Last night PBS ran part two of its two-part presentation of The Question of God (See here for a discussion of part one). The show is based upon an excellent book of the same title by Armand Nicholi of Harvard. In his book Nicholi compares and contrasts the worldviews of Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis and shows how their fundamental assumptions about God led these men to much different answers to several of life's most profound questions.
Unfortunately, the PBS presentation was disappointing. The dramatization of his life made much of C.S. Lewis' faith in God but said next to nothing about the arguments he offers in his writings to undergird his belief. A viewer might well have come away from the show with the impression that, for Lewis, faith was exclusively a Kierkegaardian leap, a completely existential exercise in subjectivity, with no rational component.
Not only was a solid explication of Lewis' apologetic lacking in the portrayal of the Oxford don, but the roundtable discussions that interspersed the dramatization of both Freud's and Lewis' lives seemed to reinforce the impression that theism is bereft of any rational justification, that it's purely a matter of Freudian wish-fulfillment. The secularists, as they did last week, seemed to have reason and all the best arguments on their side, and the believers were left sputtering about their feelings and lamenting that they can't explain the difficulties that arise in their belief system, but that one just has to trust and have faith.
One man in the group admitted that he can't reconcile his conception of a good God with the existence of suffering, and Michael Shermer, an atheist, observed that he's just a step from atheism and invited him to try it. The Christian had no reply.
I don't know whether the believers around the table actually had no effective rejoinders or whether their best responses were edited out, but certainly there are plausible answers to the questions that were raised in this segment. To take just one, the program addressed the nature and origin of the moral law. What is it that tells us what's right and where does it come from?
The Christians in the seminar maintained that morality comes from God, but the atheists weren't buying that. They questioned why God is necessary for moral behavior. We can come to the same conclusions about how we ought to behave as the theist, they asserted, so why do we need God? People didn't decide to abolish slavery because God told them it was wrong, rather they abolished slavery because a consensus formed around the proposition that freedom is good and that it should be extended to all men. Human beings can be good whether they believe in God or not. We can live by the Golden Rule even if we're not Christians. And so on.
This is all true enough, which is why the Christians had a hard time responding to it, I suppose, but it's all irrelevant. To see why, consider this hypothetical conversation between a theist and an atheist:
In other words, the problem isn't that the atheist can't adopt the same values as the believer. Of course he can. The problem is that the adoption of those values is completely arbitrary, as are the values themselves. Someone who lived by radically different values would be doing nothing "wrong" because right and wrong cannot exist as anything other than social conventions. I might adopt a value of human kindness because that appeals to me. Someone else might value cruelty because that appeals to him. Which of us does the atheist say is right?
This problem is implicit in the above discussion of slavery. Slavery was ended because people decided that freedom was good and should be extended to all men, but what if they hadn't so decided? Would they have been wrong to continue to enslave Africans if the consensus had been that slavery was acceptable? And why should freedom be extended to all men? Where does that belief come from? Are right and wrong simply a matter of whatever society decides? If so, then if society decides to kill off all its minorities, like the Nazis tried to do, that would not be wrong.
Shermer says that the Golden Rule is a product of evolution, not of God. Very well, but then why should anyone follow it? Why should a product of blind, impersonal forces which shaped us for life in the stone age be in any way binding upon us today? Besides, lots of things are products of evolution, but we don't advocate submitting to them. We have an evolutionary penchant for aggressiveness and violence, for sexual promiscuity, avarice, and selfishness. Why should we suppress these inclinations but adopt the Golden Rule? Isn't that just an arbitrary choice? What criteria or standard are we holding these various evolutionary proclivities up to in order to arrive at the conclusion that one of them is superior to the others?
The point is that unless there is a transcendent moral authority there is no morality. There are just behaviors that people like and dislike. People can agree to adopt a certain set of behaviors and arbitrarily choose to value them, but that doesn't make someone who dissents from the consensus immoral. Nor does it mean that if society had adopted different values they would have been wrong. Moral right and wrong are empty, meaningless concepts unless there is a God.