Saturday, June 4, 2005

Certain of Their Own Infallibility

Charles Krauthammer writes a fine essay in defense of certainty. The heart, but by no means all, of his piece is here:

The Op-Ed pages are filled with jeremiads about believers--principally evangelical Christians and traditional Catholics--bent on turning the U.S. into a theocracy. Now I am not much of a believer, but there is something deeply wrong--indeed, deeply un-American--about fearing people simply because they believe. It seems perfectly O.K. for secularists to impose their secular views on America, such as, say, legalized abortion or gay marriage. But when someone takes the contrary view, all of a sudden he is trying to impose his view on you. And if that contrary view happens to be rooted in Scripture or some kind of religious belief system, the very public advocacy of that view becomes a violation of the U.S. constitutional order.

What nonsense. The campaign against certainty is merely the philosophical veneer for an attempt to politically marginalize and intellectually disenfranchise believers. Instead of arguing the merits of any issue, secularists are trying to win the argument by default on the grounds that the other side displays unhealthy certainty or, even worse, unseemly religiosity.

Why this panic about certainty and people who display it? It is not just, as conventional wisdom has it, that liberals think the last election was lost because of a bloc of benighted Evangelicals. It is because we are almost four years from 9/11 and four years of moral certainty, and firm belief is about all that secular liberalism can tolerate.

Do you remember 9/11? How you felt? The moral clarity of that day and the days thereafter? Just days after 9/11, on this very page, Lance Morrow wrote a brilliant, searing affirmation of right against wrong, good against evil.

A few years of that near papal certainty is more than any self-respecting intelligentsia can take. The overwhelmingly secular intellectuals are embarrassed that they once nodded in assent to Morrow-like certainty, an affront to their self-flattering pose as skeptics.

Enough. A new day, a new wave. Time again for nuance, doubt and the comforts of relativism. It is not just the restless search for novelty, the artist's Holy Grail. It is weariness with the responsibilities and the nightmares that come with clarity--and the demands that moral certainty make on us as individuals and as a nation.

Nothing has more aroused and infuriated the sophisticates than the foreign policy of a religiously inclined President, based on the notion of a universal aspiration to freedom and of America's need and duty to advance it around the world. Such liberationism, confident and unapologetic, is portrayed as arrogant crusading, a deep violation of the tradition of American pluralism, ecumenism, modesty and skeptical restraint.

Well put. Krauthammer might also have mentioned that it's not really certainty that contemporary skeptics disdain, for they themselves are filled to overflowing with it. They are so certain that they are in the right politically, for example, that they are willing to go to any lengths to defame, discredit, mock and ridicule those with whom they disagree in order to crush all opposition and to insure that their views prevail. This is not the behavior of people cognizant of their own fallibility and at pains to maintain a modicum of intellectual humility.

No, it isn't certainty to which our Leftist elites object. What they find deplorable is the substance of those matters about which religious conservatives are certain. The maddening offense of religious conservatives is that their certitudes are in conflict with the certitudes of the secular Left. This the elite finds quite insufferable. They cannot abide that anyone would have the temerity to entertain a sense of certainty about matters so out of harmony with what they themselves are certain about.

Review of <i>Unspeakable</i>

Yesterday we posted a meditation on forgiveness which was triggered by a few lines in a new book by Os Guinness on the problem of evil. The post wasn't intended to be a review, but if the reader would like one an excellent overview of the book can be found here.

Did They Or Didn't They?

Now we're really confused. First we were told that Saddam was working on WMD in Iraq, then we were told that, ha, ha, Bush lied, there's no evidence that Saddam was working on WMD. Now we're told that tons of stuff that could be used to make biological and chemical weapons and banned missiles have been moved out of the sites where they'd been located prior to OIF:

UNITED NATIONS - U.N. satellite imagery experts have determined that material that could be used to make biological or chemical weapons and banned long-range missiles has been removed from 109 sites in Iraq, U.N. weapons inspectors said in a report obtained Thursday.

Now which is it? Did Iraq have material that could have been used for WMD, or didn't they? Will somebody please get the story straight.

The Modern Sisyphus

Viewpoint has argued several times over the past year that any ultimate meaning to life is contingent upon there being a God. Now columnist Dennis Prager addresses himself to the same theme in his series on Judeo-Christian values:

As I have noted on occasion, there are three values systems competing for world dominance: Islam, European style secularism/socialism and Judeo-Christian values. As the competition in America is between the second two (in Europe, Judeo-Christian values are dying while Islam is increasing its influence), my columns on Judeo-Christian values have concentrated on differences between Judeo-Christian and secular values.

