John Neuhaus’ contentious article, “Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?” (August/September) I hope that this is not the opening salvo by neoconservatives to deny nonbelievers their legitimate rights as citizens. To maintain that the criterion of being a “good citizen” is that a person have an “ultimate allegiance” to the City of God may lead to a new form of bigotry and intolerance. In the past, Mormons were not considered good citizens because they practiced polygamy, Jehovah’s Witnesses because they would not salute the flag, Quakers because they were pacifists, and Roman Catholics because it was thought they held a higher fealty to the Vatican.

Historically, large numbers of theists who believed in the Fatherhood of God did not believe in democracy, but in the divine right of kings, aristocracy, oligarchy, even dictatorship. Today hundreds of millions of Muslims believe in God yet have no commitment to ordered liberty or democracy. [For their part,] most atheists are good citizens and have a deep loyalty to our constitutional liberties. Perhaps 8 to 10 percent of the American population may be considered atheists or agnostics, and 40 percent of Americans are unchurched. If we were to follow Mr. Neuhaus’ logic we might have to read out [of society] a great number of fellow Americans.

Mr. Neuhaus does not wish to include Sidney Hook with the atheists, and he writes that Hook was an “agnostic.” Having known Sidney Hook and worked closely with him for over forty years, I can assure you that Sidney considered himself an atheist. The burden of proof, he said, rested with someone who made a claim (e.g., that mermaids exist. Or the Tooth Fairy. Or God.). If one could not find sufficient evidence or good reasons to support the claim, one might consider oneself an unbeliever—in Hook’s case, an atheist. Please, Mr. Neuhaus, do not impugn the loyalty or good citizenship of millions of Americans just because they do not share your theistic outlook.

Paul Kurtz
Free Inquiry
Buffalo, NY

Richard John Neuhaus’ article was both shallow and unfair. He offers no evidence whatever that atheists or nontheists in the aggregate are worse citizens than traditional theists. Are nontheists less patriotic, less honest, less involved in the political process, less dependable, less hard-working, less devoted to spouse and children, less neighborly, less ethical? Not a shred of empirical evidence does he present.

Poll data suggest that about one-third of Americans (and probably a larger percentage of Europeans) see no good reason to include in their worldview a belief in a personal, prayer-answering, intervening-in-history deity. These people are not philosophers, but people of all classes, educational levels, and walks of life who try to live ethical, meaningful lives as individuals and as citizens of Boston or Barcelona, New England or Catalonia, the U.S. or Spain, the world. Yet few describe themselves as “atheists,” a negative term that conveys no information about what one values or tries to live one’s life by.

Neuhaus’ division of humankind into theists (the good guys) and atheists (the not-so-good guys) is, to repeat, shallow and unfair. It would be more useful to position people along a continuum, measuring their commitment to the highest ethical values, democracy, civil liberties and human rights, social responsibility, reason, caring, etc. In the real world, theists, Christians, Jews, Humanists, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, nontheists, etc. would be scattered from one end of the continuum to the other.

Edd Doerr
American Humanist Association
Amherst, NY

An atheist cannot be a good citizen.

So Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina are correct in requiring that holders of public office must believe in a supreme being, because an atheist might do what Christians do, such as steal from the public like Rev. Jim Bakker, have a little sexual fun like Rev. Jimmy Swaggart, prey on gullible followers like Rev. Oral Roberts, have an affair like Archbishop Eugene Marino, sexually molest children like Father Gilbert Gauthe and Father Thomas Chleboski, defend a fraudulent rape like Rev. Al Sharpton, undermine the Constitution like Richard Nixon, lie to Congress like Oliver North, take bribes like Spiro Agnew, give bribes like Charles Keating, keep an astrologer like Ronald Reagan, violate the international law like William Casey, harass civil rights groups like J. Edgar Hoover, accept bankers’ largesse like Fernand St. Germain, manipulate funds like Speaker Jim Wright, and so on for a few hundred million more?

It certainly is time for some Christians to dump their supercilious self-righteousness.

