A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 2: My Kind of Atheist

It is not reasonable to expect everyone to share the same religious views, and since it can be difficult to see God’s hand in our violent and hate-filled universe, I don’t fault anyone for not believing in God. (My own reasons for believing in God are complicated, probably unsatisfying to people who live outside of my body, and a subject for another post.) But there is, best I can tell, a consistent and an inconsistent way to go about being an atheist, and most modern-day atheists fall rather neatly into the latter category. But I’ll let Walker Percy explain. From his novel The Second Coming:

The present-day unbeliever is a greater asshole than the present-day Christian because of the fatuity, blandness, incoherence, fakery, and fat-headedness of his unbelief. He is in fact an insane person. If God does in fact exist, the present-day unbeliever will no doubt be forgiven because of his manifest madness.

The present-day Christian is either half-assed, nominal, lukewarm, hypocritical, sinful, or, if fervent, generally offensive and fanatical. But he is not crazy.

The present-day unbeliever is crazy as well as being an asshole—which is why I say he is a bigger asshole than the Christian because a crazy asshole is worse than a sane asshole.

The present-day unbeliever is crazy because he finds himself born into a world of endless wonders, having no notion how he got here, a world in which he eats, sleeps, shits, fucks, works, grows old, gets sick, and dies, and is quite content to have it so. Not once in his entire life does it cross his mind to say to himself that his situation is preposterous, that an explanation is due him and to demand such an explanation and to refuse to play out another act of the farce until an explanation is forthcoming. . . .

The more intelligent he is, the crazier he is and the bigger an asshole he is. He becomes a professor and forms an interdisciplinary group. He reads Dante for its mythic structure. He joins the A.C.L.U. and concerns himself with the freedom of the individual and does not once exercise his own freedom to inquire into how in God’s name he should find himself in such a ludicrous situation as being born in Brooklyn, living in Manhattan, and being buried in Queens.

Percy, no doubt, won few friends among the atheist community with such statements—though it’s worth pointing out that in the section just before the one I’ve reproduced here, he recites a litany of reasons Christians are nearly as unsatisfactory as atheists, and thus he probably didn’t endear himself to the Religious Right, either. But, vulgarity aside, I think he’s right: Modern atheism, particularly the scientific variety proffered by the Logical Positivists and then by the nü atheists, is unsatisfactory.

The insanity of modern atheism is built on two posts. First, as Percy points out, modern atheism is inherently incurious. The atheist will object here that he has a great respect for the universe, a deep awe at the world around him. This is not what Percy is objecting to; no one claims that the nü atheists explicitly believe themselves to be the all-knowing center of the world, and no one claims that they have absolutely no sense of mystery. The problem is that they seem unwilling to interrogate that which really matters. If God exists, nothing could be more important, but by and large, the modern atheist dismisses God with a wave of his hand. Their sense of wonder is misplaced. They don’t ask the really important questions. Richard Dawkins even suggests that these questions—the “why” questions that are unanswerable by materialist science—are not worth answering. Percy would no doubt cough “asshole” and quickly turn away.

The second post of atheist insanity is the desire to discredit Christianity but to have everyone behave as though Christianity were true. Sartre, of all people, objects to this philosophy:

The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain kind of secular ethics which would like to abolish God with the least possible expense. About 1880, some French teachers tried to set up a secular ethics which went something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis; we are discarding it; but, meanwhile, in order for there to be an ethics, a society, a civilization, it is essential that certain values be taken seriously and that they be considered as having an a priori existence. It must be obligatory, a priori, to be honest, not to lie, not to beat your wife, to have children, etc., etc. So we’re going to try a little device which will make it possible to show that values exist all the same, inscribed in a heaven of ideas, though otherwise God does not exist. In other words . . . nothing will be changed if God does not exist. We shall find ourselves with the same norms of honesty, progress, and humanism, and we shall have made of God an outdated hypothesis which will peacefully die off by itself. (from Existentialism)

The nü atheists have certainly taken up the task begun by these unnamed “French teachers”; I heard a radio interview with Dawkins in which he claimed that Christianity was unnecessary because we could get to its ethical principles without the barbarity of Christ crucified. If this is true, it is only because he lives in a Western world that has for millennia based its ethics on Christ crucified. Confucius may offer us the Golden Rule, but he cannot pray, “Father, forgive them”—and this is, after all, what Dawkins and other purveyors of an atheist ethics desire for all of mankind to say. (What’s all this talk about “compassion” about if not forgiveness?) One cannot discard Christian metaphysics and maintain Christian ethics, at least not in an a priori way; those ethics proceed from the metaphysics, and if you’re going to adopt them, you’d better find a materialist reason for doing so. (Such a reason does not exist, as far as I can tell—you can tell a person that if he beats his wife, society will punish him, but you cannot tell him that spousal abuse is wrong without pointing to a metaphysical standard.)

Sartre will say elsewhere that all of existentialism comes from a saying of Dostoevsky’s (which appears in both The Idiot and The Brothers Karamazov): “If there is no God, then all things are permitted.” Dostoevsky’s religious readers sometimes claim that Sartre has gotten Dostoevsky wrong, but if he has, it’s only in assuming (if indeed he does) that Dostoevsky believed there was no God. He certainly did not, and our nü atheists should pay attention to the real consequences of atheism. Ivan Karamazov gleefully proclaims this idea and yet is horrified when his half-brother Smerdyakov kills their father with no remorse. This is the state of man without God—you can intuit ethics, as we all do, but you can’t found them on anything, and you’re left speechless and half-mad if you examine evil seriously. I’ll be dealing with Dostoevsky’s relationship to religious and atheistic existentialism in my next post.

