Truth On Our Side?

Posted: Jul 30, 2014 12:01 AM

One of the primary critiques of religion popular among New Atheists and secularists generally is that it is arrogant and close-minded for any group to claim a monopoly on Truth. The idea that a divine creator had a plan and ordered things a certain way, that he (or she, or it) revealed the Truth to an elect group and that all mankind will be judged by how closely they aligned their lives with the Truth... nothing could be more offensive to the secular progressive worldview. On the contrary, secular progressives claim the mantle of open-mindedness and tolerance. They understand that what feels true for some may not be true for others. They value individual perspective and individual experience and recognize that nothing in life – not morality or values or culture or lifestyle – is one-size-fits-all.

The tolerance that secular progressives boast, however, is little more than a hollow facade. There is nothing tolerant about the secular progressive worldview, and secular progressives are just as arrogant as the most self-righteous holy roller when it comes to their certainty that their version of "the Truth" is the correct one. Offenses against the established secular orthodoxy are increasingly met with a fiery scorn that would have shamed the most zealous of Puritans.

First Things editor R.R. Reno recently addressed this issue in a short essay entitled "The Bolshevik Moment." Drawing parallels from the revolutionary movement that transformed Russia after the fall of the Tsar in 1917, Reno observes:

"American in 2014 certainly is not Russia in 1917. Our society is stable. Our liberal elites are very much in control of the institutions they dominate, and their watchword increasingly is sustainability, not revolution. But theirs is a muddy, ad hoc ruling mentality. We're to be inclusive – except when we're not to be. We're to be tolerant – except when faced with the intolerable. We're to affirm – except when we're to deny and denounce. We're to think critically – except about liberal pieties. Our Ivy League presidents are all liberals, but I sincerely doubt they could give a coherent explanation of or justification for where the lines are to be drawn. This fuzziness makes them vulnerable. They're easily intimidated by students and faculty who out-flank them on the left. They're cowed by the Party of the Pure."

Reno goes on to describe two notable accounts whereby college administrations were pressured to disinvite (or the speakers themselves withdrew) respectable and distinguished individuals as commencement speakers for failing to meet the ideological standards of outraged students and faculty. In the now infamous words of Harvard undergraduate Sandra Korn, it's not "academic freedom" that matters, but "academic justice." Those deemed a threat to the advancement of progressive ideology should, as a matter of justice, be silenced and ostracized. She calls for the ouster of Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield, for example, for his "sexist commentary," referring to his suggestion that modest dress and ladylike conduct might decrease the frequency of male sexual aggression against women on college campuses. Using the platform of the Harvard Crimson to challenge Mansfield's position in a public forum is apparently not enough. There is a limit to the free exchange of ideas, and in Korn's august view, Mansfield's ideas don't qualify for consideration.

Reno attributes the rising influence of far-left ideologues to the "hopeless mush" that is establishment liberalism. In a word, the establishment has been so obsessed for so long with promoting diversity, tolerance, and open-mindedness that it lacks the perceived authority to police its own movement. Consequently, it's the squeaky wheels that get the grease, no matter how extreme or ludicrous their message. Additionally, Reno notes that far-left progressives are making hay while the sun shines, as they currently have popular sentiment on their side. This enables them to push their agenda more aggressively than they otherwise might:

"The triumph of gay rights and gay marriage has been so rapid that progressives feel as though they have History on their side. The defeat of the Arizona Religious Freedom Restoration Act last winter demonstrated the extraordinary power of the movement. Gay activists were able to grotesquely mischaracterize the intent and significance of the legislation – and to do so with the full complicity of the media. . . . It wasn't so much the victory that now emboldens our present-day Bolsheviks; it was the ability of gay activists to dehumanize their opponents. Bigots don't deserve respect; and like the bourgeoisie of old, they don't deserve protection under the law. This division of society into the clean and impure, just and unjust, is at work in Sandra Korn's confident dismissal of academic freedom as a distraction from the real task of "academic justice." She knows who should be in control of the future – and who must be silenced."

