Tag Archives: Atheism

Neo-Marxism & Christian Hope

Matthew Rose’s “Our Secular Theodicy” over at First Things is well worth reading. It explores the message and legacy of Ernst Bloch, a German philosopher of hope often cited by Moltmann in his work. Here are a few citations:

Bloch is a guide into the concealed theology of contemporary liberalism, whose outlook remains profoundly, if paradoxically, biblical in one respect. Having rejected a Christian understanding of nature, it retains an intensely Christian understanding of history. It sees human history as goal-oriented and our advancement as a series of conversions and liberations, the outcome of which is the creation of a community that can redeem our fallen history…

Theodicy is the attempt to justify the goodness and providence of God in view of the reality of evil. Bloch is engaged in theodicy, too, but of a much different kind. His theodicy is humanistic. It is an attempt to make sense of humanity in view of its apparently senseless history. Only by creating a just community, Bloch posits, can we vindicate past and present injustices. Hope gives us the strength to undertake this massive, world-justifying responsibility. It refuses the limitations of the visibly possible and rebels with the conviction that a radically different way of life is attainable. Hope is therefore not the power to wait patiently for a home in eternity; it is the daring power to create a true and lasting home here on earth. Aquinas named this the vice of presumption, but for Bloch it is the one thing needful…

To my knowledge, Bloch is the only philosopher to have used Jesus to defend outright atheism. . . . According to Bloch, however, Jesus achieves a lasting victory in his error and defeat. Through his life and death, this ill-fated Spartacus becomes the savior of humanity—not by reconciling humanity to God, but by freeing humanity from God. Bloch arrived at this remarkable conclusion by interpreting the Bible as the story of the awakening of human autonomy and its rebellion against all forms of oppression…

Bloch saw Christianity as the most revolutionary movement in human history. It opened the way to political goals that could not otherwise be discovered, creating what Immanuel Kant called the “immanent expectation” of “the victory of good over evil.” The God of the Bible offered humanity the saving hope of liberation from captivity. In doing so, however, God gave us the keys to his holy kingdom. We learned that we are meant, in Bloch’s words, to “walk upright.” And this subversive imperative leads believers to take leave of God in the name of God.

Scripture on Sunday – Psalm 14

Brad Pitt Atheist Quote

Read Psalm 14

Psalm 14 is a challenge to modern—and not so modern—self-reliance, to the kind of practical atheism so widespread in contemporary Western society: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

The fool, here, is a fool in God’s eyes rather than a human label, for those labelled fools in Scripture are anything but fools from a human perspective. The problem is not lack of intelligence or common sense; it is not mental deficiency but moral deficiency. As Craigie (147) notes, the ‘fool’ may in fact be highly intelligent, cultured, worldly-wise, and esteemed. Yet, when “the Lord has looked down from heaven,” he sees—a fool.

I must pause. It is much too easy at this point for Christians to read this psalm with a defensive or otherwise aggressive and antagonistic ‘us-versus-them’ attitude, as though the label is not rightly applied also to them. It is much too easy to claim the high moral ground and despise those ‘godless fools!’ This the psalm does not allow: “There is no one who does good…not even one….They have all turned aside” (vv. 1-3). If we are not presently fools, we have been, and, from a New Testament perspective, it is only by divine grace that we are not fools now.

In my experience, Proverbs 22:15 has an ongoing significance: “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child”—it does not depart just because one grows up! Parents rightly discipline their children to help them learn the pathways of wisdom and righteousness. Adults, even Christian adults, must discipline themselves lest the fool buried deeply within emerge and return. “The fool is not a rare subspecies within the human race; all human beings are fools apart from the wisdom of God” (Craigie, 148).

The word for fool in this psalm is nāb̲āl, which implies an ‘aggressive perversity’ (Kidner, 79). The concept is common in Israel’s wisdom tradition, and especially prominent in Proverbs. The sense the word carries is seen in Proverbs 1:7 where it is set in opposition to the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of knowledge (cf. Proverbs 9:10). The essential characteristic of the fool is that they do not take the reality, relevance and reign of God into consideration in their thought: they live as though “There is no God” (cf. Psalm 10:4).

