An Open Letter to my Friend, An Atheist

Dear Jeff,                                                                                                                                      05-24-2015

You have written this in regard to your view of Christianity, Atheism, Agnosticism, and in your view their respective capacities to Bertrand_Russellrespond to human suffering and existential day-to-day reality:

This facile Christianity leads to oppression, intolerance, and hate. At its best, of course, Christianity leads to humility. At their best, so, too, do agnosticism and atheism. If you don’t believe in God, you don’t have to worry about any mistaken belief that God is on your side in all your dealings with other people. If you don’t believe in an afterlife, it can become that much easier to focus on the here and now and become concerned for others’ suffering.[1]

Your reference to ‘facile Christianity’ goes back to an earlier reference that I made in regard to the style of evangelical Christianity that both you and myself grew up with in our shared experience at a private Christian junior high and high school. As we both matured and went our separate ways into the big world we both have similarly seen the problems with this ‘facile Christianity’ you reference and yet our responses to that have been fundamentally different; you an atheist and me an ever more committed and devout Christian and follower of the historical Jesus Christ and Way.

Let me now respond to your claims in turn. And my responses will be necessarily brief in order to cope with the constraints of the (online) medium we are working with, and the reality that if we were going to deal with each of the issues you have brought up in a critical way that we would have to at least write essay length responses in order to do justice to the depth associated with them (the issues).

Let me state right up front that what seems to be the underlying premise of your evaluation of Christianity’s, Atheism’s, and Agnosticism’s respective value has to do with a purely ethical, utilitarian, and consequentialist, if not existentialist outlook. In other words, you have apparently come to the conclusion that what matters is only the here and now; the immediate and observable reality of things and that moral/ethical value can be purely generated from within a closed system of human compassion and generosity toward their fellow man and woman (without appeal to someone ‘outside’ of this closed system typically known as God). But it is at this point that I believe your premise begins to break down; that a purely naturalist based ethic grounded upon natural law of cause and effect cannot furnish you with the kind of ethics and view of human dignity that you seem to believe it can. And so it is for this reason (among others) that I see your position as incoherent and inconsistent. Let me explain.

Jeff, bluntly, you seem to be assuming that there is some sort of universal normative value that should be globally present in just the same ways for the Atheist as is for the Christian; but I wonder why? As an Atheist (or Agnostic, but functional atheist) you believe that you can appeal to something beyond your own subjective and psychological experience? Why do you presume that there is something (of ethical import) that is not just true for you and your experience of the world, but that what you believe constitutes a human capacity to engage with the suffering’s of others should be true in the same way for everyone else (whether they be in the ‘best’ of Christianity, Atheism, or Agnosticism)? If you believe that we live in a closed system (universe), and that reality is determined to be what it is by a clockwork determinism of natural law of cause and effect, then how can you claim with any global force that things aren’t the way they are simply because that is how the universe has decided things should be? Friedrich Nietzsche bit the bullet when he wrote:

The modern scientific counterpart to belief in God is the belief in the universe as an organism: this disgusts me. This is to make what is quite rare and extremely derivative, the organic, which we perceive only on the surface of the earth, into something essential, universal, and eternal! This is still an anthropomorphizing of nature![2]

Why don’t you bite the bullet too? In other words, why do you pretend that you can identify moral values from within a closed system of reality? As a naturalist (which I assume you are given your comments on ‘real science’ in an earlier comment of yours) you cannot escape the way things are, you are captive to natural law, and thus you must conclude that the way things are are the way things ought to be; this is your only alternative for ‘oughtness’ in regard to ethics and human dignity in a world that can be reduced to materialism, chemical reactions in the human brain, and governed by a deterministic mechanical process of cause and effect. Émile Bréhier gets to the conclusion of your premise about things quite well when he writes:

Order in nature is but one rigorously necessary arrangement of its parts, founded on the essence of things; for example, the beautiful regularity of the seasons is not the effect of a divine plan but the result of gravitation.[3]

But if you believe this, if you believe that there is nothing external to us or the universe from whence personal value and human dignity can be derived, then how can you with any consistency make the assertion that Atheism and/or Agnosticism (functional atheism) has the ability to appeal to something that is external to all of humanity and outside of the closed system within which we live and move and have our being as human beings? I would submit that you cannot! It seems as if you want to function as if there is indeed someone external to the universe, in order to get your ethics, but then with your other hand you want to throw God away. This is petitio principi though, Jeff, or to think in a circle. You cannot claim a universal normative ethic for all of humanity and at the same time repudiate belief in a personal God who transcends the contingent universe (it is as if you want to have my cake, and eat it too).

