Edmund Burke’s Conservative Case for Free Markets

By Dr. Samuel Gregg

“Of all things, an indiscreet tampering with the trade of provisions is the most dangerous, and it is always worst in the time when men are most disposed to it.”

—Edmund Burke

It’s hardly a secret that free markets have fallen out of favor among conservatives throughout the West in recent years. Whether it’s Britain’s Theresa May, Germany’s Angela Merkel, or Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, many center-right politicians have quietly re-embraced some of the economically-interventionist polices that prevailed between the 1940s and the 1970s. Likewise, important segments of conservative intellectual opinion, such as the American journal First Things, have substantially qualified their formerly strong support for market economies.

There’s many reasons for this. One is growing worries about some of the apparent social and cultural effects of free markets. Another is the undeniable spread of economic nationalism, fueled by the sense that free trade has undermined entire communities’ well-being. Nor did the 2008 financial crisis help the cause of free markets inasmuch as economic liberalization was perceived to be the prime culprit.

I use words like “apparent,” “sense,” and “perceived” because, in many of these cases, what matters is perception. The reality is often rather different. Unfortunately such realities—such as the extent to which the 2008 recession was facilitated by factors such as flawed monetary policy and government efforts to socially engineer the American housing market—don’t get anywhere near the attention they deserve among some conservative skeptics of markets.

But, I’d suggest, this turn against markets among some conservatives is principally derived from a desire for something that has grown in our era of economic globalization. And that is a widespread and perfectly reasonable yearning for stability. The immense economic growth and poverty-reductions generated by global markets requires acceptance of the constant upheaval that’s part-and-parcel of free competition and economic creativity. In the long-term, the overwhelming majority consequently become much wealthier. The downside is considerable instability, and all of us need and want a certain degree of certainty in life, including its economic dimension.

This presents particular dilemmas for conservatives. After all, conservatism emphasizes the benefits of permanency, order, tradition, and strong and rooted communities. Conservatives who believe that free markets are the most optimal of imperfect economic systems thus need to rethink about how to integrate their case for markets into the broader conservative agenda. And here, I’d argue, the man whose thought gave birth to modern conservativism has much to teach us.

Enter Burke

Though widely considered modern conservatism’s intellectual progenitor, Edmund Burke’s economic views generally receive sparse attention. Burke’s conservatism is mainly linked to his religious orthodoxy, his defense of what he called “ancient liberties,” and his relentless criticism of the French Revolution’s destruction of many of the institutions that protected freedom and social order.

Rather fewer people know that Burke was a committed free trader, a strong defender of private property, and a skeptic of government economic intervention. He once described Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as being “in its ultimate results,” “perhaps the most important book ever written.” Burke’s literary executors, French Laurence and Walker King, even claimed that Burke “was also consulted, and the greatest deference was paid to his opinions by Dr. Adam Smith, in the progress of the celebrated work on the Wealth of Nations.” When Smith’s magnum opus appeared in 1776, Burke reviewed it for the widely-read Annual Registrar. He sang the book’s praises as a text which managed to achieve that most difficult of goals: to “teach things that are by no means obvious.”

Yet even before The Wealth of Nations’ publication, Burke was arguing the case for greater commercial liberty. In parliamentary debates during 1772, for example, he insisted that the best way for society’s poorest segments to receive enough bread was through a market free of legislative interference. Over twenty years later, in the midst of Britain’s epic struggle with Revolutionary France, Burke penned a carefully-worded memorandum entitled Thoughts and Details on Scarcity to Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger in 1795. Here he explained why the state generally shouldn’t interfere with the market-price of goods, services, and labor.

Burke’s strong belief in economic liberty and the institutions and habits which sustain it are not in doubt. The real question is why he held these views. It turns out that Burke’s support for extensive commercial freedom wasn’t chiefly based upon what we today would call libertarian premises. His main reasons for embracing free markets were those of a conservative.

Focusing on the Short-term is Irresponsible

In many ways, conservatism is all about the long-term. The conservative looks back into history to recall the wisdom of the past. Conservatives are also skeptical of responding to immediate concerns, real or otherwise, by acting in defiance of truths knowable by reason and/or historical experience. For the conservative, this outlook is a matter of prudence, perspective, and good government.

These concerns are all found in Burke’s most lengthy reflections on the importance of economic liberty, free exchange, and free prices. The context of his 1795 memorandum was one in which William Pitt’s government was confronted with a scarcity of food throughout Britain after a poor harvest. Like governments everywhere in time of crisis, Pitt’s administration was under enormous pressure to “just do something.”

Some were proposing that the government address the problem by granting subsidies to bolster laborers’ wages. Others wanted Pitt to establish an effective government monopoly of the grain-market in order to set fixed-prices for this commodity. These schemes was accompanied by a rhetoric which decried wealth-differentials and emphasized growing antagonism between the poor and the rich. The implication was that if Pitt didn’t act, Britain could witness the type of extreme social disorder which had manifested itself in France.

Part of Burke’s advice to Pitt involved explaining the economic difficulties with the proposals under consideration. Burke repeated, for example, his 1772 argument that a free market in grain was more likely to meet the needs of the poor than other economic arrangements. State efforts to manipulate the market price of commodities, he noted, were bound to make it harder and harder for consumers and producers to “mutually discover each other’s wants.” Attempts to fix the distorting effects of such interventions upon the price-mechanism via more interventions would, Burke said, just make it even more difficult for people to know the real market-price of any given commodity. The result would be misallocated resources and growing shortages.

Burke’s memorandum also argued against demonizing the large wealth-disparities associated with the accumulation of capital. Capital-accumulation was, he claimed, essential for the type of investment that facilitates the growth which helps those whom Burke called the “laboring people” to find work and escape poverty. In his own lifetime, Burke said, he had noticed how the spread of commercial freedom and the growth of accumulated capital had helped increasing numbers of once-poor people become wealthier, to the point whereby they were developing their own capital-reserves.

These observations were not simply those of someone who grasped the often-counterintuitive insights of modern economics as expounded by Smith. They were also conservative inasmuch as they cautioned governments against acting rashly to appease those who don’t know—or don’t care—about the likely negative impacts of particular policy-choices upon the nation’s well-being.

It wasn’t a question of being elitist. To Burke’s mind, it was a matter of helping policy-makers and electorates understand that certain economic truths (what Burke called “laws of commerce”) don’t change in the face of what he called “idle tales”, “foolish good-intention,” and “the malignant credulity of mankind.” In such conditions, the government’s first responsibility to the people “is information”—i.e., the truth—“to guide our judgment.”

A focused, but limited State.

There is, however, another aspect of Burke’s free market beliefs which are rooted firmly in his conservatism: his view of the state’s role vis-à-vis the economy.

In his Thoughts on Scarcity, Burke articulated the principle that he had developed as a way of determining which particular functions were legitimately carried out by governments. As he put it:

the State ought to confine itself to what regards the State, or the creatures of the State, namely, the exterior establishment of its religion; its magistracy; its revenue; its military force by sea and land; the corporations that owe their existence to its fiat; in a word, to every thing that is truly and properly public, to the public peace, to the public safety, to the public order, to the public prosperity.

This was not an attitude of a priori hostility towards government. For Burke, what mattered was that the functions being performed by the state really were tasks which only governments can accomplish: national defense, the administration of justice, law and order, etc. While Burke was prepared to “admit of exceptions” to this rule, they remained exceptions.

Burke’s reference to “public prosperity” might seem to open the door to extensive state interference in economic life. Burke, however, made it clear that the state’s economic role was limited by three considerations.

The first was that governments should hesitate before embarking upon legislation which seeks to influence directly the exercise of legitimate property-rights and the workings of private contract. Excessive government involvement in these areas, he maintained, could substantially undermine (1) the security provided by property and (2) the freedom of individuals to negotiate agreements in ways which mutually benefit all parties to a given contract. Resolving any subsequent disagreements among the relevant parties, Burke commented, was the judiciary’s responsibility: not government ministers.

Second, Burke thought that the more national governments involved themselves in local and provincial affairs, the more distracted they would become from carrying out their primary responsibilities. This conviction was reinforced by Burke’s third and related consideration: that certain welfare functions were better undertaken by non-state entities.

“Without all doubt,” Burke regarded assistance to the needy as “a direct and obligatory duty upon Christians.” At the time, that designation included almost everyone in Britain. Nonetheless, he added, “the manner, mode, time, choice of objects, and proportion are left to private discretion.”

Burke’s point was that London-based officials simply couldn’t know enough about the nature of poverty in Inverness or Galway to act effectively. By contrast, private individuals and groups close to a given problem were likely to possess deeper insights into the nature of the difficulty than national governments. The latter, Burke implied, should be far more humble about their capacity to assist those in need.

All these reflections on Burke’s part add up to a classic conservative case for the free market. Far from being doctrinaire, Burke’s position underscored the importance of prudence, paid attention to crucial insights outlined in Smith’s Wealth of Nations, insisted that local communities and non-state institutions remain free to address local problems, and stressed that governments should focus on their core functions and have the humility to know their limits. Above all, Burke believed that economies needed to be grounded in certain truths about the human condition which utopians and romanticists of all stripes are inclined to ignore.

