The Conservative Atheist

At first glance, in the most vulgar, the title may appear as paradoxical. It is not in the least, and in fact is coherent when nuances are properly understood.

By conservatism I mean the conservation or preservation of culture, what I would dub the ‘bones’ of a civilization. The size of the state may or may not be conducive to this, and I do not mean conservatism in the ‘small state’ sense of the word. I mean conservative in the Chesterton, Belloc, Menken, or Eliade understanding. While each varied in their respective faiths (or lack of), they did demonstrate a full appreciation of the ‘social bones’ of society without reducing themselves to petty fundamentalists. Using the word ‘atheist’ I mean simply that, a lack of faith or lack of theistic belief. Please do not immediately weigh the word ‘atheist’ down with Dawkins or Tyson-like fetishization of scientism. That is a step too far in the context of this essay.

Since modernism came about, existentialist thought, the ‘death of God’, the atheist position has become entrenched in added connotations. Most recently has been the assumption an atheist must become an avid devotee to empiricism or scientism or rationalism, as well as secular humanism and progressivism. Originally atheism did not imply this nor carry the implication. There are numerous atheist writers and philosophers long before it became a trend or deemed fashionable whom did not subscribe to this. Some of them adopted gnostic-like tendencies, or pessimistic and absurdist perspectives. Even reaching back to ancient Greek or Indian schools of thought there existed atheistic or materialist positions which did not fall fill the ‘lack of faith’ with secular substitutes such as progressivism or humanism. I mention this to loosen the preconception our present time has with implicitly tying atheism with these other social trends. The kind of ‘New Atheism’ presented by Dawkins or Hitchens is indeed a new phenomenon, and in my opinion an incredibly poor presentation in contrast to the many greater thinkers who came before. I say the same regarding ‘skepticism’; those whom typically call themselves skeptics these days are ‘scientific skeptics’ only and have little reading of the ancient Greek skeptics. Again I find the former to contain far more wisdom and sincerity than the latest who seem to follow social fad rather than genuine inquiry.

That problem that has occurred since the spread of existentialism and eventual postmodernism is rampant reductionism. Materialist reductionism is without a doubt a powerful and valuable tool within science. The destruction occurs when reductionism is applied to life itself, to social mores, to meaning itself. If one is not careful they may spiral into reducing existence and self to nihil. Is man little more than chemical synapses in the brain? Is marriage nothing but an arbitrary social construct? Is religion an imaginary speculative construct that exists purely to manipulate or give false hope or provide power? Is patriotism total make believe, and if it is does that make it worthless? The list goes on and on. Once reductionism has begun, a drive to deconstruction, where does it end and what is its objective? The answer to the former is it doesn’t necessarily have an ending, and the answer to the former is what existentialists have attempted to remedy since before ‘God’ was ever pronounced ‘dead’ to begin with.

Reduction or deconstruction is invaluable, and any sincere self-inquiry and inquiry into existence will involve deconstruction. What must eventually occur is a shift from reductionism to holism, or rather one must admit that even if one does believe X is a fabricated social construct, it could very well have a pragmatic function for existing, both in society and in an individual’s existence. Here is a slight shade of which a devout atheist may lack faith or lack belief in the divine; one does not necessarily have to be committed to an objective transcendent truth of something to realize the transcendent value or functional value it plays in society or in an individual’s personal existence.

