Thursday, July 13, 2006

Scary, scary people

Today's Blog Meridian brings us a discussion of Fight Club. John quotes someone quoting a review which says:
Quite honestly, if I didn't believe in God, I would join Tyler Durden in his philosophy. If God didn't exist—if Christ didn't offer salvation—then Tyler would be right [to reject morality and consequences]... and to live otherwise in this mad world would be hypocritical, and a waste of air.
These are the people that scare me. These are the people that think that if they evolved from a primate ancestor, then they might as well tear open people's chests and feed on their still warm organs. At the first hearing for the new science standards in Kansas City, a person claimed that if his children were taught that their ancestors evolved, they'd grow up to be doctors who would "feel no inhibition to abort life."

I'm surrounded, walking down the street, at the supermarket, on the highway, by people who think that the only reason not to join Hannibal Lecter and Tyler Durden in a spree of vigilante-ish hooliganism is the implicit threat of death and punishment. These people are literally teetering on the edge, and they seem to genuinely believe that the only thing holding them back is the threat of eternal damnation.

I don't know if heaven exists, or if hell exists, and I don't behave any more or less morally than I would otherwise. I don't know if God will punish me for sins or reward good works or if I'm justified by faith alone, and I don't worry too much about whether or not there is or isn't an eternal judge. I don't really think it matters much.

I think that a morality that exists only because you're afraid of punishment here or in eternity is an inauthentic morality. I think that people who care more about what a deity thinks about right and wrong than they care about actual right and wrong are very, very scary. Because if they woke up one morning and heard a little voice telling them to kill, they might just do it.

The reviewer is basically building a syllogism and claiming that it proves atheists are really amoral. It goes something like this:

  • We do things because they are good
  • God tells us what's good
  • Without God, we would not do good things
The implication is then that atheists are only kept from mass slaughter by rigidly enforced laws and what the reviewer refers to as "soft, archaic, religion-inspired morals." I don't quite see how we make that leap, either.

The flaw in the syllogism is with the second point. Even if we grant that point, it need not be exclusive. An atheist ought to have no trouble agreeing that if a god did exist, then it might well be able to help us separate good and evil. I don't know. I do know that conclusion of the syllogism ought to be "Without God, we'd have to rely on other means of distinguishing right from wrong." And those exist in spades.

People are good. Helping other people is good. Hurting them is bad. Doing something to someone else that you wouldn't want them to do is wrong. I don't need commandments to tell me that. Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Kant, Rawls and most other major religious or philosophical groups all managed to figure out essentially the same formula. Maybe that's God's will manifesting itself, or maybe it's something about the nature of the world. The Golden Rule can be shown to be an evolutionarily stable strategy, given the right social setting. And maybe that expresses some divine desire, an unrecorded "let there be…". Maybe it doesn't.

I think this gets to John's first question:
The Misfit's dilemma, of course, is that which every believer daily lives/wrestles with: that belief by its very nature is not ultimately confirmed by empirical knowledge. For him--and for Tyler Durden, for that matter--authenticity is defined by that ultimate confirmation. But might there also be another sort of authenticity, one that sees the embracing of the not-empirical as not only possible but as actually (and forgive the oxymoron here) more authentic as a way of living? Surely, implicit somewhere in the believer's decision to believe is precisely that other notion of authenticity.
I think that belief in a deity cannot be consigned to the universe of testable claims, and that its authenticity must be sought beyond the realm of empirical knowledge. The nature of a supernatural being is to exceed the physical, to be beyond the testable natural world. If it weren't, it would be neither supernatural nor metaphysical. In this sense, "the name that can be named is not the eternal Name," and continuing with the Tao Te Ching, "Nothing, and Heaven share the same root.… There are too many laws, when all you have to do is to hold on to the centre."

Maybe there's heaven, maybe there's nothing, but truth and goodness, like falsity and evil, exist either way. Atheists and theists all know that.

Durden, like Flannery O'Connor's Misfit, find themselves in trouble not because they lack God, but because they lost God after having relied on an external decision-maker as a substitute for their own moral compass. And that's problematic.

The Discovery Institute's war on evolution is driven by their fear of "materialism." The fear is that materialism "portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces," that it "undermined personal responsibility." The solution – their stated goal – was "To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God."

This all rests on the same shaky assumption that only theistic explanations can possibly offer any moral guidance. And I, like many atheists and many theists, firmly reject that hypothesis. But they've come to Kansas to fight their battle against "materialism" and push "theistic understanding" in the public schools.

Fight them.

There are candidates running to beat the DI backed incumbents in 4 races, and on DI backed challenger to a sensible incumbent. Give to the people who are standing up for healthy moral systems.