My point here is that the existence or non-existence of God matters, and if Dawkins, et al, take that seriously on the level of social policy, they don’t seem to take it seriously on a personal existential level, which is, of course, the level of real import.

Percy hints at the other inconsistency in nü atheist ethics, but things have progressed a bit since The Second Coming was published in the early ‘80s, and I’ll need to tease this out a little. He speaks disdainfully of the atheist professor who “joins the A.C.L.U. and concerns himself with the freedom of the individual,” but doesn’t get at the real irony in this move. Some—though by no means all—of the nü atheists are committed to a completely materialist vision of what it means to be a human. In other words, any personality, “self,” or “soul” (these last two words are particularly embarrassing to our contemporary atheists, I’ve noticed) is a mere side effect of chemical, physical, and electrical processes in the brain. This viewpoint would suggest that there is, in fact, no mind, only a brain. Professional skeptic Michael Shermer, among others, holds this opinion.

There is no individual, then, at least not in the way Western civilization has held out the notion. And yet the nü atheists are strikingly committed to the notion of human rights, to the point where Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens have called for the arrest of Pope Benedict XVI “for crimes against humanity” in his complicity in the recently revealed child-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. Shermer is a bit more slippery; on one level he proclaims the relativity of moral values, at least on a social level; on another, he suggests that we should find a natural basis for the ethics of human rights. And why should we, if all our actions are motivated not by a human self but by a collection of human impulse—why should we even seek to find that natural basis for human rights? The answer, of course, is “to make society run smoothly.” But this answer doesn’t suggest human rights; it suggests a fiction to make life more comfortable for certain human beings.

Fictions are fine, but only if one admits them to be fictions instead of claiming them as empirical truths, as Shermer does—or instead of ignoring the issue altogether, as Dawkins seems to. The nü atheists would be well-served by a reading of Friedrich Nietzsche, history’s most honest and brilliant atheist thinker, who recognized that without a metaphysical foundation for human society and ethics, the very notion of value would be devalued. The passage that everyone knows from The Gay Science has a madman boldly proclaiming that “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him” (¶ 125). Less well-known is an earlier passage along the same lines:

New struggles.—After Buddha was dead, his shadow was still shown for centuries in a cave—a tremendous, gruesome shadow. God is dead; but given the way of men, there may still be caves for thousands of years in which his shadow will be shown. –And we—we still have to vanquish his shadow, too. (¶ 108)

Nietzsche would lump religious believers in with those still worshipping the shadow of a dead God, of course; but atheists who treat Christian morality as something separable from Christian metaphysics belong there, too. From Nietzsche’s perspective, after all, they’re hanging on to the pathetic legacy of Christianity.

Indeed, the death of God means the death of morality, meaning, and value itself, and Nietzsche makes the point better than anyone else I’ve ever read:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms, in short a sum of human relations which have been subjected to poetic and rhetorical intensification, translation, and decoration, and which, after they have been in use for a long time, strike a person as firmly established, canonical, and binding; truths are illusions of which we have forgotten that they are illusions, metaphors which have become worn by frequent use and have lost all sensuous vigour, coins which, having lost their stamp, are now regarded as metal and no longer as coins.
(from “On Truth and Lying in a Non-Moral Sense”)

Such are the consequences of a world without God—an atheist who is willing to accept these consequences must either mourn the death of God, as does Sartre, or else glory in the absence of value, as does Nietzsche. The nü atheists, with their satisfied, godless humanism, wish to glory in the death of God and pretend that the values contingent upon the existence of that same God are independent. To quote Nietzsche once more, “They desire the pleasant, life-preserving consequences of truth; they are indifferent to pure knowledge if it has no consequences.”

Atheistic existentialism, then, is not as hostile to the religious mind as one might suspect, if only because it dares to take religion seriously on its own terms, something that the atheists who subscribe to Logical Positivism (and its contemporary heir, the nü atheism) steadfastly refuse to do.

28 thoughts on “A Primer on Religious Existentialism, Pt. 2: My Kind of Atheist

  1. A very compelling post, Michial, and a blatant expose of the hypocrisy inherent in much of today’s leading atheist thinkers. I agree that Nietzsche must go down as the most intrepid of all godless thinkers, and as a unique example of a man who chose to deal with the consequences of his thought with a degree of honesty that may well have cost him his mind.

    Just curious: have you read/heard of John Gray. He’s an atheist who seems to be more on Nietzsche’s side. His book, Straw Dogs, is a fairly nihilistic repost to the “Ditchkins” crew.

    P.S. “Nu-Atheism.” Hysterical. Makes me wonder whether Korn or Disturbed will be opening for a Dawkins debate.

  2. I find that the God that many modern atheists reject is actually the God of the strict and legalistic tradition in which they grew up, which they now abhor.

    In other words, they seem to not have the broadness of mind, the creativity, the adventurous spirit or the courage to try to conceive of a God that is different from what they were told God is. Their tradition is still dictating to them what to think.

