Thursday, November 02, 2006

John Derbyshire and God

In the history of the United States, there have been periods of intense religious enthusiasm. Historians speak of the First Great Awakening in the middle of the 18th century and the Second Great Awakening early in the 19th century. It might be that the post-World War II era was another Great Awakening when evangelical Christianity stirred unusual enthusiasm across the country. But this seems to be cyclical. And it seems that the latest Great Awakening is now waning.

I have seen this in my university students. In the early 1980s, I noticed that many of my students were "born-again Christians" whose faith dominated their lives. This was surprising, because when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I was told by many of my professors that religion would soon disappear as part of the "modernization process." They were wrong. In fact, some of those professors are now talking about the importance of religious belief in shaping political life. After all, the "clash of civilizations" that we now see in world politics turns on religious cleavages between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Although I don't think religious belief will ever disappear, because I think it is rooted in a natural human desire, I do see a weakening of the emotional enthusiasm that I once saw in my students. I have heard that many evangelical leaders are beginning to worry because they also see a dramatic drop in the number of young people attending evangelical churches.

This change is reflected in the American conservative movement. After a few decades in which the religious right has dominated much of the conservative politics of the United States, it now seems that many conservatives are questioning the assumption that conservatism must coincide with Christian evangelical orthodoxy. And some of this questioning arises from a move to Darwinian conservatism.

For example, John Derbyshire, an editor at National Review has just written a column on his lack of Christian faith.

Like me, he argues that there is still room to believe in something like God to account for the two fundamental mysteries--the mystery of the origin of the universe and the mystery of the individual human consciousness. But this "mysterian" openness to the divine is far from any orthodox religious tradition.

Derbyshire gives many reasons why he gave up his Anglican Christianity. The biggest reason, he says, was biology. As he studied biological ideas of human nature, he found it hard to see human beings as created in God's Image. That's why the Creationists hate Darwinian biology.

I would say, however, that the very mysteries of the origin of the universe and the human consciousness remain mysteries within Darwinian biology, which leave a big opening for religious belief.

Derbyshire asks the question of whether an irreligious person can be a conservative. He answers as I would. Yes, he can, because he can believe in "limited government power, respect for traditional values, patriotism, and strong national defense." Of course, "traditional values" might include religious belief. But some of the best minds of the Western cultural tradition have not been religious believers. Still, the conservative must respect religious belief, even if he does not accept it as strictly true, because he must recognize that it expresses some of the deepest longings of human nature.

"Conservatism," Derbyshire rightly observes, "has at its core an acceptance of, a respect for, human nature. We conservatives are the people who see humanity plain, or strive to, and who wish to keep our society in harmony with what we see. Paul Johnson has noted how leftists always used to talk about building socialism. Capitalism doesn't require building. It's just what happens if you leave people alone. It arises, in short, from human nature, and only needs harmonizing under some mild, reasonable, laws and customary restraints. You don't have to build it by forging a New Capitalist Man, or anything like that."

That's what I call "Darwinian conservatism"--a conservatism rooted in a realistic vision of human nature that is confirmed by Darwinian science.


John Pieret said...

The good folks over at the Discovery Institute, who regularly castigate Derbyshire's position on evolution, are setting out to "spank," among other people, you. (Nice company you have there, George Will and James Q. Wilson -- I don't know how Derbyshire got left out.)

I just wondered if you have any reaction. I think it is pretty funny myself.

Larry Arnhart said...


Thanks for alerting me.

I believe that this new book by John West is based largely on a long paper that he wrote for a panel at the last convention of the American Political Science Association. It was a panel on Darwinism and politics with John, me, and Carson Holloway.

I wrote a paper for the panel that is available on the APSA website.

I will respond to the book once I have seen it.

This confirms my impression that some of the folks at the Discovery Institute are concerned that many conservatives are beginning to turn against them.

In any case, John is a smart guy, and I'll look forward to reading his book.