Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Lost in the Cosmos

Peter Steinfels in The New York Times reviews two books written by atheists who, unlike some of their angry, militant colleagues who focus their fire entirely upon religious belief, address instead the problems of living a life without God. One of the authors, Ronald Aronson, says this:

A "new atheism must absorb the experience of the 20th century and the issues of the 21st," he wrote. "It must answer questions about living without God, face issues concerning forces beyond our control as well as our own responsibility, find a satisfying way of thinking about what we may know and what we cannot know, affirm a secular basis for morality, point to ways of coming to terms with death and explore what hope might mean today."

Actually, if any of this could be done it would have been done a long time ago. Philosophical atheism has been with us for a long time, but no one has been able to accomplish what Aronson says needs to be accomplished. In a world without God, there is no secular morality other than might-makes-right. There is no coming to terms with death except to resign oneself to its inevitability. There's no basis whatsoever for thinking that there's any "meaning" in hope. Indeed, if death is the absolute end of all life all there can be is hopelessness.

Steinfels goes on quoting Aronson:

[C]ontemporary secularism has lost the buoyant confidence it once gained from "its essential link to the idea of Progress, which promised so much and came to such grief during the 20th century."

"To live comfortably without God today," he says, "means doing what has not yet been done - namely, rethinking the secular worldview after the eclipse of modern optimism."

Modern optimism was based on the belief, derived from a Darwinian worldview, in the perfectability of man. It was rooted in the belief that man was evolving toward greatness. He was becoming progressively better, more intelligent, wiser, more moral. Then came the 20th century with all of its grisly horrors and the clear evidence of man's savagery. The idea of man's perfectability went up in the smoke of Auschwitz.

Aronson again:

"[R]eligion is not really the issue, but rather the incompleteness or tentativeness, the thinness or emptiness, of today's atheism, agnosticism and secularism. Living without God means turning toward something."

Unfortunately, if atheism is true there's not much to turn toward. Today's atheism is empty and thin because it has no real answers to life's most profound questions (See Without God in our Hall of Fame).

Moreover, Aronson's task of finding the existential silver lining of atheism has been made exceedingly more difficult by the fact that so many thoughtful atheists have so clearly and emphatically articulated the meaninglessness and absurdity of life without God. To conclude that such a life leads one anywhere but to nihilism requires a willful leap of blind faith and escapism.

Consider, for instance, the lament of some prominent 20th century figures:

  • Life is a short day's journey from nothingness to nothingness. - Ernst Hemmingway
  • All we are is dust in the wind. - Kansas
  • The only absolute knowledge attainable by man is that life is meaningless. - Woody Allen (Hannah and Her Sisters)
  • If God is dead everything is permitted. - Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Brothers Karamazov)
  • God is empty and so am I - Smashing Pumpkins (Zero)
  • In all of our searching the only thing we've found that makes the emptiness bearable is each other. - from Contact
  • Ethics is just an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. - E. O. Wilson and Michael Ruse
  • The only plausible answer to the problem of the meaning of life is to live, to be alive and to leave more life. - Theodosius Dobzhansky
  • Our only significance lies in the fact that we can look out on the universe and it can't look back on us. - Will Durant
  • Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear - and these are basically Darwin's views. There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death....There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will.... Will Provine
  • The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference. Richard Dawkins
  • Life has no meaning the moment you lose the illusion of being eternal. Jean Paul Sartre
  • For anyone who is alone, without God and without a master, the weight of days is dreadful. Albert Camus
  • Life is an unpleasant interruption of nothingness. - Clarence Darrow
  • Man knows ... that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity out of which he emerged only by chance. - Jacques Monod
  • Neither the existence of the individual nor that of humanity has any purpose. - Bernard Rensch
  • If death ends all, if I have neither to hope for good nor to fear evil, I must ask myself what am I here for....Now the answer is plain, but so unpalatable that most will not face it. There is no meaning for life, and [thus] life has no meaning." Somerset Maugham (The Summing Up)
  • I was thinking...that here we are eating and drinking, to preserve our precious existence, and that there's nothing, nothing, absolutely no reason for existing. Jean Paul Sartre (Nausea)
  • There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it. Voldemort

The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre once wrote a play about hell titled No Exit in which people were trapped together in a room forever with no way out. Atheism might be thought of the same way. There's no exit from it's consequences. To accept the premise that God is not is to accept the conclusion that there's nothing about life that can support meaning, morality, justice, dignity, hope, or even reason. We are forlorn, lost in the cosmos, as Walker Percy put it, and books like Aronson's, though they raise important questions, offer answers which are little more than whistling past the graveyard.


Do Something, <i>Anything</i>

The Democrats "stimulus" bill is, in large part, a spending and welfare bill being foisted on the American people under cover of fear and disingenuousness. Even Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid acknowledged that only 58% of the bill is geared to creating jobs, and he was probably exaggerating. That three Republican senators - Arlen Specter, Olympia Snowe, and Susan Collins - would go along with this charade is inexplicable, at least to one who wants to give his elected representatives the benefit of the doubt that they have good reasons for voting the way they do.

Jonah Goldberg, in a biting essay at National Review makes the case that these three "centrists" could not have had any idea what they were doing when they voted for the bill.

Goldberg describes a political centrist this way:

For certain Beltway centrists, the highest principle is to prove that you are attached to no principle. Rather, your duty is to split the difference between the "ideologues." If one side says we need a 1,000-foot bridge to span a canyon, and the other side says we don't need a bridge at all, the centrists will fight for a bridge that goes 500 feet and no farther, then pat themselves on the back.

Senator Specter's argument (The other two, as far as I know didn't even bother to defend their recklessness) went something like this: The economy is in bad shape. Something must be done. Therefore, we must pass this bill. Of course, he has little idea what's in the bill since no one really had much chance to study its 1000+ pages before the vote, but the President says we need it, the President invited Senator Specter to the White House to watch the Super Bowl, so, by golly, let's pass this thing.

Goldberg calls Specter a living antonym for the word "Churchillian." Jonah's at his best in this essay. Give it a read.