Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Why we "cling" to our guns and religion

OK, I suppose it shows how little interest I've had in this election, until Smoking-hot Sarah entered the race, but it's just now occured to me what bothers me about an Obamagaff made a political eternity ago (or several weeks in normal-people time).

That one about how we in "flyover country" (not his formulation) "cling to our guns and religion."

Something about it was bothering me in a way I couldn't quite define until now.

It's this, you only "cling" to something someone is trying to take away from you.

The remark itself presupposes that guns should be taken away from people, and religion evicted from the public sphere. Specifically, small-town America kind of people.

This of course, is not a new issue. I could go into why guns are part of the fabric of life in western small-town America: hunting and fishing are very popular hereabouts, guns are actual tools for farmers, rural people often live quite far from even the fastest response time for law enforcement, etc.

But I won't.

The reason we "cling" to our guns, or (for those of us who may not actually have any at home) our right to have guns, is that we don't trust you.

Yes you. All of you right-thinking, "progressive," "compassionate," "liberals" who are "always on the right side of social issues" (George Clooney.)

Your motives, so you say, are the best. I actually have my doubts, but I'll concede for the sake of charity.

Your methods are totalitarian. And you regard us, people who don't think like you, as in the way of what you regard as "progress."

The first you may dismiss as my opinion. The second you cannot, because you say so yourselves at any opportunity.

And I'm not going by the rhetoric of politicians, but personal conversations with any number of left ideologues who are not politicians, and thus far more honest in their publicly expressed opinions.

And as to religion, well I don't personally have an opinion on religious dogma I'd stick a finger in a match for, but more and more it is bothering me that the expression of the sincere beliefs of good people who are my friends and neighbors, are being restricted and mocked in the public sphere.

The reasons my neighbors "cling" to their religion, are their own. I don't know them, because I don't share them, but I can speculate.

1) Culture, the continuity with the past that lead to what we are - which assumes that we are by-and-large happy with what we are.

Whatever I may, or may not believe, I like being part of Judeo-Christian culture.

"Honor the stranger that is within thy gates, for once you were slaves in the land of Egypt."

"Whither thou goest, I will go. Whither thou lodgest, I will lodge. And thy people will be my people, and thy god, my god."

"Do any here condemn thee? Then neither do I. Go thy way and sin no more."

These are the thoughts that shaped the ethics and customs of my people. You could certainly do worse - and many have.

2) Morality. I may have problems with ethics that are handed down unquestioned from On High, but the fact is, (with apologies to my Objectivist friends) I haven't found a satisfactory philosophical basis for ethics that is not centered in religion either.

I've seen atheist individualists go into the most amazing (and amusing) intellectual contortions to justify, not bad behavior, but good behavior that they know deep inside to be right!

I'm not saying that someone won't eventually come up with such, but how much you want to bet it'll be intellectually accessible to the vast majority of folks who aren't philosophers?

3) Existential pain. We're going to die. Every last one of us. And the one thing that separates us from the animals is that we know this, even when we're not in mortal danger. We know this, on some level, at every waking moment from the time we first realize our mortality.

We're going to leave all the people we love, and worse, some of them are going to leave us first.

Not everyone can live with this, without the belief that it'll be made right somewhere in the hereafter.

Is this belief a myth, crutch for those who can't look reality in the face?

So what do you call someone who goes around kicking crutches out from under people; a fearless seeker of the Truth, or a bloody sadist?

And more and more these days, I've had my nose rubbed in the observation* that, "When men no longer believe in God, they do not believe in nothing - they believe in anything."

Can anyone doubt this when confronted by academics who "cling to" Marxism, and the religion of Statism, after all the experience of the 20th century?

Or just listen to the New Age babble of the "progressive" non-traditional churches.

This is what you would substitute for what you so plainly regard as our irrational superstition?

The answer from the heartland, is "No!"

And in case you don't hear it, or are not willing to listen, well that's another reason we "cling to" our guns.

*Attributed to Chesterton, though apparantly no one can find it in the corpus of his published works.


  • At 8:44 AM, Blogger dchamil said…

    "kicking crutches out from under people" ...
    a great descriptive phrase. They do it because it gives them a rich glow of self-righteousness.

  • At 9:45 AM, Blogger Geoff Holtby said…

    "These are the thoughts that shaped the ethics and customs of my people."

