Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (3)

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)

Christ humbles Himself to wash His disciples' feet.

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.

2 thoughts on “Atheism: Ideal, Idyllic or Ideology? (3)

  1. 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.

    First, this is an Argument from Consequence. A logic fallacy. In fact, every episode of this segue falls into this category. The Argument from Consequence provides nothing towards the truth of the proposition. Go figure.

    Second, we do indeed have a basis for gauging right and wrong. Each person understands those actions which they would or would not want others to perform on them. Thus morality is a social contract. If you act towards me as I would want you to, I will afford you the same courtesy. It’s called empathy, and it’s that simple. Empathy is an evolved behavioral trait common in social mammals. No god is necessary to supply it.

    The idea that there is some absolute morality, which is what believers tend to mean when they use the term “objective morality”, is nonexistent. Morality has changed drastically over history. Even the edict to not murder others has changed since the definition of ‘murder’ has changed significantly.

    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.

    What makes you think Christianity is required to act in a manner which takes into account other members of society? This is nonsense. Secular humanism espouses exactly this and does away with that superfluous middle-man. Obeying a higher power gives far too much opportunity for people to say what it is that their god wants and all too often what that god wants is violence.

    If your view of atheism is that we are selfish people without morality you have not a clue as to what you speak of. Get to know some atheists, then come out and talk about it.

    1. Fr. Ted

      It seems to me, that Hart’s point exactly though is when there is no external reference point to the individual, all one has to do is say “I disagree with you and your conlcusions” and the discussion is over. Since no point of view holds any more truth than any other point of view, all is just opinion when it comes to morality. So what will determine right and wrong? Social contract? Majority rule? What then happens to the minority? What about those who refuse to enter into a social contract? Let’s be real here – people are still going to be people – they will be stubborn, illogical, prejudiced, selfish.

      An aside question: you said, “empathy is an evolved behavioral trait” – is that a scientifically proven statement, or conjecture? What about Dawkin’s selfish gene? I am often curious about statements that people make as fact but which are often assumptions.

      Your notion that empathy will rule the day is an awfully big assumption. What evidence do you have that societies will embrace this as a universal truth? We have entire societies based in the basic teachings of Jesus which have struggled with this and that is a key to His teachings. With or without religion empathy tends to carry humans only so far and for so long. People feel empathy for the Haitians at the moment of their earthquake, but are they willing to pour out aid for ever to such people? No, the emergency passes and people are allowed to resume wallowing in their own poverty and tragedy.

      You make some awfully huge assumptions and read into what I wrote – I never said Christianity is required for empathy to be in people. You keep reading into what I wrote. Same with your last statement about my view of atheism. You are arguing against your own straw man. You assume you know what I mean – your react to rather than just read what I wrote. It’s very human and exactly why I think when atheists are in power things will be much like they are today – people still trying to rule over other people.

      It is true that obeying a higher power gives opportunity for the unsavory and immoral and ambitious people to mislead others and even approve of violence towards others. But because people are people, the exact same results will occur if atheism were in power – there still will be unsavory, immoral and ambitious people attempting to gain advantage over others to force them to do their will.

      And without a sense of the transscendent, or when the individual rules free of constraint, do I really believe that humans will suddenly become totally empathetic toward the weak and the powerless and the stranger? What seems to arise is some form of social Darwinism – the strong will fight to survive at the expense of the weak. Why should we keep alive unwanted babies or useless seniors or dependent handicapped folk who all drain resources without contributing to the general welfare? Here, perhaps your and my imaginations differ. I can imagine a world without a transcendent power in which only the strong will survive or be allowed to survive. While I see that the faithful have often failed in incarnating the ideas of Christianity, nevertheless, the ideals are still there. I do think Christianity improved general morality, increased empathy for the weak. Certainly Nietzche saw in Christianity and religion a fatal flaw – a weakness in its demands to love, forgive and give. But in that sense he understood what Christianity was about, and how it was abused by some. He argued against such empathetic weakness and for taking power into our hands. That is what I think about when I think about a world with no transcendent being to whom we must give account for our choices.

      I don’t think that atheists alone are selfish and without morality. That is your strange idea of Christians. I think that all humans have a tendency toward selfishness and self centeredness. Religion at its best challenges humans to think of something greater than themselves and to care, love, have empathy for others. Those who embraced power and tried to use religion to enforce their positions abandon Christianity and just turn it into a tool to reinforce their power.

      How moral are people naturally? Well, one can watch what happens in cities and countries when there is social breakdown and civil authority disappears – riots, looting, the strong abusing the weak, mayhem, and violence. That is how humans behave with or without a god.

      But I also think that in Christianity at least there is an appeal to love, to self denial for the good of the other. And one can appeal to the sense that this love is not merely a human convention/contract, but is based in a universal truth, and there will be a universal accounting for our failure to love one day.

      None of this says anything about atheism. It is an assertion about Christianity. It to me offers greater hope than what I see in atheism.

      Perhaps, you can answer a question for me, as an atheist. This is not a trick question, I ask to try to understand you. Why should an atheist not embrace an attitude of “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow you may die” as their own morality, especially if all that exists is the empirical world, and what now exists is the random chance of natural selection? What would motivate someone to live a life of self giving empathy? Why would you believe that an entire society would be willing to live by such self-denying empathy?

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