This is point of inquiry for Friday, July 2nd, 2010.
Welcome a point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney Poonam Inquiry is the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs. And at the grassroots. This week, we have a special episode of the show recorded recently in AMR’s, New York, where I was in attendance for the annual Center for Inquiry Student Leadership Conference. Also on hand was my fellow co-host, Robert Price, and we conspired to get into the studio together to record a joint program slash debate. You see, it turns out Bob’s a conservative and I’m a liberal and we’re both atheists. Hence the question we discussed. Is there any necessary connection between disbelief in God in one’s place on the political spectrum? And let me say, it got pretty interesting. But without giving more away, I should introduce my guest, who’s also your host, Robert Price. Bob Price is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry. Institute, as well as the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism and a host of Point of Inquiry. His books include Beyond Born Again Deconstructing Jesus and the Incredible Shrinking Son of Man.
Bob, it’s great to be here with you. And we have decided we discussed it in advance, that we talk about a fairly incendiary theme we’re going to discuss. Must an atheist or secular humanist also be a liberal?
A fascinating topic. One I know a little about, except by observation that I tend to be a secular humanist and a conservative, however that happened.
And does that make you feel sort of a little bit on the outside, like everybody’s thinking a different way and maybe they’re even putting down things that you believe in?
Yeah. Though it doesn’t bother me because, I mean, probably not all of them are interested in H.P. Lovecraft and comic books either, but I held it against him. That’s not really why I’m into this.
Well. Well, why do you think that so many atheists, agnostics, seculars, etc. do tilt toward the liberal side of the spectrum?
I think they don’t like oppression, which one must not like. They don’t like authoritarianism, which has held down free thought and scientific advancement. And so wherever they see it or think they do, they don’t like it. And that’s understandable, though. I think sometimes that, Joe, quite often I think the jumping the gun. And so I disagree with their diagnoses often, but agree with their motives.
Good. Could you say some more about in particular areas where you think that that’s going on?
Well, it’s strikes me just as amazing.
Sometimes the the feeding is the reliance, it seems to me, on faith instead of facts. The very thing we excoriate when it when it comes to politics. There’s a kind of a commitment to a certain ideals and beliefs about the world that they will that liberals will not give up no matter what happens. One classic being warfare is the military action is always the last possible one, by which they mean it is ever receding and will never come. That diplomacy is always the way to go, which means unilateral pacifism is always the way to go, though they seem not to make that connection a minority do. And so you wind up fiddling while Rome burns. In the present case, if we can just temporize with Iran and look busy at the negotiating table, I just feel there are great dangers that people it’s almost like a futurist, Akala, cost denial. Oh, things could never come to that pass. So let’s just be nice and assume everybody else will be. These are not the facts. As Will Rogers once said, diplomacy is the art of saying nice doggy while you’re looking for a rock.
OK, so. So your brand of conservatism is tough on foreign policy. It is as economically conservative and socially liberal. I mean, I bet you we don’t have many social conservatives in the Freethought.
I yeah, I if the little I surmise about economics make me inclined toward conservatism there, because it sounds although I admit this is just purely private instinct, almost more than opinion. I hear that we have all this deficit spending and that the next generation is really going to be sold up the creek and all that. And yet I know that sounds alarming to me, though I must admit, I know so little about economics. I’m not sure what they mean. The results would be, are they going to be bread lines? Is it gonna be the my ma republic may be. I don’t know. And it’s never explained. So I tend to think it would be better to be fiscally conservative. But I, I’ve never studied it and don’t intend to spend any time studying it. So neither do I pontificate about that. And with social issues, I have to admit, I do feel there somewhere. I think that atheists are being imperialistic and they’d that it would be a little better to be conservative just in the nature of of of a democratic society. And Paul Kurtz once said that when he goes to France, he loves to go to the Catholic Church. It’s and he’s not thinking, oh, should I become a Catholic, I’d never enters his mind. But he sees it as a part of his old culture. That’s kind of beautiful. Suppose Paul were to make a total ass of himself and go over there with a sandwich sign and a megaphone at the church and say, oh, Catholicism is Drogon out here before the roof falls?
