Friday, October 28, 2011

Secularism and Its Discontents (Pt. II)

Yesterday we talked a little bit about portions of a New Yorker column by atheist James Woods who reviews a book of essays which strive to put a smiley face on contemporary secularism, the assumptions of which have led many moderns to a sense of quiet despair.

Today we rejoin Woods as he follows the regrettable example of so many of his fellow atheists who seek to prove that God is irrelevant to morality by reciting the inventory of allegedly bad moral behavior found in the Bible:
The Bible contains several examples of God and Jesus appearing to sanction what seems arbitrary or cruel conduct: the command that Abraham kill his son, the tormenting of Job (a game instigated by Satan, who seems quite chummy with the Lord), Jesus’ casual slaughter of the Gadarene pigs.
He continues on in this vein for some while, seemingly oblivious to the fact that none of what he cites from the Bible is at all pertinent to the question whether God is necessary for there to be such a thing as moral obligation in the first place. God is still the only sufficient ground of moral duty even if the Bible were to completely misrepresent Him. The stories Woods recounts may bear on the reliability of Holy Writ, but that's a totally different matter than the issue of the existence of a transcendent moral authority and the necessity of such an authority for moral obligation.

Woods next cites favorably a contribution to the argument by Bruce Robbins:
An acutely intelligent piece by the literary theorist and scholar Bruce Robbins attacks, in a different way, the idea that secularism implies meaninglessness or, at best, second-rate meaning....Secularism must find and create its own values, and these might be quite varied—for instance, “helping children with their homework or cooking good meals,” or “men campaigning to protect doctors from murderous antiabortion activists or Jews campaigning against Israeli settlements on the West Bank.”
This doesn't help either. What neither Robbins nor Woods seems to recognize is that these "values" are purely arbitrary. In a godless world, there is nothing to make these values right and contrary values wrong. What reason could we have, if we are just material beings - a "pack of neurons", as Francis Crick put it - with no hope of any accountability beyond the grave, what reason is there for not living solely for ourselves? What could possibly make the life of an arrant egoist morally wrong? It may differ from the life Mr. Robbins would live, but why should we esteem his life as the universal standard?

To press the point, if there is no God why would an Ernest Hemingway be wrong when he opines that "what's good is what you feel good after and what's bad is what you feel bad after"?

Philosopher Charles Taylor agrees with Robbins, however, and vigorously denies that our moral values are simply subjective and arbitrary preferences. He writes that:
It doesn’t follow ... that our attributions of value are merely arbitrary. We can argue about them rationally, and some of them can be said to be “strong evaluations” of an objective state of affairs. By a “strong evaluation,” Taylor means a judgment so powerful and wide that, when someone else is incapable of sharing it, this suggests some limitation or inadequacy on his or her part. When our neighbor doesn’t agree with us that murdering scores of people at an island camp in Norway is wrong, we do not shrug and say, “Chacun ses goĆ»ts”[ Each his own]. When Tolstoy calls Shakespeare a poor writer, it is a judgment that judges Tolstoy, and marks his eccentricity.
Unfortunately for Woods' thesis, Taylor's assertions do nothing to support the claim that morality is something other than an arbitrary convention - "an illusion", as philosopher Michael Ruse asserts, "fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate." Taylor's words distill to the claim that moral right and wrong are whatever the majority feels strongly about, but that's hardly convincing support for his belief that morals in a godless world aren't subjective and arbitrary. Indeed, it seems to lend support to the belief that they are.

In any event, Woods closes on a bit of a downer:
Thirty years ago, Thomas Nagel wrote a shrewd essay entitled “The Absurd,” in which he argued that, just as we can “step back from the purposes of individual life and doubt their point, we can step back also from the progress of human history, or of science, or the success of a society, or the kingdom, power, and glory of God, and put all these things into question in the same way.” Secularism can seem as meaningless as religion when such doubt strikes. Nagel went on to conclude, calmly, that we shouldn’t worry too much, because if, under the eye of eternity, nothing matters “then that doesn’t matter either, and we can approach our absurd lives with irony instead of heroism or despair.” This is impeccably logical, and impishly offers a kind of secular deconstruction of secularism, but it is fairly cold comfort in the middle of the night.
If nothing matters then it doesn't matter that nothing matters. So says Nagel. It seems to me, though, that any view of life that leads to the conclusion that nothing matters really should be resisted with all one's strength, and all the alternatives, especially those, like Christianity, which affirm that everything matters, should be given every chance to demonstrate their superiority and not just dismissed a priori.

Jesus Diaz

There are those on the left who sincerely dislike this country, but it's hard to find similar sentiment expressed on the right. At least it has been hard until now, but I suspect stories like this one might change that. It's hard to watch this and not think that our government is comprised of people who are either incredibly stupid or insidiously evil.
Perhaps there's more to this story than what we're being told, but unless that's so, and I have seen nothing yet to indicate that it is, it's hard to disagree with anything Beck says toward the end of this interview. I wish he would've mentioned the name of the judge and emphasized the name of the prosecutor. These people are an embarrassment and deserve public obloquy. They certainly make me embarrassed for my country.

Go here for more on this interview.