Let me close this part of my response to you Jeff by referring to a theologian, and historian of ideas David Bentley Hart; he brings all that I have sketched above home, especially in regard to your claim that based upon your metaphysical materialism and/or naturalism that you can hold with any consistency that you as an Atheist (or Agnostic) have the resources that you think you do based upon the premises that you operate from (as a non-theist, and more pointedly, functional Atheist). He writes (at length):

What, however, we should never forget is where those larger notions of the moral good, to which even atheists can feel a devotion, come from, and this is no small matter. Compassion, pity, and charity, as we understand and cherish them, are not objects found in nature, like trees or butterflies or academic philosophers, but are historically contingent conventions of belief and practice, formed by cultural convictions that need never risen at all. Many societies have endured and indeed flourished quite well without them. It is laudable that Dennett is disposed (as I assume he is) to hate economic, civil, or judicial injustice, and that he believes we should not abandon our fellow human beings to poverty, tyranny, exploitation, or despair. Good manners, however, should oblige him and others like him to acknowledge that they are inheritors of a social conscience whose ethical grammar would have been very different had it not been shaped by Christianity’s moral premises: the ideals of justice for the oppressed the church took from Judaism, Christianity’s own special language of charity, its doctrine of God’s universal love, its exaltation of forgiveness over condemnation, and so on. And good sense should prompt them to acknowledge that absolutely nothing ensures that, once Christian beliefs have been finally and fully renounced, those values will not slowly dissolve, to be replaced by others that are coarser, colder, more pragmatic, and more “inhuman.” On this score, it would be foolish to feel especially sanguine; and there are good causes, as I shall discuss in the final part of this book, for apprehension. This one reason why the historical insight and intellectual honesty of Nietzsche were such precious things, and why their absence from so much contemporary antireligious polemic renders it so depressingly vapid.[4]

To the point then, Jeff. You want to claim something you cannot, at least not with consistency. You want to claim that you as an Atheist not only have the moral resources to respond to human suffering, but that you have a better intellectual platform from which to do that; better than the Christian theist does, who makes appeal to God. But as we have already glanced, you really cannot given the type of closed universe you live in; and you really cannot, least not with consistency, because the moral conventions you want to appeal to (not just linguistically or grammatically, but also metaphysically and conceptually at a material level) are inherited by you through the history of ideas most pointedly from the Christians (and the robust intellectual history I have pointed you to, and to which Hart refers and is representative of himself).

Jeff, this will only be part one, of at least two more parts in response to your claims about the equality of Atheism/Agnosticism with Christianity. Interestingly (at least from my perspective) I have taken a tact with you that I normally wouldn’t; I have appealed to some classical type of argumentation against your assertions. In my next responses to you I will shift gears a bit and offer a Christian alternative to things, especially in response to your claims about being able to respond to suffering in the ‘here-and-now’, and how you claim that the non-Christian atheist can respond better than the Christian. I will hopefully demonstrate why that simply cannot be the case; Hart’s quote should help you to understand one reason why that is. And the reductio ad absurdum that I tried to present in this response hopefully has also started to highlight why you cannot with any consistency make the claim that a naturalistic-Atheism has the capacity to respond to things ‘ethical’ in the same way, and in a better way than Christianity can; but I will develop this further in my next response.

Sincerely,

Bobby Grow

[1] Jeff, Facebook Thread accessed 05-24-2015.

[2] Friedrich Nietzsche, Wikiquote http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Friedrich_Nietzsche accessed 05-24-2015.

[3] Émile Bréhier, The History of Philosophy, trans. Wade Baskin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 5:129.

[4] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, 16.

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