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A Secular Conservative Responds to Dennis Prager

I don’t write about religion very often, as I’m neither an expert on it nor a practitioner of it. Every once in a while, though, my ignorant heathenism becomes an asset in explaining some public controversy, and so it is with Dennis Prager’s challenge to “secular conservatives.”

His idea of where godless right-wingers come from is inconsistent with my own experience; most of his questions for us need to be posed to society at large, not just to us; and these days we are in fact quite good allies to the cause of religious conservatism.

He writes:

It is a testament to the power of our secular education — primary school through university — that it has successfully secularized students from conservative homes almost as well as students from liberal and left-wing homes. Most well-educated conservatives have embraced secular values and made peace with a secular and godless America just as much as have well-educated leftists.

Religious affiliation has actually declined about equally for the highly educated and the less educated, and while I can’t speak to anyone else’s personal experience, this narrative does not ring true to me at all. I was raised Catholic, attended catechism classes for more than a decade, and went to a public high school where most of the other students were at least nominally religious. If anything I faced pressure across the board not to abandon religion. I refused to get confirmed — a decision that caused considerable tension in many of my personal relationships — simply because I decided the Catholic Church’s beliefs were not my own.

(I often call myself an agnostic, but in reality even that requires a little too much commitment for my taste: An agnostic is supposed to believe that humans are incapable of knowing whether there’s a God, and how would I know what everyone else is capable of knowing? The full extent of my belief is that I don’t know.)

He then notes the importance that the Founders placed upon religion and asks secular conservatives a series of questions:

Do you think America will be able to prosper — or even survive — as the nation you love if the American people abandon God and religion?

Do you think the West will be able to do so?

What do you believe will give future generations of Americans meaning in the way religion has until now?

These are empirical questions, and I agree they are incredibly important. Religion might provide a lot of benefits to the world, and its steady decline might indeed be corrosive to society. (I touched on this a little bit in my review of Steven Pinker’s Enlightenment Now.) But that has no bearing on whether the claims of any given religion are true, which is the question one typically asks when deciding on a personal faith. So, these are things that society at large has to grapple with; they are not a reason for secular conservatives to rethink their own religious beliefs.

Next:

With regard to God and religion, how do you differ from left-wing secularists?

Secular conservatives and libertarians, including yours truly, generally side with religious conservatives on issues of religious liberty — perhaps the most important issues facing religious conservatives today. But even if the answer for some secular conservatives is “I don’t,” I’m not sure this is a big problem. It just means they’re generally conservative, but liberal on religious issues, and we really ought to have a tent big enough to accommodate such people.

Finally:

What book(s) do you believe ought to replace the Bible as providers of wisdom to the American people?

The word “replace” is inappropriate here; as Prager himself has noted, Americans in general know little about the Bible. This very much includes religious Americans in particular: Atheists and agnostics slightly outscored Christians on one test of basic Bible knowledge, in fact, and I learned a whole lot more about the Bible in a few college courses I took than I had in the aforementioned decade-plus of catechism classes.

But at any rate, I think people should learn the basics about the Bible even if they don’t believe a word of it, just as I think people should have a basic knowledge of civics and history. There are all sorts of different books that teach these subjects, including the one that Prager just published.

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