If that doesn’t amount to a distinctly conservative argument for free markets, one which compliments the rest of conservatism’s political agenda, I don’t know what does.

Dr. Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute and a Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion, Emory University. He has written and spoken extensively on questions of political economy, economic history, ethics in finance, and natural law theory. He is the author of 14 books, including “Becoming Europe” (2013) and “For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good” (2016).

On the death of Congressman Walter B. Jones Jr

It is with great sadness that we’ve noted the recent passing of Congressman Walter B. Jones Jr, at the age of 76. Congressman Jones was a conservative stalwart who fought hard for what he believed in but was open to recognising when he was in the wrong, and who then fought hard to make those mistakes right.

He was a constant reminder of the humanity of public figures and the difficulties of the choices that can face politicians, both due to their impact upon others and the impact of making those choices upon the politicians themselves.

Below is an excellent obituary of a man who spent his life working to make America great, and below that is an older NPR piece which highlights the Congressman’s strength of spirit.

Requiescat in pace



Evil and God: Reflections of a Former Atheist

Evil and God: reflections of a former atheist

In my early twenties, before my conversion to Christianity in 1976, I did not believe that our world offered entirely convincing and reliable evidence for the existence and goodness of God.[i]  The universe, I thought, might have always existed, without any need for an external cause to bring it into being,[ii] and the argument for God from ‘benevolent design’ seemed obviously flawed since it could not be reconciled with the existence of evil and suffering.

To quote Britain’s best known 20th century atheist philosopher, Bertrand Russell: “it is a most astonishing thing that people can believe that this world, with all the things that are in it, with all its defects, should be the best that omnipotence and omniscience has been able to produce in millions of years. I really cannot believe it. Do you think that, if you were granted omnipotence and omniscience and millions of years in which to perfect your world, you could produce nothing better than the Ku-Klux-Klan or the Fascists?”

That was said in 1927, in his lecture, “Why I am not a Christian’, to the South London Branch of the National Secular Society, but the same point could have been made in nearly every decade of recorded history. Poverty and tyranny, slavery and war, hatred and violence, have disfigured our world and blighted human life for millennia, and continue to do so. Even if we are lucky enough to live in relatively free, prosperous and peaceful societies, life for all too many is blighted by crime, family breakdown, drug addiction and mental illness. And to this cup of human suffering, of course, must be added disease, disability and death, as well as ‘Nature red in tooth and claw’. Indeed, for many of us, the suffering and death of animals – especially that of much loved family pets – is especially hard to bear, and seems to make a mockery of all religious claims that we live in a universe created and governed by a just and loving God.

My previously scornful attitude towards ‘religion’ and Christianity

Consequently, however much I hoped, at times, that there was a God, the problem of evil, including the bloody history of religious persecution, made me scornful of the claims of Christianity. I was strongly inclined to the belief that religious faith required the rejection of reason in favour of ‘revelation’, meaning by that, a ‘leap in the dark’ based on insufficient evidence or even fraud. Even after becoming a Christian, it took a while before I was able to shake off the embarrassment I felt about admitting to others my belief in God and the truthfulness of the Bible.

My emotional hostility to ‘religion’ in general, and Christianity in particular, was only overcome when I started reading the writings of C.S. Lewis, whose own journey from atheism to faith I could identify with, and about which I have written elsewhere. What impressed me most about Lewis’s advocacy of Christianity was his ability to engage with all the strongest and seemingly most insurmountable objections to religious faith, especially that arising from the problem of evil. That, for me, was extremely important, having experienced intense grief and shock when my father, whom I greatly loved, died completely unexpectedly when I was only 17.

As Lewis points out in the relevant passages of his book, Mere Christianity (and elsewhere), we cannot complain about evil and suffering, and disbelieve in God on that basis, unless we are first convinced that the moral standard by which we judge and condemn our world is an objective one. Just as a line is only ‘crooked’ when compared with a straight line, so an act, or person, or situation, can only be condemned as ‘unjust’ when measured against a prior standard of perfect justice from which it deviates. But if evil cannot even be defined as such except in relation to the goodness to which it is opposed, how does this truth affect the debate about God and the problem of evil?

The short answer is that it changes everything. To start with, where does our standard of goodness, truth and justice come from? If, as all too many people claim to believe, it is purely subjective, like our taste in food, clothing, or entertainment, we cannot use it to criticize others or justify our complaints about the universe. But in that case, of course, our moral argument against God’s existence and goodness, based on the problem of evil, collapses. If, on the other hand, we regard the moral standard ‘written on our hearts’ as an eternally true and objective insight into reality, justifying our conviction, for instance, that murder, theft and oppression are wrong, and love is better than hate, we again face the question: where does this objective insight into reality come from? From what or from who do we derive our sense of moral obligation, as well as our knowledge of Right and Wrong?

The self-destructive logic of atheism in relation to the problem of evil

It is in relation to this issue, about the ultimate source and origin of human consciousness and moral values, that atheism fails the test of credibility and truthfulness, something I first learned from the opening chapters of the revised 1960 edition of C.S. Lewis’s brilliantly argued book, Miracles, as well from his much simpler and more limited treatment of this issue, for a ‘popular’ audience, in Mere Christianity, his collected wartime radio broadcasts of the 1940s.

Let me therefore try and explain, in my own words, the nature of Lewis’s central argument against atheism, not only because it challenges us to think clearly about the problem of evil, but also because other philosophers have reached similar conclusions about the issues Lewis raises.[iii]

If, as atheists insist, there is no God or Divine plan or purpose behind the universe, and humans are purely physical beings – biological machines without souls or spirits – the implications are logically self-destructive for atheism, especially for its rejection of God because of the ills of the world and the existence of pain and suffering.

This is so, because if atheism is true, it means that all our thoughts and values, and all our deepest convictions, including our belief in the validity of logical argument and the existence of mathematical and scientific truths, are simply an accidental by-product of our cerebral biochemistry and the mindless movement of atoms. We may think, therefore, that we have free will, and with it, that inner freedom to weigh evidence and judge between conflicting arguments without which there can be no successful pursuit of truth, or acquisition of knowledge, but we are deluding ourselves. In reality, because we are biological machines and the un-designed product of a godless, accidental and mechanical universe, all our reasoning and conclusions are nothing more than the unplanned end result of a long chain of entirely random non-rational physical causes over which we have no control. In other words, if we have no souls, and no spiritual connection to God as the ultimate source of reason and truth, it follows that our brains, and therefore all our mental activity, is imprisoned within a process of physical determinism that discredits all thinking. We cannot be sure that any of our thoughts correspond to reality, moral or scientific, since we are biologically conditioned to think them regardless of whether they are true or not. But by discrediting all thinking, including their own, atheists cut their own throats philosophically. Their view of ultimate reality is therefore self-refuting.

Another shorter and simpler way of summarizing Lewis’s argument against atheism is to point out that we do not accept the truthfulness of any statement or assertion if it can be shown to be the result of purely irrational causes, like a brain tumour or some emotional crisis. But if atheism is true, all our thoughts and chains of reasoning, including, again, our belief in the rules of logic, have a purely non-rational physical cause; therefore we have no reason to believe in their truthfulness, including that of atheism. The disbelievers in God have sawn off the branch on which they were sitting. Their conclusions are no more credible or meaningful than the print out from an un-programmed computer.

The damning admission of a prominent atheist and Marxist scientist

Ironically, enough, recognition of this central truth is not limited to Christian philosophers and thinkers like C.S. Lewis. Many years ago, J.B.S. Haldane, a Marxist scientist and one of Britain’s most prominent 20th century atheists, also recognized the logical difficulty of trying to provide a purely reductionist physical explanation of human consciousness and thought. Writing in 1928, he admitted: “If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain, I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically. And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms.” [iv]

This admission, of course, radically undermines the philosophical credibility of the entire ‘worldview’ of scientific atheism. By that, I mean the idea that some unguided process of cosmic and biological ‘evolution’ can offer a complete and satisfactory explanation of the existence of life and the universe, as well as providing an objective basis for moral values. It cannot in fact do so, because all scientific experimentation and knowledge involves that very process of logical reasoning whose existence and reliability cannot be accounted for on atheistic assumptions. That is why it is a fallacy to argue, as so many atheists do, that the natural sciences – the systematic study of physical Nature – provide a truer and more objective source of knowledge about our world and our selves than ‘Religion’.

To ram this last point home, here is a relevant quote from a paper C.S. Lewis gave to the Oxford Socratic Club in 1944: “…those who ask me to believe this world picture [of scientific atheism] also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based…Granted that Reason [God] is prior to matter and that the light of that primal Reason illuminates finite minds, I can understand how men should come, by observation and inference, to know a lot about the universe they live in. If, on the other hand, I swallow the scientific cosmology [of atheism] as a whole, then not only can I not fit in Christianity, but I cannot even fit in science. If minds are wholly dependent on brains, and brains on bio-chemistry, and bio-chemistry (in the long run) on the meaningless flux of the atoms, I cannot understand how the thought of those minds should have any more significance than the sound of the wind in the trees.”  [v]

And all this brings me back to the argument against God arising from the problem of evil.

