Wednesday, September 22, 2004

The Question of God

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:

Theist: Why would it be wrong for me to hurt someone?

Atheist: It's wrong because society couldn't function if everyone went about harming each other.

T: Maybe, maybe not, but at best that's an argument for not universalizing the behavior. The question is why would it be wrong for me to harm another individual? My act isn't going to have a significant influence on the rest of society.

A: It's wrong because you wouldn't want people to hurt you.

T: That's true, but that's not a reason why I shouldn't hurt someone else. If I can do it and get away with it why would that be wrong? What makes a might-makes-right ethic morally wrong?

A: People won't like you very much if you behaved that way.

T: Why should I care whether I'm liked or not? Is right just a matter of doing whatever makes you popular? Besides aren't you now tacitly admitting that there's nothing intrinsically wrong with hurting others. The only thing that makes it wrong, according to what you've said, is that it may not be in my best interests. But if it were in my best interests to harm another, you'd have no basis for saying that my act is wrong.

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.

What Are We Waiting For?

President Bush has always taken hits from the left for his management of the post-war in Iraq, but now he's getting more heat from his own party. The neo-cons are rightly upset that several cities in the Sunni triangle have been allowed to fester and become havens for insurgents and terrorists. Word is that foreign fighters, emboldened by our reluctance to crush al Sadr in Najaf, are streaming into Fallujah and Samarra and a couple of other cities in the Sunni stronghold. The question that even Bush's supporters are asking is, why are we allowing this to happen? Our troops say they can take Fallujah in three, maybe four days, if they are given the go-ahead, so why aren't they?

There are two possible answers to this question, one of which is completely unacceptable. If the troops are being restrained by the administration because the suits don't want to give the impression of chaos and large numbers of casualties until after the election, then they don't deserve to be re-elected. If they're playing politics with this war then they've forfeited their right to our support (although it certainly doesn't follow that Kerry has done anything to merit it).

If, however, the administration is following a recommendation made by the commanders in the field then I think we need to be supportive. After all, if the commanders had recommended holding off on an attack and the administration overruled them for political reasons and ordered our troops into Fallujah and elsewhere, that would be as reprehensible as the scenario traced in the preceding paragraph.

If our military thinks it best, for whatever reason, to delay taking down these cities then we should defer to their judgment. Indeed, if that's the reason we're tolerating the current difficult situation I think the administration is to be commended for letting the military make those decisions, especially as the pressure mounts on the White House to do something.

One reason that has been floated as to why there seems to be so little aggressive activity is that our generals have decided that when we go in they want Iraqi troops in the mix. This is undoubtedly a wise long-term decision since it will give the Iraqis a sense of ownership as well as garner more support among the Iraqi residents of the cities we assault. It appears that the next wave of Iraqi trainees will not complete their training until sometime next month at which time Fallujah will come in for serious house-cleaning.

So, we'll see. If an assault does come in October the President's critics will scream about the "timing" of an attack coming so close to the election, but let them. Despite the fact that people are dying in Iraq because of the delay, the long term benefit of waiting until the Iraqis are ready to contribute could be a much more stable Iraq in the future. Let's hope that terrorists and others continue to flood into these cities over the next couple of weeks. It'll make those environments that much more target-rich.

This Week's Dreyfus

This week's Dreyfus award, named for Inspector Jacques Clouseau's superior officer in the Pink Panther movies, Charles Dreyfus (Herbert Lom), who was driven mad by jealousy and hatred of the totally inept Clouseau (Peter Sellars) who bumbled his way to sleuthing success and fame. Last week the award went to Robert Kuttner for a column he wrote for the Boston Globe.

This week's prize is awarded jointly to two men, one of whom is clearly unbalanced and the other of whom was driven to professional suicide by his looney attempt to politically assassinate his own Inspector Clouseau (George Bush). This week's winners are William Burkett and Dan Rather. See here for more on Mr. Rather's strange career.

Each winner will receive a Dreyfus doll which is clothed in a white strait-jacket and which twitches uncontrollably.