Hugo Borresen
Alexandria, VA

Richard John Neuhaus responds:

The article in question explicitly stated that atheists are citizens and, unlike many theists, are often exemplary citizens in many respects. They cannot, however, be good citizens in the sense that good citizens must be able to give a morally compelling account of this constitutional order in continuity with its constituting beliefs. I suggest Mr. Kurtz et al. rub their eyes again and read the article. There is no disagreement whatever that some atheists are in their personal and public behavior morally superior to some theists.

Defending Russell Kirk

Conservatism has always been an inclusive movement eschewing the legalism of big central government in favor of liberty both for the individual and for freely constituted communities of individuals. James Nuechterlein’s neoconservative polemic masquerading as a book review (“The Paleo’s Paleo,” August/September) would diminish the inclusiveness by demanding a political correctness that would exclude not just Russell Kirk but a large number of intelligent, classical conservatives.

In suggesting that Kirk cannot accept that “the major tradition to be preserved is classical liberalism . . . more specifically, . . . the American regime of bourgeois democratic capitalism,” Nuechterlein errs as to the true American tradition and misapprehends Dr Kirk. America has become a bourgeois democratic capitalism but its tradition is one of republican parochialism. And whether or not Mr. Nuechterlein likes that tradition, a long history of uniquely American ethnic and religious communities attests to its vitality. Dr Kirk’s misgivings about democratic capitalism as it exists in modem-day America apply more to the increasingly oppressive federal bureaucracy required to impose it on communities with whose nature it is incompatible than it does to capitalists who love the rat race and freely choose that way of life.

Finally, Mr. Nuechterlein’s derision of Russell Kirk for using T. S. Eliot’s phrase “the permanent things” seems hypocritical coming from the editor of a journal called First Things . If First Things is not big enough to include a place for the permanent things, then First Things has become too small. Perhaps Mr. Nuechterlein objects to any use of a T S. Eliot phrase; more likely he objects to the notion that the neoconservative doctrine of democratic capitalism is not only not the major tradition of America but is, as Dr Kirk suggests, a major cause of the decline of republican virtue in American life.

Tom Blair
San Pedro, CA

There are many criticisms to be made of The Conservative Constitution by Russell Kirk, and many of them have been made in sundry journals, though not as superficially and as personally as in James Nuechterlein’s review. Indeed, of the ten paragraphs devoted to assessing Dr Kirk’s work, barely one is devoted actually to presenting fully and examining critically the theses of the book under review. Instead, the reviewer contents himself and confines First Things ’ readers to creative but ultimately unhelpful (if not untruthful) caricatures of the author.

Chief among the review’s plaints is that there is an “American reality” with which conservatives of the persuasion enunciated for many years by Russell Kirk and others have “very little to do”; thus does Mr. Nuechterlein express the dismissive sentiment that appeals in 1991 to “the permanent things” render their champions “little more than curiosities.” Are your readers to conclude that accommodation to the “reality” of the present era is necessary to intellectual integrity and discourse, and that recourse to the country’s founding document or its original customs and conventions (the actual thrust of Dr. Kirk’s book) is but an oddity?

In the foregoing paragraph, your correspondent has offered more direct quotations from the review than the pseudo-review of The Conservative Constitution offered from the book. Hardly more comprehensive is the reviewer’s synopsis of Dr. Kirk’s treatise, which confessedly is a patchwork of fifteen lectures, a synopsis necessary apparently only to permit the declaration that “the major [American”though not demonstrably constitutional] tradition . . . is classical liberalism.” The reviewer’s hastiness in this regard leads to several errors, among them the statement that ours is a regime of “bourgeois democratic capitalism,” a regime of which Kirk, it is suggested, is “scornful.” On the contrary. Kirk has elsewhere written convincingly of the merits of bourgeois life; the burden of his writing is, rather, that the bourgeois age is, lamentably, gone, and has been supplanted by a post-bourgeois regime directed by various managerial elites that are indifferent if not antagonistic to constitutional restraints and the underlying (conservative) dispositions of the American people. This very point, which is central to (again citing the review) “those of a reactionary bent,” has been made in major works by at least two of First Things ’ own editorial advisors.