I never do that. And yet we have this this agenda that we must drop a neutron bomb on the public square where religion is concerned and pretend it’s the Soviet Union. I don’t think that secularism. I think that’s imperialism. And so I have a big problem with that.
That puts me shoulder to shoulder would if I were involved with it, with with more conservative people on other matters. But then again, I am very liberal when it comes to other was like gay rights. It’s obvious to me there’s no case against that.
Well, let me let me give you a bit of my take on this, because I’m well, I’m a journalist, but my I cut my teeth at a liberal political magazine, The American Prospect, founded by Bob Kuttner and Robert Raiche. And Paul started good, good liberal economists and thinkers. And I certainly am in that tradition. I would say it’s definitely not necessary that an atheist, skeptic, freethinker, etc. be a liberal. But I would also say that it’s extraordinarily unsurprising that so many of them are. And I think the reason you could start with Ronald Reagan and you look at the conjoining of the Republican Party with the Christian right, which starts at that time in American politics. And so then if you’re a secular person, you really got something to react against. You’ve got the first U.S. president to really endorse creationism. He’s a Republican, you know, and you’ve got all the fault, the policies that go with that. And at the same time, you also have the current Republican parties. I think he’s accurately described as being much closer to industry, corporate interests, et cetera, than the Democratic Party is. And we’ve seen again and again with corporate America that they sort of sponsor and are willing to attack science in any area in which it’s inconvenient to them. So, again, the skeptics, humanists, we like science, right? We don’t like people stomping on it. So if you know, the fossil fuel industry is going to twist the signs of global warming, then that makes us, you know, again, skeptical. So these ideas, I think they don’t have to travel together, but it’s not surprising they do travel together in America right now.
Yeah. Though, isn’t it interesting that it was Republican operatives that created the religious right up until that time?
They were saying, like Dwight L. Moody had once said, the world is is like the Titanic sinking. And God has told me, Moody, here’s a life raft. Save all your cans on politics. The sinking Titanic. What happened suddenly? Well, it was the Republican Party that said, hey, what about a moral majority? And went to Jerry Falwell and recruited him. So they were just trying to get some votes because here are co belligerents here with people that I don’t think they cared so much about the religion of any Falwell and his minions did. And maybe they can get the votes well, even in George W. Bush’s White House. Everybody made this man a dominionist and a fanatic. I knew that wasn’t true. But they they they they ignored the fact that the one they consider the real devil, the bald guy, what the heck’s his name? I can go. And senile is the architect Rove.
Yeah, an agnostic. And when they’re their liaison to religious groups quit, he said they used to ridicule us. These people were never dominionist that were just using the poor fundamentalists because they did agree with them on certain issues. So I’ve never been able to take it like they used to ask Reagan, do you have a personal relationship with Jesus? Lana, what? I think he understood what they were talking about. He didn’t. They said, oh, he must Bill believe the Antichrist is coming and he’s going to plan for Armageddon. That’s hot. Her nonsense. He never believed any such thing. But they like to obliterate any distinctions. And to me, I don’t really care if Sarah Palin is a Pentecostal or Huckabee as a Southern Baptist. Their dogmas as as entertaining and peculiar as they honor, won’t have any real effect on on the governance of the country. Even their views on abortion, anti-abortion Republicans, they never do anything to try to do, too. Oh, come on, Reagan have in the UK. So you’ll go girls and guys. That’s it. They never do anything and they’re never going to creationism. I suspect it’s the same thing. But if they ever did, that would be the thing to oppose. I don’t want to go with a one issue thing, so I’m not so sure about that.