    I don't think they have. As you say later, most of us have some sense of ethics regardless of our creed. We recognize "good behavior that [we] know deep inside to be right" and we can do so without any reference to Biblical teachings. I would argue that Biblical morals come from our inborn sense of right and wrong, rather than the other way around. Or are we to believe that until the Jews got to Sinai, they were laboring under the misapprehension that murder, theft and adultery were all perfectly acceptable?

    Furthermore, it's interesting to note the widely-shared moral absolutes which are not in fact given any specific scriptural prohibition. To cite just the most egregious example: Where is the Commandment against rape?

    One can quibble over the possible evolutionary or sociological origins of conscience and altruism, but I don't think there's any strong case to be made that religion of any sort is what made us, or keeps us, moral.

  • At 5:55 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    This will be expanded in a later post, but yes, I agree there seems to be something like an inborn moral sense.

    Adam Smith I believe, argued for this.

    Caveats, morality has been bounded by the in group/out group dichotomy. The Old Testament passage I cited seems to be one of the earliest known attempts to extend the obligation to act ethically - to strangers.

    The "progress of civilization" IMHO, is the expansion of the in-group, i.e. the number of people you are obliged to act ethically towards.

    No, the Jews didn't arrive at Sinai with a sense that murdere, theft etc were OK amongst themselves - but they may very
    have arrived with the unspoken assumption that it was perfectly alright to act this way towards other people.

    Now here's where I'm going to get in trouble; Islam may have been an improvement over what they had at the time(the brotherhood of believers expanded from the merely tribal in-group), but as it stands now, it's a retrogression.

    As for religion as a source of ethics, here I'm going to get accused of elitism (rightly so I'm afraid) but from what I can see, most people cannot live with a teleological ethic.

    We can't all be philosophers. You can't go around mulling over ethical dilemmas all the time and still have a life.

  • At 9:06 AM, Blogger eduardo said…

    One of your best posts, Steve.

    Your observation about we only cling to what someone is trying to take away is table-slapping correct.

  • At 11:56 AM, Blogger Geoff Holtby said…

    I don't see that Jewish or Christian scripture has any less to answer for in the out-group vilification department than Koranic proclamations.

    In the Pentatude the Jews are given, through Moses, the mostly prohibitory laws that tell them how to behave nicely. But look at what happens later in the narrative: After their long wandering, the people of Moses are given divine license to conquer and plunder Canaan in the most abominable of ways. The in-group, it seems, does not extend to Canaanites. The Old and New testaments are full of this kind of hypocrisy: moral laws for the chosen believers, but cruel punishments and callous disregard for those in the out-group. If Moses had been told "thou shalt not murder anyone, not even those of other tribes and creeds" it would indeed have been an impressive moment of moral progress, but there is no such universality stated, and it doesn't take much delving into the surrounding scriptures to see that none was even implied.

    So while I more or less agree with your idea of progress as in-group expansion, but I think we've come as far as we have in spite of holy scriptures, not because of them. I'm not convinced that any holy book ever gave us any great moral teaching we didn't already know, and quite convinced that there's been a lot of harm done by the decidedly immoral ones that slipped in alongside.

    What I don't "get" is the idea that without scriptural backup, most people would be floundering for a basis of their moral principles. I don't think you need any strong coherent philosophical to act decently without belief in scriptures any more than I think a religious person stops to consult the scriptures before taking any moral action.

    I do think that a lot of people think that their own morals are based on scripture, but I think they give their own conscience short shrift. I would wager that a fair number of such people are quite unfamiliar with the words of the scripture from which they claim to derive their morality, and in fact pick and choose which parts of it they follow. Most people like the beatitudes and principles like Golden Rule, but ignore commandments to stone idolaters and sabbath violators. On what basis are they choosing which laws to obey? On their own sense of morality. If they're getting that morality, as they claim, from the very book being bowdlerized, you have something of a paradox, don't you?

  • At 7:54 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…


    All are good points, many of which I've made myself.

    But do you think that the religious literature of a culture has no effect on its customs and ethics?

    How many Hindus have actually read the Vedas and Upanishads through? For one thing, they're lo-o-o-o-ng, and for another, like the religious scriptures of a lot of literate cultures, they're pretty much the monopoly of an educated caste.