If we are only the accidental inhabitants of a random and purposeless universe, and cannot therefore attach any ultimate meaning, truth, or significance to our thoughts and lives, how can we justify all our moral indignation about evil and suffering, and use that as a stick with which to beat religious faith?

You may protest, in response to this question, that whether or not we are created beings or just biological accidents, is beside the point, since we can simply choose to value life and attach meaning to our existence. Then, if we do that, the value of life, and respect for it, becomes an entirely objective non-religious foundation for our moral convictions and our hatred of evil. And this in turn means, you may argue, that it isn’t actually irrational for atheists to get angry about the pain and injustice they see all around them, and to reject belief in God on that basis.

The transcendence of the Moral Law and its religious implications

But this objection simply misses the point by evading the following dilemma. Should valuing and respecting life be regarded as a self-evident moral obligation, a ‘truth’ everyone must acknowledge and a ‘law’ everyone should obey? Or is it just a subjective expression of our feelings? If it is the former, as most people rightly believe, surely that does suggest that our minds and thoughts have a connection with some spiritual Reality outside ourselves and the material universe, otherwise there is no escape, as we have seen, from the physically deterministic self-destructive logic of atheism. In other words, you cannot demonstrate the ‘wrongness’ of any evil thought or act unless the moral standard to which you appeal when making that judgment has an eternal and objective character whose presence in our lives cannot really be accounted for if nothing exists except physical matter, space, and time.

Let me try and explain in more detail my reasons for making this assertion, because it is so important to understand, and lies at the core of the moral argument for God’s existence and goodness.

If you think about it, an eternal standard of right and wrong, and the sense of moral obligation it generates, has a strangely transcendent quality, because it is independent of time, place, culture, social class, and even physical existence. For example, it remains somehow eternally true, does it not, that raping a woman, torturing a child, or enslaving another human being, are evil acts deserving punishment, whether we are rich or poor, live or die, and regardless of where we come from and what culture we are part of. Even if our universe and all its forms of life came to an end tomorrow, the ‘truthfulness’ of these moral assertions would remain unchanged, their moral ‘light’ undimmed. ‘Truth’ would still somehow remain Truth, and ‘Justice’ Justice, even if nobody were left alive to acknowledge it.

Consequently, if we are to take our moral convictions seriously, and therefore justify our passionate indignation about the sad and evil state of so much of our world, we must first recognize that ‘Truth’ and ‘Goodness’ are permanent, unchanging and ultimate categories to which we somehow owe unconditional allegiance, as Plato famously believed. But if this is the case, their eternal, transcendent, and imperative character suggests that the Moral Law ‘written on our hearts’ is in some sense Divine. And this brings me to the final step in my argument from morality to God, from atheistic indignation to religious (and in my case, Christian) faith.

It is obvious, is it not, that our awareness of truth and goodness, right and wrong, is inseparably connected with our minds and wills, since we ‘grasp’ these concepts and respond to them with our intellect. Given that fact, it seems reasonable to conclude that the apparently divine character and status of the Moral Law is also related in some sense to an eternal Divine Intelligence. In other words, truth and goodness are rooted in God and express His essential and changeless Nature. Or to put it another way, God is not just our Creator, but also goodness, truth, love, (and beauty) personified, and therefore the eternal and objective source of all that is precious in the world and in human existence.

The liberating truth: our hatred of evil implies God’s existence

In the end, then, we discover the wonderful and liberating truth that we need not despair when our minds are overwhelmed, and our hearts sickened, by the sight of all the evil and suffering there is in the world. The very fact that we react so strongly and passionately against cruelty, lies, and injustice, and wish to heal the sick, protect the innocent, and comfort the bereaved, is powerful evidence that we are not, after all, biological robots adrift without hope in a meaningless universe. Rather, the certainty of our convictions and the intensity of our feelings reveal the presence within us of an Inner Light that not only illuminates our minds and softens our hearts, but also challenges us to acknowledge its Divine Source and co-operate in the struggle to put our world to rights, starting with our own selves.

To quote C.S. Lewis again: “The defiance of the good atheist hurled at an apparently ruthless and idiotic cosmos is really an unconscious homage to something in or behind that cosmos which he recognizes as infinitely valuable and authoritative: for if mercy and justice were really only private whims of his own with no objective and impersonal roots, and if he realized this, he could not go on being indignant. The fact that he arraigns heaven itself for disregarding them means that at some level of his mind he knows they are enthroned in a higher heaven still.” [vi]

Reading the works of C.S. Lewis not only revealed to me the shallowness and superficiality of atheism as a response to the problem of evil. It also removed the blind spot that had previously prevented me from properly appreciating the strength and validity of the argument for God from intelligent design.[vii]


Influenced by Bertrand Russell, I too readily assumed that the existence of evil and suffering simply cancelled out the evidence for intelligent and benevolent design commonly presented by Christian philosophers. End of discussion! But why should it? At the risk of stating the obvious, does the fact that badly designed buildings exist prove that there are no good architects, or that the materials from which such buildings are made self-assembled? Does the presence of cruelty and hate in our world suggest the non-existence of kindness and love, somehow nullifying its reality? Of course, it doesn’t. How, then, should we view the apparent conflict between two apparently equally compelling sets of evidence about the possible relationship between God and our universe?

Well, before trying to answer that question, it is worth noting first of all just how extensive and compelling is the evidence of intelligent and benevolent design in Nature. It is in fact everywhere if we care to look at what is under our very noses. Bees making honey, the organisational activity of ants, birds building nests, sexual reproduction, the immune systems of human beings and animals, our digestive systems, the biological information software of DNA, the incredibly complex structure of even the simplest cell – the list is endless. Indeed, the very existence and progress of modern empirical science has been based on the assumption, confirmed by experience, that we inhabit an ordered cosmos whose ‘laws’ and structures can be described and discussed in the language of mathematics. That is why all or most of the great ‘founding fathers’ of modern science believed in God, and had a healthy respect for the Bible.[viii]

How, then, to return to our central conundrum, should we regard the apparently conflicting ‘messages’ about God that we receive from both the evidence of benevolent design and the distressing reality that we live in a world disfigured by evil and suffering?

Since these apparently opposing sets of evidence do not, as I have argued, cancel each other out, the first obvious point to make is that both of them must somehow fit together like the different pieces making up one overall pattern or ‘puzzle’. So what kind of pattern or ‘puzzle’ might that be?

Conflict between intelligent design and existence of evil reconciled

Until I read Lewis, it never occurred to me to give serious consideration to one possible answer to this question, namely, the Biblical one: that our world was created by God, and was originally ‘good’, but has been spoiled. Something has gone wrong.

Like most people who’ve grown up in our secularised post-Christian culture, I used to accept, completely uncritically, the idea that modern science had somehow discredited the Bible, especially the early chapters of the Book of Genesis, with its apparently fanciful story of creation followed by the disobedience and resulting ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Its tale of a lost Paradise, of a fall into sin from a state of original innocence and goodness, seemed impossible to reconcile with the Darwinian notion of humankind’s evolutionary progress from prehistoric ‘savagery’ towards ‘civilisation’. In any case I disliked the message the story in Genesis seemed to convey. It was a typical example, I thought, of the hostility of ‘religion’ to freedom and knowledge, since it seemed to present God as a cosmic tyrant determined to keep men and women in a permanently retarded state of childish ignorance and blind obedience to ‘Authority’. That, at any rate, was the picture presented to my mind and imagination by my reading of atheist thinkers like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell, and it erected a wall of prejudice in my heart against Christianity.

Reading C.S. Lewis, by contrast, soon brought that wall of incomprehension and prejudice crashing down. As he pointed out in his book, The Problem of Pain (1940), because prehistoric man is only known to us by the crude material objects he made, people too readily and falsely assume that our earliest ancestors were intellectually and morally inferior to us, and for that reason alone we ought to reject the Biblical explanation of the origin of evil. But this makes the mistake of confusing technological advance with moral and intellectual progress, when in fact there is no necessary connection between them. Nazi Germany, after all, was a more technologically advanced society than 19th century Britain, but nobody would suggest that it was a freer or more civilised one!

To go back to Lewis, and to quote him: “The whole modern estimate of primitive man is based upon that idolatry of artefacts which is a great corporate sin of our own civilisation. We forget that our prehistoric ancestors made all the useful discoveries, except that of chloroform, which have ever been made. To them we owe language, the family, clothing, the use of fire, the domestication of animals, the wheel, the ship, poetry and agriculture. Science, then, has nothing to say for or against the doctrine of the Fall.” [ix]

Not only, then, has science nothing to say for or against the Biblical story of the Fall, but there are also at least two good reasons for taking it seriously and believing in its veracity.

The evidence that the ‘Fall of Man’ was a real historical event

The first is the curious fact that we human beings appear to possess an inner moral code we cannot shake off yet seem strangely unable to obey. We denounce evil and complain passionately about its existence, yet we too are stained by it. We are angered by the bad behaviour, by the unkind thoughts and actions of others, yet we too fail to ‘love our neighbour’ as we should, and misbehave in similar ways. Worst of all, the better we are, the more we feel the full force of the Moral Law pressing down upon our consciences, the more we become aware of our own constant failure to live up to its demands. Does all this not suggest that some process of deterioration has taken place within the minds and hearts of humankind? What better explanation is there of this strange dichotomy?