For faith, however, this is the fundamental reality of existence: there is indeed a God. This God looks upon human affairs, cares for his people and will be their refuge and salvation. This God will ultimately judge the world, holding its inhabitants to account. Fools are such because they do not acknowledge this fundamental reality and so live and act as though they were their own god. It is this aspect of human life that St. Paul so clearly outlines in Romans 1:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools… (vv. 18-22).

That Paul has Psalm 14 in mind is confirmed in Romans 3:10-12 where he cites this psalm to emphasise the universal sinfulness of humanity. (Craigie (146f.) notes that some Hebrew manuscripts include Paul’s entire passage from Romans 3:10-18 in their version of Psalm 14. This is of historical interest for it shows that perhaps some Jewish scholars in the early Christian centuries were also reading Paul to the extent that his words found their way back into the Hebrew manuscript tradition.)

The essential characteristic of the wicked is further described in Psalm 14:4, presented as God’s own speech: not only do the wicked fail to “call upon the Lord,” they also “eat up my people as they eat bread.” Here the failure to show due regard to God is linked with its corollary: the failure to show due regard to others. Again, Craigie’s exposition (147) is worth hearing:

The fool is opposed to God, threatens the life of the righteous, and thus evokes both lament and prayer for deliverance from those whose lives he affects. … The fool is one whose life is lived without the direction or acknowledgement of God. Thus, the precise opposite of fool and folly is not wise man and wisdom; the opposite of folly in the wisdom literature is lovingkindness. That is to say, the fool is defined by the absence of lovingkindness, which in turn is the principal characteristic of the relationship of the covenant; he lives as if there were no covenant, and thus as if there were no God (Craigie, 147, original emphasis).

Wisdom therefore laments the folly and oppressive activity of the wicked, and cries out to God for salvation, and is also hopeful that God will indeed “restore the fortunes of his people,” and show himself their refuge, especially in the judgement. Thus the people of God continue to counsel the wicked (v. 6), declaring their faith in God, and instructing others in the fear of the Lord. Although their affliction and lament is genuine, their posture is resolute in faith toward God, steadfast toward their companions in sufferings, and firm in their attitude toward the oppressor.

Once again, as in Psalms 9-10, we find that practical atheism issues in “abominable deeds” (v. 1) which oppress others. This atheism is grounded not so much in philosophical speculation as in moral scepticism (Charry, 65). Thus Ellen Charry insists that “the pedagogical import of Ps. 14 is that faith in God is the moral basis of society” (69). When we turn from God as the orienting centre from which and toward which we live, we substitute something else—almost invariably the self—as that centre. We become, in Luther’s famous phrase, homo incurvatus in se—humanity turned in on itself—and so selfish, or sinners, which is to say the same thing.

Can Science Determine Morality? Part 2

Thank you to Vicki Lorrimar for this post. Part 1 of the essay was posted yesterday.
The full version of this essay with references and notes can be found at Vicki’s Academia.edu page.

SamHarris_Moral LandscapeHerein lies one of the major problems with Harris’ reasoning. While science has the potential to provide us with substantial information concerning human well-being, it does very little when it comes to providing the necessary impetus to implement these insights in our lives. Even experts in neuroscience, psychology and behavioural sciences, with their superior understanding of cognitive biases, irrational behaviours and impulse control, make choices that are selfish, or prioritise fleeting pleasures over long term well-being. To argue that further advances in these fields will translate into greater well-being seems overly optimistic.

How would Harris have us obtain the motivation necessary to do what is right? He envisions a society in which hidden lie detectors keep us honest. Advances in neuroimaging technology will allow the monitoring of truthfulness in particular contexts e.g. the courtroom or job interview. Even Harris concedes, therefore, that while science might increase our understanding of human behaviour, and provide the technology to monitor it, external enforcement is required to actually motivate people to do the right thing. Robinson raises an interesting issue when she questions the identity of the invisible accuser. Whose assumptions will be programmed into these imagined devices?

Throughout The Moral Landscape, Harris often seems more concerned with providing a critique of religion than in establishing the sufficiency of science for determining human values. It is as if he believes that the latter conclusion will proceed directly from the former i.e. religion does not always produce ideal societies, therefore we must abandon it in favour of science as the true source of moral knowledge.

