Contributor Post Created with Sketch. Atheists, CPAC and Conservatism

 

Writing in response to the uninviting of American Atheists to CPAC, Charlie Cooke has a very fine article over on NRO on the topic of whether atheism and conservatism are compatible. As an atheist and a conservative he thinks, not unsurprisingly, that they are, and, as someone who is agnostic and on the right, I can only say, well, amen.

Charlie’s piece is eloquent and carefully reasoned and well worth reading in full, but FWIW I wrote a far shorter article on (more or less) this topic for Politix late last year. Perhaps it is worth excerpting this:

[T]he idea that it is essential philosophically for conservatives to be religious believers is nonsense. Dig around a bit, and you will discover quite a few here in America who have declared that they are not (although none of them – how odd – hold significant elective office). Look across the Atlantic (I am British-born) and you will find many, many more.

It is no coincidence that Charlie also hails from Blighty. The notion that it is impossible for a conservative—and I mean a ‘proper’ Conservative in the Thatcher or Reagan sense rather than a Cameron-style whatever he is—to be an atheist would be thought over there to be very strange indeed.

I went on to write this:

Godless conservatives however are rarely anti-religious [Charlie makes a similar point]. They often appreciate religion as a force for social cohesion and as a link to a nation’s past. They may push back hard against religious extremism, but, unlike today’s “new atheists” they are most unlikely to be found railing against “sky fairies.” Mankind has evolved in a way that makes it strongly disposed towards religious belief, and conservatism is based on recognizing human nature for what it is.

That means facing the fact that gods will, one way or another, always be with us.

And facing that fact includes contemplating the reality that some gods are considerably less benign than others, a point that those pushing for a very expansive view of ‘religious freedom’ would do very well to ponder. 

Being a philosophical sort, Charlie mulls the philosophical implications of his atheism, where do rights come from and all that. Well, I’m not a philosophical sort…

A few years back, Jonathan Rée wrote a review of a collection of writings by the British (yes, them again) historian, the undeniably conservative, undeniably non-believing Hugh Trevor-Roper:

 I wrote a bit about it in Secular Right at the time. In the context of the current discussion, this section from Rée’s article is worth repeating:

He was not interested in the rather threadbare notion (doted on by some humanists) that the lights of truth were suddenly switched on in Europe at the beginning of the 18th century, revealing that the demons which people had spooked themselves with in the past were mere figments of their superstitious imaginations. The Enlightenment that Trevor-Roper celebrates is historical rather than philosophical: it is marked by Gibbon’s creation of a new kind of history, dedicated not to pointless facts or edifying examples but to “sociological content” – in other words, to the revolutionary notion that “human societies have an internal dynamism, dependent on their social structure and articulation.” By bringing history “down to earth”, Gibbon and the other Enlightenment historians had contributed more to the discombobulation of know-nothing theologians than any number of philosophers would ever be able to do.

Gibbon mocked religion, but he never underestimated it. He recognised that religious experience involved, as Trevor-Roper put it, “a set of values related to social structure and political form”, and he could therefore understand why people cared about it so much they were prepared to kill one another or die for its sake. And he railed against his old ally Voltaire for allowing his rage at clerical infamy to turn him into a mirror image of his enemy – a “bigot, an intolerable bigot”, as Gibbon put it. Gibbon made his case beautifully, as Trevor-Roper did too: and if sceptical secularism is to get a new lease of life, perhaps it needs a little more history and a little less philosophy, more explanation and less indignation.

Well yes.

Anyway, please read Charlie’s piece. It’s terrific.

The American Atheists, not so much

There are 37 comments.

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  1. GKC Inactive

    Richard John Neuhaus in his last book, American Babylon, questions whether atheists can be true, good citizens, largely based on the “where Rights come from” line of thinking. I tend to agree, but there is a subtle nuance that I think is missing. That is, Cooke refers to Jefferson quite a bit in his piece, and the notion that he was a Deist in the sense of viewing Nature as God or the concept of Nature’s God. That disposition — and the reference that the Laws of the Universe entail self-ownership — suggest deference to something. It is this point of deference that I think matters. A deferential Man is humble before something, whether Nature, Nature’s God, or the God of Judeo-Christian tradition. This deference is fundamental to conservatism. A Progressive, on the other hand, considers deference in a different light. Man, in this view, seems not bound by anything, certainly not the Laws of Nature, or a Society’s traditions, and hence the propensity for not only great wrong but to the point, poor citizenship. So practically, deferential atheism (a Natural Law believer, essentially maybe) and a religious believer operate from similar principles. “Modern” atheists, no.