Perhaps the most significant difference between them, though one rarely acknowledged by secularists, is the presence or absence of ultimate meaning in life. Most irreligious individuals, quite understandably, do not like to acknowledge the inevitable and logical consequence of their irreligiosity -- that life is ultimately purposeless.

Secular and irreligious individuals raise two immediate objections:

1. Irreligious people, including atheists, are just as likely to have meaningful lives as any religious person. They need neither God nor Judaism nor Christianity nor any other religion to have meaning.

2. Secular and irreligious are not the same as atheistic; many secular individuals believe in God and therefore whatever meaning accrues from having a belief in God, they, too, have. They do not need religion or Judeo-Christian values to give their lives meaning.

The first objection denies a fact, not a subjective judgment: If there is no God who designed the universe and who cares about His creations, life is ultimately purposeless. This does not mean that people who do not believe in such a God cannot feel, or make up, a purpose and a meaning for their own lives. They do and they have to -- because the need for meaning is the greatest of all human needs. It is even stronger than the need for sex. There are people who lead chaste lives who achieve happiness, while no one who lacks a sense of purpose or meaning can achieve happiness.

Nevertheless, the fact that people feel that their lives are meaningful -- as a parent, a caregiver, an artist, or any of the myriad ways in which we feel we are doing something meaningful -- has no bearing on the question of whether life itself is ultimately meaningful. The two issues are entirely separate. A physician understandably views his healing of people as meaningful, but if he does not believe in God, he will have to honestly confront the fact that as meaningful as healing the day's patients has been, ultimately everything is meaningless because life itself is. In this sense, it is far better for an individual's peace of mind to be a poor peasant who believes in God than a successful neurosurgeon who does not.

If there is no God as Judeo-Christian religions understand Him, life is a meaningless random event. You and I are no more significant, our existence has no more meaning, than that of a rock on Mars. The only difference between us and Martian rocks is that we need to believe our existence has significance.

Now to the second objection, that you don't need religion or Judeo-Christian values, just a belief in God or, as is more popular today, in "spirituality" to imbue existence with meaning. Theoretically, one can posit the existence of the God of Judeo-Christian religions without actually believing in any of those religions or in any of their holy works. There is, however, some absurdity in believing in the God made known through texts whose authenticity one rejects. "I believe in the God made known to the world solely through the Old Testament but not in the Old Testament" is not logically compelling.

Whatever the logical inconsistencies or theoretical arguments in either direction, the fact remains that while secular individuals can believe that their own lives have meaning, secularism by definition denies that life has meaning. The consequences have been devastating to mental health and to social order.

Among these have been increased unhappiness and depression, increased reliance on drugs and numbing entertainment to get people through life, moral confusion, belief in nonsense (such as Marxism, fascism, communism, male-female sameness, pacifism, moral equivalence of good and bad societies, and much more), and perhaps most ubiquitous, political meaning as a substitute for religious meaning.

Given that the need for meaning transcends all other human needs, its absence must create havoc individually and societally. In government, secularism is a blessing; but most everywhere else it is not.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus compares human existence to the everlasting punishment imposed by the gods on the mythological Sisyphus whose sentence for rebellion against the deities was to push a stone up a hill only to have it roll back down. He had to do this over and over, forever. Camus says that human existence is every bit as futile, meaningless, and mind-crushingly absurd. And yet, he writes, "The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a human heart. One must imagine that Sisyphus is happy."

Actually, it is extremely difficult to imagine Sisyphus happy in such circumstances. Indeed, it is easier to imagine him on the verge of total insanity. A man suffering life without significance, without meaning, without hope for eventual release is a man teetering on the brink of madness.

Camus is right in his comparison of life without God to the existence Sisyphus was made to endure. If there is no God then life surely is "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing", as Shakespeare put it.

Camus is wrong, however, when he urges us to imagine Sisyphus as happy. To the extent that the modern Sisyphus is content it is because he has not allowed himself to consider the full implications of his naturalistic worldview. He refuses to permit the consequences of his atheism to obtrude into his thoughts lest he be forced to confront the sheer senselessness of his being and that of all humanity. To face honestly the fact that in the final analysis nothing has meaning, nothing has value, nothing matters is to weave dizzyingly on the precipice of a spiritual and psychological abyss that only the most intrepid, or nihilistic, atheists dare approach.