Harris’ analysis of religion in this volume is characteristically belligerent, not just atheistic but aggressively anti-theistic. He caricatures religion as the antithesis of intelligent thought, and selectively cites only the worst examples of faith in support of his argument. His understanding of religion aside, however, Harris is operating on the basis of flawed logic. He takes two disconnected arguments: (1) scientific research can provide information about what makes us happy and healthy, and (2) religion is often (in his view) responsible for impeding scientific progress and producing vast suffering, and combines them to arrive at his final conclusion that science alone can provide us with a sufficient and objective morality.

Harris argues that “religion and science are in a zero-sum conflict with respect to facts.” It is unclear how he has arrived at this conclusion without attributing it to his obvious distaste for religion. Several times in his account of the usefulness of neurophysiological research Harris argues that science helps – indeed, science can assist immensely in determining which measures might increase overall well-being. This does not eliminate religion from the moral sphere, however.

Harris also overlooks the fact that a lot of contemporary research into neural impulses and human behaviour is taken up by, or even funded by, marketing bodies interested in harnessing this knowledge to bring about increased sales of their products. This fosters a consumerism that concentrates wealth into the hands of fewer people and is likely to have a detrimental impact on natural resources – clearly not the road to greater human flourishing.

On the contrary, David Bentley Hart points out that certain advancements in science required the scientific mind to set aside religious “superstitions” regarding the soul and the image of God within – the development of nuclear weaponry, the eugenics movement, and medical experimentation on prison populations are just a few of the examples he gives us. Scientific progress does not have the morally pure track record Harris would have us believe.

Harris’ thought betrays a dependence on modern assumptions about truth and absolutes. Though he claims to be well-versed in philosophy; though in fact he completed an undergraduate degree in the field, Harris writes as if unaware of the postmodern shift. The Enlightenment quest for a universal epistemological foundation has been criticised by the likes of MacIntyre, and replaced with the view that rationality is tradition-dependent. The stridence of the New Atheist approach is rather embarrassing in the current postmodern climate of philosophical modesty and tolerance. With philosophers and theologians alike moving into a new paradigm in which appeals to universal reason and truth are replaced by contextual and narrative approaches to meaning and morality, Harris’ approach cannot help but come across as stale.

Though he diverges from the tired atheist argument that morality is simply the outworking of our evolutionary impulses, Harris’ approach fails to provide an alternative source for our concern over morality. It is true that scientific insights can assist in increasing moral knowledge; however they are not exhaustive. Not only is science unable to justify well-being as the concern of morality, it cannot provide the motivation to consistently overcome baser human instincts in making decisions that impact well-being. Our ethical choices must derive their meaning and conviction from another source.

The aim here is not to provide an argument in favour of any specific religion, but rather to evaluate Harris’ assertion that science alone can determine human values. Harris is most convincing when writing on his subject of expertise – neuroscience. It is true that brain studies are producing interesting insights into how we might improve our sense of wellbeing. Behavioural economics and the science of happiness are burgeoning fields. The existence of scientific facts about human nature that have important moral implications is not a new idea, but rather one that sociobiologists have been arguing for decades.

This does not pose any problem for religion, however, or for the existence of God. Harris’ zero-sum conflict is apparent only to him. There need be no antagonism between the capacity of science to discover more about what leads to well-being, and the role of religion in providing both the motivation and ability to integrate this knowledge into our lives. It seems that Harris’ antipathy toward religion causes him to overstate the potential of scientific research in determining morality, and to overlook its many shortcomings. The ’moral landscape’ envisioned by Harris is little more than wishful thinking on his part; when it comes to moral discourse, religion is likely to persevere.

Can Science Determine Morality? Part 1

Thank you to Vicki Lorrimar for this post. The full version of this essay with references and notes can be found at Vicki’s Academia.edu page.

Picture by obviouslycloe; see obviouslycloe.org

Many consider morality to be the purview of religion and not science. Stephen Jay Gouldarticulated this thinking best in his argument that science and religion each have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and that these magisteria do not overlap. For those who subscribe to this view, science deals with facts about the natural realm, while questions of morality or purpose fall exclusively within the domain of theologians and philosophers.