  3. Cameron:

    I’ve not read that book, but I’ll have to check it out. I believe “nü atheism” is actually the official spelling as far as this website is concerned; the three of us spell it that way in private emails, as well, so I figure we’ll ride that horse until it dies. It’s not as quiet as our shots at McLaren in every set of show notes, but I think it makes the point pretty well. Best I can tell I coined the term on my old blog; the idea is that Ditchkens operates with all the subtlety of Fred Durst bellowing about the “nookie.”

    John, you make a good point, though it’s worth pointing out that if a person disbelieves in gods for materialist reasons (there can be nothing other than matter)–which is really at the heart of the nü atheist critique of religion–it doesn’t matter what gods one disbelieves in.

    Now, Shermer’s rather ridiculous on this point, saying that monotheists are only one God away from atheism, as if there was no difference between disagreeing on the nature of God and disbelieving that one exists. But I find Shermer, in my limited experience with his work, absolutely aggravating, dogmatic, and self-sabotaging. He’s not as aggravating as Dawkins because he seems to have a sense of humor, but he’s up there.

  4. Regarding the charge that “Modern atheism is inherently incurious. … The problem is that they seem unwilling to interrogate that which really matters [such as the existence of a God].”

    This is pantently false, at least for analytical-philosophical brand of atheism I subscribe to. If anything, we spend too much time worrying about the existence of a God. We construct refined, complex arguments against his (or its) existence and respond carefully to the best theistic arguments. You simply cannot read Paul Draper on natural evil or peruse a book like “The Christian Delusion” and claim we dismiss God with a “wave of the hand.” It is sheer fantasy and you ought to be ashamed of yourself for syndicating such drivel.

    Regarding the second charge of desiring “to discredit Christianity but to have everyone behave as though Christianity were true.”

    My problem with this charge is not that you think that God must be the ground of morality. Although I don’t think it’s true, I can see how someone would disagree. My problem is that you present the charge as if atheists make no appeal to a plausible secular ethics. This is either a gross omission or a confession of ignorance. The fact is that moral philosophers have been promulgating Virtuisim, Egoism, Utilitarianism, Kantianism, Contractarianism, etc. for centuries without making an appeal to God. For a good introduction into objective atheist morality, I suggest watching this debate between Shelly Kagan and William Lane Craig, in which Kagan ably defends secular ethics.

  5. I didn’t mean to suggest that atheists make NO appeal to “a plausible secular ethics”; certainly they’ve attempted to do so, in the philosophies you’ve listed there. But I’ve yet to hear an atheist respond to the question of why anyone should subscribe to their particular ethic. On what grounds can you condemn someone for not behaving according to Kant’s categorical imperative? Or for not seeking the greatest possible good? Egoism can suggest that it’s in people’s best interest to act in ways their society has deemed virtuous, but it can’t tell Dostoevsky’s Underground Man why he should act in his best interest.

    The issue isn’t that atheists don’t have ethics; it’s not even that they don’t seek a ground for their ethics; it’s that that ground is flimsy.

    I am ashamed of myself for many reasons, but “syndicating such drivel” is not near the top of the list. I stand by my statement. An atheist who doesn’t mourn the death of God or erupt into Dionysian license is simply not taking the death of God seriously enough. It may not be a “wave of the hand,” but it’s not treating the situation with the appropriate personal gravity.

    In other words, I’m not talking about treating this with the appropriate intellectual rigor. I recognize that atheists of all stripes examine the arguments for the existence of God and debunk them. Mazel Tov. But I’m not interested in those arguments anyway, for reasons that will become clear later on in this series. (You can also listen to our podcast on Apologetics, Episode #8, where the three of us have a rare moment of agreement that it’s not particularly worthwhile to argue with atheists about the existence of God.)

    I’m with Pascal: People believe or disbelieve for non-rational reasons, and it’s only later that they come up with rationalizations for their beliefs. (That’s on both sides, so perhaps the harsh words you’ve reserved for Rick Warren on your website don’t apply to me.) To believe in God requires a leap of faith, but so does not to believe in Him; I can respect people on both sides. But I do ask that people behave in accordance with their beliefs, and it seems to me that few atheists actually do so.

    Few Christians do, too, of course, and I’ll cop to as much hypocrisy as anyone else.

  6. I will acknowledge that “inherently incurious” is far too strong of language, though; I thought I had taken that phrase out, and I apologize for using it.

  7. “But I’ve yet to hear an atheist respond to the question of why anyone should subscribe to their particular ethic. On what grounds can you condemn someone for not behaving according to Kant’s categorical imperative?”

    I am sorry to say this is a confession of ignorance. The question you’ve just asked is often called the normative question (i.e. “Why be moral?”), and there are swaths of atheistic moral philosophers who have advanced detailed answers. One example of such an answer can be found here. In a Tanner Lecture, Christine Koorsgard carefully argues that we have a non-overridable, robust reason to behave morally.

    In the debate I linked to above, Kagan also gives a very rough sketch of an answer. The view he presents is that if you are capable of appreciating reasons for action (as all humans are), then you are bound to obey the reasonable terms of the social contract wherein ethical reasons outweigh prudential ones.

    You might also read this entry on moral skepticism, which is the view that questions whether we should be moral).