The second reason for resisting the temptation to dismiss the Biblical account of the origin of evil is an anthropological one. It is, for instance, an interesting and surely significant fact that a number of ancient peoples and cultures, including the Greeks, Romans, Scandinavians and Chinese, have some kind of tradition of a lost Paradise in the dim and distant past.[x]

The great Roman historian, Tacitus (c. 55-120 A.D.), for example, wrote that “The first race of men, free as yet from every depraved passion, lived without guile and crime, and therefore without chastisements; nor was there need of rewards, when of themselves they followed righteousness.” [xi]

Similarly, seven centuries earlier, the great ancient Greek poet Hesiod (c.735 B.C.) sang of a past golden age when “The immortals formed a golden race on earth.” [xii]

Is this not remarkable? Is it just a coincidence that we find traditions of a lost Paradise outside the Bible? Or does this fact not suggest that some kind of ‘Fall’ or dramatic deterioration in the human condition did actually occur, the confused and fragmented memory of which has left its historic imprint on the human imagination – in poetry, legend, and song.

Having made the journey from atheism to Christianity, and become convinced by a great deal of evidence of the historical truthfulness of the Bible,[xiii] I see no reason to disbelieve in the existence of Adam and Eve or to doubt the details of the story of their testing, disobedience, and expulsion from the Garden of Eden.[xiv] This conviction, moreover, is reinforced in my mind by the knowledge that Jesus himself affirmed the historical reality of their existence and fall from grace[xv]. And since I believe, on good evidence, that Jesus was and is God the Son Incarnate[xvi], His testimony about Adam and Eve is, for me, authoritative.

So, drawing all the different threads of evidence together, I have every confidence that the story in Genesis describing the entrance of evil into our world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a true one. The ‘Fall of Man’ was a real historical event, not as I used to believe, a primitive folk tale.

The philosophical credibility of the Biblical view of the origin of evil

What, apart from the moral, cultural, and historical evidence, I find so convincing about the Biblical explanation of the origin of evil and suffering, is its inherent philosophical credibility. And here, in my next paragraph, I can only repeat what I’ve already written in my personal testimony about my journey from atheism to Christian faith.

 As C.S. Lewis and other Christian thinkers have pointed out down the centuries, true love involves a voluntary union of free individuals giving themselves to each other for their mutual delight and enjoyment of life and all its blessings. Consequently, when God created the first human beings, He gave them the gift of free will. He did so in order that they and all their descendants might share His life, His love, His joy and His beauty, with Him and with each other. As part of this gift of free will, God also gave human beings creativity and intelligence in order that they might be good stewards of the world in which he had placed them, sharing its joys and adding to its wonders and beauty. But the problem with free will is that it can be corrupted and misused. Our inner freedom to relate to God and other people in harmony and love can be turned on its head. We can choose, instead, to reject our Creator and live only for ourselves. And that, sadly, is what has happened to the human race. It is what lies behind that Biblical story of the ‘Fall of Man’ in the Garden of Eden to which I’ve been drawing your attention. Our ancestors disobeyed God, with deadly consequences for themselves and posterity.

To understand exactly how and why this happened, we need to look more closely at the actual details of the story in Genesis of the temptation and fall of Adam and Eve.

The key fact upon which we need to focus here was the nature of the original commandment given by God and subsequently broken by them. According to Genesis 2:16-17 that commandment was that “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

The first question to ask is why, in an originally perfect environment, did God confront the first human couple with a prohibition whose rationale they couldn’t possibly have understood, given their original state of perfect innocence and bliss? Since God’s original creation was wholly ‘good’, according to the Bible, the word ‘evil’ would have held no meaning for Adam and Eve, and the word ‘death’ would have been equally incomprehensible. Why, then, give them a commandment whose rationale was not transparent to their reason? What was God’s purpose in doing this?

It was not, as I originally and angrily thought, because God wants human beings to remain ignorant children robotically obedient to His every whim and commandment. Note, in this regard, that the prohibition given in the Garden of Eden refers to the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, not knowledge in the wider sense – like scientific knowledge, or the kind of ‘knowledge’ involved in the development and enjoyment of art, music and literature. No, as Lewis helped me to understand, God’s main purpose in giving this famous commandment in the Garden of Eden was to test the free will of His newly created children in order to perfect their character and relationship with Him. [xvii]

Let me try and explain what I mean by this, because the truth I’m trying to convey here is so vital to any proper understanding of both the nature of God and the moral and spiritual challenge His existence and goodness poses for each one of us.

The moral and spiritual challenge God’s existence poses for all of us

Since God is both our Creator and Goodness personified, the eternal Source of all life and truth and love, we owe Him and ought to give Him our unconditional and joyful love, trust and obedience. We should not only do this out of gratitude for the gift of life and of Himself, but also because questioning and doubting God’s wisdom and motives represents, if you think about it, the highest form of irrationality. As our Creator, God is the ultimate source of our very ability to reason. He is Truth as well as Love and Goodness personified, so how can we ever be justified in thinking that we know better than He does what is good for us and makes for our true happiness? How can we have the presumption to believe that we, looking at life and the universe from our own very limited perspective in time and space, are in a position to judge the actions and commandments of our all-wise, all-knowing and all-powerful Maker – the One who, to quote the Bible, dwells in eternity and ‘sees the end from the beginning’?

For morally imperfect fallen creatures like ourselves, living as we do now in a damaged and suffering world, loving and trusting God as we should is often difficult and painful, especially when we are faced with having to trust Him in trials and situations that perplex us because we cannot make sense of them or detect either His Presence or purpose in them. For Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, by contrast, living in harmony with God in a perfect environment, joyfully trusting in God, and obeying His seemingly strange commandment, did not necessitate or involve any kind of suffering. That is why their act of rebellion was so heinous and so tragic. And that brings me, finally, to the other key truth we need to grasp about this tragic story.

The reason why the tree from which Adam and Eve ate is described in Genesis as “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, should, on reflection, be obvious, and it is this. The only way in which, in a perfect environment, our innocent and morally uncorrupt ancestors could obtain any kind of ‘knowledge of evil’ – and therefore of its contrast with good – would be by bringing it into existence themselves and then experiencing its effects. In other words, God’s warning and commandment in the Garden of Eden was not simply a necessary test of free will, but also an infinitely loving injunction given for the protection and wellbeing of His newly created children.

To fully appreciate this last point, and the reasons why turning away from God had (and always has) such catastrophic consequences, you need to understand, again, what, as created beings, we owe to God, our Maker.

As C.S. Lewis tells us most eloquently in his book The Problem of Pain, a creature rebelling against its Creator is like a plant refusing to grow towards the sunlight. It necessarily results in a broken relationship and therefore the separation of that creature from the eternal source of all life, love, truth and happiness. It was thus inevitable that when the human race separated itself from God through that original act of disobedience long ago, in the Garden of Eden, hatred, disease and death came into the world.

Supernatural evil and its role in our world: the Serpent in Eden

Is this all there is to say about the origin and problem of evil? Not quite. The presence of the Serpent (Eve’s tempter) in the Garden of Eden clearly implies that according to the Bible, the ‘Fall of Man’ was preceded by a similar rebellion against God in the angelic realm, which introduces into the picture and our discussion the person of Satan, or the Devil. To some or perhaps many of my readers, the Biblical revelation of Satan’s existence and destructive role in our world, may be hard to accept in this so-called ‘scientific age’, but such a reaction would be irrational. If God exists, as so much evidence indicates, then it follows that the ‘supernatural’ is real, and therefore there is no reason to reject automatically the notion that our universe may contain purely spiritual beings (angels), more intelligent, beautiful and powerful than ourselves, originally created by God, but now in open rebellion against His rule and good purposes for humankind. In any case, the very fact that there is so much evil and suffering in our world, surely offers strong circumstantial evidence for the existence and activity of Satan and his angels, even if one ignores or disbelieves the personal testimonies of many who have dabbled in the occult or been involved in helping its victims.

Funnily enough, Bertrand Russell himself, in the course of his above-mentioned lecture, made the semi-humorous suggestion that he was tempted to agree with those Gnostic thinkers who asserted that our world had been made by the Devil when God wasn’t looking, so the point I’m trying to make merits serious consideration!


Some creationist scientists and theologians believe that the ‘Fall of Man’ damaged the whole of God’s originally perfect creation (as described in the first two chapters of Genesis), introducing death and disorder into the animal kingdom and the natural world. Others argue that even before the ‘Fall of Man’ the natural environment had already been damaged by that rebellion against God in the angelic realm, led by Satan, to which I have just referred.  But whatever you may think about this particular and controversial question, one thing seems crystal clear and makes perfect sense to me: separation from our Creator is inevitably self-destructive, so if we want to avoid that fate and get back on the road to Life and to true and lasting joy, we need to reconnect with Him.