    • #1
    • February 27, 2014, at 6:53 AM PST
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  2. Albert Arthur Coolidge

    My biggest gripe against atheism is its general contempt for religion. Which, I tend to think, is like saying that one’s biggest gripe with Christianity is its focus on Christ.

    Can atheists really acknowledge the good that comes from belief? (You know, and still be atheists?)

    • #2
    • February 27, 2014, at 7:18 AM PST
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  3. KC Mulville Inactive

    A society is more than just a law-making enterprise. Society also teaches common values, and promotes certain principles. In essence, every society must answer two questions:

    1. why should I care about others?
    2. why should they care about me?

    Conservatives believe that these answers don’t come from the political state. But if the political state doesn’t offer an answer, what does?

    • Usually, it’s religion. Because western religions orient everything to a God, the logic comes naturally. We are all related to each other because we’re all related to a common creator. Problem solved.
    • Liberals simply eliminate the distinction between society and the state – i.e., they dodge the questions. The answers are simply whatever the majority thinks they are. The majority rules, and life becomes all politics, all the time.

    But if you’re an atheist, you have to offer answers without the luxury of God as an answer, and if you’re a conservative, your answer can’t be the state. Not so easy.

    (Ayn Rand-type libertarians answer it by fiat; each individual’s meaning is self-generated. But they also deny that we need to have a connection with others, except for convenience)

    • #3
    • February 27, 2014, at 7:22 AM PST
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  4. Z in MT Member

    I have found that many atheists are more dogmatic and hostile toward other religions than most Christian or Jewish believers. Leftist atheists in particular are the worst, this is likely because the leftist mind is a totalitarian mind. Conservatism and atheism are not necessarily compatible as much as they are orthogonal, in that one belief has very little effect on the other. For a leftist, atheism informs his policy prescriptions, while for a conservative the non belief in a God has very little to add once you accept the idea of unalienable rights and have a skepticism toward government power.

    • #4
    • February 27, 2014, at 7:37 AM PST
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  5. The (apathetic) King Prawn Member

    Cooke wrote:

    …one can argue that the properties of the universe suggest self-ownership…

    I agree that one could (and should) make such an argument, but I have yet to hear or read anyone who has. Admittedly, I’m not as well read I should be. My own theism is grounded partially in not finding any way to arrive at self ownership apart from acknowledging a creator.

    • #5
    • February 27, 2014, at 7:42 AM PST
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  6. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I believe it is possible to be an atheist conservative in a Jewish or Christian society. It is not possible to be an atheist conservative in an atheist society.

    It doesn’t matter that there are ways to rationalize Christian values without God. What matters is that ugliness and abuse are much stronger temptations when one is ultimately subject only to oneself, and an ever-growing number will succumb to that temptation as their spiritual bedrock is forgotten and peer pressure becomes ever more insistent.

    What matters is that God’s graces are necessary, and not merely palliative.

    • #6
    • February 27, 2014, at 7:48 AM PST
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  7. SCSteve Inactive

    The question of what philosophy underpins conservatism in a post-Christian world has bothered me for some time.

    It seems to me that the West as a whole has to ultimately choose a new moral code, or rediscover its belief in Christianity. There was a reason the founders said that our Constitution was only suitable for a religious people – they understood that self-government would only work if there was a higher power that guided the citizen’s actions.

    Take that away, and your choices are anarchy or tyranny.

    • #7
    • February 27, 2014, at 7:54 AM PST
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  8. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron MillerJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Z in MT: …. For a leftist, atheism informs his policy prescriptions, while for a conservative the non belief in a God has very little to add once you accept the idea of unalienable rights and have a skepticism toward government power.

    I’d be inclined to agree if not for my experience that most atheist and agnostic conservatives are supportive of “gay marriage”, which attacks the cornerstone of any society — family norms. You can’t disrupt the foundation without disrupting everything built upon it.

    Atheists/agnostics tend to deviate from religious conservatives on many “social” issues… like abortion, euthanasia, and various ethics regarding the sciences (because research and technology are their gods).

    • #8
    • February 27, 2014, at 7:58 AM PST
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  9. Andrew Stuttaford Contributor
    Andrew Stuttaford

     

    Albert Arthur: Can atheists really acknowledge the good that comes from belief? (You know, and still be atheists?) · 40 minutes ago

    Arthur, that depends on their degree of dogmatism. So far as I see it, that good is either real or it is not (the answer to that depends on the circumstances). That it may ultimately be based on a fallacy is neither here nor there.

