Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Nov/09

1

The necessity of the non-answer

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Clark of Mormon Metaphysics points to this screed by Peter Lawler over at Postmodern Conservative by way of praising Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. Lawler asserts:

… It begins as a criticism of the naive stupidity of the “new atheists” such as Hitchens, Dawkins, and Dennett from the perspective of the older atheist Nietzsche. The new atheists criticize religion (or basically Christianity) from an anti-cruelty, pro-dignity, pro-rights, pro-enlightenment perspective. They don’t realize that their humane values are, in fact, parasitic on Christianity and make no sense outside the Christian insight–completely unsupported by modern or Darwinian science–concerning the uniqueness and irreplacability of every human person. Nietzsche was right that secular Christianity or Christianity without Christ is unsustainable, and that the sentimental preferences of the new atheists are no more than that.

I have been blogging for 7 years now, and the whole time I have made it clear that I am an atheist. My readers who are orthodox Christians have often asserted that Nietzsche is the only true consistent and honest atheist, that only his atheism faces the plain facts of existence in a world without God, and that I should man up. Though the author of Atheist Delusions is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher, Lawler reports that his criticism of the New Atheists starts from a Nietzschian perspective. All I have to say is that homey don’t play that game. Friedrich Nietzsche was the product of a line of Lutherans pastors, so it should not surprise that his atheism engages so directly, and inverts so forcefully, the thrust of Christianity. As philosophy goes much of what Nietzsche had to say was captivating, but then I also find science fiction captivating, as well as some portions of the Bible.

The atheism of Nietzsche plays on the terms of Christianity, and that is why Christians often admire his work. It is entirely intelligible to them insofar as it operates in the same universe of morals, albeit characterized by inversions. So naturally Christians castigate atheists who are not Nietzschians, such a stance creates much greater difficulty in fashioning rhetorical thrusts. Too many presuppositions simply are not aligned. Where Lawler and many others declare that Christianity is a necessary precondition of humane values, I simply assert that humane values, or more accurately the values we hold today, used Christianity, as well as other religions and philosophies, as cultural vessels. Morality and ethics existed prior to religion, and the emergence of “Higher Religions” which fused a moral sense with supernatural intuitions was a process which occurred in the light of history. It was no miracle, and may even have been inevitable once humans reached a particular level of organization.

Of course this sort of argument leaves many loose ends hanging. So be it. Those who believe that they have the Ultimate answer do not, and yet we continue to muddle on.

74 comments

  • Aaron · November 4, 2009 at 12:47 am

    Clark :

    Clark

    I just reread 5 of Beyond Good and Evil. (I have to admit my Nietzsche is rusty) After reading it I think your just completely off Aaron about the New Atheists. The New Atheists aren’t in the least trying to make prevailing morality law. I’m no atheist but this line of reasoning just seems completely off. I doubt most New Atheists have considered the question of ethics in depth. But I’d lay a pretty good bet that most are more than willing to criticize prevailing morality.

    It’s refreshing to see someone actually taking the trouble to understand the argument. I think the morality of Razib or Heather is a lot closer to prevailing Christian morality than it is to Nazi morality or Muslim morality or Amazonian headhunter morality, all of which instantiate the Golden Rule by the way. If you don’t associate these humanists with the “prevalent morality”, whatever that is, then which actual morality, either currently or historically existing, do you think they’re closest to? For instance, would they allow infanticide as in pagan Rome? I think Heather Mac Donald supports what she calls “bourgeois morality”, which I take to be the dominant morality in America circa 1950 – much closer to the prevalent American morality than to the morality of ancient Rome or whatever.

    Nietzsche is probably right that the way to see all this is to carefully study different moralities descriptively and comparatively.

  • Aaron · November 4, 2009 at 12:58 am

    Miles White :

    Miles White

    “morality” which you’re assuming as a given in your argument?

    I’m an Atheist, I don’t believe in morality, and I don’t kill people; Explain me.

    That’s easy: You haven’t bothered trying to understand the discussion. No one is suggesting that if you “don’t believe in morality” then you’ll kill people. What Nietzsche claims, for instance in the famous “God is dead” passage, is that you as an atheist don’t understand the extent to which the morality you follow (whether or not you believe in it) is a specifically Christian morality. The remainder of your post just proves his point.