An invitation to follow me in my journey from atheism to God

So, as you can see, moving from the atheistic mental universe of Bertrand Russell to a Biblical view of the origin and problem of evil, has been, for me, quite a journey, one of the heart as well as of the mind, and I can only hope that my sharing of it with you so far has aroused your interest and been helpful as well as interesting. If you want to find out more about my journey from atheism to Christianity, and what I believe God has done to reconnect us with Him, please read my personal testimony.

Philip Vander Elst

[i] See my personal testimony, From Atheism to Christianity: a personal journey, available at https://www.bethinking.org/author/philip-vander-elst/page/all

[ii] I failed to understand the cosmological argument for God, whose truthfulness I now recognize and is explored in my paper Does science contradict religion?, available, again, at https://www.bethinking.org/author/philip-vander-elst/page/all

[iii] For a detailed forensic philosophical restatement and defence of C.S. Lewis’s argument, see, for instance, Victor Reppert, C. S. Lewis’s Dangerous Idea: In Defence of the Argument from Reason, (InterVarsity Press, USA, 2003).

[iv]  J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), Professor of Biometry at University College, London, in Possible Worlds (1928), p.220.

[v] C.S. Lewis, ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, paper read to the Oxford Socratic Club (1944), one of a collection of Lewis essays and sermons entitled, Screwtape Proposes a Toast (Fontana Books, Collins, 1974), pp.57-58.

[vi] C.S. Lewis, ‘De Futilitate’ [On Futility], an address given at Magdalen College, Oxford during the Second World War, Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces, (London: HarperCollins, 2000), p.680.

[vii] See, for example, Dr John Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2007) for a comprehensive and intellectually powerful presentation of the logical and scientific evidence for intelligent design and its connection with God, written by a brilliant Oxford mathematician and scientist. View also his more recent Harvard University lecture, ‘Is it irrational to believe in the supernatural’, currently posted on his personal website at http://www.johnlennox.org/video/belief-in-supernatural/

[viii] For more information, see Dr John Lennox, op cit, and my own above-mentioned paper, Does science contradict religion?

[ix] C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain,(London: Collins Fount, 1977), pp.58-59.

[x] For more information, see my paper: Philip Vander Elst, Archaeological and anthropological evidence for the truth of Genesis, (available from the author as a pdf), pp.3-6. See also: Henry Morris, The Long War Against God, (Baker Books, USA, 1997), pp.291-296; also: Nelson, Broadberry & Chock, God’s Promise to the Chinese, (Read Books, USA, 1997).

[xi] Philip Vander Elst, op cit, p.4.

[xii] Ibid.

[xiii] See my personal testimony, From atheism to Christianity: a personal journey and Philip Vander Elst, op cit, pp.7-10; also: Henry M. Morris, Many Infallible Proofs, (USA: Master Books, 2002)

[xiv] See: Norman L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics,(USA: Baker Books, 2012), ‘Adam, Historicity of’, pp.12-13.

[xv] See: Philip Vander Elst, op cit, p.10.

[xvi] See Philip Vander Elst, From atheism to Christianity: a personal journey, and Henry M. Morris, op cit, pp.63-105.

[xvii] C.S. Lewis explored this issue in great depth and with great imaginative power in his famous ‘science fiction’ novel, Voyage to Venus or Perelandra (to give its alternative title) – a gripping story first published in 1953 about an averted ‘Fall’ in a beautiful and newly created world.

Seen through the haze – A Christmas Essay from Richard Miller

“Almost everyone asks philosophical questions- sooner or later.” H.D. Lewis.

It is one of the most familiar images of Christmas- the three wise men on camels against a setting sun- obviously riding westwards. But what is the reality behind the image, and what is its significance? After all,  the prevailing narrative says that Christmas is about family, friends, and overeating, and yet we find ourselves thinking about travelers far from home seeking for something, they know not quite what, in a strange country.

In the winter I have often  walked along the ridge of the chalk hills- curiously  called Downs- that dominate South Wiltshire. If you look south on a clear day you can just see the Needles- the giant blocks of chalk which mark the western point of The Isle of Wight. To the west is Shaftesbury, where Catherine of Aragon spent the night, and where Cardinal Wolsey’s daughter spent her final days. To the north, the rumble of guns from the military training grounds on Salisbury Plain can sometimes be heard drifting through the low cloud that often shrouds the landscape. Through the haze to the east you can sometimes see the spire of Salisbury Cathedral ( which C.S. Lewis called “a thought frozen in stone.”) pointing heavenward in a silent rebuke to earthly concerns . For those who built the cathedral there was clearly something beyond the grind of their daily lives.

Since the Enlightenment a sneering attitude to religion has taken root, and we have lost capacity to talk fluently about spiritual realities. But such concerns were central to our ancestors, and indeed to the whole western tradition, shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims alike, which can ultimately be traced back to Abraham.

In that truly astonishing document- his “Epistle to the Romans” St. Paul asks about the nature of what happened to Abraham.  Was Abraham saved by his membership in the Jewish political community, or was he saved by his faith? Paul’s answer is unequivocal. Abraham was saved by his commitment to following God’s will. Like Abraham, Paul had earned nothing, but acquired everything through his trust in God.

Something like the same notion underlies the story of the Wise Men. But with this difference: for Paul the clouds opened in a single moment on the road to Damascus. For him there was no “haze”- the distant became the immediate. The Wise Men received no such single burst of illumination. They question even as they journey. In their case progress was slower, and reflected the fact that unlike Paul they were not saturated in a Jewish background. For them even the idea of a single truth would have been problematic. Whereas Paul was an insider for whom the implications of what Christ taught were clear, the Wise Men are depicted as being figures from the very edge of the civilised world, beyond the frontiers of the empire.

We know less about the Wise Men than we would like. Matthew – the most Jewish of the Gospels – and the only one to mention them-is laconic. They were probably Magi from the Parthian Empire, who lived in a half-Romanised environment in which differing faiths jostled for influence and power. The Magi are sometimes seen as Zoroastrians. But this seems to be a mistake. Certainly, there were some Magi who were  Zoroastrians, but they were in fact not followers of any one religion. Rather the Magi were members of a hereditary caste which performed the rites of any religion which happened to be in favour at the moment- and yes, some of them appear to have been star-gazers.

Much has been written about the celestial phenomenon that caught the Wise Men’s attention. We’ll never know the point at which fact stops and symbol begins. But two things are worth noting. The first is that the astronomer Kepler ( 1571-1630 )- a major figure in the history of science- thought he had identified an unusual conjunction which was consistent with Matthew’s account; and secondly that there may well be nothing inherently miraculous in the account- although of course, its timing is suggestive. But historical or legendary this tale raises questions. Is this all just tinsel? Is it just some distant memory of an expedition along the Asian trade routes that linked east and west? Or is there something we can learn here? In short, what do we have here?

We have a story, admittedly only half-authenticated, of a group caught up in the practice of religious rituals in which they did not believe, who saw something in the skies. Whatever it was, and whether they really saw it, or sensed it through the haze of their times, it alerted them to the possibility of a truth the existence of which they had not previously suspected, and who abandoned their comfortable way of life in search of it. That doesn’t sound like a bad example to follow!


Books for Christmas

The philosopher H.D. Lewis was not related to C.S. Lewis and his brother W.H. Lewis. The quote is the first line of his- strongly recommended- “Philosophy of Religion”. ( London, 1965 )

The vital work is Joseph Ratzinger ( aka Pope Benedict XVI )“ Jesus of Nazareth, The  Infancy Narratives”. ( 2012 ) p.89ff. Ratzinger relies on recent German scholarship. An older protestant book is J. Gresham Machen, “The Virgin Birth of Christ” ( 1930 ) My edition is London 1958. Machen despite being a theological conservative author stresses the non-miraculous character of the story about the star. See p. 224

For the Magi, in general, I have been browsing in R.C. Zaehner, “The Dawn and Twilight of Zoroastrianism  ( London, 1961 ) and in G. Ghirsman “Iran”. ( London, 1954 )  For the trade routes to and from the east along which the Magi must have moved, see Peter Frankopan, “The Silk Roads, A New History of the World .” ( London, 2015)  For Rome and the east see Mortimer Wheeler “Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers” ( London, ( London, 1954 )  There were Roman trading stations in The Red Sea, East Africa, India, and perhaps even Vietnam. For a fascinating discussion of the relations between east and west see C. Northcote Parkinson,  “East and West ) ( London, 1963 )

Right Minds – Niamh Uí Bhriain – Progressive Nationalist

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I am a progressive nationalist:

I’ve spent most of my adult life working to preserve things I consider fundamentally important, such as life, liberty, family and nation. Yet I’ve never really thought of myself as a conservative.

I blame Margaret Thatcher who famously said that there was no such thing as society, just individuals who needed to put themselves first before looking after others.

She epitomised for me, and for many Irish people, what we thought it meant to be a conservative –  an excessive emphasis on the individual; extolling the free market without a meaningful requirement for social contract; and an opposition to change which sometimes seemed more to do with conserving hierarchies than preserving the common good.