    • #9
    • February 27, 2014, at 8:07 AM PST
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  10. Ansonia Member
    AnsoniaJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    People almost as reactive to crosses as vampires in old horror fiction sure do seem to be fueled by something more or different than atheism. Thank you for including a link to A Fundamentalism of Their Own. It perfectly describes the type of people I’ve encountered who have an overwhelming need to practice and parade this faith.
    • #10
    • February 27, 2014, at 8:14 AM PST
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  11. Profile Photo Member

    Conservatives themselves are divided over the purpose of conservatism. Is it to minimize the role of the state in order to provide individuals greater liberty in their daily lives? Or is it to restore the moral foundations that make this nation great?

    The former is the libertarian response, though not exclusively so. The latter is the traditionalist response, again though not exclusively so. Fusionism answered, “Why not both? Individual liberty is precisely the moral foundation that made this nation great!”

    Except that the ends for that liberty are always under dispute–is there some faith tradition or set of norms that restrain that liberty? Christianity? Judeo-Christian tradition? Republicanism? Classical liberalism?

    The disagreement cannot ultimately be resolved on ends but only with consolidation against mutual foes, which is why the success of conservatism hinges (sadly) on the failure of progressivism. Yet, progressives always have the “next thing” on which they rest their hopes, thus starting the battle against them and within conservatism anew. (Progressives never battle over ends but rather who deserves more credit and deference once the end is reached, though it never is).

    • #11
    • February 27, 2014, at 8:16 AM PST
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  12. Tommy De Seno Contributor

    Atheists –

    This is a political question, not a religious one:

    If there is nothing after life and humans are not a favored creation of God but simply animals like the others, why should I not cook you and eat you today?

    • #12
    • February 27, 2014, at 9:21 AM PST
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  13. Scott R Member
    Scott RJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Tommy De Seno: Atheists –

    This is a political question, not a religious one:

    If there is nothing after life and humans are not a favored creation of God but simply animals like the others, why should I not cook you and eat you today? · 18 minutes ago

    Politically, that’s an easy one: because the social contract developed under our constitutional republic deems such an act reprehensible to the highest degree, deserving punishment of the severest kind.

    Morally or philosophically or religiously, yeah, the answer is more troublesome.

    • #13
    • February 27, 2014, at 9:56 AM PST
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  14. Scott R Member
    Scott RJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Cooke is right that atheism can be consistent with conservatism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is correct in criticizing Brent Bozell’s scolding of CPAC for welcoming (at first) American Atheists to the conference. Jonah Goldberg explains:

    “I don’t know much about American Atheists, beyond what I’ve read in the last 10 minutes. Maybe, like many atheists I know, they’re generous and tolerant people. Or, maybe, like many atheists I’ve dealt with, they revel in belittling and mocking the beliefs of others. If it’s the former, then Brent Bozell was too harsh on CPAC’s decision to allow them to attend. If it’s the latter, then I think Charlie is too harsh on Bozell.”

    • #14
    • February 27, 2014, at 10:07 AM PST
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  15. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Scott Reusser: Cooke is right that atheism can be consistent with conservatism, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is correct in criticizing Brent Bozell’s scolding of CPAC for welcoming (at first) American Atheists to the conference. Jonah Goldberg explains:

    “I don’t know much about American Atheists, beyond what I’ve read in the last 10 minutes. Maybe, like many atheists I know, they’re generous and tolerant people. Or, maybe, like many atheists I’ve dealt with, they revel in belittling and mocking the beliefs of others. If it’s the former, then Brent Bozell was too harsh on CPAC’s decision to allow them to attend. If it’s the latter, then I think Charlie is too harsh on Bozell.” · 8 minutes ago

    To quote a wise man (above), ” that depends on their degree of dogmatism.”

    • #15
    • February 27, 2014, at 10:18 AM PST
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  16. GKC Inactive
    Aaron Miller: I believe it is possible to be an atheist conservative in a Jewish or Christian society. It is not possible to be an atheist conservative in an atheist society.

    Well put. Atheism relies on the Theism it is confronting. It’s a luxury. Individual atheists, dissenting minorities, if you will, are one thing. Militant atheists intent on rendering society into a lowest common denominator (well, not sure what would be common after their line of thinking) collection is counter to the charter of the country (the Declaration). Paraphrasing Neuhaus, our common sense of the American experiment in democracy, in constitutional democracy, was that it was not conceived and dedicated by those who today largely call themselves “atheists,” and therefore it cannot be conceived and dedicated anew through time by such groups.