Indeed, I believe this is the increasing rift which has been called a ‘culture war’. There is one side whom devoutely believe in the religious objective transcendent truth of sacraments, such as marriage or attending mass. There is also another side that attempts to further secularization and social progressivism/deconstruction even to absurd details of public and private life. Personally I dislike both approaches with a passion because there is a lack of communication or no acknowledgment of nuances. When a tradition or social more is considered, one must ask, “What function does this play in society? in an individual’s existence?” To an atheist the eucharist may be an empty ritual of gestures honoring a nonsensical myth, be that true or not, to the existence of the individual whom has faith the eucharist is an incredibly powerful and sacred essential ritual. I am not saying it is relative, though I am saying the holistic value of the act must be acknowledged either way. When same-sex marriage was brought up, there were those whom said marriage was a sacred act strictly between man and woman. There were those whom say its purely a social construct and same-sex marriage would not be of any difference. The middle position of which an atheist conservative may hold is “This has been the definition of marriage for centuries. Marriage is an essential construct that plays a vital function in a civilization. Will the change of gender bring about unintended and destructive effects?” This is not a conclusion either way, for or against, rather a prudent pause to contemplate the change in an essential societal ‘bone’. Mind you I do not intend for this to sound consequentialist in ethic, only to highlight how an atheist can fully appreciate, acknowledge, and may hold a conservative position.

From a nation or international perspective one could easily say ‘national boundaries are imaginary’ or ‘nationalism is nonexistent, there are only individuals’. Again this is a reductionist approach that only seeks to breakdown instead of comprehending the whole value of the construct itself. Be it nationality, ethnicity, or religion, these are collective identities that give meaning and purpose. They may very well be ‘mere constructs’, but that does not imply they are arbitrary or without value. Quite the contrary, a collective identity may be essential for the unity or well-being of a people. We must be cautious when saying ‘mere constructs’, for these ‘mere constructs’ are what have waged wars as well as built civilizations over time. While it is true many injustices have been done in the name of ‘identity’, we wouldn’t be where we are today without times of collective identity, be it religious or national. There are others still who take ‘holism’ to mean ‘non-differentiation’. This is also a route to dissolution as much as reductionism is. Cosmopolitanism may announce we are ‘one man, one world’, but this is a denial of tangible differentiation and conflict thus aims for ‘holism for the sake of holism’. It neglects the value of constructs as much as reductionism does, only in a reverse direction.

Unfortunately with the deconstruction of constructs and identity comes the leftover absence of meaning, an existential vaccuum. This is where one sees the liberal left attempt to fill the absence with low quality substitutes. Whether it be the myth of progress, commodified social justice, or utopian-like cosmopolitan ideology. In short, the leftover absence that occurred after ‘the death of God’ and the spread of deconstructionism has been filled with poor inadequate substitutes that poorly mimic the norms of yesterday in existential value and relief. This doesn’t necessarily mean the remedy is purely reactionist, or a ‘return to tradition’ is mandatory. Simply put, no remedy or solution can be known until the current substitute is called out for the ‘snake oil’ that it is.

When one visits an art museum and lays eyes upon the most beautiful Renaissance art ever crafted, how can one say it is ‘mere paint on a canvas’ or ‘mere chiseled stone’. One does not have to have a deepseated faith in the divine or heavenly to see the transcendent conveyed through miraculous art. One does not have to be a theist to appreciate the sheer radiance and power of religiosity conveyed through art. It shouldn’t be a surprise that religious icons and decore could be enough in itself to convert the faithless to God. Whether one has faith or not, the resonating power of art is felt regardless. It ceases to be mere paint on canvas depicting a mythological figure, rather as a whole it is an emanating icon of something wholly Other. This is what I mean by acknowledging and appreciating the ‘bones’ of society, even if those bones are ‘social constructs’, they serve a purpose.

“I am preaching to the aristocrat, I mean the person who stands at the pinnacle of mankind and yet has the deepest understanding for the distress and want for those below.He well understands the Kaffir who only weaves ornaments into his fabric according to a particular rhythm that only comes into view when it is unravelled, the Persian who weaves his carpet, the Slovak peasant woman who embroiders her lace, the old lady who crochets wonderful things with glass beads and silk.

The aristocrat lets them be; he knows that the hours in which they work are their holy hours. The revolutionary would go to them and say: ‘It’s all nonsense.’ Just as he would pull down the little old woman from the wayside crucifix and tell her: ‘There is no God.’ The atheist among the aristocrats, on the other hand, raises his hat when he passes a church.”

Adolf Loos, “Ornament and Crime”

Natasha Black