    You are of course entitled to find atheistic answers to the normative question unsatisfactory, but it is again sheer fantasy to pretend atheists don’t busy themselves constructing them.

    “An atheist who doesn’t mourn the death of God or erupt into Dionysian license is simply not taking the death of God seriously enough.”

    On the first count, mourning the death of God, I can sympathize in part. Before I was an atheist, I was devoutly religious. When I was forced by the evidence (or more precisely, the lack of evidence) to believe that there are no good reasons to believe in God, it was devastating at first. I certainly did mourn the loss. But beyond the personal affinity I had for what amounts to nothing more than an imaginary friend, I can find no reason to mourn the death of God. Humanity ought to rejoice at the prospect of liberating ourselves from superstition and correcting our values.

    On the second count about erupting into Dionysian license, I hardly find it surprising you feel that’s the only outcome of atheism since you aren’t familiar with atheistic answers to the normative question. But even without a normative obligation, the fact is that on atheistic egoism (a moral philosophy I detest), hedonism still isn’t permissible. You get much more satisfaction out of life by pursuing long-term pleasure than you do living for the pleasure of the moment.

    “But I do ask that people behave in accordance with their beliefs, and it seems to me that few atheists actually do so.”

    Again, this assumes that atheistic belief logically concludes in amoral hedonism. This isn’t necessarily the case, but even if you think it is, you should understand that atheists like me who do not subscribe to hedonism but instead, say, Kantianism, are living integrously.

  8. You’re certainly living ethically if you’re following Kant, but I still don’t think you’re logically consistent in doing so. (Incidentally, I’ve not read the “Critique of Practical Reason,” but Miguel de Unamuno claims that in that text Kant goes back on his rationalism to a certain degree and attempts to justify God through the categorical imperative, suggesting that the two are inextricably linked.)

    It’s also worth pointing out that Nietzsche’s no hedonist. He denied himself a great number of things, but not because he believed them to be wrong–because they kept him from being what he wanted to be. But that desire was personal and subjective and not based on any sort of objective moral standard–again, as best as I can tell. I’m not saying every atheist should logically be a hedonist. I’m saying I can’t find a reason why any individual atheist’s ethics should apply to anyone outside of his or her own skull.

    And again, there are ways to construct a society around all of this, and I don’t think a society ruled by atheists would necessarily be immoral any more than a society ruled by theists would be moral. Certainly atheists can get together and decide that their society will punish murder, rape, arson, what have you. And they can be consistent in punishing it. I just don’t see how they could say it was Wrong with a capital W, instead of just “against our society’s (at least somewhat arbitrary) rules.”

    If I’ve said that atheists don’t *attempt* to provide justification for whatever system of ethics they espouse, I’m sorry–that’s not what I meant. What I mean is that I’ve never heard an answer–including the ones to which you refer–that strikes me as satisfactory. The death of God is the death of an overarching value; the death of an overarching value is the death of an objective morality. To pretend that such a moral value is built into the foundation of a world that came into being by a cosmic accident strikes me as laughably absurd–and not in the Camusian sense.

    The real irony–and I’ve been waiting for someone to point this out–is that the average intellectual atheist is probably more moral than the average Christian, even by Christian rules. But of course that doesn’t disprove the existence of the Christian God any more than a non-hypocritical Christian would prove His existence. (I’d also argue that Christianity is not primarily about what we’d call ethics anyway, but that’s a topic for another post.)

    Thank you for your comments here, Andy, and I am glad we can disagree with each other respectfully.

  9. An interesting thing to bring up here is that if you claim Christianity as the source of morality you run into two immediate problems. 1) you are claiming that 2/3 of the world is necessarily immoral. If we get more general and say religion is the base of morality, well, that’s hard to argue with because humans have a universal tendency to religion such that atheism only exists against a context of religion, so there is no society that we can look at to reason about their morality in the complete absence of religion. You can’t say that there is no system of forgiveness other than Christ crucified because that is patently not true and I offer as easy examples Kwan Yin (spelling varies) goddess of mercy, or Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion. Actually, one could argue that reincarnation is infinitely compassionate because you get infinite chances to atone for your sins instead of just the one.

    The second major problem I see is that there is a lot in Christian theology and the orthodox Bible that is arguably or sometimes obviously extremely immoral. If we can evaluate the Bible as what is a good example of morality versus what is not that implies that we have some way other than Christianity of determining morality. In other words, if Christ crucified is the only way we know about morality, than we have to accept immediately other nastier things that come with Christ. Like him calling a woman a dog when she asked for healing and only relenting when she gave a clever reply acknowledging herself as a dog. Likewise, the Golden Rule, we can’t take that at face literal value because (to paraphrase Rebecca Watson, a noted atheist who runs the skepchick website and incorporates mustaches into her experiments) the golden rule is a great idea but never take it beyond a general concept, because for all I know your sex life involves cucumbers and bunnies.) The point is, we have to evaluate a certain amount of any religion from a point outside that religion, which doesn’t actually answer the question of where morality comes from, but provides a compelling argument that at least some of it has to come from outside Christ crucified.

  10. Beth:

    I didn’t claim *anyone* was immoral, actually. What I claimed is that atheism has no basis for objective morality, not that every non-Christian version of theism or even polytheism does. So your hypothetical atheist society is beside the point–the issue isn’t whether non-Christians can be moral. I’ve said multiple times in the comments section that indeed they can and are. The point is that I don’t see a way to justify universal or objective morality on the basis of atheistic materialism.