  • kurt9 · November 4, 2009 at 9:48 am

    Aaron :

    Aaron

    Miles White :
    Miles White

    “morality” which you’re assuming as a given in your argument?

    I’m an Atheist, I don’t believe in morality, and I don’t kill people; Explain me.

    That’s easy: You haven’t bothered trying to understand the discussion. No one is suggesting that if you “don’t believe in morality” then you’ll kill people. What Nietzsche claims, for instance in the famous “God is dead” passage, is that you as an atheist don’t understand the extent to which the morality you follow (whether or not you believe in it) is a specifically Christian morality. The remainder of your post just proves his point.

    If the Christian morality you are referring to is the so-called “Golden Rule”, I can accept this argument. The golden rule is essentially a contractual concept of morality, which is what I believe in. However, it seems that many Christian right people feel that the golden rule alone is not sufficient as a standard of morality and that further restrictions on individual liberty are necessary. I see no reason to accept this. My standard of morality is very simple. I deal with others on the basis of mutual respect and rational self-interest. I see no reason to accept any other standard of morality.

    Sin consists of causing intentional harm to others. Any other concept of sin is rubbish.

  • Kevembuangga · November 4, 2009 at 11:22 am

    Sin consists of causing intentional harm to others. Any other concept of sin is rubbish.

    Ahem… Are you sure you should have used the word “sin” in this reply?

  • Caledonian · November 4, 2009 at 11:41 am

    There’s nothing contractual about the Golden Rule. It’s superficially about empathy and actually about assuming that other people are “like you”. If they’re not “like you”, then the Golden Rule doesn’t work so well if the people applying it don’t think deeply about others.

    Causing intentional harm to others is often a necessity and frequently desirable, and any concept of error or ‘sin’ that categorically tars intentional harm is not worth further consideration.

  • Clark · November 4, 2009 at 11:48 am

    If you don’t associate these humanists with the “prevalent morality”, whatever that is, then which actual morality, either currently or historically existing, do you think they’re closest to?

    But you’re falling into the very trap Nietzsche is criticizing. That’s why I think the New Atheists are closer to Leiter’s version of N. Morality and ethics is a work in progress. I’m sure there are some that are Utilitarians. Some might even be Kantians of a sort. (It’s an error to assume homogeny here) But I suspect most are just pragmatic. As a pragmatist (of the strong sort) myself I don’t see that as a problem.

  • kurt9 · November 4, 2009 at 4:37 pm

    I don’t care if Christians think my atheism is inconsistent. I don’t care what they think of me at all. If they have a problem with me, its their problem, not mine.

    As for morality, I deal with others on the basis of mutual respect and rational self-interest. Any other standard of morality is complete rubbish to me.

  • Miles White · November 4, 2009 at 6:22 pm

    That’s easy: You haven’t bothered trying to understand the discussion. No one is suggesting that if you “don’t believe in morality” then you’ll kill people. What Nietzsche claims, for instance in the famous “God is dead” passage, is that you as an atheist don’t understand the extent to which the morality you follow (whether or not you believe in it) is a specifically Christian morality. The remainder of your post just proves his point.

    My point is, wether or not what I believe in derives from Christianity, it still doesn’t make Christianity true. People can do great things from faulty premises. So the whole purpose for bringing up the argument is rather moot.

  • John · November 4, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    My point is, wether or not what I believe in derives from Christianity, it still doesn’t make Christianity true.

    Bingo. The historical argument of to what extent Western thought came from Christianity (and, for the record, I think that the West impacted Christianity more than Christianity impacted the West) is an interesting one, but it has no impact whatsoever on whether or not either Christianity or Western morality is true. To whatever extent I owe Christianity my moral views, my reply is, “Thanks, but I don’t need you anymore”. My parents are not religious, and neither am I. If my kids end up being non-religious, and still moral, that is three generations of nonbelievers. How many generations constitutes proof that religion, having done its historical duty for the development of civilization, is no longer needed, just like the bow and arrow or the horse buggy?

    John, I’d have thought the obvious answer isn’t libertarianism but democracy where we vote on ethics.