I think I realised that this was somewhat of a mischaracterisation, and I certainly didn’t like the lefties any better. Socialism might have been an experiment, but it wasn’t a noble one. It is extraordinary that we still have people, some sitting in Dáil Eíreann, who happily describe themselves as Marxist/Leninists when millions were killed in the Gulags, under Chairman Mao, and in Pol Pot’s Killing Fields.

Marx’s central tenet of permanent revolution faded pretty rapidly when a changing and more egalitarian world gave ordinary people opportunities which seemed preferable to an eternal class struggle – like owning property and businesses and making a decent living. As John Waters observed in his book Give Us Back the Bad Roads this meant that the Left switched to identifying and creating coalitions with societal groups they considered oppressed – therefore pitching themselves as the champions of all the tribes.

This was a smart move because group loyalty and identity is hugely important to people, more important sometimes than conservatives realise.  It’s also one reason why libertarianism isn’t enough as a political philosophy for me, because there seems to me to only be a requirement to avoid harm, without an emphasis on a responsibility to care for others.

I understand that the state has shown itself to be remarkably bad at caring for its citizens, the chaos in the HSE being a case in point, where, despite the fact that employers and employees pay a cost amounting to almost 20% of wages in PRSI, everyone knows that if you are seriously sick you might actually die before you get seen by in the public service. I agree with libertarian Ludwig von Mises when he said that “there is no more dangerous menace to civilization than a government of incompetent, corrupt, or vile men.”

But there needs to be a social contract of some sort, and I believe this is best expressed in the organisation of a people in its most obvious and enduring form, the nation.

Pearse believed that “there is really a spiritual tradition which is the soul of Ireland, the thing which makes Ireland a living nation, and that there is such a spiritual tradition corresponding to every true nationality”.  By the soul of the nation he meant the language, the traditions, the entire culture and faith and history, but, also perhaps, the long endurance of a sense of identity, the tug of recognition of being part of an ancient lineage, the pull we feel looking out from Ben Bulben, or listening to a sean nós song. It is the sense that this our own, that we are, as Pearse said: “Not free merely but Gaelic and well, not Gaelic merely but free as well.”

Nationalism should bind us together, not just in pride but in a desire to do better for everyone because a nation will be judged on how it treats its most vulnerable. I love, not just my country, but my nation and her people, which makes me firstly a patriot, and that I remain, however foolish or cruel the people may show themselves to be.

I will say, in fairness to Thatcher, she actually included families in her ideal of how a government should organise to benefit individuals, and I understand that many people identify as conservatives because we should rightly be resistant to the sort of change which is actually destroying people’s lives for the sake of social experiment.

But it seems to me that at a time when modern democracies have demolished legal recognition of antecedent and fundamental rights in relation to families and now even the right to life, and are busy crushing freedom of speech and legislating to outlaw common sense, perhaps conservatism is the wrong description of what needs to be married with nationalism to best repair the damage. Too much that should have been conserved has already been destroyed.

I would say a real progressive is not someone who tries to destroy society as an experiment. A real progressive seeks to improve society by reform and repair, and I think we may have taken apart enough of the structures which held society together to say that we need to mend what has been broken. Maybe a progressive nationalism, a real progressive nationalism, is what this country now needs.

Right Minds – John McGuirk – Social Conservative

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

The good, old-fashioned, judgemental, hang ‘em and flog ‘em, Social Conservative.

I’m that kind of conservative right winger all the other right wingers like to define themselves against. “Oh, I’m not one of those people”, they say. “I’m for freedom, and choice, and you living your very best life, but with small Government. I wouldn’t be religious now myself at all.”

As it happens, I’m not very religious myself either, but that image comes with the brand: Social Conservative. The very words conjure up images of little old ladies brandishing photographs of the blessed virgin at heathen marchers dressed in rainbow outfits, or of Nancy Reagan quaintly imploring grungy American teenagers to just say no to drugs, or of those very nice and sincere young Christian missionaries who are doing their absolute best to make virginity cool again in the west.

We’re the square ones. We’re behind the times. We have absolutely no connection to how people live their lives today, and when we read the Handmaid’s Tale, we don’t see a dystopia, we see blueprints.

That’s the image. The reality is more boring.

I want to live in a stable, secure, safe, and happy society, one where people can fulfil their potential and feel satisfied and content. We should seek a society that minimises insecurities, rather than magnifying them, one where people can feel fulfilled rather than, as is too often the case, constantly on edge. Our government should be conducive to these things and should prioritise them over ideological goals like freedom or equality. I don’t wish to live in a free society, or an equal society, if the option of a contented society is on the table.

Government should also build on what works. It should be local – very few government departments are run as effectively or efficiently as the local GAA club, which raises and spends money close to the citizen, with the involvement of the citizen, to the benefit of the citizen. It should be a moral leader – societies need standards of compassion and decency and that ought to be signalled and lived out by our chosen leaders. And, finally, Government should preserve and defend those institutions which serve society well.

The pathway to a successful life, to health, to happiness, and indeed to greater wealth, is very simple: Get married, stay married, get a job, buy a house, have children, get a pension, retire, and play golf. The reason this formulation has remained in vogue since antiquity (with the latter-day additions of pensions and golf) is very simply that it works.

It works for several obvious reasons – it gives you a stake in something more than yourself. You are no longer invested simply in your own success, but in somebody else’s. It makes you a better and more engaged citizen – you start caring about things like schools and public safety. It gives you a sense of pride, because with your property you have something to improve. It brings out the selflessness in us, because even the vainest parent will usually make sacrifices for their children.

All in all, people in stable families are better off, happier, and richer than the rest of us, and that’s because stable families work to make their members all those things. The very principle of left-wing thought – that working together we can all improve ourselves – has always been proven correct in the family, and yet the traditional family has never been high on the left’s list of beloved institutions.

If we want engaged, striving, good, law abiding citizens, if we want people to live a little bit longer than their parents, if we want people to feel secure and contented, there is no better way than to embrace and enact a political ideology that puts the family at the centre and works out from there. The family has been working towards and accomplishing those goals since before most modern political thought structures emerged. Indeed, many attacks on the family come explicitly from those who regard it as altogether too successful, and as an impediment to equality, which says quite enough about its success.

What, then, is pro-family policy? Well first, and this is important – it’s not prescriptive. Nobody should be forced or compelled into a social structure that’s not for them. Second, it’s essential to recognise that while the general rule is success, many families fail (and we’ll explore some of the trends around that in a moment) or fall apart, and that a general pro-family disposition does not imply judgement about those who fall outside that structure.

Being pro-family, however, means enacting, as a policy priority, ideas which favour and strengthen the family, rather than ideas which weaken and oppose it. Let me cite a specific example around housing policy: Currently, in many western nations, housing policy favours a single parent with a child ahead of a couple with a child on the basis that the single parent is in the more urgent need. This policy is derived, as so many bad policies are, from a noble principle – that we must help the weakest first.

However, ask those on the frontlines of housing policy what the effect of the policy is, and you’ll hear repeated stories of couples living apart or even separating in order to be eligible for housing. A housing policy that incentivised parents to stay together would have its failings, but it would certainly be preferable to one that incentivises parents to live apart. Each policy choice will result in individual cases with a negative outcome, but the policy which incentivises two parent families will objectively favour better long-term outcomes for the general population than a policy which incentivises one parent families.

Social conservatism should also have at its heart a critique of the culture, and of progressivism, for the simple reason that much that is called progress is not progress at all. On these pages, much has been written about “freedom”, as if freedom is at the heart of the conservative mission when it is not, never has been, and must never be. We are not for freedom – we are for order, and we are for stability.

Freedom itself does not lead to happiness – it never has, and it is never likely to. The inability of humanity to cope with absolute freedom has been documented more times, and in more tragic ways, than I could ever express in a thousand words or so, though rarely more poignantly than in those great conservative movies, The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day.

Being a social conservative is often associated with the word ‘judgemental,’ as if we go around pronouncing on other people’s lives and passing sentences upon them. We do not.  But we do, and must, be the ones pointing out that freedom to live in a particular way does not mean that living in that way is desirable, good for you, or likely to make the average person happy.

One of the most fascinating articles of recent times (to me, at least, you may differ) was about the so-called sex recession, written by Kate Julian in The Atlantic.  Without wishing to quote it extensively (I encourage you to read it yourself) it is hard to avoid the conclusion that on balance, the sexual part of the sexual revolution has largely led to decreased happiness, decreased trust between the sexes, and ironically, worse sex. I mention this element of our culture specifically because it is the element that has the largest impact on the family, which is of course based on that great opposite of the sexual revolution, monogamy.

Sexual (or as they like to call it, reproductive) freedom is also at the heart of contemporary progressivism, with its modern emphasis on issues like abortion, LGBT rights, and transgenderism to the exclusion of almost everything else. Sure, the modern progressive is interested in critiquing poverty, loudly and proudly, but they’ll abandon that issue and flee to the barricades the very moment the sexual freedom of middle-class-Malcolm is perceived to be threatened, or even criticised. And yet…..

The freedom to use each other as disposable products to gratify our own needs, whether it be through hook-ups, pornography, sexting, or whatever you’re having yourself cannot and should not be taken away – but can we at least, as conservatives, be unafraid to be honest about it? These progressives are digging trenches to defend an utterly empty cultural phenomenon, one that in general leaves those partaking in it feeling a little bit lost and a little bit used.