    So would you say that the belief in morally-based reincarnation has no effect on the behavior of Hindus as individuals and as a civilization? That the ideas expressed in their scriptures don't permeate the culture?

    Again, eventually I'll get around to this at greater length, but IMHO the legacy of the Jewish scriptures that most affects the successor civilization is, 1) the individual is responsible for his own salvation, and 2) the Jewish tradition appears to be the first that puts the Golden Age in the future.

  • At 11:28 AM, Blogger The Raving Prophet said…

    You don't NEED a Biblically based (or other-sourced) code of morality and ethics to be a decent person that any of us would value as a neighbor.

    However, if you can only lay claim to an "inborn moral code" as your source of morality and ethics, you will fail rather miserably at explaining why others should act in what you consider as decent and honorable ways.

    Not everybody considers theft wrong. Not everybody considers it improper to hit on your wife/husband. Not everybody thinks murdering the innocent is beyond the pale.

    Sure, most do think those things are wrong. Sure, we can hide behind the "nonaggression principle" where, in a libertarian bent, we can claim that anything is OK so long as all participants consent and others aren't harmed. But there is nothing that makes that any more right than anything else.

    You might think that a inborn moral code is sufficient, but it is not. The moment you find somebody without one, you will find someone who sees no reason to abide by "your morality." You become no different from the most ardent fundamentalist in trying to push your moral code upon another- you only differ in your intrusiveness.

    I don't have a problem acknowledging that good and decent folks and be good and decent without relying on the Bible or any other holy text. But you will not find any binding reason for your inborn moral code to be superior to any other.

    If we start from the assumption of naturalistic materialism, there is not any automatic reason for one of us to tell any other of us that any kind of behavior is wrong.

    In that vein, as you said, we could do far worse than the Judeo-Christian ethic.

  • At 3:48 AM, Blogger Muninn said…

    Geoff Holtby wrote: "The Old and New testaments are full of this kind of hypocrisy: moral laws for the chosen believers, but cruel punishments and callous disregard for those in the out-group."

    Is that really true regarding the New testament?

    Which verses were you thinking of?

    The need to unite Christians belonging to different groups led Paul (in his letter to the Galatians) to denounce the in-group/out-group dichotomy, which is so pronounced in judaism (and later in islam).

    "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."


  • At 9:14 AM, Blogger Leslie Fish said…

    "Cling to" *whose* religion? According to the First Amendment, all religions must be treated equally under the law; whatever the govt. allows or forbids to any one religion, it must allow or forbid to all of them -- no exceptions.

    This means more than just Protestant Christians, thank you, and more than even Eastern Orthodox and Catholics. It also means Jews, Hindus, yes Muslims too, Bhuddists (if you have a Chinese restaurant in your town with real Chinese running it, then you've got Bhuddists; Bhuddism is to Asia what Christianity is to Europe and the Americas), and even Satanists (Satanism is the worship of the Christian -- specifically Catholic -- devil), Atheists (Atheism is a "religious philosophy", so it counts), Pagans (that's the oldest religion in the world, so it's stood the test of time), and Agnostics ("I don't know" is an honest answer). No exceptions. Fair is fair, and equality means equality.

    Think about that the next time some earnest Christian urges you to "put prayer back in the public schools". Allow one religion's prayers and you must allow *all* of them. Are you ready for that? It's understandable why a lot of schools have ducked the issue by just saying: "Okay, *nobody's* prayers." A few bolder schools have dealt with it by holding actual classes in "Religions of the World" which treats all of them equally.

    Don't be shocked; even the bourgeois Liberals of the "important" parts of the country aren't ready for that yet. Just bear in mind that you don't fight one kind of bigotry by putting up another.

    --Leslie <;)))><

  • At 7:21 PM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Leslie Fish? "Fish Sings Kipling"?

    Love your stuff (if that's you.)

    Haven't got a lot of time right now, but one note:

    There is not (in my opinion) any such a thing as an "inborn moral code."

    That is quite a different thing from an inborn moral SENSE, as for example Adam Smith wrote about. (And until I can read more of what Smith wrote about it, that almost exhausts my knowlege of him on that subject.)

    We know there is something like this, because the odd, and thankfully rare, individual appears to be born without one, the sociopathic personality.