    Nor did I claim that no other religious system offers forgiveness or mercy. I said that Dawkins gets his own concept of mercy from the West, which is, to paraphrase Flannery O’Connor, Christ-haunted if no longer Christian. If you’d like to get your concept of mercy from the goddess, be my guest–but if you don’t believe in that goddess, you’ve run into the same problem that I’ve described with the nü atheists who reject Christianity.

    And yes, I’m willing to side with Christ over whatever other system of morality you’re judging the Bible with. This includes the dog comment and the other hard sayings of Christ. Nasty doesn’t mean immoral.

    I have absolutely no idea how your debunking of the Golden Rule works, nor do I understand what your final sentence means. I choose (I’ll get to the question of will in a later post in the series) to accept the God revealed in the Bible as the source of morality; thus, I don’t judge the morality of the Bible from an outside standpoint. To the extent that I do so I am wrong.

    Not everyone is willing to make that particular leap of faith, and that’s fine. You can believe in God and even Christianity without going that far, and you can believe that objective morality comes from God without believing that the Bible is moral.

    The point is that theists have a way to define morality objectively: Goodness is what describes God, and non-goodness is what does not. This doesn’t solve all the ethical problems in the world, and I never claimed it did: You can still disagree about what God is like, etc., etc. But it gives the theist a leg to stand on that I don’t think is available to the blithe atheists described by Sartre.

  11. What I meant was that we have to take all parts of religion with a grain of salt, because all religions have nasty parts and beautiful parts, and if our objective standards are based entirely on the religion itself we cannot tell what is good and what is bad from them. Ergo, there must be some other way that we judge between them. Surely, you cannot accept that all things in the Bible provide instruction for how we should live. Surely you cannot accept that genocide is acceptable as a necessary part of preparing a chosen people for Christ. Surely genocide can be said to be immoral for any purpose. That is too horrible to be dismissed as a hard thing that must nonetheless not be questioned.

    As for the rest:
    You said
    [Dawkins] claimed that Christianity was unnecessary because we could get to its ethical principles without the barbarity of Christ crucified. If this is true, it is only because he lives in a Western world that has for millennia based its ethics on Christ crucified. Confucius may offer us the Golden Rule, but he cannot pray, “Father, forgive them”—and this is, after all, what Dawkins and other purveyors of an atheist ethics desire for all of mankind to say. “””

    What I’m claiming you are implying from this is that we can’t get to ethical principles without a Western world civilization, which to me implies necessarily that those religions which are lacking Christ crucified are also lacking those ethical principles. What I’m trying to say is that Dawkins would have gotten those principles no matter in what society he was raised because they are a fairly universal characteristic of religions so he would have gotten them from any society. Religion is a moral underpinning of all of them. We can argue about what makes them different, and I tend to hang with Campbell and Jung and the Perennialists on this one, but I merely wanted to illustrate that forgiveness is around in a lot of religions. Maybe even without people or deities dying in disgusting ways to get forgiveness, though I sort of doubt it, and I certainly don’t know of any.

    As for the rest, what you seem to be implying from all of this,even in the comments is that an absolute and objective standard of morality is necessary to give morality meaning, and there is no objective and absolute standard without God. However, I am under the impression that where this logic goes is that if we only get meaningful morality from God, then if we get some moral system in a place that isn’t God, then that morality, by definition, isn’t moral, at least not in a meaningful way. Even, in fact, if atheists behave in ways that seem more moral, these moralities are only commonly agreed upon and enforced standards that don’t make sense outside of the skull of the individual atheist. This is why I’m having a hard time swallowing your claim that you really actually aren’t calling non-Christians immoral, because the way you seem to be defining it, it makes God a necessity. Could you maybe spell out your definitions a little more definitely? I think I’m missing something.

    For the record, I believe neither in Christianity nor really any deity, though it can depend on my mood. I usually don’t self-identify as an atheist because I am very sympathetic to arguments for the desirability of God, though I do try to make a distinction between arguments for the existence of God and arguments for the desirability of the existence of God, because they often aren’t quite the same thing.

  12. You’re actually quite mistaken about forgiveness being a universal virtue. Take a look at Greek or Roman civilization, for example. Take a look at the Egyptians or the Sumerians. Most ancient civilizations, at least in the West and near-East, view power as a good in and of itself; Aristotle’s ethics are based on the powerful man who controls himself for his own benefit–as, I might add, are Confucius’s, Nietzsche’s, and Machiavelli’s.

    I believe that the Old Testament must be interpreted by the light of Christ crucified. Whether or not genocide was the appropriate action in 1300 B.C.E., I cannot say, but it is clear from the actions and teachings of Christ that it is absolutely not acceptable in the Age of the Church.

    And (again) I’m not claiming you can’t get morality apart from the Western world. I’m claiming that’s where Dawkins formed his own principles of morality–from the Anglicanism of his youth. Then he discards the Anglicanism and hopes to maintain the principles. I call foul. If he’d lived in Japan, he’d have a different set of ethics, albeit one with some overlap, perhaps a great deal of overlap. But that’s not where he got it, and it’s Dawkins in particular I was talking about.

