Tuesday, September 28, 2010

In the absence of God: Sartre, Dostoevsky and the New Atheists

The trouble with the "new atheists" is that their moral outrage, most recently voiced against Papa-Ratzi during his state visit to the UK, is ultimately built upon the shifting sands of moral relativism.  When they take the moral high ground they need to presuppose theism at the same time as they deny it.

The implications of the denial and disappearance of God for morality were drawn out forcibly by the atheist existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) in a lecture that he gave in 1946.  Sartre's eyes were wide open to the implications of atheism, and in his following words he doesn't try to hold on to or smuggle in a morality that depends upon the existence of God.

It is somewhat ironic that the "new atheists" have not caught up with the insights of Neitzsche or Sartre.  Perhaps the explanation of that irony is due to a lack of interest in philosophic literature and rigorous philosophic thinking.  It is also due, I have no doubt, to the vanity of trying to re-write the rules of the universe.

Read on:
When we speak of “abandonment” – a favorite word of Heidegger – we only mean to say that God does not exist, and that it is necessary to draw the consequences of his absence right to the end. The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. 
Towards 1880, when the French professors endeavoured to formulate a secular morality, they said something like this: God is a useless and costly hypothesis, so we will do without it. However, if we are to have morality, a society and a law-abiding world, it is essential that certain values should be taken seriously; they must have an a priori existence ascribed to them. It must be considered obligatory a priori to be honest, not to lie, not to beat one’s wife, to bring up children and so forth; so we are going to do a little work on this subject, which will enable us to show that these values exist all the same, inscribed in an intelligible heaven although, of course, there is no God. 
In other words – and this is, I believe, the purport of all that we in France call radicalism – nothing will be changed if God does not exist; we shall rediscover the same norms of honesty, progress and humanity, and we shall have disposed of God as an out-of-date hypothesis which will die away quietly of itself. 
The existentialist, on the contrary, finds it extremely embarrassing that God does not exist, for there disappears with Him all possibility of finding values in an intelligible heaven. There can no longer be any good a priori, since there is no infinite and perfect consciousness to think it. It is nowhere written that “the good” exists, that one must be honest or must not lie, since we are now upon the plane where there are only men. Dostoevsky once wrote: “If God did not exist, everything would be permitted”; and that, for existentialism, is the starting point. 
Everything is indeed permitted if God does not exist, and man is in consequence forlorn, for he cannot find anything to depend upon either within or outside himself. He discovers forthwith, that he is without excuse. For if indeed existence precedes essence, one will never be able to explain one’s action by reference to a given and specific human nature; in other words, there is no determinism – man is free, man is freedom. Nor, on the other hand, if God does not exist, are we provided with any values or commands that could legitimise our behaviour. Thus we have neither behind us, nor before us in a luminous realm of values, any means of justification or excuse. – We are left alone, without excuse. 


David said...

That is really interesting, but I would add this piece from Zizek's How to Read Lacan, which takes an equally nuanced approach to the so-called Death of God:

Lacan wrote: 'As you know, the father Karamazov's son Ivan leads the latter into those audacious avenues taken by the thought of the cultivated man, and in particular, he says, if God doesn't exist... - If God doesn't exist, the father says, then everything is permitted. Quite evidently, a naïve notion, for we analysts know full well that if God doesn't exist, then nothing at all is permitted any longer. Neurotics prove that to us every day.'

The modern atheist thinks he knows that God is dead; what he doesn't know is that, unconsciously, he continues to believe in God. What characterizes modernity is no longer the standard figure of the believer who secretly harbors intimate doubts about his belief and engages in transgressive fantasies; today, we have, on the contrary, a subject who presents himself as a tolerant hedonist dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, and whose unconscious is the site of prohibitions: what is repressed are not illicit desires or pleasures, but prohibitions themselves. "If God doesn't exist, then everything is prohibited" means that the more you perceive yourself as an atheist, the more your unconscious is dominated by prohibitions which sabotage your enjoyment. (One should not forget to supplement this thesis with its opposite: if God exists, then everything is permitted - is this not the most succinct definition of the religious fundamentalist's predicament? For him, God fully exists, he perceives himself as His instrument, which is why he can do whatever he wants, his acts are in advance redeemed, since they express the divine will...)
Ref: http://www.lacan.com/zizbobok.html

Anonymous said...

Neitzsche or Sartre (sp.)

JohnFrost said...

If tomorrow, something were to shake your faith so violently that you could no longer believe in a God--that to try to do so would be as impossible as trying to convince yourself that Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy were real--would you, then, proceed to beat your wife? Steal from your neighbor? Lie and cheat and mistreat everyone you meet?

Martin Downes said...

Hi John

If I denied the existence of the Holy Trinity, God would not cease to be, and my own nature as a human being created by God would not alter. I would simply be in denial of ultimate reality and would be suppressing the truth.

It is logically possible that I could continue to believe in God and still end up beating my wife, telling lies, cheating etc. Believing in God would not prevent me from becoming a cruel or devious scum bag.

I could logically both deny God's existence and not start doing the things that you list.

Without God as an infinite-personal transcendent reference point our personal significance and the categories of right and wrong disintegrate. We are left, rationally speaking, with arbitrary absolutes.

Lots of atheists act in defiance of their own rational position (they do not act as if they are amoral, nor do they behave as if they really are no more than an accidental collection of atoms, a skin full of chemicals with self-consciousness) and do so for a variety of reasons (social and cultural, prudential and utilitarian etc.).

There is a further explanation for this. The Christian looks at the fact that we are not as bad as we could be, and that atheists do not start beating their wives just because they have been converted to atheism, and recognises that however much we may be in denial of God we are not capable of escaping the fact that he made us and that we are what we are because of him. The Christian has a rational explanation for this, the atheist has an irrational one.