    I believe Smith thought the moral sense was the capacity for empathy, the ability to imagine another's feelings.

    I have also read about experiments which suggest that it seems to have something to do with the capacity of seeing the future as real. (Unconfirmed, I've never found the original again and it's been a long time since I read it. It does however, tend to support what I've seen of sociopaths I've known.)

  • At 10:33 AM, Blogger eduardo said…


    1) Your assertion that the prohibition against murder did not extend to the Canaanites is incorrect. The Israelites were not allowed to indicriminately murder without repercussion. Rather, they were to act in the agency of divine retribution in Canaan for a variety of crimes against nature -- not least of which is recorded as child sacrifice.

    Now whether or not you believe the Old Testament is an accurate record or not doesn't matter. Neither does it matter whether you think that God intended Israel to act as his agent of justice.

    What does matter is that the Old Testament takes pain to describe the rationale. If this were a case of simple wanton murder or extermination of an "out group", no such justification would be recorded. It would simply describe the events with a shrug and not so much as a backward glance.

    I submit that the justification in fact proves that the writers and intended audience recognized a universality in "Thou Shall Not Kill" and why it had to be abrogated.

    2) Deuteronomy does in fact describe the crime of rape and mandates the death penalty for same.

    3) I concur with Muninn's comment. You will be hard-pressed to find a more universal treatise than the New Testament on moral matters. In fact, the New Testament takes pains to explain that passages in the Old were not limited to in-group behavior.

    4) One of the reasons that the Koran is a step backward is that it claims to be the capstone on revelation. One would expect such a capstone to continue the moral trendline, if you will. It doesn't, however. In fact, I would argue that it markes an inversion point upon which the moral code begins to swing back to a more primitive and less civilized approach to human relationships.

    5) There is no doubt that the Israelites arrived in Sinai with some sense that murder was wrong. Moses who led them there is a murderer already. So were a host of pre-Mosaic figures who clearly were not to imitated. So also was Cain, who was banished for spilling man's blood.

    The question that the Pentateuch answers is when is killing permitted. We take for granted now that killing is an inapporpriate response to slander. However such a prohibition cannot be taken to be true throughout man's history. In fact, the commandments indicate that the default mode isn't a presumption that death is warranted for everything from insults to theft to accidental injury.

  • At 5:31 PM, Blogger Ted said…

    Just as there are many "flavors" if you will, of Christianity, there are numerous types of atheism.
    Ayn Rand was a benign atheist, who sought only to reason and understand.
    So many modern ones despise any semblance of theological ethics that might preclude their lusts for drugs, sodomy, spiritualism &/ absolute power.
    In keeping with other forms of fanaticism, they want to kill as slowly and mercilessly as possible anyone who does not agree with them.
    Putting government in place of God has shown itself to be a fatal mistake to nearly 200 million people in the last century, and yet we here in America continue to adopt more laws, rules, regulations, social programs and statist meddling, while the rest of the world has shown us by example, that authoritarian socialism doesn't work!

  • At 9:48 PM, Blogger Mark said…

    As for religion being necessary to widespread, common morality (which I think is what you're saying, Steve - not necessary for an individual to do the right thing, but necessary to ensure that the society in which it takes place will have a useful set of moral values), I think that thinking like that will need to be tempered with some caveats. Surely conservative atheists (among whom I count myself) are going to be concerned at best if they hear something that could easily be misinterpreted as "Those who do not have religion are immoral." It just takes one person in the right place taking this interpretation seriously to make life very, very bad for us.

  • At 5:18 AM, Blogger Steve Browne said…

    Well, I'd scarsely be likely to take that interpretation, considering my qualifier that I don't have an opinion on theological dogma I'd stick a finger in a match for - much less be burned at the stake.

    Among other things, I'm introducing a post (very late in coming, I know) in which I'm going to throw out the notion that there are certain illusions, lies if you will, which are useful and necessary.

    I think Plato got there first, but we might have some fun with it...

    Rand might not be the best example to bring up, considering the damage she did to the lives of the people closest to her. Damage done with their own consent of course, but everything I've seen about people who knew her intimately indicates it was best to admire her from a distance.

    Which brings up the question, does that have a bearing on the validity of her philosophy of ethics?


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