One of our friends over at the atheist channel has penned a rebuttal to Peter Kreeft’s video explaining why we should want God to exist. Hemant Mehta of Friendly Atheist summarizes and dismisses each of Kreeft’s arguments — and to be perfectly honest, I can sympathize with most of what he’s saying here.
I’m gonna divide his arguments into two parts, because there are really two different things that he’s doing. One is basically to dismiss the things that would be really great about God’s existence as “wishful thinking,” and the second is to question whether atheism is really as bleak as Christian apologists often make it out to be.
The second part is where Mehta really shines. There are a lot of weird ideas in Christian apologetics about what atheism is like, and what necessarily follows from atheism, and they don’t correspond very well to reality.
One of the most common is the argument that without belief in God there is no reason to believe in objective morality — morality becomes nothing more than personal preference or social consensus. So here’s the problem with that: a lot of ideological atheists are deeply moral people. And there is nothing incoherent about their morality. Why?
Well, because you can easily arrive at a notion of human dignity without having to root it in a divine source. You start with a basic premise: I value my life and my happiness, and the lives and happiness of my children, parents, friends, etc. From there, you theorize that probably your children, parents, friends, etc. value the lives and happiness of still more people who you don’t know. And those people value more people, and on it goes. After a couple of degrees of separation you get to the point where this web of intervaluation covers the entire human race. So any injustice anywhere becomes, through degrees, a potential threat to the life and happiness of someone whose life and happiness is important to you.
Also, it’s pretty self-evident that the creation of a just society in which the lives and happiness of all people are valued under law is the most effective way to secure the particular lives that you happen to be most concerned about. This is just the most basic concept of a social contract.
Okay, okay, okay. But what about the person who rejects the social contract? What about the person who refuses to acknowledge the universal dignity of others? What argument are you going to use to convince him that his actions are wrong, if you can’t appeal to an objective or absolute moral framework?
Well…none. The truth is that if you can’t convince a man of the inalienable dignity of the human person, throwing God into the mix is probably not going to change his behaviour. If you convince a sociopathic atheist that God exists, the most likely outcome is that you will have a sociopath who believes that his actions are approved by God. There’s a reason why courts do not deal with criminals by calling in professional moral philosophers to argue with them until they see the error of their ways. Whether God exists or not, we enforce the social contract through force of law.
The truth is, that whether you’re an atheist or a theist you should recognize a rational obligation to work for justice, to take responsibility for yourself and others, and to build a better society. If you’re an atheist, you do this because you want to live in a just, responsible, improved society. If you’re a theist, you do it because God asks it of you. Either way, both atheists and theists should be able to agree on the need to take responsibility for our situation and to grow and improve morally, both as individuals and as a society. Indeed, the two examples that Mehta specifically gives (gun control and climate change) are in line with Catholic teaching.
Similar arguments can be made for the meaning and significance of life (my life can be meaningful and significant because it is meaningful and significant to me and to the people around me, or it can be meaningful and significant because it has ontological dignity rooted in the absolute love of a Creator). Love can matter because of God or it can matter because it makes us happy, and so on and so forth. An atheistic life does not have to involve a long deep and fearless gaze into an endless dark abyss. It can be a life of happiness, meaning and principle.
But but but…
It would certainly be nice if my life had a greater meaning, a greater significance. If it wasn’t just meaningful because it’s meaningful to me. If it actually had a purpose within a larger drama orchestrated by the greatest artist ever to exist.
It would sure be great if there was real justice; absolute, perfect justice; justice greater than anything that we can bring about through our best efforts as human beings.
It would be lovely if there was someone else to carry my burdens for me when they were too much to bear, someone with infinite strength who loved me infinitely and who provided for me through a perfect and inscrutable providence.
It would be just peachy if there was a omniscient mind that knew and comprehended all truth, and if, one day, I could go and compare my tentative little conclusions to that vast and inexhaustible wisdom.
It would be fantastic if, after the banquet of life was over, we discovered that it was just a measly little hors d’oeuvre to whet our appetites for an eternal feast.
Wishful thinking, Friendly Atheist says. Okay, fair enough. The fact that I would like these things to be true in no way makes them true. But you can’t have your cake and eat it. The argument is that you should want God to exist — that God’s existence is desirable — not that this desire is actually fulfilled in reality. If what is being proved is that something is worth wishing for, you can’t dismiss the argument by saying “Pff. Wishful thinking.”
Of course, Friendly Atheist’s real problem has fairly little to do with any of the arguments actually put forward for why God’s existence is desirable. He puts his actual objection up front: “the “misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully” sounds like a great God to worship.”
On a fundamental level, the conversation is taking place at cross purposes. Friendly Atheist isn’t really talking about the existence of God qua God. Rather, he’s talking about one very particular idea of God: the God that he, and many atheists, see portrayed in the Judeo-Christian religions.
Tomorrow, I’ll talk about why I think that this is a faulty perception of God, and why I believe it’s possible to believe in God (even in the Christian God) without worshiping a being who possesses these traits.