I tell my students that it is a good thing to have a couple of favorite heretics. Some false perspectives are illuminating, and it can be healthy for [people] who love ideas to be challenged regularly by perspectives that we can disagree with in productive ways.I'm reminded in reading this of Julian Barnes' opening sentence in Nothing to Be Frightened of, his book on death and dying. Barnes says, "I don't believe in God, but I miss him." I think it's true that our modern age has been eager to dispense with God, but having done so it realizes, if only vaguely, that it has lost far more than it thought it was giving up. Modernity, it seems, is like a rebellious child who runs away from home only to get lost in a spooky forest where all sorts of scary apparitions beset her and cause her to yearn for the home she left but feels she cannot return to.
For a while, especially when I was first learning the ropes in Anglo-American analytic philosophy, Bertrand Russell was one of my special favorite heretics. In his technical philosophical work in epistemology and logic, he changed his mind a lot, and showed no embarrassment about doing so. I admired that in him. But what I enjoyed even more were his popular writings, especially about religious matters.
Russell was boldly anti-religious. He saw no room for any substantive religious ideas in formulating an ethical perspective, or in investing oneself in social-political causes. But there were moments in his writings when he expressed a sense that to abandon religion is to lose something important—even if he was not clear exactly about what the loss amounted to.
One of my favorite Russell passages in this regard occurs in the context of some autobiographical reflections. As a gift for him on his twelfth birthday, he recounted, his grandmother gave him a Bible, which he still possessed. In the flyleaf she had written a couple of her favorite biblical texts: “Thou shalt not follow a multitude to do evil,” and “Be strong, and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be Thou dismayed. For the Lord Thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest.” Then Russell makes this remarkable confession: “These texts have profoundly influenced my life, and still seemed to retain some meaning after I had ceased to believe in God.”
I find something admirable in that confession. It expresses a sense of loss, along with a corresponding sense of moral loneliness. Being one’s own autonomous moral legislator can be a lonely experience.
Mouw goes on:
It is for similar reasons that I have come to count as my truly favorite heretics the existentialist thinkers, especially Nietzsche and Sartre. Nietzsche, for example, expressed that sense of moral solitude with a deeper sense of loss than we see in Russell. In The Will to Power he laments that to be a person of “destiny” is to join “a whole species of heroic bearers of burdens.” It is to join a company of “men of incomprehensible loneliness.”Nietzsche was an atheist but unlike many among the contemporary sort of unbelievers, he was deeply troubled by the implications of the "death of God." It was in his mind at once both liberating and catastrophic. Sartre held similar opinions. He felt the death of God, which he embraced, drained life of meaning and made it all a Sisyphean exercise in absurdity.
Part of my fondness for Nietzsche and Sartre is that together we share some common philosophical dislikes, such as the Richard Dawkins kind of “happy atheism.” My favorite existentialist heretics get directly to the heart of the matter in their depictions of the human condition. The non-existence of God, they say, means that there is no sovereign divine Will that called the universe into being.
And since an objectively ordered reality—a cosmos—would require a divine “let there be” to create and sustain it, reality is, properly understood, a chaos. With no supreme Creator available, it is up to us to make the best of it as finite creators of our worlds of meaning.
In any case, Mouw makes an important point, I think, when he says it's good to have a couple of favorite heretics. He's right in saying that it's good to interact with ideas that run contrary to one's own beliefs. For some reason people on both sides of the divides that characterize our public discourse - Christianity/atheism, conservative/liberal, pro-life/pro-choice, etc. - seem afraid to expose themselves to ideas presented by the other side. It's as if we fear that if we read their books and listen to their arguments we'll be seduced by them.
This is an empty fear, however. If what people who hold opinions at odds with our own say is true then by listening to them we benefit from the exposure to the truth, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and if what they say is false, then we are confirmed in the truth of our own opinion by pointing out their errors to ourselves and others. Both of these outcomes are good. The only bad outcome would be if what our antagonists say is false, but we are nevertheless seduced into accepting it.
The remedy for this, though, is not to avoid contact with those ideas, but rather to make sure that we know as much as we can about the things we believe so that we're better able to discern the difference between good and bad arguments, true and false claims. That, in fact, is one thing we should get from a college education.