Nuechterlein is correct at least in insisting that Kirk is not successful in demonstrating convincingly that Edmund Burke exercised a decisive influence on the American founders, though he does not point out that Kirk does appear successful in arguing that Montesquieu and Hume were more influential—if usually without attribution—than Locke. But Nuechterlein is guilty of at least as serious an unreality as Kirk may be of Burke when he leaps to the pronunciamento that democratic capitalism is the genuine contemporary expression of the original American tradition. Many an Antifederalist, and many a Federalist, too, would against such a claim be as aggressively “resistant to modernity” and also as eloquently given to the Tory Harrumph as is Russell Kirk.

David A. Bovenizer
Vice President & Senior Editor
Regnery Gateway
Washington, D.C.

Kidnapping the Pope?

Your editorial (“That Encyclical,” August/September) saying that Centesimus Annus is a strong endorsement of capitalism seems to be part and parcel of a general attempt by the neoconservative faction in the United States to kidnap the Pope. It won’t work, any more than did the efforts of some liberal theologians to make Jesus Christ a Marxist.

The encyclical sums itself up on economic systems by saying: “The church has no models to present.” Are we to take it that there is in that plain, straightforward statement some papal casuistry that hides a strong endorsement of capitalism?

As for the merits of capitalism, or “new capitalism” (whatever is that?), John Paul says: It all depends! What does one mean by “capitalism”? The Pope says a market economy is to be condemned unless it is “circumscribed within a strong juridical framework.” He makes clear that he is talking about governmental limits on free markets. Is your term “new capitalism” meant to include all those restrictions the pope demands? The pope deliberately and wisely said he would prefer not to describe what he favors as capitalism at all.

This encyclical is not a watershed in Catholic thinking on economic systems. It has by no means “shaken the foundations” of conventional Catholic wisdom. In fact—and the Pope makes this clear repeatedly throughout the encyclical—it is a restatement of the church’s conventional wisdom on the subject, going back one hundred years to Rerum Novarum, with an attempt to relate this thinking to a new scenario in Europe. That conventional wisdom, as taught in Catholic schools, study clubs, and universities for many years, is that Communism is inhuman, socialism is defective, and capitalism has some things to commend it, such as private property, but also has some very dangerous aspects that have caused grievous human suffering in the past and are still causing suffering in many places.

Because you took a jibe at the American bishops for their pastoral letter on the economy, it must be said that their document’s observations about capitalism are still true and have been proven true again by what has transpired in the U.S. financial world in the four years since that document was issued.

“Conventional wisdom” has not been overthrown. And why should it be if it is still valid?

Richard M. Harnett
S. San Francisco, CA

The Editors respond:

The reference to the “new capitalism,” a phrase that seems to puzzle Mr. Harnett, is not ours but is taken from the text of Centesimus Annus.

Postmodernism and Deconstruction

I felt a ripple of dissonance when I read Phillip E. Johnson’s statement: “Postmodernist philosophy is inherently nihilistic and atheistic” (“Presbyterians for GLARF,” August/ September). As a practicing Roman Catholic, I began to examine my personal variant postmodern philosophy for traces of meaninglessness and impiety. My dissonance passed quickly when I realized Johnson’s condemnation of postmodernism was excessive.

Johnson’s contention that postmodernists separate any text from the intentionality of its author is wrong. Deconstructionists do this, but not all postmodernists. The terms are not synonymous. All deconstructionists are postmodernists, but not all postmodernists are deconstructionists.

One cannot actually practice literary deconstructionism in the Lebenswelt. Why buy a morning paper if texts have no meaning? On the other hand, deconstruction can be used as an analytic technique to tease out subtle significations of the text. Texts can be treated at a secondary level of analysis different from the first order analysis that looks at intentional meanings. Texts can be isolated solely as objects of research for reasons other than communication of authors’ meanings . . .

Some brands of postmodern philosophy are nihilistic and atheistic. More to the point, they are misnamed and mere vehicles of political opportunism. First, the overwrought pursuit of absolute tolerance for, and acceptance of, sexual practices deemed perversions by Christian tradition is more appropriately identified as Enlightenment modernism and not, as Johnson would have it, postmodernism. Second, the demand for acceptance of homosexuality by Christian churches on the grounds of “fairness” and “tolerance” represents an attempt to capitalize on a rampant mindless egalitarianism that has polluted American society.

Other versions of postmodern philosophy are more congenial to traditional Christian teaching. The postmodernism that some of us propose has for decades attacked the dogmas of rationalism and “scientific” positivism, and has argued against the Cartesian heritage: a neurotic passion for certainty, a sterile definition of rationality, and a fixation on method as the warrant for certainty.

