Sunday, November 23, 2014

The beanpole conundrum

Earlier today, I got pinged about what I referred to as the “abyss of popular atheism”. Here's a written response that, I hope, is better articulated than the verbal response that I fumbled through earlier.

Short version: Arguing for popular moralistic atheism is like arguing that your beanpole is more upright than my beanpole in a context where gravity does not exist. Where there is no gravity, there is no “up”, hence the abyss.

Much longer version: I can accept that some beanpoles are more upright than others. I can even accept that my beanpole might be heavily skewed and needs righting. However, I cannot accept your objection to the uprightness or otherwise of my beanpole in a context where gravity does not exist or is absent. If there is no gravity, the whole concept of uprightness is meaningless, and so the proposition that your beanpole is more upright than mine meaningless. In such a context, no beanpole can be more upright than any other beanpole, because there is no “up”.

It's a metaphor, of course, about what we choose to train our lives (bean-plants) on. What I'm trying to say is that the issue of the uprightness, or goodness of one beanpole or another (be it theism, atheism or whatever) only makes sense where gravity exists and is present. By gravity, I am referring to God, or at least a God-pseudonym. By God-pseudonym, I mean something along the lines of the ultimate truth or reality that sustains the cosmos in which we live, or perhaps the purpose and direction of life, the universe and everything.

My problem with popular atheism is that it often holds itself up as more upright than theism. You don't need to go far beyond the book titles from Richard Dawkins, Richard Hitchens, or the juvenile rants of I Love F******g Atheism to get that. This, to me, is utterly inconsistent with the intellectual constraints of atheism proper, but very few atheists seem to have thought it through to its logical conclusions. Or, if they have, they don't see a need to correct their colleagues.

These are not just my opinions. They are expressed by professors of philosophy who are far better informed than I, including Friedrich Nietsche on one side (if I understand him rightly) and the likes of William Lane Craig and Alvin Plantinga on the other. These guys are not intellectual lightweights, and it is irresponsible for popular atheism to gloss over them as if they had nothing relevant to say.

I'm not saying this because I dislike atheists. I genuinely cannot find a warrant for the moral superiority of anything in an atheistic cosmos. It's the problem of the uprightness of beanpoles where there is no gravity to point us “up”-ward.

Allow me to expand.

What I mean by meaning or morality is something fundamentally different to what I find significant or what I like. I accept that what I like is an expression of my genetic and sociological heritage. However, something that is good or right might well be something that I don't like – it doesn't necessarily map to the boundaries of my preferences and prejudices. So, my preferences and prejudices may need to be aligned to what is good and right, and you can name all manner of issues or scenarios in which this is true. I should align my beanpole to the true "up", not just whatever arbitrary direction your beanpole is pointing in.

Where it gets problematic is in what differentiates good from bad, up from down.

If atheism proper were true, then when we do good, we are only expressing our genetic and social heritage. The “only” part is important, because we cannot invoke a moral plane without crossing over into some kind of spirituality or theism, and that would annoy the hell out of Dawkins, Hitchens and I Love F******g Atheism.

However, it would also mean that when we do bad, we are only expressing our genetic and social heritage.

In other words, there is no difference, other than the differences that we perceive or project onto it.

But that doesn't solve it, because our perceptions are also only the expression of our genetic and social heritage. I like what I like because my genetic and social heritage tells me what I like, even if I get some degree of freedom in the matter (which is not as self-evident as you might suppose). The same goes for our our presuppositions, our prejudices and so on.

If this were the case, and atheism proper gives us no viable alternative, then there is nothing to commend one person's likes or dislikes over another's. We cannot say “you are wrong” because, in actuality, we just don't like what you are doing. Neither can we say “you are wrong” because what you're doing interferes with what we want or like. And, what we like broadens to encompass our self-survival which extends to the survival of our offspring. There's nothing to say that the survival of ourselves, or our offspring, is more morally justified than the survival of someone else and their offspring. In fact, we could even question the assumption that surviving and procreating is an inherently good thing. What I'm trying to say is that there is a very real problem in finding some kind of bedrock or warrant, apart from God, on which to build our moral edifices.

Its a confronting challenge, but who said that the ultimate reality of the situation would conform to our likes and preferences?

If we disabuse ourselves of sentimentality, we find with Nietsche that all objective morality collapses into the void, and we are left with nothing but the will to power. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that just as the moral universe collapses into the void, so the whole universe follows and we are left with nothing. We even find that our existence in the here and now is untenable.

You may counter by saying that that is not our experience. We know we are here. I could respond by saying that our experiences are nothing more than the delusions thrust upon us by our evolutionary heritage, and we actually know nothing at all, not even our own existence. That's what I mean by the abyss of atheism.

Or, I could respond by saying that as we are made in the image of our Creator, we have the capacity to perceive and reflect the ultimate reality that brought the cosmos into being. The difference between the two world-views is as profound as the difference between light and darkness.

Post-script: I sensed some resentment in the query I got earlier. If popular moralistic atheism makes someone happy, why not just leave them be? Why take such offence to it? Why not let sleeping dogs lie?

I think it's ironic that the shonky defences we theists used to put up against the challenges of atheism are now being put up against us.

