A Shared Moral Universe
Well my thesis is mercifully coming closer to completion—I submitted the final chapter to my supervisor’s scalpel yesterday. After a year or so spent on the same topic, not to mention the ordinary frustrations of thesis-writing, the question of why I ever started this project sometimes occurs to me (apart from my requiring these credits to graduate). Atheism and the problem of evil. Not exactly the most inspiring or uplifting topics to immerse oneself in for a sustained period of time.
Well, according to my thesis introduction (most of which I wrote half a year ago), one of my motivations was a kind of leveling of the playing field—an attempt to show that despite all of their bravado, bombast, and self-righteousness, the new atheists were motivated by the same need to make moral sense of the world that everyone else is.
I was reminded of this while paging through David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea as I was putting the finishing touches on chapter three. Here’s what he has to say (with just a touch of arrogance himself, not to mention a couple of ten-dollar words, as usual) about atheism based primarily upon the problem of evil:
It is, as I say, tempting thus to dismiss such arguments, and then simply to ignore them; but one should not. For, if one grant them a second thought, or a third, one must sooner or later concede that they are not quite as vapid as it would be convenient to think. For one thing, while they may not be particularly germane to Christian theological tradition, they are nonetheless responses to the way in which many religious persons (including many Christians) are in the habit of speaking. More to the point, though, there are even certain respects in which arguments of this sort should command not only the attention of Christians, but some measure of their sympathy—not pity, that is to say, not a patronizing longanimity, but sympathy in the proper sense of kindred feeling. After all, at the heart of all such unbelief lies an undoubtedly authentic moral horror before the sheer extravagance of worldly misery, a kind of rage for justice, a refusal of easy comfort, and an unwillingness to be reconciled to evil that no one who believes this to be a fallen world should want to disparage. For the secret irony pervading these arguments is that they would never have occurred to consciences that had not in some profound way been shaped by the moral universe of a Christian culture.
This idea of a “shared moral universe” between Christians and atheists seemed like an idea worth pursuing to me and as the thesis nears its completion I think I can say that I am glad to have made the attempt. Having said that, I’m not going to miss guys like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris too much. A year spent with such angry men is enough to make even a sunny optimist like myself a little grouchy. So, the posts on atheism should, mercifully, get much fewer and farther between in the coming months as I transition out of student mode. I suspect it’s a topic I’ll always be interested in, but one I’ll be happy to see at least temporarily recede into the background.