More affirmatively, some kinds of postmodern philosophy conceive of objectivity and subjectivity not as separate orders of reality but as poles that delimit a field of experience within which understanding takes place. Applied to the matter of textual interpretation, this means that understanding occurs at the juncture between the author’s intended meaning and the meaning projected into the text by the interpreter in the very act of reading.

Applied to the acceptance of homosexuality by Christian churches, this means that acceptance occurs at the interface of objective moral norms and the subjective conditions that dispose a person toward homosexuality. The outcome of this is quite traditional: we accept both objective moral norms and the subjective conditions that dispose some persons toward homosexual behavior. We hate the sin and love the sinner. We champion the norm but do not attempt to judge the hearts of those who violate the norm. Only God has a God’s-eye view into human hearts.

Finally, I suggest that at its best postmodern philosophy represents the cleansing and redemption of Enlightenment philosophy. Blanket condemnations of postmodernism are neither logically secure nor appropriate.

Leon McKenzie
School of Education
Indiana University
Indianapolis, IN


Quentin L. Quade’s review of David Walsh’s After Ideology (“Beyond Modernity,” August/September) devotes most of its space to exposing three “fundamental confusions.” These criticisms are largely misconceived.

First, Prof. Quade argues that Walsh’s “drive to symmetry” leads him to force his “four exemplars” (Camus, Dostoevsky, Solzhenitsyn, and Voegelin) into becoming “more alike than they in fact are.” This is to misconstrue Walsh’s project as some kind of literary or biographical history. What Walsh has actually done is to select four men who have lived through and written about the collapse of ideology in their own lives. These “cathartic thinkers” have “found within modernity itself . . . the possibility of transcending it . . . without derailing into the self-contracting resolve to dominate” reality, as Nietzsche tragically did. Drawing on their own records, Walsh has constructed a model for our postmodern struggle. Like any such model, it is based on but not limited by the data that suggested it. These data can subsequently be “corrected” in the light of the model. In other words, each exemplar provides data by which any other can be “adjusted.”

Prof. Quade offers as the “most striking example of Walsh’s drive to symmetry” the presentation of Camus as “pre-Christian.” But what Walsh means is simply that Camus “has brought the problem (moral judgment in a secular world) to a clear state of development.” Since “there is nothing of the Nietzschean or Marxian perseverance in self-deception,” Walsh concludes that Camus is “poised for the opening toward grace,” on the basis of what he has learned about “openness to being” from the collective experience of his exemplars. This is an inference, not a claim to “know how Camus would unfold.” As the quotation shows, Walsh’s model has a very important and very orthodox role for grace in the actual response to the crisis of modernity by Camus or any one of us.

Secondly, Prof. Quade objects to “Walsh’s tendency to elevate struggle over perception,” and gives as “a prime example” a paragraph dealing with Jacques Maritain. This example does not show that Walsh characterizes the simple believer as “limited by an assumed faith, in contrast to the book’s four heroes who attain reality only through struggle.” A case can easily be made that belief arising or perfected in struggle is “higher” in some sense, e.g., the case of C. S. Lewis, who moved far beyond the bluff dogmatic prose of Mere Christianity, a book Prof. Quade cites as an unquestionable touchstone of orthodoxy.

But Walsh is making a different point. The men Walsh has chosen to study are uniquely relevant to our time and need. It is precisely because their faith is a cathartic product of our age that they can be appropriated as guides. Pace the “Peasant of Garonne,” “it is not enough to assert Christian principles as right; their rightness must be grasped as a participation in the highest living reality.” Only by revealing the actual experiential basis of secular ideology (which Voegelin diagnosed as the Gnostic “hatred of God”) can its really existing power over us moderns be grasped and overcome. Only through that struggle can the divine reality become a real alternative in our lives, able to overcome the fatal attractions of ideology. In this light, we can see that Prof. Quade’s third objection, demanding to know “exactly what kind of conversion is involved” in restoring political order, is deliciously ironic. Clearly Prof. Quade thinks the world just hasn’t read enough handbooks of Thomistic metaphysics.

James J. O’Meara
Long Island City, NY