Bad Sunday, good Sunday

Recently I was in a bad way emotionally. I've had a belly-full of being unemployed, suffering the humiliation of one job rejection after another, being unable to fulfil my hard-wired instincts to be a provider, and fighting off the thought that nobody wants what I have to offer. I was grumpy and depressed.

That same evening, my head had turned 180 degrees. None of my problems had gone away, and I knew I had to face them again the following morning. But, I had a different perspective and the feeling of hope. I actually enjoyed life. Morning-me was a crappy husband and father. Evening-me was a big improvement (still a long way to go, though). All this in the space of 12 hours.

So, what happened?

First, I got myself along to a Sails At Bayside event as a volunteer. It's a charity run under the auspices of the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, and it provides sailing and life-skills experience to disadvantaged people and other groups. That Sunday morning, we were doing some kayaking with a church Sunday school group. When I turned up, I was just expecting to be another pair of hands to shift kayaks and stuff. However, we got to the point where everyone had got onto the water except for a mum with two young boys. She could take one, but needed someone else to take the other, who must have been about five years old. As I was available, I volunteered, so I sat him in the front and paddled from behind. He was terrified to start with, so we took it really slowly and easily. Slowly, he grew in confidence and started to enjoy it, especially as we paddled into the mangroves and talked about the trees that grew under the sea (it was high tide). We even paddled over the top of some of them, and dodged under the branches of others.

We then took a break, and I got talking to Helen, one of the older volunteers. She is a retired Maths Teacher- an intellectual and a Christian. She talked about recent studies that highlighted the damage our culture was doing to people - we tend to evaluate people by their extrinsic value (the value they have because of what they can give us) and, compared to more spiritually aware cultures, we are losing the ability to recognise intrinsic value (the value they have because of who they are). Call it the Consumer-Culture if you like, but it rules, and we let it. Yesterday, I had spent some time on a picnic with some blind people - some of whom also had learning difficulties - whom I knew from Church. These are people with little or no extrinsic value, yet they are of infinite worth because they have an indelible intrinsic value, and it's something we all share. It's something they need to hear, and I need to hear - we have value because we are made in the image of God (see Genesis 1:27) - all of us, including the people I don't necessarily like or admire or find useful. That's where we get our intrinsic value from - every one of us. If, as the secular forces in our culture would have us believe, we reduce ourselves to mere function (what we can offer), we lose the plot. Helen quoted Rene Descartes, who, when asked why as an intellectual, he still believed in God, replied that with God, there is hope, but without him, there is no hope. It's true. It's not a hope that things will miraculously turn out good by the wave of a magic wand, but that our lives have meaning and substance, even when things turn to crap. It's not saying that evil is good, but rather that our suffering, our ephemerality, our mortality has meaning, and it doesn't go unnoticed by a pitilessly indifferent cosmos (see what Richard Dawkins has to say on this - needless to say, I disagree).

After the break, my doughty five-year old came up to me and asked if we could go out on the kayak again. This is the same guy who was almost crying with fear when we first set out. How could I refuse! We had so much fun on the water together.

So, I have to thank the guys at Sails for their ministry (which is just a religious-sounding word for "service"). My five-year old kayaker got a boost, but I think I got the lion's share.

Then, I went church in the evening to play guitar with the music group. Again, we had fun, which even some of my badly misplaced chords could not stop.

Josh Dinale, our Rector, spoke about what it means to put down roots, based on the reflections of Psalm 1 - especially putting down roots into God. You could think of this as a loss of freedom because it means getting fixed in one place, and allowing yourself to become limited. However, it also means that you can grow, become established. It means you can become mature enough not just to withstand life's storms, but to be strong enough and big enough to offer shelter for others, should they want it. It means you can live a life of meaning and weight - true prosperity. Again, this is not meaning and weight that we have because of our extrinsic value (what we have to offer), but because of our intrinsic value - what we have because we bear the image of God (what we are). If you can sort out what you are, you can sort out what you can do.

Then, after the service, I got talking to a couple of people about the ministry and service they are offering to refugees - some of this is just being a friendly neighbour, or helping them understand English, or a rudimentary introduction to the practicalities of living in an unfamiliar country. Some of this is rock-climbing, or doing stuff that creates fun and friendships.

Now, I'm thinking I'd like to get my blind friends and refugees onto the kayaks and catamarans. I've got outside myself, and I prefer it outside. Yes, I'll get a buzz from it but, more importantly, they are worth it.

If you've read this far, thank you for following me as I unload.

That Sunday morning, I felt unwanted by the world. I realise that's harsh on the people who love me, and I apologise to them. However, there are far more people in this world who don't.

We live in a world that thinks God is either irrelevant, or that he is an evil imp that hides around corners ready to trip us up, or that he is an excuse to do bad stuff. That's not the God I believe in, and it hurts me when I get told by self-righteous atheist propaganda that it is. It's not the God my friends believe in. This isn't about God v Evolution (I'm OK with evolutionary processes, incidentally). Or, about feeling OK about the shit-ness of life because everybody's life is shit and they feel OK about it, too (an idiot's philosophy, undergirded by dogma, presumption and acquired tradition, but believed by millions). It's about whether life - my life, your life, the lives of those blind guys, the refugees, a scared 5 year old boy, an intellectual woman, the guys who can sing in church and the guys who can't - whether all these lives have value and meaning.

Yes they do.

Let's go exploring and find out what it is.