Goose the Blog 2.0

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the Reagan doctrine

by John at 6/25/2004 12:28:00 PM

I know, I know. Talking about Reagan is sooo two-weeks ago. But the flags are still at half-mast (yours is too, right?), so I figure a few more words wouldn't bother anyone. Besides, this entry isn't really about Ronald Reagan anyway.

"The Amazing" James Randi has posted an interesting essay by the late author Isaac Asimov called "The Reagan Doctrine". It was originally published in 1981.

Some time ago, Ronald Reagan pointed out that one couldn't trust the Soviet government because the Soviets didn't believe in God or in an afterlife and therefore had no reason to behave honorably, but would be willing to lie and cheat and do all sorts of wicked things to aid their cause. Naturally, I firmly believe that the president of the United States knows what he is talking about, so I've done my very best to puzzle out the meaning of that statement.

Let me begin by presenting this "Reagan Doctrine" (using the term with all possible respect): "No one who disbelieves in God and in an afterlife can possibly be trusted." If this is true (and it must be if the president says so), then people are just naturally dishonest and crooked and downright rotten. In order to keep them from lying and cheating every time they open their mouths, they must be bribed or scared out of doing so. They have to be told and made to believe that if they tell the truth and do the right thing and behave themselves, they will go to heaven and get to plunk a harp and wear the latest design in halos. They must also be told and made to believe that if they lie and steal and run around with the opposite sex, they are going to hell and will roast over a brimstone fire forever.

It's a little depressing, if you come to think of it. By the Reagan Doctrine, there is no such thing as a person who keeps his word just because he has a sense of honor. No one tells the truth just because he thinks that it is the decent thing to do. No one is kind because he feels sympathy for others, or treats others decently because he likes the kind of world in which decency exists.

Instead, according to the Reagan Doctrine, anytime we meet someone who pays his debts, or hands in a wallet he found in the street, or stops to help a blind man cross the road, or tells a casual truth — he's just buying himself a ticket to heaven, or else canceling out a demerit that might send him to hell. It's all a matter of good, solid business practice; a matter of turning a spiritual profit and of responding prudently to spiritual blackmail.

Isaac Asimov died in 1992 of complications from AIDS, which he contracted from a transfusion of HIV infected blood during heart bypass surgery in 1983. HIV was not described by researchers until 1983, and a test for the virus was not available until 1985. Asimov's AIDS went unrecognized for many years. (Some might count this as an additional, not unrelated, indictment of Ronald Reagan.)

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Blogger Weisshaupt said at 6:26 PM


Regan's comment is not new. Locke said it 1689.

"Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration."

It is a debatable point if this view of human nature is correct. However, I haven't seen any examples of it being proven wrong.    

Blogger John said at 7:11 PM

Locke, in this case, was arguing for limited religious freedom in England - specifically, for various Protestant religions. He feelings for atheists were similar to his feelings about Catholics and Jews, etc. He was quite wrong to limit himself in that way, a matter that the writers of the Constitution treated more properly, as you (Jeff) pointed out many weeks ago.

If I have it correct, your last statement suggests that you have never met an atheist who behaved virtuously. I think you are setting your standards too high, or maybe you think the lack of true altruism (we behave ethically only because it in some ways benefits ourselves/our genes) as somehow invalidating the idea that ethical behavior is possible for the non-religious. If you are interested I could recommend some books that try to clarify the development of ethics in human social evolution.

I would also point out that religiousity (as opposed to atheism) does also not ensure virtuous behavior, a fact well demonstrated by history and current events.

Could it be that a person's religion (or lack of) is in no way a reliable predictor of their ethical behavior? Perhaps we have to know someone personally or know, at least, their actions before we can reliably determine what kind of person they are?    

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