Monday, 22 June 2015

The attractions of evil

Lindisfarne Priory

Does God exist? For an atheist the obvious answer is no while for a believer the equally obvious answer is yes. Arguments are pointless as there is no common ground on which one might be based, but an intractable problem for atheists is the transcendent nature of God.

For atheists God is an ideal they cannot borrow; a transcendent moral schema through which their secular world cannot be interpreted. Fair enough one might say. One might also say there are more gains than losses and perhaps there are but the losses are important.

The essential point seems to be the moral nature of what is lost as religious belief declines. God as an ideal is an open door to moral and social ideals. Corrupted at they are by human nature, they are nevertheless ideals which atheists are unable to replicate.

Some years ago Theodore Dalrymple had this to say in an interview.

One reason for the epidemic of self-destructiveness that has struck British, if not the whole of Western, society, is the avoidance of boredom. For people who have no transcendent purpose to their lives and cannot invent one through contributing to a cultural tradition (for example), in other words who have no religious belief and no intellectual interests to stimulate them, self-destruction and the creation of crises in their life is one way of warding off meaninglessness. I have noticed, for example, that women who frequent bad men - that is to say men who are obviously unreliable, drunken, drug-addicted, criminal, or violent, or all of them together, have often had experience of decent men who treat them well, with respect, and so forth: they are the ones with whom their relationships lasted the shortest time, because they were bored by decency. Without religion or culture (and here I mean high, or high-ish, culture) evil is very attractive. It is not boring

Atheists commonly have no transcendent purpose to their lives because there is nothing transcendent about atheism. Humanism is a pale imitation, a pallid reflection of the moral imperatives laid down by an omniscient and omnipotent creator.

Here again we can be distracted by the endless fallibility of human nature. The trouble is we atheists are still left with our lack of durable ideals, our inability to appeal to a transcendent authority vastly more permanent than ourselves. Equally important and damaging is that we have no ideals safely located beyond our reductionist methods of analysis. If it can be screwed we tend to screw it.

This has the unfortunate effect of leaving the gate open for fabricated social controls in the guise of political and ethical ideals. We don’t like uncertainty do we? We are prepared to make significant sacrifices if offered a more certain world and a more certain future. It doesn’t matter if the certainty on offer is a grossly obvious lie, it still tempts the unwary.

Neuroscientist Karl Friston thinks our brains are wired to minimise surprises. We want certainty – preferably now. This need for certainty creates a political market, a forum wherein purveyors of secular certainty tout their flaky wares to a populace hardwired to be gullible.

There seem to be two factors working together here. Firstly we have a problem in that a secular culture does not provide a transcendent moral schema, it provides laws and social prohibitions.

Secondly, a secular culture seems to offer a degree of spurious certainty. It claims to know more about the world than it actually does; claims to be more connected to the world than it actually is.

These two aspects of modern life are tending to promote a kind of rudderless moral drift which cannot be corrected and which Dalrymple so tellingly deplores. Unfortunately there seems to be no secular answer. Many atheists would argue that religious answers are no better or perhaps worse than having no transcendent answers at all and perhaps they often are. Yet a vital point is thereby missed in that secular societies seem to have only two long-term courses to steer.

Totalitarian domination of the weak by the strong.
Psychological conditioning of the weak by the strong.

Religious belief does not prevent either but neither does atheism.


Roger said...

Imagine a state of nature long long ago when humans were monkeys. I am pretty sure the weak were dominated by the strong long before the word or even the concept 'transcendent' arose. As society developed perhaps Ug asked the slightly smarter Eg 'what is that shiny thing in the sky' and religion/politics was born - and Eg got to be priest and Ug got to be subject. So don't ask questions, they caused the fall.

Henry Kaye said...

I suppose that I,too, am an atheist in that I don't believe in the religious images of a God. I find it hard to believe that all this "just happened" but I have long since accepted that I (and the rest of mankind) will never know. I do, however, recognise the contribution to our civilised existence of the moral philosophy generated by what I consider to be the two main religious bodies - Judaism and Christianity. It's easy to criticise the many illogical aspects of both religions (and I do) but they both provide the basis of our civilised existence. I therefore find it sad that there are such efforts today to attack that moral philosophy and replace it with what I can only refer to as a form of anarchy. I am sometimes accused of being resistant to change but I reply that I am only resistant to unwise change - or change for the sake of change.

Demetrius said...

I like the idea of humans being hard wired to be gullible. If so it would explain a lot.

Sackerson said...

Deep. "The best lack all conviction" etc.

A K Haart said...

Roger - I agree. Although Ug now knows what that shiny thing in the sky is, Eg has moved on to economics and climate change among many other seemingly endless options.

Henry - change is so unpredictable too. This isn't a blanket argument against it but as you say, change for the sake of change is pointless and likely to lead to unforeseen consequences.

Demetrius - it does explain a lot and it seems to be how we are made.

Sackers - indeed.

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Modern times in two lines.

Woodsy42 said...

Doeasn't your absolute dichotomy break down if you ask the question "What is God?" One could suggest that if we are the result of an inteligent process then by definition there is a God, even though that god would not be a supernatural all-seeing being.

graham wood said...

Woodsy. What a strange inversion of logic:
"One could suggest that if we are the result of an intelligent process then by definition there is a God, even though that god would not be a supernatural all-seeing being"

Atheists have only themselves to blame if they cannot "see" God for there is an abundance of evidence to support the historic claims of the Christian faith. Here are three.
1. The history of the Jewish nation and the supernatural intervention of God in it.
2. The book of nature which can be read by all - intelligent design presupposes an intelligent Designer who of necessity is super intelligent, as well as being a mathematician, Artist, and creator, just like any other creator, but on a cosmic scale.
3. The history of Jesus Christ, and in particular his resurrection from the dead.
Atheists still struggle to give an adequate explanation of all three.

A K Haart said...

Woodsy - would an atheist ask the question though? I would be much more inclined to focus on the behaviour of those who believe and those who don't together with the culture which belief engenders.

Graham - to my mind the problem is the lack of common ground rather than the arguments themselves. I see no evidence for the points you make yet to you the evidence is presumably overwhelming.

On the other hand, there seems to be much more potential for common ground in aspects of human knowledge, moral behaviour, political behaviour and culture.