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Will God Smite John Derbyshire?

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I confess a semi-secret weakness for John Derbyshire, the grumpy National Review writer and math geek. I loved his little novel, Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream (a novel with Coolidge in the title!). And if I had to take sides in the ongoing Derbyshire-Andrew Sullivan squabble, I'd arm up for Derb, no questions asked. Yesterday, Derbyshire posted a "Faith F.A.Q." at NRO quite worth reading. See below for a classic example of Derbyshire's willingness to stomp on the stubborn remnants of political correctness in the service of a serious question, all in his trademark aggressively candid manner. And decide for youself whether he deserves an award named after him that goes to "statements by public figures or writers that amount to right-wing hyperbole, hate-speech or manic paranoia." I'm open to the fact that he might indeed deserve such a thing, but he's a good read.

Here's Derbyshire on the question of whether religion is good for people, and why some religious people are so bad:

The usual response to all that is the one Evelyn Waugh gave. He was religious, but he was also a nasty person, and knew it. But: "If not for my faith," he explained, "I would be barely human." In other words, even a nasty religious person would be even worse without faith.

I have now come to think that it really makes no difference, net-net. You can point to people who were improved by faith, but you can also see people made worse by it. Anyone want to argue that, say, Mohammed Atta was made a better person by his faith? All right, when Americans say "religion" they mean Christianity 99 percent of the time. So: Can Christianity make you a worse person? I'm sure it can. If you're a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction. Again, I know cases, and I'm sure you do too. The exhortations to humility that you find in all religions seem to be the most difficult teaching for people to take on board. Mostly, I think it makes no difference. Evelyn Waugh would have been no more obnoxious as an atheist.

And then there are some of those discomfiting facts about human groups. Taking the population of these United States, for example, the least religious major group, by ancestry, is Americans of East Asian stock. The most religious is African Americans. All the indices of dysfunction and misbehavior, however, go the other way, with Asian Americans getting into least trouble and African Americans most. What's that all about?

In the end, I think I've now arrived at this position: An individual might be made better by faith, or worse. Overall, taking society at large, I think it averages out to zero.

Further reflections on the Q & A over at The American Scene, where they're rather more qualified to talk about God than I am. Read the whole thing here.

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  1. Just out of wild curiosity, Ms. Mangu-Ward, is there any particular stance of yours that would qualify as “libertarian” and not “conservative”?

  2. I have no idea if this will show up here, but on the main page it says that there are 0 comments in this thread, even though Eric commented here. Refreshing the page doesn’t help.

  3. Eric the .5b: That religion is neither a good thing or a bad thing as a general rule?

  4. I think the correlation that Derbyshire refers to likely has more to do with education. The ethnic spectrum has a similar distribution in education, with asians tending to stay in school longer.

    Whether religious or not, educated people tend to be less absolutist than uneducated people. [Note I said ‘tend to be’ not ‘are’. I am sure Reasonoids can come up with hundreds of counter-examples either way.]

  5. And if I had to take sides in the ongoing Derbyshire-Andrew Sullivan squabble, I’d arm up for Derb, no questions asked.

    Given that much of the Sullivan-Derbyshire dispute is over Derbyshire’s support for state-sponsored torture and gay marriage bans, why on earth would any actual libertarian “arm up” for Derbyshire? It smacks of the kind of snotty, knee-jerk contrarianism that’s come to pass for libertarianism over the last decade. “Derbyshire may support government regulation of sexuality and state-sanctioned torture, but at least he’s not ‘politically correct,’ har har!”

  6. I enjoy reading Derbyshire in small doses, just because he does depart from orthodoxy in many ways. It’s just nice to be able to read a political writer who able to form their own fucking opinion outside the lines for a change. But the ‘math grump’ thing does grate.

    His paleo-con tendencies I find highly amusing. Can anyone say they believe that stuff and keep a straight face?

  7. Reading Derbyshire is like stepping into a time machine. He is the perfect specimen of a “common sense” Tory circa 1880.

    I think his self-description as a “mild and tolerant” racist and homophobe is quite accurate. He genuinely doesn’t seem to bear any hatred towards the various classes of people he looks down on.

  8. thoreau:

    Maybe Eric was recorded by the server software as having contributed only half a comment, which was subsequently rounded down and displayed as zero.

  9. Interesting how Derbyshire says that the ultimate calculus amounts to zero even though he cites evidence to the contrary but none in favor of that result. He should change “I think it averages out to zero” to “my politics tell me to say it averages out to zero.”

  10. “….on the question of whether religion is good for people, and why some religious people are so bad:

    Jesus (or whatever) – is that really a fair “question”?

    It sounds like creationists who insist we must “Teach the controversy!”, when in fact there is none.

