According to the sort of wisdom one gleans from overhearing people at social gatherings and coffee shops, as with milk and vinegar one ought never to mix religion and politics. The degree to which this is true depends heavily on what is meant by the word “mix”; for theocracies have certainly in most cases been of the most tyrannical variety, tending as they do to place a divine impetus behind any and every moral atrocity. C.S. Lewis observed that “theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us” (The Weight of Glory). Indeed, history makes a truly damning case against any system of governance that grants tremendous power to broken and afflicted men – which is to say all men.
It is, however, a great error to suppose that, as Mr. Hitchens bitterly put it, it is religion that poisons everything. This is an increasingly popular sentiment, and its refrain echoes down the halls of the university and is reverberated by young atheists before they have scarcely learned how to spell “Nietzsche.”
But even if Mr. Hitchens were correct, then surely none of us, not even the ostensibly impervious Mr. Hitchens himself, is exempt; for whatever ill effects we may be forced by circumstance to endure at the hands of others – as in a theocracy – the greater and necessarily more potent dose of poison is the one self-administered. Philosophy – for that is what a religion is, after all – cannot be escaped. If a person believes anything, he believes in a religion. As any parent will attest, this religion is from the earliest moments of childhood one of Self. It is only later that some children learn clever nomenclature by which to declare in exalted tones their religion of Self as being one of utilitarianism or humanism or collectivism – all various philosophical rearrangements of social self-service.
Contrary to what one might initially be inclined to suppose on the basis of the terminology, there is no atheistic utilitarianism, no atheistic system of ethics, that is not at its very core selfish. Materialism has the very unpleasant consequence of making selfish even the motivations for altruism. The opening line of Oscar Wilde’s 1891 essay, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, reads, “The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody” (emphasis mine). Wilde’s honesty is exceedingly rare in such circles. Any notions of selflessness espoused by a materialist cannot be anything but farcical; and any materialist who is not a hedonist must be a very foolish materialist indeed, for he has been duped into thinking that there is some “greater good” that exists outside himself, beyond his short life, and for which he ought to sacrifice. Reflecting on his eventual abandonment of Leftist ideals in the conclusion to his memoir, Hitch-22, Christopher Hitchens writes:
I suspect that the hardest thing for the idealist to surrender is the teleological, or the sense that there is some feasible, lovelier future that can be brought nearer by exertions in the present, and for which “sacrifices” are justified. With some part of myself, I still “feel,” but no longer really think, that humanity would be the poorer without this fantastically potent illusion. “A map of the world that did not show Utopia,” said Oscar Wilde, “would not be worth consulting.” I used to adore that phrase, but now reflect more upon the shipwrecks and prison island to which the quest has led. (p. 420)
The only kind of sacrifice that a materialist can consistently endorse is the kind that has some prospect of benefit in the here and now. Any notions of the “greater good” or objective progress, political or otherwise, necessarily assume the existence of a kind of transcendence that can only reside in the supernatural. Thus, the professing materialist who fiercely defends selflessness as a virtue is not really a materialist at all.
It cannot be called clever – cute, perhaps – the way in which some atheists claim in bouts of counterproductive conceit to only “lack belief” in God, rather than believing positively that God does not exist. Nevermind that this places them squarely on par with rocks, cats, and every other thing incapable of thought or rationality. Theists, on this view, are literally the only exception to that which may be called “atheist.” Yet how mendacious it would be of theists to espouse a lack of belief in atheism rather than to assume the burden of proof that necessarily accompanies every positive claim! Atheists ought not to get a pass in fancying themselves devoid of religion simply because they have defined religion in such a way as to exclude themselves. They are like the politician who fancies himself above politics by referring to himself as an “independent.” The person who considers himself a strictly objective observer simply because he ascribes to a form of philosophical materialism exhibits a very crass sort of disingenuousness, as if because of his rejection of the supernatural his actions (and therefore his politics) do not arise as a direct result of his deeply held beliefs.
The person who thinks it possible to separate religious conviction from political influence shows that he understands neither religion nor politics. One’s religion necessarily touches everything, or else it touches nothing, and therefore cannot be said to be a religion in any meaningful sense of the word. A professing Muslim, for example, who neither prays, nor exercises charity, nor fasts, nor makes the hajj is as good a Muslim as any atheist, and indeed–if he were honest with himself–might very well be one. He is like the atheist who acts selflessly.
Acting on the basis of religious conviction does not necessarily imply a coercive governmental system (i.e. theocracy). A person is not only able to exercise his convictions without becoming onerous, he truly has no choice in the matter. He can choose not to oppress those with whom he disagrees, but he cannot choose to act apart from his convictions. Claims that any influence of religious conviction upon politics is oppressive (or preventable) cannot be regarded seriously. A person claiming to act in denial of his personal philosophy only serves to clarify just what is his true philosophy. A politician claiming, for instance, to value the lives of unborn children, yet who endorses legislation to the contrary by way of appeals to a Jeffersonian “wall of separation,” only shows that his true beliefs (and therefore his religion) afford a higher value to personal “liberty” – a truly vulgar use of the word in this context – than to the preservation of life. We may well argue the degree to which one’s beliefs ought to take shape in public policy – a distinction similar to that between applied ethics and morality – but it is not my intent to do so here; only to suggest that a complete detachment is impossible.
Thus, conceptions of politics that envision policy derived apart from one’s fundamental beliefs are illusory. In justification for such a notion, however, one often hears atheists make monopoloid claims upon “reason” as being their sole guide. These atheists exhibit a fundamentalism worse than even the most legalistic Christian; for at least the Christian realizes he has a religion. This sort of atheist is so religious, so blindly devoted to reason, that he is not even aware of it. (Nevermind that, despite Kant’s impressive efforts, virtue seems not to be explained–at the very least not without great difficulty–by the proposal that it is grounded in rational principle.)
But a person need not be aware of his own religion in order to exercise it, for it is out of the overflow of the heart that the mouth speaks (Mt. 12:34). Everyone lives his life by what he believes, consciously or not, to be true; that is his religion, and no amount of semantic squirming or disdain for the word is capable of severing the necessary dependence of his actions (and votes) upon it.