Sunday, August 29, 2004

In the Absence of God

A couple of days ago Viewpoint posted a piece titled The Devil's Chaplain about Richard Dawkins, the well-known British biologist and anti-theist. Dawkins, we pointed out, finds it difficult, if not impossible, to live consistently with his atheism, denying the existence of God but living his political life as if there really were a transcendent moral law-giver.

I once heard someone say that the only real difference between a theist and an atheist is that the theist gets up and goes to church on Sunday whereas the atheist sleeps in. The remark was meant to be taken only half-seriously but the tongue-in-cheek delivery masked an attitude that is not uncommon among atheists. The feeling is that the benefits of theism are either bogus (e.g. eternal life) or that they (e.g. morality) can be had by the atheist without all the strictures of religious dogma. The Dawkins piece shows, I think, that this is deeply mistaken.

Whether there is a God or not is not some minor question, like whether there is a tenth planet at the edge of the solar system, which really makes no practical difference in our lives. The question of God's existence has the most far-reaching ramifications, not just for eternity, but for this life here and now, of any question we could possibly encounter in life. It makes an immeasurable difference whether God exists or not. To understand why, consider the logical implications of assuming that he does not exist.

First, let's stipulate that the world is, to borrow a term from the existentialist vernacular, absurd. That is to say that the world as it is is incompatible with man as he is. Both the theist and atheist can agree on this. Each of us is a complex bundle of yearnings and needs all of which must go unfulfilled and unsatisfied in a world without God. It is only if there is a God that the problem posed by the world's absurdity can ultimately be resolved.

Consider ten reasons why this is true:

1)As human beings we long to ground morality in something more solid than our own subjective preferences, but in the absence of God there is nothing else. Morality is whatever feels right to the individual. This leads to a might makes right egoism, either on the level of the individual or at the level of the state. In either case, whatever the individual does is not morally right or wrong; it just is. Likewise, whatever the state does is not morally right or wrong, even if it commits torture or genocide, it just is. In other words, in the absence of God morality is either arbitrary and subjective, or it doesn't exist at all.

2)As human beings we seek to base our notion of human rights in something beyond our own prejudices, but in the absence of God there is nothing to sustain those rights. We have the right to life and liberty because we are the children of the Creator of the universe and He has invested those rights in us. If there is no creator then there are no human rights, just arbitrary rules some people agree to follow but which could easily be revoked since they're merely words on paper.

3)As human beings we have a deep longing for justice. We want to see good rewarded and evil punished. Our hearts break when evil appears to triumph over good, but it's the common human experience that many good people live lives of terrible fear, pain and grief, and then they die. Meanwhile, many who were the cause of that suffering die peacefully and content after a long life of pleasure. In the absence of God there is no ultimate justice. Everybody dies in the end, and there's no reward or punishment, just nothingness.

4)As human beings we strongly desire union with our loved ones. The more we love someone the more closely we wish to be united with that person on every level of our being. Yet we are alienated, separated from them. No matter how close we are we can never achieve that complete oneness we desire. The other is always "other". This alienation holds not only in our relationships with other people but also in our love for the earth and the realm of nature. In nature we are always an outsider. We are foreign, alien, no matter how much we might long for it to be otherwise. In the absence of God, it will always be thus until the day of our death.

5)As human beings we want answers to life's deepest, most perplexing questions, but in the absence of God there are no answers, there's no certainty about anything that matters, except that we'll eventually die. We shout the "why" questions of human existence at the vast void of the cosmos - why am I here, why do we suffer, why do we want from life what we can't have - but there's no reply, only silence.

6)As human beings we crave meaning and purpose for our lives. We can't bear living a life we know to be pointless and insignificant, but death nullifies everything and renders it nugatory. In the absence of God there is no purpose or value to anything we do. Some day the earth will burn up in a solar explosion and there'll be not a trace that humans once existed. What will all of our striving matter then? Everything we do is just a footprint in the sand at the edge of the surf of space-time. Eventually all trace of our lives will be washed away as though we were never here.

7)As human beings we long for peace, but throughout the history of mankind there's been nothing but conflict - conflict between individuals and conflict between nations. When the Berlin wall fell some thought conflict was at an end. There would be no more war, hot or cold. Few foresaw the rise of Islamo-fascism and the beginning of the modern struggle to convert the entire world to Islam. This struggle will last until either radical Islam dies out or Christianity, and every Christian, is dead. In the absence of God there is little basis for hope that someday there will be a lasting peace in the world.

8)As human beings we need a sense of dignity, but modern science tells us that we are little more than flesh and bone machines. There is no soul, there is nothing about us that makes us much different than any other mammal. We are more intelligent, of course, but that only makes the difference between us and a cow about the same as the difference between a cow and a trout. In the absence of God there's no reason why someone who has the power should not use it to manipulate and exploit us like the farmer exploits his cattle for his own purposes, slaughtering them when he can profit from doing so. The universe tells us we're nothing but "dust in the wind" and there's no dignity in that.

9)As human beings we yearn to live and yet we know we're going to die. In the absence of God, the fate of each of us is annihilation. There's no basis for hope that loved ones we've lost still somehow exist or that we'll ever see them again. There's no consolation for the bereaved, no salve for grief. Many face this bravely, of course, but, if they're reflective, their bravery must serve to mask an inner despair.

10)As human beings we all strive for happiness. In the absence of God it's perhaps the only thing about life that makes it endurable. Yet happiness is elusive. The world is full of misery. Even if our own lives are free of the afflictions which plague most of those who've ever been born on this planet we're confronted with the irony that we can only be happy ourselves if we cease to care about others. It is at best unseemly, in the shadow of the awful anguish, pain, sorrow, tragedy, and other misfortunes which routinely occur in our communities to declare that "even so, I'm happy". To care about others is to identify with them in their suffering, and it's hard to imagine how an empathetic person can be happy in a world of so much sadness. The paradox is that in the absence of God the only person who can achieve happiness is the person who can shut out the cries of his neighbor and turn inward upon himself.

If the theist is correct, however, then all of this changes. We can find happiness in knowing that the tragic condition of the world and of our lives is only temporary, that death is not the end and that a beautiful future lies ahead. If God exists then we can assume that He made us for a reason, that there is, therefore, a purpose to existence and that we have dignity and inalienable rights as human beings because we are made in the image of God and loved by Him. If God exists then there is a transcendent moral authority which will ultimately mete out justice and who provides us in this life an objective standard upon which to base moral judgment. If God exists there is a basis for hope.

The atheist, if he's consistent with his assumption that there is no God, finds himself in a world which is completely at odds in almost every important way with the structure of his own psyche. He finds himself inexplicably out of synch with his world. He is alone, forlorn, abandoned in an empty, unfeeling universe that offers no solace nor hope that there might be meaning, morality, justice, dignity, peace, and solutions to the riddles of existence. The atheist lives without hope that any of the most profound yearnings of our hearts and minds can ever be fulfilled.

It's possible of course, that he is correct, that this is just the way things are, and we should simply make the best of a very bad situation. It's possible, but surely the atheist should hope that he's mistaken. It's incomprehensible that some, like philosopher Thomas Nagel, for instance, actually hope that there is no God. This is tantamount to hoping, bizarrely enough, that life really is a meaningless, senseless, absurd joke. Nagel says in his book The Last Word:

"I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."

Nagel's ability to see his motivations clearly is uncommon, but his honesty and insight are little compensation for the profound sadness one feels at what he finds in his own heart. How anyone can actually want the universe to be the sort of place where meaning, morality, justice and all the rest are vain illusions, is very difficult to understand.