See Infra

Digging at the confluence of culture and everything else

On Intellectual Coherency and Morality

One brief programming note. I got rather unexpectedly busy with some meatspace commitments at the same time I decided to write up a brief history of the American religious liberty tradition. Brief, as it turns out, is still rather long. That piece will hopefully be appearing towards the end of this week, but it could take longer in an effort to get it right.

I want to talk briefly about a perennial debate about the moral coherency of secular liberalism/libertarianism in the West. The form that I am most fond of goes roughly like this.

  1. Modern day secular liberalism (a belief characterized by a belief in individual rights and a rejection of supernatural forces) is descended from the Enlightenment.
  2. The language and ideas of the Enlightenment have religious underpinnings
  3. Secular liberalism has removed religion without replacing the ideas an equivalent non-religious basis
  4. Ergo, secular liberalism is unmoored
  5. as a corollary the New Atheists are dumb and shallow

Now, I enjoy this argument because I like making a punching bag out of the popular New Atheist writers (who must console themselves with their financial success and prestige, but I also think it has merit. Even when I was inclined to agree with them, I’ve always found the “freethinkers” a bit smug, and frustratingly incurious about, well, everything. Most especially the odd correlation between the supposedly rational ideologies of libertarianism and atheism with the markers of privilege: whiter skin, higher class, better education, more wealth and Y chromosomes. As one would expect, my prescription is to look closer at cultural forces instead of the supposed power of Reason. That’s all well and good, but it’s important to understand what the argument doesn’t say.

The argument about the intellectual incoherence of liberal secularism is actually very limited. Now, the most casual observer of history should recognize that the moral codes in the atheism of the Western intellectual is not the Atheism that springs up for the Chinese intellectual, any more than the supernaturalism of Christianity resulted in the same morality as the super-naturalism of Confucianism. We are talking about observing the world-that-is. Whatever atheisms might exist in the abstract, there are atheisms in the world now and they are shaped to the cultures that birthed and continue to host them. Whether Western atheism is descended from Christianity, bolstered by Christianity, and encumbered by its Christian baggage is, at its heart, an empirical question. It is, not coincidentally, a somewhat boring question, because it’s never been made clear that intellectual coherency matters! That’s just one of those tricky shared assumptions that can be found in well, the Christian heritage of the Enlightenment.

It seems to me that we should first be asking whether or not intellectual coherency in moral ideas is actually correlated to moral behavior. That is fundamentally an empirical question as well, and I’ve never heard evidence that the correlation is anything but weak. For that matter, intellectual coherency doesn’t seem to prevent the transmission of moral ideas. If you have any doubt, try to figure out the rhyme and reason of the various restrictions and superstitions in sports playing and watching. This isn’t to say that questioning the intellectual coherency of atheism (or for that matter, religion) isn’t important, but rather to relegate it to its proper place in the scheme of things. Intellectual coherency may be a means to improve moral outcomes, but it does so at the margins. We really should be treating intellectual coherency as a small good in and of itself – and then be upfront that. Maybe if we remember the stakes, we’ll be just slightly less likely to use such discussions as a way to harm another for our own emotional security.

I can hope so anyway.


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