    Here, we disagree because sometimes I don’t agree with the majority. I don’t recognize the right of the majority to interfere with my life however it sees fit.

  • Thursday · November 4, 2009 at 8:20 pm

    my reply is, “Thanks, but I don’t need you anymore”.

    You’re confused. The issue isn’t historical. It is whether the morality common among secular Western people makes any sense without Christian premises.

  • John · November 4, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    It is whether the morality common among secular Western people makes any sense without Christian premises.

    Forgive me. To me the answer to this question is so obviously “yes” that I just assumed that people were arguing about history.

    Some of the premises of secular Western people include:
    People have the right to free speech and press. (The Enlightenment)
    There should be one set of laws that apply to everyone (Hammurabi and the Romans)
    People should have the right to own property (antiquity)
    Slavery is wrong (the 19th century)
    The proper way to make judgments is with reasoned arguments (the Greeks)
    ect…

    I’m hard pressed to see any Christian premises on the list. Most of the premises of Western philosophy either predate Christianity or came far after Christianity began.

    My questions are “What specifically are the Christian premises that underlie Western thought?”, and more importantly, “Can Christianity PROVE these premises to be true, or at least do a better job than Plato, Kant, Smith, ect.?”

  • kurt9 · November 4, 2009 at 9:57 pm

    No religion can be proven to be true because, in reality, they are all frauds. Objective reality is testable. Religion, on the other hand, is not testable. It is not possible to independently “invent” Christian theology and concept without having any prior exposure to the religion. It is not empirically derivable. This is why this kind of discussion about religion and morality is completely nonsensical to me. Even worse are those deluded enough to think that their religion and their god has some sort of jurisdiction over me and my freedom of action. This notion is quite offensive to me.

  • Kevembuangga · November 4, 2009 at 10:47 pm


    Thursday
    :

    You’re confused. The issue isn’t historical. It is whether the morality common among secular Western people makes any sense without Christian premises.

    Does chemistry makes any sense without Alchemy premises?

    Confused may be?

  • Thursday · November 4, 2009 at 11:56 pm

    Some of the premises of secular Western people include

    Those are conclusions not premises.

    Does chemistry makes any sense without Alchemy premises?

    False analogy.

    Objective reality is testable.

    That the only things that are real are the things that are testable is an assumption. There are reasonable objections to religion, but that one isn’t one of them.

  • Aaron · November 5, 2009 at 1:36 am

    @Clark
    Clark, could you elaborate on how I’m making the same mistake that Nietzsche is criticizing? That sounds interesting, but I still don’t see it. Just to clarify: when I asked what morality Razib and Heather are closest to if not ours, I did mean morality and not moral philosophy. That is, a real, socially-embodied morality: Germany in 1935, Rome in AD 100, Afghanistan today, etc.

    My prooftext, again, is BGE 186, where Nietzsche talks about developing a “typology of moralities” (not of moral philosophies) before “giving a basis to morality”. He accuses Enlightenment philosophers (and, by implication, Razib and Heather) of merely re-expressing their faith in “prevailing morality”. So, that’s the context of my question. Am I still making the same mistake that Nietzsche criticized? How so?

    I haven’t read Leiter, only some interviews and blog comments. In an interview he said some stuff that seemed reasonable and some stuff that seemed clearly wrong. If I remember correctly, he denied that Nietzsche said the essence of the world is will to power. Or something like that, I don’t remember; Leiter’s obviously a smart guy, and if he said something that seemed absurd then it was probably my own mistake or misunderstanding.

  • Kevembuangga · November 5, 2009 at 3:26 am


    Thursday
    :

    Does chemistry makes any sense without Alchemy premises?

    False analogy.

    Saying so isn’t a refutation, this is just as arbitrary as your own assertion, this is my point.

    Objective reality is testable.

    That the only things that are real are the things that are testable is an assumption. There are reasonable objections to religion, but that one isn’t one of them.

    Nothing wrong with the Flying Spaghetti Monster then?

  • kurt9 · November 5, 2009 at 12:38 pm

    Thursday :

    Thursday

    Objective reality is testable.
    That the only things that are real are the things that are testable is an assumption.