    • #16
    • February 27, 2014, at 10:19 AM PST
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  17. Plato's Retweet Inactive

    Good to see Secular Right referenced here on Ricochet.

    The website proclaims that it is not there to start a movement, but I do hope this particular corner of conservatism will grow and prosper.

    • #17
    • February 27, 2014, at 10:22 AM PST
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  18. Brad B. Inactive

    Couldn’t agree more. I was a non-believer already by the time I arrived at classical liberalism. Skepticism of authoritarianism and government seemed a natural extension of skepticism of dogma and faith. So I’ve always been perplexed and a bit annoyed to see so many people become atheists and die-hard leftists.

    • #18
    • February 27, 2014, at 12:03 PM PST
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  19. Duane Oyen Member
    Duane OyenJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    The Apostle Paul went and argued on Mars Hill- he didn’t stay in the house meeting playing lovey-dovey with the local Believers.

    Despite Andrew’s frequently misguided views (e.g., the Coke preferred over DP travesty), I agree with the thrust of the view as I said here.

    • #19
    • February 28, 2014, at 1:27 AM PST
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  20. Andrew Stuttaford Contributor
    Andrew Stuttaford
    Duane Oyen:

    Despite Andrew’s frequently misguided views (e.g., the Coke preferred over DP travesty)… · 37 minutes ago

    Some people have very long memories! Dr Pepper should, of course, be turned away from CPAC’s door.

    • #20
    • February 28, 2014, at 2:08 AM PST
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  21. Tommy De Seno Contributor

    Abhorrent for what reason Brian Watt? Show me the road to that conclusion should I boil my neighbor and feast on him today, no differently than I would my cow?

    What’s the difference?

    • #21
    • February 28, 2014, at 2:19 AM PST
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  22. Brian Watt Member
    Brian WattJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Tommy – I think you’re making a couple of false assumptions: a) that individuals can’t make determinations with their own rational faculties that certain behaviors in society are abhorrent and should be punishable at the full extent of the law and they don’t require a deity (whose own record of vengeful behavior is dubious at best and reprehensible at worst) to substantiate their conclusions; and b) that by and large believers behave more ethically than non-believers. Is there some sort of empirical evidence on which you’re basing this? I’ve stated this before in other discussion threads but should be quite distressing is that in a country 70% comprised of those who believe in God that over 52 million abortions have occurred. The statistical likliehood that these abortions are disproportionately the result of immoral or unethical behavior by non-believers is well…dare I say it, unbelievable.

    Finally, I’d like to think that someone like the late Milton Friedman would always be welcome in conservative circles even if he couldn’t bring himself to believe in God…considering he had a significant part in shaping modern American conservatism itself.

    • #22
    • February 28, 2014, at 2:19 AM PST
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  23. Brian Watt Member
    Brian WattJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Tommy De Seno: Abhorrent for what reason Brian Watt? Show me the road to that conclusion should I boil my neighbor and feast on him today, no differently than I would my cow?

    What’s the difference? · 10 minutes ago

    Edited 9 minutes ago

    Abhorrent because I, like millions of other non-believers and believers alike, value human life because human beings are intelligent species capable of creating amazing and marvelous works and capable of loving one another deeply. I know that’s a shocking claim. But well, there it is. And you could answer my comment more directly by explaining why millions of Christians and Jews are aborting human life. Is it because they don’t value human life as highly as I do? What’s wrong with your picture, Tommy? Obviously the fear of eternal torment, hell-fire and damnation isn’t enough to disuade believers from killing off the unborn in ghastly record numbers. 

    Heading back to my office now. All the best.

    • #23
    • February 28, 2014, at 2:36 AM PST
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  24. Tommy De Seno Contributor

    I can’t speak to the abortions of those people. Ask them.

    As to those things you value – intelligence, creativity, love… note well they are your personal value system.

    Don’t you see the precarious position you put the rest of us in should we use your value system or even a group value system?

    What if the group changes its values? What if the social contract is re-written by evil men? Does the value of a person actually change because they say so? Isn’t it by “social contract” that we justify abortion?

    You leave humanity in a precarious position when you subject our lives to the whims of other men.

    I prefer my rights unalienable and naturally endowed.

    I don’t eat my neighbor because he is special to God and above the beasts, and because I behave in a manner that respects my pursuit of eternal salvation.