    Rhetorically asking aloud, “Is religion really GOOD for people?” – as though there are lots of serious regulatory thinkers mulling over ‘data’, planning to release their report on whether or not we should recommend God for our children –

    It just seems an incredibly stupid way of staging a discussion. It sets up it’s own conclusions. Asking “Why SOME religious people are so bad” is ignoring the obvious answer in favor of a preconceived argument = SOME people of all stripes are ‘bad’, religious or not. There isnt necessarily any other connection.

    The more important point to discuss is how “secularists” have so much trouble reconciling the fact that religion is a major force in the world, and that it isnt ONE thing, however much they’d like to pigeonhold ‘the faithful’…..and contrary to many liberal assumptions about ‘enlightened modernity’, it turns out that as populations becomes more literate, educated, less poor, they do not in fact necessarily become less religious.

    If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction

    Nice “logic”. (and surprisingly revealing of his own presumed ‘secular superiority’). Let’s play Derbyshire and pretend all religions are the same, from Hindus and Buddhists, Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Methodists… and pretend that “Humility” is actually a secular virtue….

    His comparison of Asian and African Americans level of religiosity and crime stats is totally specious, and I’m dissapointed it would be reprinted here as an example of a cogent argument. That sort of weak claim should be mocked (insert the “by a magazine called Reason” trope)

    One might as well similarly ask if “Love” is good for people”.

    It is based in a similarly “irrational” beliefs, fills lives with contradictory impulses/drives, undermines reason,.causes millions of people to kill themselves/others every year, etc. Yet it persists.

    Perhaps more of the moment =

    “why is it our country persists with this meaningless, irrational celebration of holidays? Why are we letting our children dress up like supernatural beings and run around like fools? Whats the REASON for this? We can’t be forcing this supernatural hogwash on the impressionable brains of children! It’s reinforcing the irrationality of religion by marketing it’s antithesis; fear of a non-existant netherworld! Whats that all about?!?”

    JG

  11. “If you’re a person with, for example, a self-righteous conviction of your own moral superiority, well, getting religion is just going to inflame that conviction.”

    I’m honestly unconvinced by the last part of this sentence. Self-righteous religious folks are no more irritating than self-righteous fanatics of non-religious things. i.e. ELF, PETA, commies, Nazis, Jesse Jackson, etc.

  12. Having read the interview, id say it furthers my premise “intellectuals” have a lot of time on thier hands.
    For all his moral posturing, he cant hold a candle to Sullivan, who knows evil, & bullshit when he sees it…..unless hes lookin around in church.

  13. “Religion” is nothing more or less than the emotional coping mechanism for a species that becomes aware of its inherent mortality. It will probably exist in some form (not necessarily involving “gods”) as long as we are inherently mortal.

  14. I, for one, love Derb. He’s a fantastic writer and an interesting character. I might not agree with him one hundred percent of the time, but I don’t agree with anyone that much.

  15. MUTT:

    Derbyshire would agree that intellectuals have too much time on their hands… but he’s never fancied himself an intellectual; just a cranky old programmer with some opinions. 🙂

  16. Derb is a very smart guy and a great writer. More importantly, Derb is a couragous writer. He actually thinks about issues and lets his mind go and the conclusions follow where they may. I disagree with him about a lot but I respect his seriousness. He stands in sharp contrast to Sullivan who basis his entire view of any issue or person in politics on whether it will further his goal of getting a white wedding. Good for Sullivan that he wants a white wedding, but I really don’t think there is any person he wouldn’t support as long as that person passed the gay mariage litmus test. He may have good reasons for feeling this way, but it destroys any credibility of what he says.

  17. Just out of wild curiosity, Ms. Mangu-Ward, is there any particular stance of yours that would qualify as “libertarian” and not “conservative”?

    Why are those things mutually exclusive? Libertarianism is specifically a set of ideas concerning economics and the role of government. Conservatism, while it certainly has a political manifestation, has no particular defining view of government and economics at all. There are probably as many different views about the role of government and economics as there are conservatives. One could easily hold conservative views about society, while being an advocate of libertarian economic and political ideas.

  18. Good for Sullivan that he wants a white wedding, but I really don’t think there is any person he wouldn’t support as long as that person passed the gay mariage litmus test. He may have good reasons for feeling this way, but it destroys any credibility of what he says.

    I see this attack leveled at him all the time, but I just can’t see it from reading his blog. He actually seems to change his opinion on certain people a lot, while their stance on gay marriage doesn’t change. He attacks Cheney all the time, although Cheney went on the record defending gay marriage (and Sullivan used the quote “freedom means freedom for everyone” in his banner for awhile). So honestly, there are a lot of areas where I think he deserves to be criticized, but this idea that all his positions stem from the gay marriage issue is ridiculous slander.