I'm not sure whether you wanted me to say something that would give credence to the idea that we can be good without God. I would say that we cannot have a stable concept of what is good without God. I would also say that because of the Christian God these moral values persist and are partially upheld even by those who are suppressing the knowledge of the God they know to be there.

Best wishes


JohnFrost said...

I appreciate the fact that you endeavor to look at your faith through a rational lens. However, it sounds to me like you're committing a logical fallacy by presuming your conclusion. You assume your particular version of God's existence, and then you claim that even those that don't believe in your version of God are still moral because of said God.
This makes as much rational sense as a Muslim saying "Even Christians are moral because Allah has placed morality in their hearts."

I guess if that's all you want to do, that's your prerogative. I had just assumed, with the name dropping of famous philosophers, that you were interested in a bit more intellectually rigorous examination of your beliefs.

Martin Downes said...

Hi John,

All of our conclusions will be in line with our presuppositions, if we are consistent thinkers, whether they are warranted or otherwise.

Or another way to say it is that all of our reasoning is circular. I have good reasons for holding to my presuppositions. They neither destroy reason nor morality, and they account for the ontological stability of moral behaviour even among those who are in denial, at an epistemological level, of their own creaturehood and the existence of the Christian God.

Unless we discuss matters of morality in connection with our ultimate metaphysical and epistemological commitments we won't get very far. I fail to see how this is a failure of intellectual rigour. Anti-theism frequently borrows from the capital of theism without declaring upfront that it is doing so (i.e. showing moral outrage and acting as if there are moral absolutes whilst at the same time denying any rational basis for moral judgements. You cannot, starting with naturalistic presuppositions derive an 'ought' from what 'is'). We will never get to the heart of this without looking at the presuppositions that are the basic assumptions made by theists and atheists.

I'm not sure that your Muslim example holds true. I have never come across Muslims using a 'common grace' argument. Christianity makes much of the fact that we are made in the image of God and even though we are all on the run from the God who made us we cannot escape the effects of that image (this is a datum of Christian revelation rather than an inference from theism). To affirm this is to account for the presence and persistence of moral categories and behaviour at a rational level, rather than holding on to them by making an unwarranted irrational leap. But if a Muslim reasoned like this it would account for some things but of itself it would not help me to know whether Islam or Christianity was true.

In short those who don't believe are moral because, and only because, the Christian God exists. As a presupposition philosophical naturalism cannot derive an 'ought' from what 'is'. One if left with moralities, and arbitrary absolutes.

JohnFrost said...

Hi Martin,

To me, the hallmark of intellectual rigor when investigating an idea is the ability to examine and evaluate other points of view.

In this blog post, you have created a strawman, insisting that non-theist morality begins and ends with Sartre and Neitzsche; or even that naturalists need a moral absolute in order to say that something is morally wrong or right.

If you want, I'd love to discuss it; but only if you're interested. In order to look at another person's point of view, you have to say to yourself, "If I was wrong, would my opponent's argument make sense?"

Martin Downes said...

Hi John,

You need to fairly represent what I have said. You also need to show me how exactly I have raised a strawman rather than just asserting that I have.

To take your comments in reverse order, you accuse me of raising a strawman because I allegedly claim that:

"naturalists need a moral absolute in order to say that something is morally wrong or right."

I did not say this. If I did then please show me where I said this. Naturalists say that something is right and wrong all the time. The issue is not that they make moral judgements but, given their naturalistic assumptions, whether their use of the words "good, evil, right, wrong" are grounded in anything other than relativistic soil. The issue is whether or not these terms are no more than verbal labels with no stable, objective content.

That seems to me to be Sartre's point. And in his case it was one atheist criticising other atheists for their lack of consistency. Not that even he could live with the moral implications of his own position.

You also claim that I have insisted that:

"non-theist morality begins and ends with Sartre and Neitzsche."

Again I have said no such thing. If I have please point me to my where I make this claim. Non-theist morality, phenomenologically speaking, is a wide field. My post related to the relationship between atheistic presuppositions and moral judgements. Again I posted Sartre's comments on the tension between the two, and not my own inferences.

Seeing as you have failed to represent accurately what I have written, (leaving aside for now the assumptions that you have made about my intellectual integrity and the way in which you have not engaged with the substance of my responses), I find it hard to take you seriously as someone with whom I could have an intellectually profitable discussion.

Unless you can accurately represent what I have written, and let's face it you've not really told me anything about your own viewpoint so I don't know what you think at all, you are not in a position to lecture me about how to look at another point of view. I realise that this could come across in a snide way but my motivations are from from that.

JohnFrost said...

Hi again, Martin,

My apologies if I misunderstood your post. I got "non-theist morality begins and ends with Sartre and Nietzsche" from "It is somewhat ironic that the "new atheists" have not caught up with the insights of Neitzsche or Sartre," which I took to mean there was nothing beyond Nietzsche and Sartre, since the "new atheists" have yet to catch up to someone in the past.

And I assumed "naturalists need a moral absolute in order to say that something is morally wrong or right." from your first paragraph, and your comment "Without God as an infinite-personal transcendent reference point our personal significance and the categories of right and wrong disintegrate. We are left, rationally speaking, with arbitrary absolutes."

If this is not what you meant, I apologize.

As far as what I believe, I said that I'd be willing to talk about it, but we first have to establish if I even understood your point correctly. So let me see if I've got it right--

You contend that "new atheists" and, I'm assuming, non-theists in general, are presumptuous to call anything "right" or "wrong," morally speaking, because they do not have an "infinite-personal transcendent reference", i.e., God, to compare their morality to. Is that what you're saying?