Printer friendly version

October 13, 2004

There's the Rub

Even rereading it in a blog post from 2002, I didn't think to mention the following perspective from Richard Dawkins, because it seemed relatively commonplace:

The word atheism sounds negative; let me call it rationalism. It is a rational view of the world where you stand up proudly, in your humanity, you look life straight in the face, you look the universe straight in the face, you do your level best to understand it, to understand why you exist, what the universe is about, you recognise that when you die that's it, and therefore life is very, very precious and you devote your life to making the world a better place, to leading a good life so when you die you can say to yourself I have led a good life. Now, that seems to me to be a worthwhile goal to put in place of the medieval superstition which is religion.

My response to such suggestions has generally been that it may be workable for a couple of generations — generations adequately inculcated with a subconscious sense of traditional morality. But over time, the cultural consciousness would increasingly realize that the concepts of a "better place" and a "good life" are ultimately malleable. Somehow the potential for countless moments of selfish indulgence is supposed to be a reasonable sacrifice for a single — final — moment of arbitrary contentment?

Now, I'm thinking that it may be too generous an appraisal to give such a moral foundation "a couple of generations" of viability. My reassessment comes in reaction to a Corner discussion (starting here that Mark Steyn sparked with his now-infamous column about facing grisly death defiantly. Wrote John Derbyshire:

Philip Larkin, who was an atheist, said: "...Being brave / Lets no one off the grave. / Death is no different whined at than withstood." In an age like this, when most people in the Western world don't any longer believe in life after death, that has strong appeal. Why not go out whining and pleading? What difference does it make, when all's said and done? My guess is that a majority of Westerners feel that way in their hearts; and a HUGE majority of those who are paid to form our opinions -- teachers, media folk -- do.

My guess is that Derb is correct that this is a common feeling, although perhaps not a majority one. It manifests, too, in the quiet desperation to maintain a semblance of youth and to chase centuries-long life as race dogs chase a mechanical bunny. But look at what we've got side by side: the philosophical position that one must live one's life with reference to its final moments, and the practical realization that, if life's all, then those final moments are to be cheaply traded for a meager chance to extend it.

When Nick Berg had his life torn from him in Iraq, I gave some thought to what I might do — at least what I'd plan to do — were I to find myself sitting before a camera, with Bronze Age madmen chanting behind me. Steyn suggests offering disinformation. I've decided that I'd declare as much of the Nicene Creed as I could push through my lips, and I suspect the effort wouldn't leave much capacity to pat myself on the back for having lived a "good life."

Posted by Justin Katz at October 13, 2004 8:12 PM

One other thing strikes me (sorry). How do we go from the nihilistic point that death is final and absolute, to the notion that life is therefore precious? No, if the sun will simply explode and the quality of our lives will never make any real difference, I could only conclude from this that life is very, very meaningless. Making the world a better place? Is that even possible if the world is only atoms?

I follow your practical point, Justin, but I think the more serious problem with the strict materialist perspective is that all its vaunted ballyhoo about making the world "better" while we're here is actually quite silly if we accept the premise. A "better" world, to the materialist, is at bottom one in which the atoms in our brain behave in a different way, one which we find more pleasing. Yippee. It seems that if the Good is merely whatever evolution has programmed us to think it is, then we ought to feel very foolish indeed for behaving as though it matters. After all, we might have been programmed to think it something totally different. Again, the sun will just explode, the human race will be gone, unmourned by the yawning blackness of the universe, and whether we called our way of life good or bad will be a piece of trivia. In the face of such an outlook, how seriously can we devote ourselves to "making a difference"--when we admit from the start that making any real lasting difference is literally impossible? I'm reminded of the pragmatists' dictum that a difference that doesn't make a difference isn't really a difference.

Posted by: Sage at October 13, 2004 9:16 PM

When I look at some comment like that from somebody of Dawkins' persuasion, I can't help but think the implied "for me" is left off the end of "making the world a better place", and I can't help but think that he says life is precious to himself because he fears death for reasons he will not honestly admit even to himself. In the back of his mind, he's got to be wondering if anybody will give a second thought to the abstract that was his life. Maybe he believes that it is meaningless to give any thought to a dead person since once they die, that's it. I also have to wonder why Dawkins would feel uncomfortable with the word atheism. There is probably something Dawkins worships, although he may not recognize that it has taken God's rightful place in his heart. Realistic rationalism would instead lead him to the conclusion that he would be better off believing in God. After all, if you believe in God when there isn't one, nothing bad will happen to you when you die. On the other hand, if you don't believe in God and there happens to be one, then you're going to be in a lot more hurt when he's angry at your unbelief. The odds couldn't stack more against atheism than that without divine intervention.

Posted by: smmtheory at October 14, 2004 12:56 AM

Sorry Richard. Stick with "atheism", we'll jointly own "rationalism". I'm not gonna let you simply declare belief in God "irrationalism" and "let's move on".

Where does directionless evolution say what is "better" and how a "life" is good? Are you appealing to some higher authority which makes it self-evident that there is a shared abstraction called "better" and "good" among your readers?

Posted by: Patrick Sweeney at October 14, 2004 2:53 PM

It's amazing how intellectually shallow this view is, yet it is shared by many outstanding scientists. It's essentially a negative view - it's all about rejecting traditional religion. The irony is right in front of their faces, but they ignore it: life is meaningless, but we should place rationality above all else (where did the rationality come from?); it is irrational to believe in God, but rational to strive to make the world a better place even though life is meaningless. Despite their intellectual scientific acheivements, their rejection of God makes them just as foolish as those people who believe they have been abducted by aliens.

As Mark Steyn said in his obituary of Francis Crick, "...Dr Crick eventually arrived at the logical end: you can only unmask the mystery of humanity by denying our humanity."

Posted by: Mike S. at October 14, 2004 4:20 PM

Certainly most athiests do not act rationally based upon their world view. If, as you say, this is it, the only rational way to live is get "take all you can, give nothing back". Or, there are only two rational rules to live by under such a world view - what a man can do, and what a man can't do. (You can see I've watched Pirates of the Carribean a few too any times). What one "ought" to do, betterment of others, etc. is completely meaningless and irrational. Yet, you find few, if any, avowed atheists actually living their lives this way. I can't recall who pointed it out, but atheism is the true opiate of the masses - imagine a life of total abandon with absolutely no eternal consequences to pay.

Posted by: c matt at October 15, 2004 3:07 PM