Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"No God: no law. No law: no morals"

Peter Hitchens, who is not an atheist, reviews John Gray's Seven Types of Atheism. Gray is an atheist but seems to have a very clear-eyed understanding of what that means and not much respect for atheism as most of its believers understand it. From the review:
This is a justifiably testy book, by an atheist about atheists. Perhaps it means that the long and lucrative fashion for books about how God does not exist, and how God is simultaneously hateful and wicked, is over. Since John Gray is a capable thinker, knowledgeable about philosophy and a respecter of facts, the recent outburst of arguments for and even about atheism, presented as if they were fresh discoveries, must have struck him as thin. As he himself says, atheism does not really amount to very much. It is just an absence, even if it is a willful one. There is no Gospel of Godlessness, as such, no anti-scripture to which the unbeliever may turn for guidance or solace. ....

Unlike so many modern scoffers at religion, he grasps that while the idea of a just God is terrifying, so is the suspicion or the conviction that there is no just God. The idea of a universe where there is no power that stands for order and justice is, or ought to be, very frightening. So men who can no longer believe in God have instead invented various more or less fatuous concepts to provide such a power, especially a belief in human progress. The trouble with such ideas is that, without God, they are so much whistling in the dark. The godless believer in “progress” is in reality like the victim of an avalanche tumbled deep in snow. He has no idea which way is up because he has no means by which to measure anything of the kind. Ultimately he must use religious categories to orient himself.

.... Perhaps most definitive of all is his observation that godless searches for a universal law are futile. “Without a law giver, what can a universal moral law mean?” he asks. “If you think of morality as part of the natural behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans do not live according to a single moral code. Unless you think one of them has been mandated by God, you must accept the variety of moralities as part of what it means to be human.” Well, exactly. No God: no law. No law: no morals, just situational, alterable ethics. I am amazed that so few seem to realize the implications of atheism for the rule of law over power, the one thing that really sustains human civilization.

...Gray teases those who try to build a morality on evolution by natural selection, pointing out how that theory has been used in the past to justify what its modern supporters would rightly denounce as appalling racial bigotry and perhaps worse than that. He reminds us of T.H. Huxley’s typically clear-eyed and undeceived warning that evolution “is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”

Gray gleefully drives a bulldozer through and across what are really already the ruins of historical inevitability, the belief in progress, and the other Marxist and pseudo-Marxist rubbish that clutters the minds of the conventionally wise. ....

As I think Gray understands very well, a good poem may describe more than it apparently expresses. This is not least because it will be concerned precisely with unimaginable reality. I considered that unimaginable reality recently as I looked down into a grave in the warm, familiar chalk soil of Hampshire in England, and contemplated the coffin, already half-covered with earth, of a good friend, younger than I am, who has just gone into eternity a little way ahead of me. And it was the profound poetry of monotheism, specifically that of the English Prayer Book...that best enabled me to consider and respond to the unimaginable reality of the fact that in the midst of life, I was in death.

.... “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.” And then, as we turned away, ambushed by beauty and perhaps blinded by tears, we might consider the possibility that it is not a pose to believe that God was once man and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and knew death, and overcame it. For if there are justice and law and hope in the universe, they are surely to be found only on the far side of the grave. And if none of these things exists, then there is no unimaginable reality, nor any point in one, nor any point in poetry and music and speech and temporal love—just mud and silence.