    Obviously there is theism, polytheism and pantheism in the Eastern world, and while I have not studied Eastern religions all that much, their appeals to morality likely hold more water than Dawkins’s. I’m not talking about Christianity vs. other religions; I’m talking about theism vs. atheism.

    Indeed, you seem to be conflating “non-Christians” and “atheists,” but I’m really not calling anybody immoral. My claim is that value must come from outside the system or else be individualistic. Atheists can be moral–as I’ve said three or four times now, there are many atheists who live by a very strict moral code. What they cannot do is export that individualistic moral code to others based on materialist principles.

    So whether an individual or a group “can be” moral is drastically beside the point. It’s how they justify that morality that matters to me, and I think you have to appeal outside the system to find that justification.

    Sartre kept promising a book on ethics, incidentally, and it never came. And the reason for that, I think, is that he recognized this fact–ethics were going to have to be relative if God was indeed dead. His associate Simone de Beauvoir came up with “The Ethics of Ambiguity,” of course, but as intriguing as that book is, I find it ultimately unsatisfactory for reasons I can go into in another post if anyone is interested.

    I agree with your distinction in your final paragraph. As I mentioned above, I’m not making any arguments for the existence of God. I’m just teasing out the consequences of His existence or non-existence.

  13. Certainly. I’ve enjoyed our exchange. For the sake of symmetry, I’d like to reply to just one thing you said above.

    “The death of God is the death of an overarching value; the death of an overarching value is the death of an objective morality.”

    I’ve heard this claim a thousand times before, but it’s just not true. It’s important to be clear about what objective morality is–it is a matter of having a moral theory according to which moral facts do not depend on what anyone thinks about them. Objective moral theories are perspective-independent. Such theories, then, could support the claim that the holocaust was wrong even if the Nazi’s had won and succeeded in brainwashing everyone to believe holocausts were morally permissible.

    It is not obvious to me that there is anything inherent in the concept of objectivity that requires a God. If we accept, say, Kantianism, then it is an objective fact that we ought not to harm innocent persons. From any and all perspectives, it is wrong, and we don’t need a God to establish that.

    So the claim that you can’t have objective morality without God is false, at least in the sense that there are really important atheistic moral contenders out there that are perfectly objective.

  14. I don’t think we mean the same thing by “objective,” in that case, because everything you’ve said could apply equally well to moral systems other than yours. You fulfilled Godwin’s Law, so I’m going to continue to go down that route: A moral system that promotes the good of the Third Reich over all other goods is also “objective,” in the sense that its “moral facts do not depend on what anyone thinks about them.”

    The problem, of course, comes when you’re trying to condemn one so-called “objective morality” with another.

    Now, God doesn’t solve all the problems here, because you’re still going to have moral disagreements about what God is and what God thinks about this or that. But you’re appealing to something beyond a self-contained moral system; you’re appealing to a (theoretical, at least) person.

  15. My understanding of the mythologies you mention is that while mercy and compassion are not as obviously stressed in the well-known tellings of Ovid and Homer, they aren’t absent. Even if only the Athenians really worshipped Eleos specifically, Athena and Demeter are usually represented as compassionate merciful types (well, not universally, see Athena and Arachne,) but compassion is still present along with the more disturbing myths. Egyptian deities are harder to reason about because which ones were fashionable changed a lot with dynasties, but both Anubis and the cobra goddess whose name I never remember are usually both associated with mercy and compassion. There’s a surprising number of Egyptian gods who exist to protect people who aren’t powerful, orphans, lost travelers, women in childbirth etc. I know absolutely nothing about the Sumerian gods, but I would be very suprised if there weren’t at least one associated with, if not specifcally mercy and compassion, at least protecting the weak. As for how religion is usually implemented in society, that almost never includes compassion, but I think that’s a little beside the point, what I’m saying is that I know of no society in which compassion, mercy, and protection for the weak are not deified and revered at all.

    I think you are coming down on the constructivist side of the perennialist vs constructivist debate, and since quite honestly there is no way to precisely reason between them, all I can say is that perennialism is a well-respected philosophical position so it is perfectly reasonable to claim that it is quite possible for Dawkins to gain the same set of core principle set of ethics from the Japanese as he would from the west. It is also perfectly reasonable to claim that he wouldn’t, and you can’t really cry foul so much as you can acknowledge that it’s a debate that is unwinnable from either side, and like I said, I hang with Campbell and Jung.

    You started saying that absolute morality only comes from God, but what I claim is that all religions must evaluate their religion in some way outside of religion because absolutely no one can possibly take absolutely every part of any holy text seriously so you have to pick and choose to a certain extent. You have to do that with some perspective outside the religion, for obvious reasons, atheists just skip the religion part of it, and I think that implies that everyone has some basis for morality that comes outside of the universal religious tendency.

    I do thank you for clarifying that you aren’t calling people immoral and saying an absolute moral standard is necessarily more moral than a more subjective standard.

  16. “What I’m trying to say is that Dawkins would have gotten those principles no matter in what society he was raised because they are a fairly universal characteristic of religions so he would have gotten them from any society. Religion is a moral underpinning of all of them.”

    I find this statement to be problematic because you seem to be conflating all belief-systems, and filing them under the convenient rubric of “religion.” You’ve displayed a great deal of knowledge on the intricacies of Eastern religions, and mythologies, so this came as a surprise to me; world religions differ radically, and any similarities become superficial once we take a closer look (maybe I’m misunderstanding you).

    Certainly, Dawkins doesn’t speak for all, or even most atheists; he has received lavish media attention and this does make him somewhat of a spokesman, so I think it’s fair that we respond to him accordingly. Marilynn Robinson, and Barbara Herstein Smith, to name a few, have responded unfavorably to Dawkins’ agenda because most of his claims–along with appealing to his discarded Christian metaphysics- also makes claims exceeding the scope of science. From my admittedly limited understanding, science explains the workings of things, the ‘how’ questions, while philosophy attempts to answer the ‘why’ questions. If you affirm “non-overlapping majesteria,” (I don’t) it would seem prudent to abandon moral speculations.

    An objective moral reality cannot be established without an appeal to metaphysics. I can’t see any way in which an inviolable consensus on proper conduct could be reached without appealing to an a standard which somehow transcends the boundaries of the materialist universe. Nietzsche’s supreme insight still stands that forsaking Christ means forsaking the “over-arching value.” Christ’s radical affirmation of His creation in spite of its radical rejection of Him remains the ultimate scandal which Nietzsche refused to tolerate, and the fruit of which, he would not deign to accept.

  17. Michial,

    I’m glad you agree that objective qua perspective-independent ethics is possible on atheism. I wonder, though, what other feature of objectivity do religious ethics retain that atheistic theories do not? Objective is sometimes meant as mind-independent, but that isn’t Christian ethics by a long shot. Moral values and obligations are usually rooted in the choices or character of God, which is in every relevant sense, a mind.

    So how are theistic ethics more objective than, say, Kantianism? If you can’t articulate a clear answer I suggest you drop the charge that atheistic ethics can’t be objective altogether and instead advance a clearer objection.

  18. The objection is quite clear: Theistic ethics are objective in the sense that God stands outside of both the material world and the world of the mind–though most theists would say God also stands inside of those worlds. Thus, an appeal to God for ethics is an appeal outside of the system that atheism (and particularly materialist atheism) simply can’t make.

    The Kantian can say “This appears to me to be the most internally valid system of morality,” but others can disagree. Theists may argue about the attributes and personality of God, but they can almost all agree, I am certain, that to be moral is to be like God and that we are to attempt to behave morally because of a divine command.

    Compare this with the atheist, who can say only that “Morality looks like this or that,” always silently adding “in my opinion” (Kant himself says this, I believe)–and who can offer only less binding reasons for behaving morally: It makes one’s own life easier; one wants others to treat one thusly; society will fall apart unless one does so; etc. None of these are stupid answers, mind you–but they can be undone existentially by a single Underground Man or Nietzschean über-mensch.

  19. Michial,

    Ah, you mean to assert that theists are entitled to ethical non-naturalism, and that atheists are limited to ethical naturalism. That’s fine, but objectivity should not be used to convey the idea “that God stands outside of both the material world and the world of the mind”. The fact is that’s not objectivity; it’s non-naturalism. Your ethical theory may embrace objectivity in addition to non-naturalism, but they are not the same, and both ethical naturalism and non-naturalism can be objective. There is no controversy on this point in the literature.

    I must also insist that your characterization of Kantianism’s claim to moral authority is likely wrong. You say that “[t]he Kantian can say ‘This appears to me to be the most internally valid system of morality,’ but others can disagree.” If by this you mean that Kantians cannot claim their conception of morality is binding, that’s false. An obvious example is Christine Koorsgard’s lecture I linked to above, where she argues that there is a non-overridable reason for everyone to obey the Categorical Imperative. She and others are perfectly willing to say that their moral theory is true and binding on all humans.

    Of course on the other hand, if you mean in the trivial sense that everyone can at the most say “This appears to me to be the most valid system of morality”, that’s true. No one can know with complete certainty their conception of morality is true, but this applies equally to the theist and the atheist. Neither is at a disadvantage here.

    At any rate, this second issue has nothing to do with objectivity, but instead certainty. I suppose if you accept some kind of revelatory epistemology, then you might claim the Christian has more certainty about her beliefs, but–again–this has nothing to do with objectivity.

    So I have a suggestion. You are clearly an intelligent fellow. On other subjects you seem much more well-read than I, but on ethics, I am going to be as presumptuous as to say that you would benefit tremendously from some careful research into where your position fits in the contemporary field of analytical moral philosophy. It happens to be my strong suit. Knowing precisely where you stand on matters of moral epistemology, meta-ethics and normative ethics would lend you the kind of clarity you need to articulate more clearly and forcefully your ethical views.

    Sorry if that’s arrogant. You can school me when it comes to existential philosophy 🙂

  20. It’s objectivity in the Sartrean sense, in that God is both object and subject–both en soi and pour soi. This is, in fact, why Sartre refused to believe in God; I suspect it is also why he could not formulate a coherent and universally binding ethics. God’s supernaturalism is, I’d argue, a product of His simultaneous objectivity and subjectivity–certainly no natural being that we know of can achieve both simultaneously. Any system of morality that does not appeal to the nature of God is bound to be subjective, in that it is built on pour-soi instead of en-soi.

    As far as Kantian ethics being binding even for those who don’t accept them, I’m still waiting to hear what you or the other philosophers who claim an “objective” ethics based on human reason do with either Dostoevsky’s Underground Man (who revels in his ability to behave in ways that are not in his best interest) or with Nietzsche’s über-mensch, who recognizes ethics as the product of mere convention (founded on the “slave morality” of Christianity) and who refuses to follow them. Clearly these are at least two classes of people who are not subject to any man-made or reasonable ethics. Merely calling them “unethical” seems too easy to me; the question remains as to why they should behave ethically at all, especially if they’re willing to stand outside of any society founded on mutual respect, which is what the C.I. seems to be about to me.

    Now, I will admit I have not studied ethics to the degree you have; part of the reason for this is that existentialists are typically unconcerned with them, because either Christ’s sacrifice undoes the law (for Christian existentialists) or because ethics are mired in convention and subjectivity (for atheist existentialists). To a large degree I’d argue that ethics are beside the point in any case–that the only thing that really matters (or at least the thing that matters leaps and bounds above all other concerns) is the existence and nature of God and that the appropriate philosophical stance is one that takes that into appropriate existential account. An externally coherent ethics (as opposed to an ethics that is merely internally coherent, which seems to be what you mean when you say “objective”) seems to me impossible for the atheist and beside the point nearly entirely for the Christian.

    (I don’t know other theisms as well as I know Christianity, obviously, and so I suspect an externally coherent ethics is possible for them, in an appeal to the nature of God. It just doesn’t seem to be that big of a concern for the writers of the New Testament, except inasmuch as an ethical system reveals the human need for divine grace: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” etc.)

    So I will likely neither read much more on ethics nor talk much about it, to be honest with you. That I’ve had such a long and far-reaching discussion of ethics at all surprises me; Nathan Gilmour routinely mocks me on the podcast by asking me questions about ethics because he knows I’m not terribly interested in the subject. (Karl Barth, when asked the definition of sin: “Ethics.” When asked the definition of original sin: “A PhD in ethics.”)

    But thank you for the corrections, and I hope you’ll keep reading our blog, even though you’ll disagree with much of what we claim.

  21. Maybe a better way to put this, now that I’ve put a nail in the discussion’s coffin–I do believe in resurrection, I suppose–is like this: Theist ethics are grounded in something other than human experience, at least theoretically. (I recognize atheists think theist claims to a superhuman grounding are at best delusional, but bear with me.) Atheist ethics are grounded in human experience, even if atheists appeal to something along the lines of “universal reason”–especially since I reject the notion that reason is universal. But we can have that argument a few posts from now.

  22. Ah, you mean to assert that theists are entitled to ethical non-naturalism, and that atheists are limited to ethical naturalism. That’s fine, but objectivity should not be used to convey the idea “that God stands outside of both the material world and the world of the mind”. The fact is that’s not objectivity; it’s non-naturalism. Your ethical theory may embrace objectivity in addition to non-naturalism, but they are not the same, and both ethical naturalism and non-naturalism can be objective. There is no controversy on this point in the literature.

    There is, however, a significant discussion (at least in theological and literary-critical circles) going on regarding the rhetorical force of the word “natural.” As John Milbank often notes, for medieval Aristotelians, God is not only natural but supremely natural, divine nature being the efficient and final cause of Creation. Dawkins and the gang, of course, use the word in the way that Enlightenment deists came to use it, but that hardly means that the terminology is settled.

    The reason I bring this up is that what counts as objective and what counts as natural seem to follow from prior metaphysical and ontological commitments so that an ethics rooted in Thomist analogy just as much as one starting from dogmatic materialism is going to find the scope of objectivity “within nature.”

  23. Excuse my simplicty, but objectivity is not forfeited by an acceptance of “God outside the material world and the world of the mind”. In fact, to see, as atheist do, boundaries, such as within and without, that determine what is natural and what is not is the limited way of viewing existence.

    When God is in all things and all things are in God it conveys a oneness that is limited only by our lack of language to express it and makes the claim, “Tell me where your God is and I will tell you whether or not you are natural and objective” a bit feeble.

  24. For anyone reading my post above and scratching your head it was one my moments when I thought I knew how to express my thought; but it came out awkward.

    Always thankful for the opportunity.

  25. I think I know what you are getting at John. It’s not too far off from some of my own speculations. I’ve often wondered about the modern distinction between supernatural and natural. I think putting too fine a point on it destroys the immanence of God, on one hand, and ignoring it entirely destroys his transcendence. We need to have both, in my opinion. Distinctions and categorization like this are useful for humans to simplify difficult concepts, but we shouldn’t confuse the categories with the underlying reality. They may not be (and probably aren’t) the same thing.

  26. Dan, that was what I tried to refer to above: for the medievals, God is the one being who is decidedly never supernatural. God’s nature, after all, is unlimited, so no matter what act God initiates is within God’s nature. Supernatural for the medievals refers not to the superhuman (they called that superhuman) but to those moments when, by divine grace, an entity exhibits faculties beyond its nature (as when Balaam’s ass talks or when Elijah sees chariots of fire in the hills). In other words, St. Thomas Aquinas’s universe, the natural begins with God and proceeds by free grace; there’s no sense that one has the option of ruling out an entire class of beings as “supernatural” and claiming any intellectual purity.

  27. I’m proud of the civility displayed by those who have disagreed with the post. Well done! I look forward to reading this whole comment thread when I have more time. Encouraging to see.

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