The following article by Linn and Ari Armstrong originally was published May 11 by Grand Junction Free Press.
What do skeptics from Denver and conservatives from the Heritage Foundation have in common? More than you might initially guess.
We suppose Ari is one of the few people to have attended both a Heritage event and a Skepticamp (a day filled with talks critical of mysticism and the paranormal). He may be the only one to have done so on back-to-back weekends.
During the last weekend of April, Heritage sponsored a two-day event in Colorado Springs for free-market activists. On May 5, Denver-area skeptics organized a Skepticamp in Parker. Ari attended both events, and the juxtaposition of ideas merits some discussion.
Of course the huge disagreement between the conservatives and the skeptics concerns the reasonableness of believing in a supernatural entity. Most of those who attended the Heritage event believe in the Christian God. Probably everyone at Skepticamp, on the other hand, believes that no god exists, and that neither the evidence nor any rational argument supports a belief in God’s existence.
That is a huge debate, and one’s beliefs on the matter impact one’s entire worldview. By the time people reach adulthood, they usually settle their beliefs on the matter; we doubt that anyone who attended either event will seriously consider changing positions.
While we cannot understate the importance of the debate over God’s existence, nevertheless beyond that issue many conservatives share much in common with many skeptics. And we think the similarities are just as interesting.
We hope the skeptics would have been impressed by much of what Heritage historian Matthew Spalding had to say. Spalding sees America’s founding as rooted in the Enlightenment, a movement that recognized the power of human reason to advance science and governments. Spalding described the core principles of America—equality under the law, a recognition of the facts of human nature, and government rooted in the consent of the governed—and argued that everyone, whether pagan or Christian, can discover these truths through reason.
True, skeptics would disagree with Spalding’s view that “reason and revelation agree” about such things. Nevertheless, Spalding resisted the views of some that American principles flow only from the Christian tradition. Spalding pointed out that the Constitution is not a sectarian document, and that Jefferson and other Founders drew on the ideas of Aristotle, Cicero, and other pre-Christian thinkers.
Spalding also spoke about the profound importance of religious liberty and freedom of conscience, ideals many skeptics also support. For example, Spalding praised George Washington’s “Letter to the Jews of Newport,” written early in the great man’s term as president.
Washington wrote, “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy—a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship.”
We are proud to call ourselves liberals in this Washingtonian tradition. And both conservatives and skeptics who follow Washington in supporting freedom of conscience are to that degree liberals in the truest sense.
Many skeptics could learn a thing or two from Spalding about the profound importance of economic liberty. While skeptics claim to be critical thinkers, some unthinkingly embrace leftist political goals emanating from the disturbed mind of Karl Marx and the so-called “Progressive” movement that he inspired. To take but one example, some skeptics seemed to support censorship of political speech by individuals interacting voluntarily in groups (“corporations”).
Spalding spoke eloquently of the Founders’ respect for property rights, economic liberty, and the rule of law that protects equality under the law, not “equality” of resources that others produce. As Spalding argued, such liberties flow from natural facts about people and the use of reason to recognize those facts and their proper political implementation.
Unfortunately, sometimes skeptics and American Christians make a comparable error. Some skeptics see the cause of economic liberty as bound up with the religious right and reject both. Some Christians think that the problem with Communism was its atheism, rather than its reliance on a secularized version of religion that treats the collective as a mystical superentity. Capitalism—the system of individual rights (including economic liberty)—finds its defense in reason based on the evidence of the natural world.
But many skeptics do indeed endorse economic liberty. Last year Barry Fagin, a free-market writer for the Independence Institute, spoke at Skepticamp. This year, Robert Zubrin spoke about his new book, “Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism.” Strikingly, while some of the conservatives made disparaging remarks about Charles Darwin, the greatest biologist of human history, Zubrin explained how leftists misapplied Darwin’s ideas to promote programs involving eugenics and population control.
If every conservative would attend a Skepticamp, and every skeptic would attend a lecture by the likes of Spalding, the world would be a much more interesting place—and we think a much better one.
Linn Armstrong is a local political activist and firearms instructor with the Grand Valley Training Club. His son, Ari blogs at AriArmstrong.com in the Denver area.
Note: Heritage paid most of Ari’s expenses for the event in question (not that that made any difference to the contents of this article); see Ari Armtrong’s Disclosures Unjustly Compelled by the FTC.
Image of Matthew Spalding from the Heritage Institute