  19. Pig Mannix, no offense, but you’re using a wildly different definition of conservatism than I am, particularly the premise that it has “no particular defining view of government and economics at all”.

  20. this idea that all his positions stem from the gay marriage issue is ridiculous slander

    And it’s suspiciously endlessly repeated slander, often by people who’ve never looked at his blog.

  21. I disagree about Sullivan, John. One of the reasons Andrew Sullivan is famous is that he’s one of the most visible examples of the Log Cabin Republican, which means he, in the past, has supported Republicans regardless of their stance on gay marriage. I read his blog every day, and while he probably attacks anti-gay marriage people as much as pro-torture people, the diatribes sound particularly outraged and disgusted when he’s talking about torture. I bet that even if by some miracle Bush and the Republicans were to do a 180 and started to support gay marriage, Sullivan would still refuse to endorse proponents of torture.

    PS: He doesn’t hate Derbyshire THAT much

  22. I have heard praise for Derbyshire elsewhere–I forget where. …but some of the dumbest things I’ve ever read online were written by Derbyshire.

    Here’s some examples:

    “3. GWB apologizing to some barbarian chieftain for Abu Ghraib: Disgust. Correct approach: “Mind if we film some footage in YOUR jails?”

    http://www.nationalreview.com/thecorner/04_05_09_corner-archive.asp#031695

    “I asked this very pleasant and personable old gentleman whether, in all the time he served on bombers, he and his comrades ever spoke about the morality of mass aerial bombing of German cities. No, he said, it never came up. Not even once? No, he replied emphatically, not once. Did he, himself, ever think along those lines? No, not at all. Did he think that perhaps one or two of his comrades might have thought about such issues? “Possibly, but I doubt it. Nobody was thinking like that, nobody I knew anyway. It was a war. They were the enemy. Our missions were very dangerous –I was lucky to survive so many. Some of my friends were killed or captured. We just wanted to end the war, and one way was to bomb the enemy into submission. Which we did –and a good thing too.”

    http://www.nationalreview.com/derbyshire/derbyshire200501310749.asp

    I think the last one was supposed to suggest a justification for killing civilians in Iraq–without remorse.

    I’d hate to think anyone really believed such things–if I was him, I’d rather be thought of as a hack.

  23. One could easily hold conservative views about society, while being an advocate of libertarian economic and political ideas.

    Do you think many libertarians would support teaching creationism in public schools? Or passing anti-sodomy laws? Or restricting sales of birth control to married couples?

  24. Do you think many libertarians would support teaching creationism in public schools? Or passing anti-sodomy laws? Or restricting sales of birth control to married couples?

    But those are political actions and ideas. What Pig Mannix is basically saying is that it is possible to have conservative social ideals while also believing that govt. shouldn’t attempt impose those ideals.

  25. @worm eater

    Do you think many libertarians would support teaching creationism in public schools? Or passing anti-sodomy laws? Or restricting sales of birth control to married couples?

    Well, first off, I don’t many libertarians that support public schools, let alone teaching creationism in them. Other than that, none of those things you’ve mentioned are defining characteristics of conservatism. There’s certainly no shortage of conservatives opposed to anti-sodomy laws, and while I’m certain they’re out there somewhere, personally I don’t know of anyone, conservative or otherwise, that’s seriously attempting to restrict the sale of contraceptives to anyone.

    @Eric the .5b

    Pig Mannix, no offense, but you’re using a wildly different definition of conservatism than I am, particularly the premise that it has “no particular defining view of government and economics at all”.

    Well, then, it may be helpful if you define what you mean by conservatism – because I can’t think of any view about anything that’s universally held by all conservatives. There’s nothing even close to the dogmatism of libertarianism that has a parallel in conservatism. Certainly, there are conservatives that hold views that are incompatible with libertarianism. But that’s hardly a universal feature of conservatism.

  26. Pig Mannix,

    Look no further than the FDA for an example of someone trying to restrict birth control to someone else (ie Plan B)

  27. Ken,

    Your choice of Derbyshire quotes as “dumbest ever said” say more about your intelligence than they do about Derb’s.

  28. “SOME people of all stripes are ‘bad’, religious or not”

    But the religious have made the claim that religion does in fact make people better- more moral(moral according to the religion making the claim). Athiests, etc. simply ask for proof of the claim.

    “and that it isnt ONE thing, however much they’d like to pigeonhold ‘the faithful”

    It is one thing- belief in the unfalsifiable. Oh the poor victimized faithful, constantly pigeonholed.

  29. Yeah, John, I can see that now.

    Disregarding civilian casualties and justifying our treatment of Iraqi prisoners by the standards of some vicious dictator–that’s the kind of genius that’s brought us to where we are today. …and God only knows what might have happened if people hadn’t eaten this stuff up in the buckets Derbyshire and others served it in. …We wouldn’t be on target for the President’s plan for victory, that’s for sure.

