Saturday, December 29, 2007

Bursting Bubbles

I am more than halfway through reading Letter from a Christian Citizen, by Douglas Wilson -- a point-by-point rebuttal of Sam Harris' atheist manifesto, Letter to a Christian Nation.

So far, Wilson is mopping the floor with Harris.

Wilson also mopped the floor with Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything earlier this year in an online debate (in six installments).

The tactical problem Messrs. Harris and Hitchens ran into with Wilson, a Reformed theologian who is pastor at the Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, and a member of the faculty at New St. Andrews College, is that Wilson happens to be a classically-educated scholar who is well-versed in philosophy and familiar with the arguments that have been put forth by atheists from day one. In other words, he knows sophistry when it poses as argument. One gets the impression, so sloppy were many of Harris's arguments, that he didn't think there would be any Christians who were capable of understanding them and hitting back effectively with logic and reason.

However, the even worse strategic blunder made by both Harris and Hitchens is that their rhetoric betrays a strong sense of "ought". They appear genuinely outraged at what they perceive to be injustice in several of its forms. Yet, as Wilson patiently (and entertainingly) points out, moral indignation does not follow from the premises of atheism. Wilson is not saying that an atheist is necessarily less moral than a Christian; he cheerfully concedes there are moral atheists. What Wilson is saying is that atheists, if they are consistent with their beliefs, have no compelling reason to behave morally, or to believe in morality at all.

For morality to be compelling, it must be transcendent -- it must somehow be greater than man. But how can it be greater than man if it was invented by man? It follows from atheism that all things that exist must have had causes that were strictly material. This means that what you and I may exalt as "ideals", "thoughts", "feelings", and "moral values" are nothing more than chemical and electrical impulses in the little cauldrons of protoplasm which we refer to as "brains". If true, this renders morality into nothing more than an illusion, a conceit. It is easy enough to posit that these conceits must have arisen through evolutionary mechanisms -- that somehow, meaningless though they may be in any transcendent sense, the illusion itself may have contributed to the survival of the human species. But once we see the illusion for what it is -- once Oz is spotted hiding behind the curtain -- it loses its ability to command our allegiance and respect. If morality is an illusion, nothing more than bubbles in a brainpan, we must acknowledge it is not greater than we are; on the contrary, we are, if anything, greater than it. The consistent atheist must face the inevitable conclusion, based on his own premises, that morals are nothing more than agreed-upon preferences.

So what do we say to those who don't agree with them? It follows that there can only be practical reasons for compliance. If I were to reject the consensus, I might, for example, still decide I should not rob a bank, not because it's wrong to steal (what does 'wrong' mean in a materialist world?) but because I'm afraid I'll be caught and spend the next twenty years in jail. Or I might simply have an aversion to physical danger. Or I might still harbor within me the wholly irrational detritus of a Christian upbringing and carry a mistaken but nevertheless ingrained sense that it is "wrong" -- at least, for me. But all of these are mere preferences. I would have nothing morally compelling to say to another man who is skilled at robbing banks, has no fear of being caught, and feels no inappropriate loyalty to notions of morality. For such a fellow, there would be no right or wrong to consider, only a cold assessment of the rewards of success vs. the risks of failure, within the context of his own preferences.

This is where atheism leads us. But it is not where Harris and Hitchens wish to take us. Their rhetoric is marbled with an aggrieved and inflamed sense of justice. E.g., Harris writes, "The truth is that many who claim to be transformed by Christ's love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism." That sounds like an accusation. By what moral standard is intolerance or murder wrong? A Christian who is true to his faith might be embarrassed to see such hypocrisy in some of his fellow Christians, but all an atheist ought to see are blobs of protoplasm gurgling in reaction to the gurgling emanating from another blob of protoplasm that we know as Harris. Why ought we to honor Harris' indignation?

E.g., Harris: "An atheist is a person who believes that the murder of a single little girl -- even once in a million years -- casts doubt on the ideal of a benevolent God." I'll let Wilson field this one: "Atheism not only casts doubt upon the idea of a benevolent God (which it certainly does), but it also destroys the very concept of benevolence itself. Benevolence is simply a chemical reaction that some organisms experience in their bone box. Other organisms (like the criminal organism that rapes and kills the little girl organism) don't have very much of it. But this is all just time and chance acting on matter. When you reject the triune God (in the name of benevolence!) I want to know what this all-authoritative benevolence actually is, on your accounting.... There is no soundtrack to consistent atheism. No swelling violins in the background but rather stark, everlasting silence."

In other words, for atheists to denounce anything from a moral perspective, they have to borrow from the theistic worldview. They have to pretend, at least for the duration of their dudgeon, that morality is real and has some sort of authority over human actions. When atheists wax indignant, it is like the mistletoe you see clinging to trees in the winter time. It may look like part of the tree, but it is only a parasite, feeding on nourishment provided by the tree. You can kiss under it all day long if like, but it has no roots, and can only project vicariously any authority possessed by its imposing host.

Incidentally, not all atheists are such pushovers. Wilson cites Oliver Wendell Holmes as someone willing to go where Harris and Hitchens fear to tread. In the world according to Holmes, moral preferences are "more or less arbitrary." "Do you like sugar in your coffee, or don't you?.... So as to truth." Truth itself is "the majority view of the nation that can lick all the others." And civil rights? "What a given crowd will fight for." And this gem: "I wonder if cosmically an idea is any more important than the bowels." The Christian might think to inquire of Holmes, "Including the idea you just expressed?" An atheist who clings to illusions of morality, on the other hand, is left with the task of explaining why bubbles in the brain have greater moral weight than bubbles in the bowels.

Christians are barraged in the media and academia with propaganda that tries to convince them their ideas are antiquated and based on fairy tales. This is one of the reasons it's such a pleasure to watch a Christian who is well-educated and skilled in argument dismantle the rationalists on their own terms. I recommend Wilson's book and also his web site, BLOG andMABLOG.

No comments: