This is the 4th and final blog in a series, the first blog is entitled Atheism: Luminous or Delusion? The blog preceding this one is Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (2). David Bentley Hart in his book ATHEIST DELUSIONS: THE CHRISTIAN REVOLUTION AND ITS FASHIONABLE ENEMIES offers a rebuttal to some of the common attacks on religion offered by “the new Atheists.”
Hart contends that the philosophical assumptions we currently have about personal autonomy and freedom ultimately are based in ideas that are cannot sustain a social order. For modernity sees personal free choice as in itself to be the highest good (not what one chooses, just the ability to choose). Consequently what one chooses is neither good nor bad as long as one is choosing. In this world view no one can determine what is good or bad for anyone else – for the only moral issue is whether one is free to choose or not.
“Modernity’s highest ideal—its special understanding of personal autonomy—requires us to place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. … the ethos of modernity is—to be perfectly precise—nihilism.” (p 21)
If each individual determines what good and evil is, and there is no reference external to an individual by which good and evil can be determined, then shared meaning cannot exist. This is the situation of much postmodern thinking. Humans become nothing more than individual atoms which collide in the only thing they all share – time and space. To a certain degree the movie CRASH reflects this thinking quite well – individuals, the movie suggests, intentionally crash in to one another just to feel something – to experience reality beyond the isolated and alienated self.
“The will, we habitually assume, is sovereign to the degree that it is obedient to nothing else and is free to the degree that it is truly spontaneous and constrained by nothing greater than itself. … For us, it is choice itself, and not what we choose, that is the first good…” (p 23)
“… the tendency of modern thought is to see the locus of liberty as situated primarily in an individual subject’s spontaneous power of choice, rather than in the ends that subject might actually choose. Freedom, thus understood, consists solely in the power of choosing as such. Neither God, then, nor nature, nor reason provides the measure of an act’s true liberty, for an act is free only because it might be done in defiance of all three. … Here explicitly, for the first time in Western thought, freedom was defined not as the unobstructed realization of a nature but as the absolute power of the will to determine even what that nature might be. One might even say that, in this view of things, God’s essence simply is will. And if this is what freedom is for God, then this must be what freedom is for us as well.” (p 225)
The extreme emphasis on individualism, defining freedom as freedom “from” others and from all sources external to the self, is an idea born of the Enlightenment. Choosing is all that matters – little importance is placed on consequences or responsibility which are often seen as efforts to limit one’s personal freedom. The end result is people imprisoned in their “free” but totally isolated and alienated selves.
“Moreover, if there really is no transcendent source of the good to which the will is naturally drawn, but only the power of the will to decide what ends it desires – by which to create and determine itself for itself—then no human project can be said to be inherently irrational, or (for that matter) inherently abominable. If freedom of the will is our supreme value, after all, then it is for all intents and purposes our god. And certain kinds of god (as our pagan forebears understood) expect to be fed.” (p 227)
If humans reduce themselves from being relational beings (even if produced in a test tube we still share the DNA we received from other humans) to isolated individuals, then they make freedom and individualism into their gods – gods that expect to homage, loyalty, and sacrificial offerings. If freedom is the absolute value and individualism the only good, then we are going to have to answer to 6 billion gods and all of their contradictory and self centered demands. These kinds of gods quickly becomes monsters which not only demand to be fed, but which consume everything in their path.
Christianity postulates that humans are relational beings, beings designed to love one another, beings designed to be in relationship with other humans, with the rest of the created order and with the Creator. Christianity deals with the question of what it means to be human, and it connects each human person to the rest of humanity, all of the cosmos and to the Creator who is the source of all things. The way to 6 billion humans living in peace on earth requires that we humble our self-as-gods and be willing to serve the other instead of serving one’s self.