Reno's use of the word "dehumanize" to describe the tactics of the far-left is notable, for when it comes to the ideological battles currently raging across America's cultural landscape, it is often the case that liberals view their opponents as not merely wrongheaded, but positively evil. Many liberals simply cannot imagine how a truly good and well-meaning person could arrive at different conclusions on issues like homosexuality, abortion, feminism, or the environment, so their kneejerk reaction to opposition of any kind is character assassination.

This phenomenon reflects the findings of psychologist Jonathan Haidt, whose 2012 work, The Righteous Mind explores how and why people believe what they believe and why they hold the moral views they do. The answer, Haidt suggests, has much more to do with sentiment and intuition, and little to do with reason qua reason. In his review of The Righteous Mind for The New York Times, William Saletan captures the gist of Haidt's argument nicely, and is worth quoting at length:

"To the question many people ask about politics – Why doesn't the other side listen to reason? – Haidt replies: We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they've decided. . . .

The problem isn't that people don't reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn't work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. . . .

Haidt has read ethnographies, traveled the world and surveyed tens of thousands of people online. He and his colleagues have compiled a catalog of six fundamental ideas that commonly undergird moral systems: care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. Alongside these principles, he has found related themes that carry moral weight: divinity, community, hierarchy, tradition, sin and degradation. . . .

The worldviews Haidt discusses may differ from yours. They don't start with the individual. They start with the group or the cosmic order. They exalt families, armies and communities. They assume that people should be treated differently according to social role or status — elders should be honored, subordinates should be protected. They suppress forms of self-expression that might weaken the social fabric. They assume interdependence, not autonomy. They prize order, not equality. . . .

[You] don't have to go abroad to see these ideas. You can find them in the Republican Party. Social conservatives see welfare and feminism as threats to responsibility and family stability. The Tea Party hates redistribution because it interferes with letting people reap what they earn. Faith, patriotism, valor, chastity, law and order – these Republican themes touch all six moral foundations, whereas Democrats, in Haidt's analysis, focus almost entirely on care and fighting oppression. This is Haidt's startling message to the left: When it comes to morality, conservatives are more broad-minded than liberals. They serve a more varied diet. . . .

The hardest part, Haidt finds, is getting liberals to open their minds. Anecdotally, he reports that when he talks about authority, loyalty and sanctity, many people in the audience spurn these ideas as the seeds of racism, sexism and homophobia. And in a survey of 2,000 Americans, Haidt found that self-described liberals, especially those who called themselves "very liberal," were worse at predicting the moral judgments of moderates and conservatives than moderates and conservatives were at predicting the moral judgments of liberals. Liberals don't understand conservative values. And they can't recognize this failing, because they're so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment."

This last sentence, if true, explains the Bolshevism of the left as observed by R.R. Reno and my own theory about the left's ironic quest to claim a monopoly on Truth. Ask a conservative why they believe that their views are "true" and you are likely to get (assuming you are speaking with a thoughtful, articulate person) a varied and multifaceted answer that invokes religion, tradition, and philosophy. Ask a liberal why their worldview reflects the truth and you are likely to get a rhetorically compelling response long on passion and emotional appeal but woefully lacking when it comes to rational coherence, common sense, or practicability.

Haidt's work explains, then, why engaging a person of the opposite ideological stripe often feels so frustrating and fruitless, particularly when it involves a conservative trying to justify their worldview to a liberal. It's not difficult for a conservative to understand where a liberal is coming from based on their understanding of the foundational values that inform liberal orthodoxy. "I understand what values are important to you and which don't register on your radar, thus I understand why you hold the views you do."

If Haidt's research is correct, many liberals are literally incapable of doing this. When they are met with contrasting views, like Sandra Korn and her arch-nemesis Harvey Mansfield, they experience such a jarring episode of cognitive dissonance that the only "reasonable" conclusion for them to draw is that the person opposite them must be a bad person.

I doubt many liberals are comfortable with Haidt's findings in The Righteous Mind. Conservatives, however, should be encouraged by his work. We should make a concerted effort to inform ourselves of the moral, psychological, philosophical, religious, and cultural foundations of our beliefs, so that we are better able to defend these beliefs in an articulate, reasonable, and winsome fashion. If, after all, there really is such a thing as truth, the evidence seems to indicate that we really do have it on our side.