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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.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Bad #

    “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.”

    Man oh man: what’s it like to be this full of oneself and one’s ideology, I wonder?

    June 12, 2008
  2. “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.”

    Because the morals of the Christian culture are completely unique to Christianity.

    Oh, wait, no…all there morals come from earlier societies. All their morals that non-believers also view as moral, anyway.

    June 13, 2008
  3. Ken #

    I am wondering if your research included reading Mircea Eliade. I am thinking in particular about his proposal that in modernity we are all mostly nonreligious and yet continue to embrace views and ways of life that are rooted in the religious beliefs of our ancestors without realizing it.

    About the common “need to make moral sense of the world” I am wondering if your research included E. O. Wilson who once wrote something like: morality is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate.

    I think your project is very interesting. My own readings on this topic have led me to believe that nihilism is more compatible with a Darwinian view of life than is the moralistic atheism of writers like Dawkins.

    June 13, 2008
  4. Oh Hart… I can’t help but like him – despite his arrogance, “ten-dollar words”, and his dubious use of the word “obviously” (obvious to perhaps ten people in this world, but not to me).

    June 13, 2008
  5. Ken,

    I’ve not read much Eliade, although from what you’ve said it sounds like I should have. I think Charles Taylor gets at some of the themes you’ve identified in A Secular Age. The idea that life ought to somehow be meaningful or have some kind of orienting moral telos do not come from naturalistic views of the world.

    Re: Wilson, again I’ve only read a bit. The idea that morality is something our genes have “tricked” us into believing is real (group selection, reciprocal altruism, etc) is common enough in the new atheists and I dealt with at length in one of my chapters. One of the main problems I have with this view is that it can give us no good reason to continue to behave morally once we realize what our genes are up to. “Is” can never justify “ought.” I think you’re absolutely right – nihilism is much more compatible with the professed views of guys like Dawkins. It may not be a very palatable conclusion (as evidenced by some of the comments above) but that doesn’t make it less true.

    June 13, 2008
  6. Jessica,

    I laughed out loud at the “obviously” bit you pointed out. Like you say, I somehow doubt that what’s “obvious” to Hart is quite so clear to 99% of the human population…

    I still haven’t read The Beauty of the Infinite – and from what you and others have said, if I ever do get around to it I’ll have to have my dictionary handy! He’s got another book coming out later this year that’s already on my list.

    June 13, 2008

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