Sam Harris, in The Moral Landscape, challenges this prevailing understanding that science has little to contribute to moral discourse. Instead, Harris defines morality in terms of human flourishing and locates a moral compass in biological sources. According to Harris, “only a rational understanding of human well-being will allow billions of us to co-exist peacefully” – and such a rational understanding precludes any input from religion. Drawing momentum from the current popularity of behavioural economics and the science of ’happiness,’ Harris argues that an increasing understanding of neurophysiology promises a morality that is entirely determined by science.

Harris departs from traditional atheist arguments concerning morality, which often invoke evolutionary pressures as the source of our moral code. Rather, Harris argues that we must often oppose these natural tendencies and transcend them through reason, for “our modern concerns about meaning and morality have flown the perch built by evolution.” He spurns moral relativism, the notion that moral truth does not exist and that right and wrong are merely constructions. The title Harris gives to his work represents his own understanding of morality – that there are multiple answers to moral questioning. For Harris, ‘the moral landscape’ describes “a space of real and potential outcomes whose peaks correspond to the heights of potential well-being and whose valleys represent the deepest possible human suffering.”

Harris challenges the “firewall” that has been in place between facts and values ever since Hume drew his ‘is/ought’ distinction. Values, according to Harris, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood. As a neuroscientist, Harris considers the human brain to be the nexus of social, emotional and moral development. Beliefs about values and beliefs about facts seem to arise from similar brain processes – therefore values are derived from facts about how our brains interact with the world.

Harris proposes that advances in our knowledge in areas such as the neurophysiology of happiness and suffering, the effects of social institutions on relationships, and retributive impulses will provide all the necessary tools to identify right and wrong with respect to human values. This leads him to suggest that morality is not philosophical or religious in essence but rather an undeveloped branch of science. “If there are objective truths to be known about human well-being… then science should one day be able to make very precise claims about which of our behaviours and uses of attention are morally good, which are neutral, and which are worth abandoning.”

Harris contends that “science can help us find a path leading away from the lowest depths of misery and toward the heights of happiness for the greatest number of people.” Chopra is quite right when he describes Harris’ account as “gussied up old-fashioned utilitarianism.” The inherent problems in such an approach have long been established in the literature. Ewing, for example, posed the question: “Suppose we could slightly increase the collective happiness of ten men by taking away all happiness from one of them, would it be right to do so?” Harris would answer ’yes’ – in fact he poses an even more extreme version of this question himself and answers in the affirmative. Harris does acknowledge the dilemmas arising from consequentialism, however persists in his belief that it must form the basis of morality.

The issue of individual justice aside, there remains in the utilitarian approach the challenge of discerning which actions will result in the greatest happiness for the greatest number. According to Harris, science is much more clear-sighted in determining the consequences of behaviour than we are! In reality, it is often difficult to weigh the far-reaching effects of any given action, another problem acknowledged yet not addressed by Harris.

If a consequential approach to ethics were to be accepted, is well-being the most appropriate criteria by which actions are assessed? The term itself is rather vague, although Harris appears to employ it interchangeably with happiness and human flourishing. All religious and philosophical notions of morality are reduced to a common concern for well-being. Harris imagines an unlikely scenario in which an honour culture might result in a high level of human flourishing, and concludes that killing for the sake of honour would then be morally acceptable. This moral reasoning appears dubious at best.

Even if maximal well-being were considered a sufficient basis for morality, we must ask how this end goal is selected in the first place. Harris claims that “once we begin thinking seriously about human well-being, we will find that science can resolve specific questions about morality and human values.” However, what directs us to consider human-wellbeing seriously? Science does not supply us with the notion that well-being should be our ultimate concern – Harris has arrived at this conclusion by some other means.

Let us again assume for now that the optimisation of human well-being is indeed an adequate foundation upon which we may construct an ethic. In yet another statement of his thesis, Harris argues that “science can, in principle, help us understand what we should do and should want – and, therefore, what other people should do and should want in order to live the best lives possible.” Having attained such knowledge, how do we then put it into practice? We already know that driving our cars at reduced speeds, or removing unhealthy sugars from our diet, has a positive impact on well-being – but this does not stop many people from speeding on a regular basis or reaching for the slice of cake instead of the piece of fruit. There is a significant gap between knowing what is right and doing what is right.

Continued tomorrow