Friday, March 22, 2013

Promote What?

I found myself in traffic the other day behind a car whose bumper stickers made for interesting reading at stop lights. The car was decorated with a half-dozen or so messages which in one way or another were critical of theistic belief. One declared, for instance, that "God = Imaginary Friend," and another informed the reader that "In the Beginning Man Created God," and so on.

As my eye meandered over the messages one incongruous slogan aroused my attention. It exhorted us to "Promote Morality." Promote morality? In a world where God is merely the creation of people who need imaginary friends why should one promote morality? In such a world what exactly is moral anyway? If there's no transcendent moral authority how can morality be anything more than a declaration of our own behavioral tastes, preferences, and prejudices? In such a world why would it be wrong to just live for oneself?

This is precisely the question that the protagonists in my novel In the Absence of God find themselves wrestling with throughout the story. Most people wish to insist that some acts are objectively wrong - not just distasteful - but wrong, but what does that mean? Why is anything wrong? Dostoyevsky says in The Brothers Karamazov that if God is dead nothing is wrong and the list of atheist philosophers who agree with him grows longer every year. Indeed, a controversy among atheist thinkers today is whether they should boldly acknowledge their amoralism or whether they should conceal it from a public which would think them all lunatics were they told the news.

So the fellow in the car ahead of me in the traffic is manifesting an anachronistic metaphysics. Like a character in Nietzsche's Thus Spake Zarathustra he hasn't yet heard the momentous tidings that if the antitheistic sentiments expressed on his bumper stickers are correct then the moral sentiment he displays on the "Promote Morality" sticker is nonsense.

I know one cannot expect philosophical profundity from bumper stickers, but one might at least expect coherence.

Atheists, it seems to me, must either embrace an amoralistic nihilism or reject atheism. What they can't do is declare there's no God but that we should promote "morality" anyway. To cling to the illusion that objective moral obligation is somehow independent of an objective moral authority is, after all, to make an imaginary friend of moral obligation.