But there’s an interesting theme there, because essentially what you were you argued first in terms of relationship between the GOP and the religious right is that it’s kind of cynical. Yeah, right. And and I’ve heard that before. And it might be true, but you also said that therefore, we don’t have to worry that the religious right is actually going to get what it wants in this relationship.
Wouldn’t know that wouldn’t follow. I admit they they could offer them something. We know you’re in this for some kind of results here. How about this? But I have yet to see what it is in any important way, like, let’s say the of the faith based initiatives. Everybody was for that. I mean, I used to operate one in a church I pastored. We didn’t have government help. If we had, it would have helped things and we weren’t in it for preach and we’re just giving food to people.
So I understood that. But I don’t like the idea either. And I was amazed. Al Gore did. I couldn’t believe it. I think Barack Obama did. So it almost becomes mood in terms of. Yes, it’s true.
If you look at the things that Bush did for the religious right. They weren’t the most radical things that they want. He didn’t. We’re not a Christian nation. Right. He didn’t didn’t really get us there. But maybe that was only because, you know, he did as much as he could. He could do politically.
But then kind of makes my point again. You’ll never hear. I’m supposed they start having every White House. So God bless our food and all that. Oh, I’m not going to worry about that. I don’t care what’s on the coins. Right. I could just say it could say, well, what me worry with Alfred Newman’s face. I don’t give a damn. So a lot of these things just don’t bother me. And I don’t know why they would bother anybody.
Well, then there. But the real thing here where I don’t know that this argument works is the Supreme Court. I mean, if you put real conservative people on the Supreme Court that the religious right want and you’ve got a Republican president, then they can do a lot of things over the course of there.
But I review the dangers of the left the same way, I think, with some of these people are coming up there just and time military. And they’re very dangerous. They’re politically correct in a time where we can’t afford to do that. Well, let’s not offend Muslim sensitivities. If it’s not nice to say don’t bomb us. I look. So, I mean, I’ve got worse worries on that side. And so the others are not unfounded, but.
Well, I think that you’re a real proponent of muscular Athie ism. Yes. Foreign policy. We will have to. We’ll have to sort of coin. Well, we already did coin. We’ll have to sort of market that phrase muscular.
One might even say calling on atheists, in my case, my political views. You don’t want to know what I think about some things.
Well, I’m going to I’m going to go along with you in the sense that I hear you saying that there’s a bit too much optimism in in the liberal sense of the world. And, you know, these ideas that go together. I’m a liberal, I’m pro science, I’m pro secular society. Let’s go make a better world together with all these all these radical friends. Bad idea. But but. But we. But it does get over too optimistic and too unrealistic about the world. I mean, I think that that can happen. That is the story of the French Revolution. You know, where you have you know, we’re gonna we’re gonna burn all the bad, you know, stuff to the ground and we’re gonna create a new society and it’s going to work great. And we’re scientists were rational people who are intellectuals. We can do this now. You know, you really could do that. And so but I don’t think that I don’t think that liberalism has to go head over heels into just wild eyed optimism. I agree. So it depends. I agree completely. OK, well, how much come as a conservative. How much do you get upset by wing anti science, which certainly does exist? I can sort of point to some areas where if it’s whether it’s attack on genetically modified foods or something like that, not based on really that great evidence or, you know, animal rights activists, bombing labs, what have you. I mean, there is left wing anti science, which would lend momentum to a conservative atheist.
Though I never. I realize that is just frontier looniness. There’s nothing about liberalism, persay, that would. Well, unless there’s the old bleeding heart thing that would incline one to to animal rights wrongly, because it’s it should simply mean we must be compassionate to animals without adopting this. I think obviously crazy view that animals have rights among the human community when they certainly don’t in their own right, will see the movie The Lion King, where you notice the animals that talk are like further human analogs, but there are others that don’t. So King will force the wise guy. What does he eat? Well, he’s a lion and it shows him chase and down antelope and kill on him and eat him.
Suppose they had the antelope speak and he is a murdering.
