Atheism and nihilism

Atheism and nihilism December 20, 2011

Why Not Atheism?

Recently I posted here under the title “Thank God for Atheists.” In spite of that title, and some positive things I said about atheists and their contribution to authentic Christianity, several atheists came here to attack me calling me names and making unsubstantiated assertions (no arguments, just ad hominem attacks) about Christians and theists in general. I didn’t approve those for viewing here. However, a couple of atheists asked, perhaps sincerely, why I think theism is more rational than atheism. (Here I am using “atheism” in its classical sense as denial of the existence of anything more absolute than nature and transcending nature.)

I wrote that, with Zinzendorf, if it were not for Jesus, I wouldn’t believe in God. Well, let me qualify that. If I did not believe in Jesus as the fullest revelation of God’s character, I would still believe in a “supreme being” in the sense of someone or something “out there” that is the metaphysical ground of everything finite—a creator, sustainer and moral governor of the universe. But I wouldn’t worship him or it. I wouldn’t “believe in” him or it in the sense of put my trust in him or it.

I do think, with the vast majority of philosophers throughout Western history up until the late 19th century and 20th century, that a god must exist to explain our experience of the world including especially moral experience (what C. S. Lewis called “the law of nature” in Mere Christianity). I believe it was G. K. Chesterton (correct me if I’m wrong) who quipped that when people stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in everything. I would amend that to “they believe in anything.” Either Chesterton or someone else commented also that if there is no God all is permitted. (I’m sure someone here will tell me who really said these things, but it isn’t important enough for me to go digging right now. I’ll let others do that for me!)

I personally believe that some of the classical arguments for the existence of God “work.” In How to Think about God Mortimer Adler proves the necessary existence of a first cause (not necessarily first chronologically or temporally but first in terms of metaphysical reality—something necessary, not caused by anything else). His is a version of the cosmological argument. (He admits at the end of How to that his “proof” does not reach to a particular deity with any specific character—e.g., the God of the Bible. Therefore it has no real religious or spiritual function.) In fact, I also happen to think the ontological argument for the existence of God “works.” That is, it is formally a valid argument—especially as revised by Norman Malcolm. (Don’t ask me about that, go read it for yourself. It’s all over the internet and in every recently published volume on the ontological argument.)

However, I find the most compelling argument for God’s existence (here I’m talking about the God of the philosophers, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) is the moral argument. It has many forms, the most famous one being that of Immanuel Kant. However, I find its most persuasive expression in Hans Küng’s Does God Exist: An Answer for Today. The German Catholic theologian takes atheism very seriously and says it is a “rational choice.” (His book is extremely long and very detailed; he interacts with numerous theists and atheists alike including Nietzsche and Freud.) However, he argues that IF one opts for atheism one MUST embrace nihilism; there is no way out of it. (By “nihilism” Küng means belief that life has no ultimate meaning and therefore no absolute value.) He admits that atheists DO have values, but he argues they have no rational, metaphysical grounding and therefore are simply chosen (in the sense of borrowed or invented). Neither Küng nor I argue that atheists are bad people just for being atheists or that atheism ought in any way to be suppressed by the state or that atheists should be persecuted. What we believe is that most atheists are simply living off the “leftovers” from the West’s theistic cultural tradition and that IF an atheist decided to live solely for himself or herself at the expense of others there is nothing in his or her worldview that would forbid or even discourage it.

Here is Kung’s most salient paragraph in Does God Exist? in which he quotes German philosopher Max Horkheimer, a largely secularized Jewish Enlightenment thinker whose work on rationality is widely hailed as one of the most influential 20th century contributions to philosophy:

“…according to Horkheimer, everything connected with morality goes back in the last resort to theology; ‘From the standpoint of positivism [the view that non-empirically verifiable propositions are meaningless—one could substitute “atheism” for “positivism” here without altering Horkheimer’s argument], no conclusions can be drawn about morality in politics. Scientifically speaking, hatred is no worse than love, though its social function may be different. There is no logically conclusive argument to show that I should not hate, as long as I am not thereby placed at a disadvantage in my social life.’ Without an authority transcending man, it could in fact be said, in the spirit of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four, that war is neither better nor worse than peace, freedom neither better nor worse than oppression: ‘For how can it be proved exactly that I should not hate if I feel like doing so. Positivism cannot find any authority transcending men, to distinguish between helpfulness and cupidity, kindness and cruelty, avarice and unselfishness. Logic too remains silent, it does not concede any precedence to moral sentiment. All attempts to justify morality by worldly prudence instead of looking to the hereafter—even Kant did not always resist this inclination—rest on harmonistic illusions’.”

I have never heard or read an argument that counters this view successfully. The fact that many atheists are wonderful people with strong values is not relevant to the argument. The argument is that IF an atheist decided to live a life of hatred, a life directed by “might makes right,” oppressing weaker persons for personal gain, no real reason can be given why he or she should not. You can argue with atheist (or agnostic) philosopher Kai Nielsen (author of Ethics without God) that there are universal cultural norms that forbid such or with certain sociobiologists that an altruistic gene inclines against it, but to think that these provide a logical argument against selfishness and oppression of others is simply a mistake of thought. “Is” cannot yield or support “ought.” “Ought” cannot be reduced to “Is.” At least insofar as “is” refers to nature alone. Only a theistic worldview, centered around belief in a transcendent being who is the standard of all goodness and belief that reality itself is grounded in and reflects in its “oughtness” that being’s character and will can provide sufficient ground and support for ethical absolutes such as “murdering people is always wrong” or (if we have to get this extreme to make the point) “torturing children is always wrong no matter what.”

Having written on this subject before (for my university’s newspaper—arguing that as a Christian university it should not financially support the campus atheists club) I know the inevitable—I will receive hate messages (mostly in the form of e-mails and comments to this blog) from atheists who completely misunderstand and distort what I am saying. Let me be clear, then: I do NOT hate atheists and I do NOT think atheists are automatically bad people. My problem is with atheism as a philosophy of life and NOT with atheists as people. I could say the same about many other philosophies of life I have studied and written about: “New Age” esotericism, radical feminism, Calvinism, etc. Just because I argue against these worldviews or philosophies of life (or in the case of Calvinism theology) does NOT mean I hate those who believe in them or even think they are bad people. Not at all. And anyone who tries to make that leap (viz., from my criticism of a belief system or worldview to the assumption that I must hate those who embrace them) is simply missing the point and thinking illogically. And lest anyone think that because I wrote a column in my university’s newspaper against financial support by the university of a campus atheists club—I did NOT argue that the club should be in any way punished or persecuted. If students at a Christian university that does not require Christian confession to enroll want to form an atheists club I have no objection. But they should not expect the university to support it financially or any other way. And the university’s decision not to support it (or suppress it) is not censorship or persecution or oppression. It’s a private, religious university founded by and run by Christians FOR THE PURPOSE of promoting Christian faith in an academic setting and academic excellence in a Christian context (“Pro ecclesia, pro Texana”—“For the church, for the world.” Yes, the university’s motto is now translated that way.)

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