On his Dangerous Idea blog Victor Reppert refers to a 2007 article by Washington Post writer Michael Gerson: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/12/AR2007071201620.html
I did not see this article at the time, and my reason for commenting on it now is that the arguments it gives are ones we have heard many times and ones that will be heard again ad nauseam. Though hackneyed in the extreme, these arguments need to be addressed again and again, and their fallacies must be pointed out for the umpteenth (actually, umpthousandth) time. Why squash bad arguments repeatedly, knowing that no matter how thoroughly you do it, they will soon pop up again, sometimes in slightly disguised garb? Because canards are like weeds. You cannot eradicate them, but you can, by diligent weeding, control the damage they do. Another reason for paying attention to these arguments is that, really, they are almost certainly convictions that motivate even some of the most sophisticated theists. If theistic philosophers were compelled to admit that the whole program of natural theology is a sham, and all of its arguments worthless, it is a good bet that their faith would not budge an iota. The reason is not that they are unreasonable or deceptive people, rather, the reasons they give in the philosophical journals—modal ontological arguments, Kalaam arguments, etc.—are not their real, personal reasons for belief. I think Gerson articulates some of their real reasons.
Gerson is reacting against the “new atheist” books that were high on the bestseller lists when he was writing. The “new atheists” were often chided, accused of boorish tones and disdainful attitudes towards believers. Yet, when I read something like Gerson’s essay, I can’t help feeling like Billy Jack in that godawful movie when the goons dusted his little Native American friend with flour: “I try very hard to control my temper, but when I see something like this, I JUST GO BERSERK!” Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins may have been disdainful, but when I hear the smug, sanctimonious, self-satisfaction with which Gerson delivers his platitudinous polemic, well, I try very hard to control my temper…
“So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.
Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma.”
Hmmmm (still controlling). Well, maybe it might be good to look and see what some philosophers have actually said before too quickly making such sweeping pronouncements. Consider Aristotle. Aristotle is not an atheist. He has a sort of God. His God is the Unmoved Mover, the ultimate reason for the eternal movement of the heavenly spheres. Aristotle’s God thinks eternally on thinking; he has no thoughts to spare for the likes of us. Aristotle’s God provides no basis or motivation for morality, and hence Aristotle’s ethic is entirely secular and naturalistic, an ethic quite consistent with atheism. Why be good? Aristotle says that you should be good because only by practicing virtue can you achieve happiness. This sounds like a shallow answer, but the appearance of superficiality is not due to Aristotle, but to the extreme degree to which our culture has degraded and debased the notion of “happiness.” Consumer culture has equated happiness with beautiful 22 year olds with 1% body fat enjoying an endless supply of consumer goods and pleasurable sensations. Hence, we tend to regard people as happy who are, in fact, miserable, worthless, fools.
Aristotle’s word is eudaimonia, which is not well translated by “happiness,” but better approximated as “flourishing,” or “well being,” or “self fulfillment.” Virtue (“arête”) is better translated as “excellence.” You achieve excellence as a human being by practicing the intellectual and moral virutes, and only those who attain such excellence can experience the full richness and fulfillment hat it is possible for a human creature to enjoy. Eudaimonia is the condition in which ALL of our deepest needs are met and we are fully functional as the type of beings nature has adapted us to be: Rational creatures living in society with other rational creatures. I shall not summarize the entirety of the Nicomachean Ethics here, but I would assign it for reading by Mr. Gerson and all others inclined to make such facile and fatuous pronouncements. (Aristotle, BTW, is, of course, not the only philosopher who gives reasons to be moral that do not appeal to God)
Gerson also says:
“Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.”
As discussed in older posts, William Lane Craig says much the same thing in places, and my reply to Gerson is the same as to Craig: Anyone who seriously worries about the sun growing dim and cold in billions of years does not need a God. He needs a life. Love, harmony, and sympathy are things we humans can give to each other. God has nothing to do with it. Indeed, God clearly does not intend for us to find love, harmony, and sympathy because, obviously, so many deserving people do not get them. Ah, but they will get them in heaven, right? Isn’t that the hope Gerson is really intimating? So, let’s get this straight: Life is meaningless, a cruel joke, unless we cherish a fantasy of pie in the sky, up on high, by and by, when we die. Otherwise, why not just go kill yourself (or your neighbor) right now? Isn’t this really what Gerson is saying? Isn’t he saying that our desire for love, harmony, and sympathy amounts to nothing in the end unless those desires are eternally satisfied? If this is what he is asserting, then the assertion is not only false but infantile. On the contrary, it is because the good things in life are ephemeral that they have such value. Atheists say love and live NOW, because now may be all you get.