Well, now they’ve implicitly said Mofaz is really a human the as the just stupid animals like animals have no right to life among one another. How can they have it here among us. So that’s just a crazy view. It has nothing to do with liberalism intellectually.
Well, this is my this is my argument in the Republican war on science, which was that, yes, there is left wing anti science. It’s pretty fringe. The problem is, in the United States, right wing anti science is now in the government under George W. Bush. Essentially, there was the conjunction of the issues the religious right cared about and the issues that the corporate interests cared about, both merged and the Republican Party. So on the religious right front, it would be George W. Bush makes nice in his statements regarding intelligent design. George W. Bush limits embryonic stem cell research. George W. Bush and or his administration puts out misinformation about reproductive health, you know, tries to edit fact sheets at the food and drug, not the FDA, but the Centers for Disease Control about condom effectiveness and that kind of stuff, because the religious right is all into that. And then, on the other hand, they’re suppressing government scientists who work on endangered species, who work on climate, who work on these kinds of things. So I guess I would say that the mainstream Republican Party in the US is constituted in a way that these tendencies to attack science do get more considerable play there, not just fringe.
Well, look at Obama, though. This to me is a case of Rene Jarrad’s, the monstrous double. You can no longer tell who’s the good guy in a dog fight like that.
He’s fabricating a saying. All these big scientists agree with me and they come out with no, we don’t. What do you mean by putting our name on? It’s the same sort of thing because they have their own agenda. Why wouldn’t it be great to get rid of offshore oil? Then maybe we can use these guys as a ventriloquist dummies. Just just crummy politics, too, that none of them care about science. And I just what I would say is that it’s like same pornography is chauvinist stick. Notice two issues there. You can have egalitarian pornography. Same thing here.
You just have people opportunistically using science as a ventriloquist dummy, whatever their hidden agendas are.
Well, the problem I have with that, though, is OKso. So the oil spill is a unique moment in Obama’s whole political life. And the way he’s handled that is a whole issue unto itself.
I think maybe this is one example and to characterize.
But but generally in terms of him being a pro science president and he’s billed himself that way, no doubt about it. I’m not sure that it isn’t authentic because I don’t see really what the political dividend is. You know, it’s not like there’s this giant American constituency where if Obama says, you know, go science, we’re gonna restore science to its rightful place in American life, as he said, for the space program. Yeah. When he when he says that, I don’t think he gets votes just for that. I mean, you know, he knows what he has to do to get votes. And this is something that’s added on and seen as part of a part of the important agenda. And he did, you know, put a lot of very distinguished scientists into various advisory positions, including at the head of agencies. And he did give a heck of a lot of funding to science in the stimulus in the scientific community. Was extraordinarily psyched about that right after the Bush years. And he did roll back all of the perceived abuses against science of the Bush years. The only thing that he didn’t do, that sort of a central scientific issue was solved. Global warming, which is incredibly, incredibly hard to do, although many people say he hasn’t put enough energy into it because there’s an energy crisis.
Yeah. With a stem cell thing that Bush didn’t ban any such research. He just wasn’t gonna put the government behind it because it was like the abortion thing. Do we have just a genetic matter here? Do we have something that is potentially I mean, it’s really an Aristotelian question, not a religious question. As like, I think abortion. I can’t come up with any argument for abortion, that legitimating that would wouldn’t also legitimate infanticide. Which is the big reason I can’t go with it. But as a political matter, it is such a weaselly mess. I don’t think the government ought to legislate about it. But I can see both sides, and I think Bush really did have a point in terms of using human material. He didn’t want to step over the line at Nuremberg and and people scoffed at. But I think, you know, you’re impatient with with fine distinctions. There’s really a point here. It’s surprising that given what he does, he didn’t try to ban it. So, I mean, I don’t lose any sleep over that. But I think that one is like too often taken for granted. This as I don’t think it’s a religious doctrine.
