Thursday, September 9, 2010

Morality without God?

Is it possible to make a plausible case for the theological virtues [faith, hope and love] while adopting a thoroughly naturalistic worldview? Reviewing two books that would like to argue that it is, John Cottingham says it is not.
.... It is absurd to suggest that becoming an atheist entails abandoning morality. But if the natural process is all there is, and social and moral norms are simply conventions devised by humans as part of that process, then what provides morality with its authority — that sense of an imperative that exerts a call on us whether we like it or not? Again like Johnston, Comte-Sponville frequently helps himself to a vocabulary to which as a naturalist he is no longer entitled — in this case, notions like "absolute", "sacred", "unconditionally imposes itself", etc. Once we probe deeper, we see that, for Comte-Sponville, the "absolutisation of ethics", as he puts it, is in the end "illusory". It is a "projection on to Nature" of "what only exists within ourselves". So for all the fine language about the sacred, we end up slipping down the primrose path to relativism: the call of morality reduces to what I decide to do or to refrain from doing. "Should I rob or rape or murder?" Comte-Sponville asks. And he quotes admiringly from Alain's answer: "No, because it would be unworthy of what I am, and what I wish to be." This is clearly supposed to be a rather splendid answer, but actually its implications seem to me as chilling as Nietzsche's terrifying suggestion that I might justifiably decide to suppress impulses of compassion if they got in the way of some grand project I might choose to adopt. Despite all the good intentions, we end up with a worldview in which people's own self-inflated sense of what is "worthy" of them is all the barrier that stands between us and barbarism. ....

What we are witnessing among these religiously sympathetic naturalists, if I am right, is an attempt to have one's spiritual cake and eat it — or rather to continue to be able to eat it once the main ingredients have been discarded as rubbish. Rather like the British socialist politicians of the second half of the 20th century, intent for doctrinal reasons on destroying the very grammar schools to which they themselves owed so much, many naturalists would no doubt argue that the price of the demolition job is worth paying: in the educational case, elitism was the supposed bogey that had to be eradicated, while in the present case it is supernaturalism. Yet if the scientific outlook is supposed to be the reason for scrapping the supernatural, the irony is that there is nothing in science that in fact leads, or could possibly lead, to that result. Science, the study of the natural world, cannot conceivably pronounce on what may or may not transcend that world.

The spiritual praxis that has enriched so much of our collective history, the practices of prayer, meditation, lectio divina and the whole structure of private and public worship, has been, in the Western tradition, inextricably linked to the Judaeo-Christian idea of our creatureliness — the notion that our very existence is shaped by a creative power, source of all goodness, truth and beauty. This theistic framework is not the only possible framework for spirituality: both the writers under discussion flirt intermittently with the Buddhist notion of anatta — the idea that the self is an illusion and that there is nothing beyond a constant flow of impermanent conditions that arise and pass away. But it is no easy task to graft such ideas on to the ethical rootstock of Western spirituality. For one thing, it is far from clear how a worldview based on detachment and oceanic merging into the impersonal void could support anything like a morality of unconditional requirements that calls us to orient our lives towards the Good.

We need, as Comte-Sponville rightly concedes, fidelity to the tradition that shaped us. But part of that tradition condemns intellectual pride and calls us to humility. A little humility may be enough to allow us to make the short step from fidelity to faith. We need the humility to accept that we cannot create our own values, or pick and choose the rootstock from which our fragile moral sensibilities have sprung. Instead of embarking on the project of "saving God" by replacing him with the naturally and humanly shaped world, it is perhaps time, even at this late stage, to acknowledge that it is we ourselves who need saving, and that the salvation cannot be entirely of our own making. [more]
It's Not God Who Needs Saving - It's Us | Standpoint