There is, objectively, a more fulfilling way to live. It is, ironically, the way so many of Ireland’s leading progressive voices themselves choose to live. Few of them, you’ll find, are unmarried, without their own homes. Many of them invest in private education for their children. Most of them benefit from the ordered, stable lives that they attack social conservatives for promoting.

Being a social conservative is about recognising fundamental truths about the human condition, recognising why our social structures have evolved the way they have, and defending those social structures without wishing to make them compulsory. It’s also about, in the words of Sideshow Bob, cutting your taxes and brutalising criminals, but you can look forward to me writing about those another time.

Right Minds – Gary Kavanagh – Burkean Conservative

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I am a Burkean Conservative:

What I believe is, at its core, simple – and can be dealt with mostly by just giving it a name. I believe in the principles of Burkean Conservatism, which some would call Traditionalist Conservatism. More accurately I believe that liberty, in order to be real and sustainable, must be ordered inside a hierarchical society. That that order is best maintained by a combination of state and social forces, and that these forces not only are coercive, but that they must be coercive, or at least have the active potential to be so, in order to build a sustainable system.

It needs to be so because man has a nature, and that nature is of an amoral animal. Which is not to say that man is worse than other animals, he isn’t, but rather that he is equal to them in his capacity for great benevolence and great malevolence. I believe man is imperfect, and imperfectible. Or, as Marina and the Diamonds sang, ‘Murder lives forever, and so does war’

My primary concern politically is the concept of systemic fragility and resilience, which is an overly complicated way of saying that I care about the ability of a political system to actually last without inevitably either a) becoming a tyranny, or b) devolving into anarchy, and I’m not talking here about the fun kind of anarchy. I’m talking less Burning Man and more Sengoku Jidai here.

I think that systems like Marxism, anarchism, and (to an extent largely based on how far they want to go with it before finally just becoming anarcho capitalists) libertarianism are ‘perfect’ theories that cannot work in an imperfect world. That’s not to say I like them, or that I think they are in any sense a way to improve things, but rather that they are designed from a set of assumptions about mankind that do not match with the actual reality of man.

They resemble nothing so much as the sort of priceless china that everyone’s Grandmother seemed to somehow acquire; pretty to look at, because it was designed to be pretty to look at, and, because it was designed to only exist in a cupboard, prone to shattering at the slightest pressure. The issue here, of course, is that when political ideologies break, when societies break, they don’t just leave a little glass on the floor, they leave bodies. Sometimes tens of millions of them.

As to why I believe these things, I have to say I’m honestly not sure. I mean the easy answer is to say that I believe them because they seem to be the correct things to believe because they are true, and I do believe that to be the case, or that I came to them after a long study of different types of philosophy, and that is also arguably true, but I am generally a proponent of the idea that our political ideologies and personal philosophies are based more on our temperaments, personalities, and the cultures in which we formed ourselves, or were formed, than they are on things like ‘arguments’ or ‘truth.’

I don’t think there was any great moment in my life, some road to Damascus moment, which led me to my current beliefs. Looking back at what I can recall of my younger self, which is admittedly through a fairly strong haze caused by a combination of my terrible memory and rampant usage of powerful psychedelic drugs in my youth, I don’t think I ever really changed what I believed in, on a fundamental level, but rather that I learned more and gave it a more concrete form, sharpened the edges of it, and learnt how to discuss it, and defend it, with others more fluidly.

Most of my peers came to traditionalist conservatism through their religious faith, either a strong current faith or a previous faith which has waned but which they still respect, but I’ve never been one for religious faith, which is probably why I never became an atheist. My approach to religion is strictly one of apatheism. I do not care if there is a God or there is not a God.

Which is not to say I’m uninterested in religion, I am immensely interested in religion, its forms, its traditions, its various ideas of what a life worth living actually is, and of course its sociological impacts, but rather that I think the least interesting conceivable question about any particular religion is if the god[s] they worship exist.

I came instead to traditionalist conservatism through absurdism. A subject which doesn’t really fit with the rest of this essay and so I won’t be going into, but which is worth mentioning.

In Burke, particularly, I liked his acceptance of his own limits, particularly with regard to human knowledge. We seem to think now that existence, from the smallest to the largest, is a clockwork system which any person could, with enough training, take apart and put back together again without issue.

He understood that a perfect idea, imposed on an imperfect world, would lead only to ruin. He understood that the knowledge of any one person is a limited and pale thing, a single flickering candle in an infinite void. He distrusted abstractions, as he distrusted revolution as a means to an end.

I think at the end of everything, I am a Burkean Conservative because I think it is a political ideology that recognises the limitations of man, as an individual and as a species, but also recognises the great things both the individual and the group can achieve. It recognises the importance of institutions, the strength they can give to the individual and to the group, whilst also being painfully aware of how fragile these things actually are, and how little it would take for things we think are made of rock to turn to sand and collapse around us. And likely on top of us.

Beyond that, it seems to simply work as a means for organising a society over the long-term. Which means we can focus all of our attention on finding some other fool way to kill ourselves.

Right Minds – Michael O’Dwyer Connolly – Nationalist Conservative

Why I am a Nationalist Conservative:

I don’t actually like political labels. They’re restrictive, often poorly understood and regularly misinterpreted. All the same, if I had to label myself in simple terms, it would probably be that. In convoluted terms it would probably be ‘esoteric nationalist futurism with a strongly conservative ethos,’ but no one knows what that means, and very few probably want to know.

Politics, in my view, is simply the system we create for organising our societies. Obviously, we want productive, healthy, functional societies. Those that aren’t have a tendency to collapse. I’m a practical man, so to properly understand my political views, we have to engage with the very practical concept of civilisation as a linear progression.

We humans are creatures of flesh and blood, evolved from stardust and energy on a rock travelling the endless expanse of space. This biological life, and by extension the civilisation that it develops to give itself an order and a purpose, is a one-way street. You either reach the stars and spread among them, or your species eventually dies on its rock, either destroying itself or being destroyed via cosmic accident.

A civilisation advances through its eras of complexity. In our case; tribal, feudal, industrial, modern and so forth. There is no room for mistake, for regression or for subjectivity. You advance quickly or you exhaust your planet’s resources and die having lost the only race that ever mattered.

Where the hell does nationalism and conservatism come into all this?

It’s a surprisingly simple connection actually. Nationalism and conservatism are political ideologies, they are some of many ways in which we can organise our civilisation. If our civilisational goal is the advancement of ourselves and by extension humanity – as it should be – then those ideologies are the best way of doing it.

Nationalism is essential because without it, nations will simply degrade and fall apart over time. Nationalism is pride in one’s people, history, culture and the struggle for a better future for your country. It grounds people, gives them purpose, motivation. We see this very clearly now in Europe, whole countries lose sight of why they exist. They ask whether they even deserve to exist. The door is flung open for incredibly damaging and nonsensical philosophies to take advantage of a demoralised people.

The belief in your nation and your people with whom you share centuries, if not millennia, of history and culture – is absolutely integral to the long-term functionality of any society, any civilisation. Perhaps most importantly of all, it allows actions to be taken purely for the good of the nation as a whole. There are plenty of other arguments for nationalism, even spiritual ones, but that is simply my practical take on its necessity.

As for conservatism, it provides the healthy moral and social footing that is not necessarily inbuilt into nationalism, though they often come together. Nationalism can come in many forms, you can even get left-wing nationalism as strange as that may sound, which is why it is important to specify the conservative ethos of my beliefs.

I yearn for the future, as any biological organism should. That’s the principle this entire article is based around. However it is no secret that the future contains problems, dangers, and difficult questions. With the advancement of technology, things like abortion became possible. That is the role of the conservative side of this futuristic coin, to identify the new possibilities that emerge, and decide the morally sound course of action that will not harm society.

This will be a very important role going forward. Technologies like gene-editing, cybernetic augmentation and plenty of others are only around the corner. We’ll almost undoubtedly live to see them. If one is only concerned with technological advancement or national advancement, it is easy to overlook the societal questions that arise from them. Should we edit genes merely to destroy disease, or should we make humans faster, stronger and more intelligent than ever before?

You might think this a harsh outlook, a take on ideology and personal philosophy that is too practical. It’s probably the oddest of the Burke’s Right Minds series so far – and we’ve had libertarian anarchists. Yet I think it the most morally defensible ideology.

Caring about your nation, your people and your society, while at the same time working towards the advancement of all humanity is the only ideology that promises to exalt people, to let them reach the fullest of their potential.

Libertarian society will fail because it cares only for the individual. Religious society will fail because they care only for heaven. Marxist society will fail because… well, for a plethora of reasons. Conservatism alone will stagnate. Nationalism alone is simply not enough.

Put them together and look towards the future. Maybe then we’ll have something to work with.