Well, but the religious conservatives were very, very, very interested in this topic in a big way. And I agree with you. This is one of the sort of the bits of liberal misinformation that occurs. The description of his policy as a ban would definitely not be correct.
However, the description of his policy as limiting significantly the progress of important research by saying the government can’t fund research on anything but the existing lines, essentially, the government can’t fund research on anything but the old technology, which is what it amounts to because scientists will create new lines and those new lines will have new properties. And you can study those better and you can learn more and they’ll be more genetically diverse so that scientists need to work with government funding. So he really did shut down a pretty significant area of research by doing that and just forcing it to the private sector with the private sector doesn’t necessarily want to do the kind of basic research to understand the properties of embryonic stem cells. They want to know how am I going to take this to market? But there is a huge gap between, you know, basic knowledge and getting to market at that time. So they left a pretty big science gap.
But it seems to me you looked at it his way, which was not outrageous. I mean, it’s a slippery issue. He’s strong. He was trying to avoid saying, well, just cut some corners here and get to the result. It reminds me of a Star Trek Voyager episode where I’ve a conjure up from a data bank the likeness of some Cardassian scientists, too, who have a unique capability to get somebody, a crew member out of a coma or something. Well, they got to know, but they realized he was like a Gestapo. Scientists still these Frankenstein experiments. Could they legitimately bring his expertize online to say this person? Finally, the captain said, well, the hell with that. I want the crewmen back.
Let’s do whatever it takes. That’s a tough decision. But but it is a tough decision. There is this line of integrity. Do we want to say it’s okay to say and let the chips fall where they may? Frankenstein, come on. End the lab. I think that’s. It wasn’t specifically religious. I think there was a legitimate, though slippery moral point there.
It’s an interesting thing because it brings us back to this point about just how religious are the Republicans anyway, you know, with the neocons. I mean, you know, they’re they’re sort of conservative intellectuals. They’ve certainly made common cause with the Christian right. But I’m not sure that that many of them are really, you know, gung ho Christians.
I wouldn’t think so. They both have different reasons for supporting Israel. The fundamentalists, a biblically, they figure, you know, that’s the apple of God’s eye. We don’t want to be on the wrong side. The others say, well, they’re the only democracy. It’s an outpost of the West. And Israel says, look, I don’t care why you’re supporting us. I’m just glad you are. And they just that’s what politics is all about, I guess. Do our interests coincide on this matter? If so, we can work together.
Yes, fellow fellow travelers and I’ve often marveled. And others have as well.
Why is the Republican Party this strange beast where it’s got religious conservatives? It’s got people who don’t like taxes. You know, it’s got it’s got corporate America. And, you know, when I did the Republican War on science, one question I would get was, all right. You know, I agree with you that religious conservatives attacked science. Corporate interests attack science. Both are, you know, in the Republican Party. Why on earth are they such, you know, good bedfellows? Couldn’t you envision an issue where the two would come into quite clear conflict? And in some ways, the stem cell issue is that a bit in that limiting stem cell research is something that the Christian conservatives want.
But the biotech industry and pharma definitely don’t want, nevertheless, didn’t seem to break up the Republican Party when that happened. Maybe because they’re just you know, they realize that what they have the machine they have works pretty well. Fascinating. There’s probably other areas where you could do a similar analysis and say, why are you guys actually still bedfellows? And see the times they do start throwing the threads. They do. They do. But but. But normally, especially, I guess in the days when when everybody’s winning and everybody’s getting into office, you put those things aside.
And I feel like actually on the left, we sort of internally slaughter each other, not so internally. Everybody sees it happening all the time. And we’re never able to really march straight. Certainly, I think the environmental movement is incredibly fractious and has always sort of attacking one. But tax, another group attacked another group.
You know, sort of Three Stooges routine, you hit me and I’m like, we should really be more coherent in pursuing defense of the environment. Well, this is an interesting theme, though, this and it does actually boggle my mind a little bit to atheist. Opposition to abortion. Tell me a little more about that.
