Friday, August 23, 2013

Fateful Turning Point

I recently came a cross a passage from former Princeton philosopher W.T. Stace writing in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1948. It summarizes so well a theme I've frequently written about on Viewpoint that I thought I'd do a post on it. The theme to which I refer is the idea that if there is no God, life is ultimately meaningless and moral discourse is simply an expression of our personal tastes, nothing more.

Stace, who was himself a non-theist, put it this way:
The real turning point between the medieval age of faith and the modern age of unfaith came when scientists of the seventeenth century turned their backs upon what used to be called "final causes"... [belief in which] was not the invention of Christianity [but] was basic to the whole of Western civilization, whether in the ancient pagan world or in Christendom, from the time of Socrates to the rise of science in the seventeenth century.... They did this on the ground that inquiry into purposes is useless for what science aims at: namely, the prediction and control of events.

...The conception of purpose in the world was ignored and frowned upon. This, though silent and almost unnoticed, was the greatest revolution in human history, far outweighing in importance any of the political revolutions whose thunder has reverberated around the world....

The world, according to this new picture, is purposeless, senseless, meaningless. Nature is nothing but matter in motion. The motions of matter are governed, not by any purpose, but by blind forces and laws....[But] if the scheme of things is purposeless and meaningless, then the life of man is purposeless and meaningless too. Everything is futile, all effort is in the end worthless.

A man may, of course, still pursue disconnected ends, money, fame, art, science, and may gain pleasure from them. But his life is hollow at the center. Hence, the dissatisfied, disillusioned, restless spirit of modern man....Along with the ruin of the religious vision there went the ruin of moral principles and indeed of all values....

If our moral rules do not proceed from something outside us in the nature of the universe - whether we say it is God or simply the universe itself - then they must be our own inventions. Thus it came to be believed that moral rules must be merely an expression of our own likes and dislikes. But likes and dislikes are notoriously variable. What pleases one man, people, or culture, displeases another. Therefore, morals are wholly relative.
Stace is correct. If there is no God then life is a pointless absurdity and good and evil have no objective referent. An atheist, to be consistent, should embrace existential nihilism and give up lecturing the rest of us about right and wrong. Or, if he wishes to retain his belief that life is purposeful and that cruelty, slavery, ecological destruction, indifference to the plight of the poor, etc. are objectively wrong, he should repudiate his atheism. Atheism simply offers no grounds whatsoever for making any moral judgment.

To the extent that the non-theist seeks to have it both ways - which, of course, most of them do - he's acting irrationally.

Who's Most Racist?

The Wall Street journal reported recently on a Rasmussen Poll of racial attitudes among whites and blacks in the U.S. which came up with some interesting findings. Before discussing these I should note that I have concerns about the wording in the poll. The word "racism" isn't defined which I think is a major flaw, and I don't like that respondents were asked what "most whites/blacks" think since no one can really know what most people in a large group think, but having said that, let's look at what the WSJ reports:
There is a huge ideological difference on this topic. Among conservative Americans, 49% consider most blacks racist, and only 12% see most whites that way. Among liberal voters, 27% see most white Americans as racist, and 21% say the same about black Americans.

Among white adults generally, 10% think most white Americans are racist; 38% believe most blacks are racist, and 17% say most Hispanics are racist.
I wasn't surprised by this result, although I don't think it's fair to say that "most" blacks are racist. I do think it's fair, however, to say that most of the serious racism in this country today resides in the black community, which is a different claim. What did surprise me, however, as it did the writers at the WSJ, was this stat:
Among black Americans, 31% think most blacks are racist, while 24% consider most whites racist and 15% view most Hispanics that way.
In other words, it's the majority view in the black community that there's more racism there than there is in the white community. Here's what the WSJ said about this:
But the results for blacks are a big surprise. Blacks are more likely (by 7 percentage points) to think most blacks are racist than to think most whites are. Moreover, they are 11 points likelier than liberals (regardless of race) to think most blacks are racist, and 9 points likelier than Democrats. And blacks are 3 points less likely than liberals to think most whites are racist.
Their conclusion is, in my opinion, exactly right:
All of which suggests that the people likeliest to believe most whites are racist and most blacks are not are those who are both liberal and white. Which reinforces a point we've made often in this column: that a lot of what drives the futile debate over race in America is white liberals' psychological need to feel morally superior to other whites.
I'm not a psychologist and am only offering my hunch on this, but I think there's truth in what the WSJ concludes. Much (certainly not all) of the moral posturing, whether about race, immigration, education, environment, war, or whatever, that we find among those on the left is animated not by logic, reason, or experience but rather by a deep-seated need to reinforce their feeling of moral superiority over other whites. It's the same need that causes some liberals, particularly in the academy, to affirm their intellectual superiority by haughtily deriding the "superstitions," religious or political, of other whites.

On the other hand, the patronizing, condescending manner in which they often treat blacks is evidence that they already feel superior to them, of course, although they'd never admit it.