    …not that this was Derbyshire’s plan. As I recall, Derbyshire wanted to bomb the hell out of Iraq and leave it in a smoldering pile, sans occupation. Yeah, pure genius.

  30. Well, then, it may be helpful if you define what you mean by conservatism

    You go first, as you seem to be using a definition that’s not quite in synch with that of others here.

  31. StupendousMan makes a good point. How many times have I been asked how I know what’s “right” and “wrong” if I don’t believe in god?

    Now I may not have thought it through as thoroughly as others have, but I think I have a pretty damn good moral compass. Do I always follow it? No. But neither do people who are religious, and so I’d like to ask them just what, exactly, makes their morality superior to mine.

    At the same time, I appreciate Gilmore’s attempt to keep us atheists in check and not just willy-nilly dissing religious folks. Although I do have a hard time taking people seriously who believe in some of the more silly aspects of their particular religion. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

  32. “Gilmore’s attempt to keep us atheists in check and not just willy-nilly dissing religious folks”

    Why do atheists need to be kept in check? Atheists may speak poorly of the religious but I don’t see how this is in any way comparable to the way the religious try to curtail others’ rights when it comes to reproduction, freedom of religion, womens’ rights, the indoctrination of children, etc. I could go on and on.

    The religious have much to bridge mending to do before anyone should start decrying the use of strong language when describing their beliefs. Oh and to the religious who are upset by strong language and want it to start- you first.

  33. I meant stop.

  34. You go first, as you seem to be using a definition that’s not quite in synch with that of others here.

    I’m glad you asked! I’ll let some someone who can explain it better than I can do the talking for me…

    http://www.wildwestcycle.com/f_pensees.htm

  35. Stupendous – I didn’t mean in general, I just meant on these here message boards. Because it sucks to just be in an echo chamber, and while there are plenty of religious folks around here, there are also a lot of us atheists. I know that I am generally apt to talk about how silly it is to believe in a lot of the mumbo-jumbo people believe in, so I like being reminded that even smart people can believe in just about anything.

  36. If were told that I could only read one website for the rest of time, it would probably be Andrew Sullivan’s.

  37. Pig Mannix:

    I’m just not inclined to read a 30,000-word article written by someone over twenty years ago to get an idea of what special definition of “conservatism” you are using that makes it synonymous with (or orthogonal to) libertarianism.

  38. I love Derb for three reasons:
    1) he’s an unapologetic Darwinian;
    2) he’s often funny;
    3) he’s the only National Review regular who’s noticed that Ramesh Ponnuru is psychotic.

  39. Count me as one more praising Derb. I love the third to last sentence

    “I don’t honestly think of myself as a very good person. ”

    So refreshing to here especially while going to school at one of the most liberal campuses in the country.

  40. 1. Why is this cartoon of Evelyn Waugh’s humanity-hating nastiness, which was largely a self-creation, taken so seriously? Waugh was insufferable for many reasons, but beyond the fact that nobody in the Army liked him, there’s little evidence for the idea that he was some kind of world-class jerk, more of a garden-variety curmudgeon, and a pretty funny one.

    2. The comparison of religiosity and crime stats of blacks and Asians is, as Gilmore notes, specious, among other things because it doesn’t account for variations in behavior within the groups (e.g., are religious blacks more or less crime-prone than non-religious blacks?). But then, looking at variations within groups would defeat the not-so-secret purpose of these ethnic comparisons.

    3. Mega-dittos on Seeing Calvin Coolidge In A Dream. You should also dig his followup Tasting Warren G. Harding All Night Long. I wouldn’t arm up for either Derb or Sully, but if they were both on fire I’d piss on Derb because a) he wrote a book I liked, b) he at least understands that supporting a war is supporting torture, and doesn’t try to weasel his way out of it by bellyaching that Bush didn’t deliver the blood-free victory he was expecting, c) in every other way he is more honest and less self-infatuated than Sully, d) he’s pretty funny.

  41. Lowdog- I hear what you’re saying. I just get fed up with attempts for “balance” in discussions regarding atheism and theism. I’ve never heard of a argument for theism that hasn’t been ripped to shreds time and again yet they keep popping up.

    I agree intelligent people certainly do believe in outlandish things. All praise the free market, righter of wrongs and rewarder of merit. 😉

  42. Tim, you correctly point out Sullivans reason he came to be against the war: its execution was botched, as if there was any other option given most of US history. But his both reasoned & visceral opposition to torturing human beings, holding them w/o charge, imprisoning people based on paid informants, vs Derbs evidently bein OK with it…..Ill go w/ Sullivan here.
    He learns. Rare.

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