I mean, I’m not going to. I don’t think I’m going to agree with it. But you feel that way.
Yeah, I think it is murder, though. It might be second degree in many cases, but I realize it’s a very difficult issue. I have tried to see it. The abortionist we have taught this in ethics classes in college and tried to. I’ve gone through readings from people to different sides and I sort of wanted to be a good card carrying liberal, but I just couldn’t. I thought, you know, if you go along, this potential person are not actually persons because. Well, then then neither are infants. And I just couldn’t come up with anything that wouldn’t legitimate infanticide to.
But I realize that it is such a difficult issue that it would be better to be safe and not legislated. So I guess I wind up pro-choice, but I think morally, politically, but morally, I think it’s it’s wrong to do in almost all cases.
Well, that’s interesting. You know, Carl Sagan had a view on this. He said that, you know, third trimester, definitely too late by that point. You really have, you know, a feeling being. And that was really interesting. I think actually scientists take on the question.
So I believe he also said, where does life begin? Well, way back when, in the primordial stew of water carveout, that’s just to reduce everything that nothing and then nothing matters anymore. It’s the worst kind of secularism where there’s not even the sacredness of value attributed to anything that that I find frightening.
It’s interesting that we brought up Sagan because, of course, this goes back to my point about the Reagan administration and the squaring off of secular scientists against Republicans. I mean, he was in flagrant combat with the Republican administration over all things. So there. Yeah, well, you know, the Strategic Defense Initiative and disarmament and all the scientists signed up with say, let me be.
I don’t get it. Didn’t Reagan say that if you could make an effective shield against missiles, he would give it to the Soviet Union? So no one I know, he said it in a debate. What’s the problem with that?
The problem was that scientists thought you couldn’t make an effective shield against missiles.
That’s a scientific attitude. You know, we’ll never be able to do this. Let’s not even research it. That’s just like the creationist. And we could never find the autonomous Saajan of life. So we’re just sure there couldn’t be one. It must be God.
But it shows it shows because this this big rift, the opening between the scientific world and the GOP in that.
But I just I think that’s simply because of prior political commitments on the left side, not the nothing scientific about it or we’d never be able to do it. That’s great. Thanks, doc. Imagine medicine proceeding that way. Cancer. Look, I’m one of the chants. Let’s just forget it and take the money and go to Las Vegas. And nobody would do that. But do it here. Oh, yeah. We will never.
I mean, with this issue, I haven’t written about it in many years, but I do know that there was a strong consensus among physicists, technical experts, that it wasn’t workable and that numerous scientific reports made that point that Reagan was promising something that science couldn’t deliver.
That’s just in the nature of the case.
Well, we have actually we’ve been going at this for a while.
This has been a really interesting conversation about the relationship between atheist or secular values on the one hand, and one’s political view on the world on the other. And it’s really been great to talk to you about that. You anything you want to say to sort of sum up some of your your your thesis on this and then we’ll say goodbye.
Well, I just asked I say you ask yourself, does a conservative you want any particular view owe anything to religion? None of mine do. As far as I can tell.
And and just that the final thing, if only I could hear. I forgot about participating. If I could just hear discussion and dialog on this level on TV. Paul. Would it be loads better?
Well, we’ll have to we’ll have to get the TV show roll in, you and me. And we can we can go into these topics in a great deal more depth. My take, of course, is just to just to conclude is I don’t think there’s a necessary relationship between being liberal and being atheist. But I think that given the current configuration of politics in the US, it ain’t no shocker that you have them aligned that way.
It’s been it’s been great, Bob, to do this sort of special in studio episode of Point of Inquiry. Thanks for dreaming the idea.
I want to thank you for listening to this special two hosts episode of Point of Inquiry Tick involved in a discussion about the program. Be sure to visit our online forums by going to center for inquiry dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg.
Point of inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in AMRs, New York. And our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host. One of them, anyway. Chris Mooney.