Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Atheistic Humanists and Destruction

I am in the process of reading an extraordinary book right now. By John Gray, the English Philosopher, it is entitled “Straw Dogs” (London: Granta, 2003). It is about many things but as far as I can work out the central theme (the book will take several readings), it is that Humanism took its belief in progress from Christianity and that with the debunking of Christianity, Humanism has no grounds except arrogance, for maintaining that humans can improve the world at all. Humans are just like any other animals adrift in a purposeless sea of chance.

In the course of this book, about which I hope to write more in the future, Gray derides man’s nature and conduct and gives examples of humankind’s destruction of nature and other humans. He uses as an example of the actions of what he cleverly (I don’t know if he invented the term actually) calls Homo rapienes - - raping man, the destruction of so many natural species and so much ruination of nature (rain forests etc.).

The Humanist’s hopes that science and global capitalism can provide answers to the problems of life on planet earth are, to Gray, a complete and dangerous delusion.

Gray, however, has said that it was one of Christianity’s erroneous concepts to suggest that there was purpose to life at all or that humans are any different from any other animals. We are, and he frequently cites Darwin, simply afloat in a sea of developing genes. Human life that thinks it can make a change is simply deluded and arrogant - - what humankind touches it defiles.

Gray’s view is pessimistic in the extreme and his book will cause alarm in many circles - - particularly amongst the Humanists at whom he takes particular aim. What I want to comment on here is something else - - something that slips into his commentary without comment and that, I think, needs further consideration.

Gray makes the claim that the destruction of nature is “hideous” and “a nightmare” but one must ask, if the Universe is purposeless and simply adrift within the boundaries of meaninglessness and chance: “why the negativity?” What is so “bad” about destruction after all - - it is only natural isn’t it?

Seeing destruction of creation (note the purpose implied in the very term creation - - which is why it is a term Gray does not use) as “bad” suggests that things are, somehow, “good” but if they are “good” how can this have any meaning within the realm of purposelessness?

It has been fashionable in recent years for people, often Christians or at least those who believe in some kind of God, to write provoking essays and books about “whether we can be good without God?”

These books and essays also miss the point. Of course we can be good (meaning in terms of certain actions) without believing in God. Belief in God doesn’t necessarily produce good actions just as failure to believe in God doesn’t necessarily produce bad actions. The question is much more subtle than people often suggest.

The question really ought to be “Can we Care about Good if There is no Purpose and Can there be any Purpose without God (as in an Order and Purpose to the Universe)?” A very different take on the subject. It is too easy to answer the question “Can we be good without God?” by speaking to its ambiguity. For we all know “good people” who do not believe in God and act for motives of altruism and so on that they do not attribute to a Divine source.

However, if we ask them why they care or why anyone should care about anything if there is no purpose to life, then we get at the heart of the matter - - the heart that so many writers, scientists (especially scientists) and citizens today ignore.

If we care about anything, including the environment, and believe others should too, then we do not believe in a purposeless universe. If the universe has purpose then it does not emerge from nor depend upon blind chance. Clearly human beings cannot create matter, they are themselves created matter who do not depend on their own volition to keep going moment by moment. So, if all of matter (the Universe) is kept in being by forces beyond ourselves and if the whole thing is tending in a purposed direction then that “beyond ourselves Ordering Principle” (call it God if you want for shorthand) is the only logical reason to care about anything at all.

The choice is between the two belief systems
1) Purposelessness, lack of design, chance development towards no purposed end,
2) Purposed, designed development with purpose towards an end. There is no third choice available.

The consequences of living out the logical, rather than sentimental, outcomes of one or other of these two views are ours to make in view of what we believe to be true. In the end, it is very important to realize that science cannot prove either hypothesis by definition since science is about “measurement” and you cannot measure from nothing to something anyway. The critical point, however is that we come to a clear understanding of that fact that “caring” belongs to the realm of purpose not of purposeless chance. Chance might have a place within purpose but then chance itself is, in some sense, purposed.

What cannot be sustained is the kind of Humanism that seeks to maintain the religious and especially Christian concept(s) of purposed creation and meaningful development and the “good of nature” against a background of sin and redemption (and therefore purposed history) while denying creation, purpose and redemption.

T.S. Eliot once defined atheism as “living under ether” which always seemed, to me at any rate, to be a bit harsh and not entirely true since it suggested that atheists were completely without perception like patients etherized upon tables.

One thing is clear, however, Gray has administered a wake-up call to contemporary atheistic humanists; whether they choose to wake up and get out of their all too comfy intellectual beds to engage the world he has described for them rather than continuing to stay cozy in a world propped up by half-truths stolen from a prior Christian era they supposedly deny, is another question.

Iain T. Benson ©