    Rue the day that I find my neighbor is just another animal created by chance competing with me for survival, and that at the end of this life there is nothing after.

    I will eat my neighbor. He will be to me no different than a cow.

    • #24
    • February 28, 2014, at 2:56 AM PST
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  25. Scott R Member
    Scott RJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Tommy De Seno
     
     

    If there is nothing after life and humans are not a favored creation of God but simply animals like the others, why should I not cook you and eat you today?

    Politically, that’s an easy one: because the social contract developed under our constitutional republic deems such an act reprehensible to the highest degree, deserving punishment of the severest kind.

    Morally or philosophically or religiously, yeah, the answer is more troublesome. ·

    If the answer is “the social contract,” then cooking and eating others is “mala prohibita” – wrong only because we agreed to proscribe it. Like fishing without a license. It also puts the right to life in the less than abled hands of men and their contracts.

    […]

    You’ve put our lives in a precarious position there Scott – subjecting it to the whims of other men. 

    Not if our laws continue to be informed by our Judeo-Christian values, which so far, thankfully, they have been. If one day we lose that anchor and become informed more by anti-religious zealots or, say, the Allah-informed religious, then, yes, our position will be precarious.

    In any case, men, not God, will make the call.

    • #25
    • February 28, 2014, at 3:38 AM PST
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  26. Brian Watt Member
    Brian WattJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Tommy De Seno: I can’t speak to the abortions of those people. Ask them.

    As to those things you value – intelligence, creativity, love… note well they are your personal value system.

    Don’t you see the precarious position you put the rest of us in should we use your value system or even a group value system?

    What if the group changes its values? What if the social contract is re-written by evil men? Does the value of a person actually change because they say so? Isn’t it by “social contract” that we justify abortion?

    You leave humanity in a precarious position when you subject our lives to the whims of other men.

    I prefer my rights unalienable and naturally endowed.

    I don’t eat my neighbor because he is special to God and above the beasts, and because I behave in a manner that respects my pursuit of eternal salvation.

    Has your group ever changed what it adheres to? Has the Judeo/Christian moral code ever been cast aside when it’s been found to be socially objectionable? Should we treat homosexuals as God via Leviticus would instruct us to do so?

    • #26
    • February 28, 2014, at 4:51 AM PST
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  27. Scott R Member
    Scott RJoined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member
    Tommy De Seno: …

    I don’t eat my neighbor because he is special to God and above the beasts, and because I behave in a manner that respects my pursuit of eternal salvation.

    Rue the day that I find my neighbor is just another animal created by chance competing with me for survival, and that at the end of this life there is nothing after.

    I will eat my neighbor. He will be to me no different than a cow. · 2 hours ago

    In Syria they’re eating their neighbors, literally, and their values come from God, they say. Here, we don’t eat our neighbors, and our values, too, come from God, we say.

    Thankfully Americans, in the main, have judged Judeo-Christianity to be good and other values, God-inspired or not, to be bad.

    Regardless, everywhere men are doomed to being subject to the judgment of men. Whether God truly exists is irrelevant to the matter.

    • #27
    • February 28, 2014, at 5:28 AM PST
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  28. Tommy De Seno Contributor
    Brian Watt: You know, Tommy I’m getting a little nervous about your constant refrain about eating your neighbor. And I was on the verge of inviting you over for dinner. Perhaps a glass of wine or two instead and maybe some finger food…er…appetizers. :-) · 5 hours ago

    I’m a gin man. I’ll be over!

    • #28
    • February 28, 2014, at 5:34 AM PST
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  29. Brad B. Inactive

    Penn Jillette was once asked what keeps him from raping and murdering people if not for a belief in God. He replied, “Is God the only thing that keeps YOU from rape and murder? Do you have a list of people you would victimize if you ever became an apostate?”

    • #29
    • February 28, 2014, at 7:39 AM PST
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  30. Red Feline Inactive
    Scott Reusser

    … Regardless, everywheremen are doomed to being subject to the judgment of men. Whether God truly exists is irrelevant to the matter. · 14 hours ago

    I have a post up on the sidebar of the Members’ Feed, and it is rapidly leading me to the conclusion that moral systems come from the minds, and, even more importantly, from the hearts of men. Kindly men will devise kindly moral codes, cruel men will devise moral codes to justify their behaviour.

    Belief, or not, in any god doesn’t really matter.

    • #30
    • February 28, 2014, at 8:21 AM PST
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