    This is insane. Testability is the very definition of reality.

    I could start a new religion and claim that it is the only “correct” religion and that all others are false. If I was charismatic enough and could get it to grow over time, who is to say that the claims of my religion are any less relevant than those, say, of Christianity or Islam. Without testability, there is no basis of claim verification.

  • Caledonian · November 5, 2009 at 12:44 pm

    Thursday :


    That the only things that are real are the things that are testable is an assumption. There are reasonable objections to religion, but that one isn’t one of them.

    The only things that are real are those that interact. That’s what “real” means. And that which interacts can theoretically be tested, even if we lack the capacity to do so in practice.

  • Clark · November 5, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Actually I think you are confusing “reality” with “actuality.” While for some movements (nominalism) they are the same there are plenty who separate them. For an example consider structures. Structures don’t interact, things interact. But structures are seen by many to be real.

    The most famous American to make this distinction was C. S. Peirce who founded the pragmatism movement (later changing the name of his form to pragmaticism to distinguish it from James and others forms of pragmatism). To Peirce anything not dependent upon any finite set of minds for its nature is real. Thus Sherlock Holmes isn’t real but the information about Sherlock Holmes is independent of the actual material making up Sherlock Holmes books. For Peirce signs are thus real and are actually the most important constituent of reality. Thus his development of semiotics as a science.

  • Miles White · November 5, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    The only things that are real are those that interact. That’s what “real” means. And that which interacts can theoretically be tested, even if we lack the capacity to do so in practice.

    From Oxfards dictionary: actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed

    Even by your definition; When was the last time you interacted with God?

    Nietzche accused Enlightenment philosophers of merely re-expressing their faith in “prevailing morality”.

    I see where you’re coming from. This is interesting, to draw a parallel between those who oppose faith from those that do when the former is still holding onto faith for another purpose. Still, I think the notion of bringing it up is rather self-defeating since the majority of scientists and atheists aren’t denouncing “faith” as a general abstraction, but rather as a religion or dogma.

  • Clark · November 5, 2009 at 1:41 pm

    Regarding Chemistry and Alchemy, while there clearly is a evolutionary relationship I don’t think they share premises. Certainly Boyle thought they could be kept separately.

    I think one has to keep separate the ideas which scientists use to generate a theory from the theory itself and its interpretation. By way of analogy Maxwell imagined gears everywhere to make sense of E&M and develop his laws. I think one should be careful taking that as a premise. I think it important in science (and elsewhere) not to confuse premises with the genealogy of ideas. Worse yet, not confuse the historic accident of how an idea happened to be generated with the conception that was the only way in all possible worlds in which those ideas could have arisen. Too often in arguments about ideas historic accident is taken as an essential component of ideas. (This is what leads some Christians to argue that Christianity was essential for ending slavery — clearly historically Christianity had a lot to do with it, but it’s debatable whether Christianity was essential for ending slavery)

  • Caledonian · November 6, 2009 at 9:42 am

    Actually I think you are confusing “reality” with “actuality.” While for some movements (nominalism) they are the same there are plenty who separate them. For an example consider structures. Structures don’t interact, things interact. But structures are seen by many to be real.

    Of course structures interact. They’re the only things that do. There are no things, strictly speaking.

    Thus Sherlock Holmes isn’t real but the information about Sherlock Holmes is independent of the actual material making up Sherlock Holmes books.

    Wrong on both counts. Of course Sherlock Holmes is real! He’s a real character, not a real person.

  • kurt9 · November 9, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    I think this argument about Nietzsche and the atheists is quite silly. Do these Christians making this argument think that they are going to have any influence on how the rest of us think? They are quite deluded if they think they do. I think they are whining and complaining because more and more people are abandoning their religion. Instead of asking us what we want and customizing their religion to fit our wants and desires, they browbeat us for quitting their religion. This is lousy salesmanship on their part and they deserve to see the death of their religion as a result.

  • Caledonian · November 10, 2009 at 7:05 am

    The purpose of their arguments is not to convince us. They argue to maintain their own ‘relevance’, and to reassure the followers that there really are reasons to hold the faith and that the impressive-sounding atheist arguments must have problems – else, why would the respected authorities be arguing with them?

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