G.K. Chesterton, Sam Harris, and Margaret Downey on American Morals

John Armstrong has a good primer on the great G.K. Chesterton, easily one of the finest Catholic writers of the 20th Century. One of the commenters made reference to an essay Chesterton had written on American morals from 1929. It is called, incidentally, “On American Morals,” and it’s delightful:

America is sometimes offered to us, even by Americans (who ought to know better), as a moral example. There are indeed very real American virtues; but this virtuous attitude is hardly one of them. And if anyone wants to know what a welter of weakness and inconsequence the moral mind of America can sometimes be, he may be advised to look, not so much to the Crime Wave or the Charleston, as to the serious idealistic essays by highbrows and cultural critics, such as one by Miss Avis D. Carlson on “Wanted: A Substitute for Righteousness.” By righteousness she means, of course, the narrow New England taboos; but she does not know it. For the inference she draws is that we should recognize frankly that “the standard abstract right and wrong is moribund.” This statement will seem less insane if we consider, somewhat curiously, what the standard abstract right and wrong seems to mean–at least in her section of the States. It is a glimpse of an incredible world.

She takes the case of a young man brought up “in a home where there was an ttempt to make dogmatic cleavage of right and wrong.” And what was the dogmatic cleavage? Ah, what indeed! His elders told him that some things were right and some wrong; and for some time he accepted this strange assertion. But when he leaves home he finds that, “apparently perfectly nice people do the things he has been taught to think evil.” Then follows a revelation. “The flowerlike girl he envelops in a mist of romantic idealization smokes like an imp from the lower regions and pets like a movie vamp. The chum his heart yearns towards cultivates a hip-flask, etc.” And this is what the writer calls a dogmatic cleavage between right and wrong!

The standard of abstract right and wrong apparently is this. That a girl by smoking a cigarette makes herself one of the company of the fiends of hell. That such an action is much the same as that of a sexual vampire. That a young man who continues to drink fermented liquor must necessarily be “evil” and must deny the very existence of any difference between right and wrong. That is the “standard of abstract right and wrong” that is apparently taught in the American home. And it is perfectly obvious, on the face of it, that it is not a standard of abstract right or wrong at all. That is exactly what it is not. That is the very last thing any clear-headed person would call it. It is not a standard; it is not abstract; it has not the vaguest notion of what is meant by right and wrong. It is a chaos of social and sentimental accidents and associations, some of them snobbish, all of them provincial, but, above all, nearly all of them concrete and connected with a materialistic prejudice against particular materials. To have a horror of tobacco is not to have an abstract standard of right; but exactly the opposite. It is to have no standard of right whatever; and to make certain local likes and dislikes as a substitute. We need not be very surprised if the young man repudiates these meaningless vetoes as soon as he can; but if he thinks he is repudiating morality, he must be almost as muddle-headed as his father. And yet the writer in question calmly proposes that we should abolish all ideas of right and wrong, and abandon the whole human conception of a standard of abstract justice, because a boy in Boston cannot be induced to think that a nice girl is a devil when she smokes a cigarette.

There are two important things which I think can be drawn from this, looking back eighty years later. The first is that this confusion between Christian morality and the provincial and often snobbish “chaos of social and sentimental accidents and associations” behind anti-smoking and anti-drinking repels people from Christianity to this day. Witness Sam Harris’ incoherent screed against the alleged Christian hatred of “pleasure” generally, and drugs specifically. All he’s done is confuse the two issues. As Chesterton wrote of him decades before his birth, “if he thinks he is repudiating morality, he must be almost as muddle-headed as his father. “

The second thing, and the thing which should be a blaring alarm for anyone attempting to tie Christianity and Prohibition or Christianity and anti-smoking together, is that even in the absence of Christianity or religious morality, the anti-smoking/drinking/drug crusades live on.

To take just one example, try Margaret Downey, president of The Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, and one of the atheist plaintiffs against the Boy Scouts. She’s Irish/Puerto Rican and grew up in an ethnic neighborhood (so I suspect, but don’t know for sure, that her parents were at least nominally Catholic). Her dad left her at a young age, and she was largely left in the care of an atheist she called “Uncle Floyd.” Unsurprisingly, she turned out an atheist, and her fan site, MargaretDowney.com, is actually a smug enough place to bear the title “Where rationality rules the world.” She’s so into being rational (and not, you know, filled with Dad issues and seething rage at Christianity) that she spends much of her around Christmas setting up and defending the so-called “Tree of Knowledge,” an atheist Christmas-tree-in-all-but-name intended to mock Christianity. The rest of the time, she attacks private organizations like the Boy Scouts and the crew of an American Airlines flight she was on for their religious views.

It’s worth noting, though, that she first cut teeth in the “Imposing My Worldview On Everyone Else” game as a vocal anti-smoking activist. Why? “Due to her concern about children’s health,” of course. Oh, and did I mention she’s a pro-choice activist, as well? Because that’s very compatible with children’s health, of course. Insight Scoop aptly describes her views as “Freedom of Choice! Freedom of Expression! Unless, of course, such freedom involves smoking…”

The fact is, an atheist like Downey is the flip side to the coin of the aggressive puritanical Christian Chesterton satirizes. I’d love to hear Harris’ reaction to these two, since the existence of atheists like Downey, and Christians like Chesterton shows the fundamental problem with his attempted critique of Christianity as a pleasure-killer. In the absence of a coherent set of morals, there’s a strong desire to create order and control by simpling regulating for the sake of regulating. Atheists like Downey create that order by trying to regulate: smoking, abortion laws, people’s ability to enjoy Christmas, the ability of airlines to play religious music, the ability of the Boy Scouts to regulate membership based on sexual orientation or religious affiliation, etc., etc., etc. Atheists like Harris, on the other hand, do it by advocating for torture of those who hold bad ideas, and castigating Christians for allegedly holding the views Downey holds.

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