Michael O’Dwyer Connolly is Director & Editor at The Burkean. You can follow him on Twitter @BurkeanMichael

Right Minds – John Waters – Progressive

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

The sort of Progressive I am:

It seems that if you do not agree to be ‘left,’ you will be designated ‘right,’ without choice or requirement for consent. I have never liked any of these labels, and reject them all. Even the word ‘conservative’ has become contaminated by malodorous propaganda, even though, as Roger Scruton has observed, everyone is conservative in the everyday things: if you are looking for a midwife at four in the morning, a belief in the value of crystals asserted on a website or Golden Pages entry is unlikely to clinch it.

I don’t call myself ‘conservative,’ still less ‘right-wing’ or ‘right’. I am a progressive, which I will explain in a little while.

When I was a young man, I thought of myself as a lefty, but it was the soft leftism that comes from reading too many Billy Bragg interviews in the NME. I had also read my Orwell back to front, and was in no sense at a loss as to the facts. But being a lefty was de rigueur for a rock journalist seeking street cred, so I paid my dues and saluted in all the right places.

Three things changed me:

1. Alcoholism, which woke (hah!) me to the precise dynamic of my human mechanism, reminding me that I was a creature making his way through a given world, driven by a desire for something far greater than anything in a bottle or even a party dress.

2. Prague 1990. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, I visited Prague to cover the first post-Communist elections in what was then Czechoslovakia. A man called Ivan became my guide and, going around, we talked a great deal about politics and life. Then in my early 30s, I was still in conventional Paddy Radical mode. Ivan was having none of it. Remorselessly, he outlined what leftism had done to his people and his country, how socialists had terrorised and slaughtered, demonised and imprisoned, how they had stultified the life of Czechoslovakia and imposed upon it what the great dissident and soon-to-be president Vaclav Havel had called ‘a Biafra of the spirit.’

On the day of my departure, he came with me to the airport, and on his knees in the taxi nursed a cardboard box, refusing to tell me what it contained. At the departure gates, he solemnly shook hands, handed me the box and waited while I opened it. Inside were a dozen busts of the most infamous socialist top brass – Stalin, Lenin and some of the local Czech half-breed – made of candle wax. Ivan had been given the job of cleaning up an impromptu alter constructed at the spot where the Velvet Revolution had kicked off, and had found this rather quintessentially Czech way of disposing of the wax that flowed onto the sidewalk from the thousands of candles placed there by passers-by. Now, as we said goodbye, he looked me in the eye. ‘You must take to Ireland,’ he said, ‘the heads of the socialist murderers.’

The penny finally dropped. These guys were not cuddly-cool icons, but tyrants whose hands were stained with the blood of millions. It was time to stop posturing and join the human race.

3. Becoming a father in strained circumstance in 1996 and discovering that, whereas I was shocked to discover that a single father had virtually no legal rights to a relationship with his child, none of the social-justice warrior types with whom I’d been consorting over the previous decade or so could see anything wrong or strange about this.  Far from joining my posse, they tried to kick my head in every time I mentioned the matter.

These three events caused me to rethink everything – or, rather, to start thinking, in the words of Hannah Arendt, ‘without a bannister.’ Giving up drink helped in a different way too: I was no longer consorting with journalists in Dublin’s taverns of groupthink, and so began to enjoy watching my courage grow.

Today, I regard myself as a progressive in the C.S. Lewis sense.

In Mere Christianity, Lewis wrote:

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be and if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when we do arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”

It adds up. What we call left-liberalism is really nothing like either of its alleged constituent elements, and is certainly not ‘progressive’. In fact, left-liberalism as we have come to know it in recent times is an ideology grounded in the falsification of equations of justice. It advocates stealing from Paul to pay Paulette, or, to put it Thomistically, to fail to give to each what is due. Left-liberal ‘justice’ is distributed on ideological lines, favouring listed victims over categories – under different headings – of deplorables: unborn babies, fathers, men, Christians, white men, white fathers, straight men, white straight Christian men, straight fathers, white straight fathers, white straight Christian fathers and their unborn babies of any colour, religion or inclination.

If ever there was a road to turn back from, this is it.

John Waters is a writer, the author of ten books, the latest of which, Give Us Back the Bad Roads, has just been published by Currach Press. If you enjoyed this piece, make sure to listen in to the podcast on The Right Side tomorrow that analyses these ideas in more detail. 

Right Minds – David Thunder – Confederal Republican

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

Why I am a Confederal Republican:

“Live free or die,” asserts the official motto of the American State of New Hampshire. Such a motto may sound fanatical to our ears, but it reflects the perennial appeal of the value of freedom, which has spoken powerfully to countless generations of citizens since ancient times. Many people, especially in the West, see freedom as an essential element of a life worth living. For example, people feel they should be free to shape their own future, and not be dictated to by others about fundamental life choices. Many view their life as a personal project they are – or should be – free to direct as they will.

The meaning and value of freedom has been debated for over two millennia. The freeman, on the ancient Aristotelian-Platonic view, not only had rational dominion over his own inner life – passions, thoughts, choices – but the capacity to exercise rational dominion over the collective life of the community, through collaborative decision-making and public service. Furthermore, for the ancients freedom was vacuous if disconnected from objectively valuable ends, since these ends were what conferred meaning and worth on a human life. Only a life of virtue, embodying a sincere quest for truth and goodness, was considered truly liberating.

Many modern thinkers have abandoned the ancient notion that freedom is tied to human worth and nobility, and settled for a more formal understanding of freedom as the ability to do what one wishes, within certain legal and moral constraints. Thus, the connection between freedom and objective human flourishing, if not completely absent, has certainly receded from view.

Besides the disconnect between freedom and flourishing, another significant shift away from ancient views is the notion that individual freedom is consistent with the surrender of major decisions affecting the structure of social life to an elite class of rulers and economic ‘gurus.’ From an ancient Greek perspective, this does not make sense, for it assumes that a person can be free while operating within a socio-economic framework designed and imposed unilaterally by other agents.

To sum up, many modern theorists presume to isolate the value of freedom from the achievement of a flourishing life, as well as the right to participate actively in the construction of social order. Public discussions of freedom, as well as modern political institutions, seem to follow suit.

As far as I am concerned, these are the two pressure-points where modern political theory and practice go badly wrong. Discourse about freedom sinks into unintelligibility when freedom becomes unmoored from human flourishing. Furthermore, when our capacity to actively shape our collective life is usurped by highly centralized ‘representative’ bodies, under the pretext that they protect private freedom, liberty is reduced to the ability to exercise a profession and hobby of one’s choice, express one’s opinions, practice one’s religion, choose one’s marriage partner and associates, and engage in economic exchange without undue interference.

Of course, this is a lot more than is granted in totalitarian societies. However, it is perfectly compatible with political and economic servitude, that is, a state in which citizens surrender collective self-government and a large chunk of their income to a distant representative body, with extremely crude and limited mechanisms for holding such a body answerable for its actions.

And so, to distinguish myself from modern liberals, who think people should do what they feel like within the law, and are happy to delegate community governance to a centralized political and economic elite, I happily assume the label, ‘confederal republican.’ I am a republican – of a classical Aristotelian hew – insofar as I believe that freedom finds its perfection in the achievement of a rational and virtuous human life, which in turn requires inward self-dominion but also active and meaningful participation in the shaping of community life.

My peculiar brand of republicanism is partly inspired by 17th century German political philosopher and jurist Johannes Althusius, who conceived of politics as the “art of associating…for the purpose of establishing, cultivating, and conserving social life.” In my view Althusius took this principle in an excessively hierarchical direction, and was insufficiently attentive to the dangers of abuse and the need to build robust checks and balances into the system. Nevertheless, his emphasis on consensual associations as the building blocks of political order is salutary from the perspective of republican freedom, because it has the potential to take us far beyond the hierarchical and unitary model of the ancient polis.

A contemporary adaptation of Althusian principles entails that citizens can opt in and out of a wide range of associations, each with its own functionally and/or territorially limited authority, and these associations can delegate limited grants of authority to super-associations entrusted with coordinating the common affairs of many different associations. This fits with the etymology of confederal,con (together) and foedus (league, treaty), which suggests a complex and multilateral partnership rather than a consolidated union with power concentrated in a ruling center.

Confederal republicanism is not just a set of principles of institutional design, but a set of assumptions about governance and political order that need to be reflected in the mindsets of citizens and rulers alike. It has the potential to break the monopoly of states, political parties, and multinational corporations over public finance, welfare, public services, culture, taxation, and economic regulation, and create unprecedented opportunities for grassroots associations to play a more active and meaningful role in solving social and economic problems from the ground up.

Admittedly, this multilateral and de-centered paradigm of political order requires a high level of voluntary cooperation and a widely entrenched commitment to constitutionalism. Consequently, it is not a panacea for the problems of domestic and global governance in a world many parts of which lack a developed culture of freedom and constitutionalism. Nevertheless, under the right social conditions, it offers a very promising framework for the practice of republican freedom, with significant advantages if compared with the statist framework we currently live under. Indeed, even where its enabling conditions are lacking, confederal republicanism may still serve as a valuable regulative ideal for avant-garde political, legal, and cultural reforms.

Professor David Thunder is a researcher and lecturer at the University of Navarra’s Institute for Culture and Society in Pamplona, Spain. He is author of Citizenship and the Pursuit of the Worthy Life (Cambridge University Press, 2014). Twitter: @davidjthunder