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Ross Douthat: Please Argue With Better Atheists

In search of a stronger opposition for God
punching achilles style

Because I’m getting really tired of debates with weak combatants.

I’m not an atheist myself, but I’m particularly skeptical of Douthat’s “morality-has-no-foundation-without-God” style of argument for religion, so I’ll enter the lists on the opposing side for the moment.

On the illusory self: the use of the word “illusion” is exceptionally confusing, and I wish cognitive philosophers would come up with another term – though I do suspect there’s an inherent problem with language here in that we don’t really know what we’re talking about.

There’s a huge amount of evidence that what we think of as the “self” – a homunculus sitting behind our eyeballs – is an incorrect picture of reality. The integrative self breaks down as a consequence of a variety of physical traumas and maladies; neuronal activity related to willed action precedes any conscious “intention” to act; artists from antiquity have attested to the experience of “inspiration,” the feeling that our most creative acts originate outside of ourselves. Apart from all this, the homunculus notion never made sense in its own terms. Who’s sitting behind the homunculus’s eyeballs, pulling the levers of his will? Where is the ghost in the ghost in the machine?

But an “illusion” is what happens when you perceive something that isn’t actually there. It’s an artifact of perception – and hence implies an entity doing the perceiving. The whole point of the argument that the self is “an illusion” is to say that there is no such entity. Consciousness cannot literally be an illusion because illusions can only be perceived by conscious entities. A rock cannot be deluded.

I don’t have a solution to this linguistic problem. Note that the problem is not a knock-down argument against materialism. There are materialist mysterians and materialist panpsychists – Roger Penrose, for example. And who’s to say that trees [I couldn’t just delete that particular typo – it’s too much fun] Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett and the rest of them may be right that the key to the puzzle of human consciousness is the ability to model other minds, which results in an ability to model one’s own mind, reflect on one’s own mental state, and thereby achieve a different kind of consciousness than other animals have. But there a huge leap from “they’re onto something” to “they’ve explained consciousness,” and an even bigger leap from there to “they’ve explained consciousness away.”

In any event, none of this is necessary to the atheist/materialist argument about morality.

So what is that argument? Well, I can’t speak for Coyne, but if I were structuring one, it would be a blend of existentialism, evolutionary psychology, Aristotle and Mill.

We are, in fact, responsible for making our own purposes in the world – Douthat as well, inasmuch as he is actually free to accept or reject Christianity, in whole or in part. Nobody can actually constrain his conscience but himself. Existentialism in this sense is descriptive, not prescriptive. A smug atheist would say that Douthat’s response to that reality is to choose a master whom he thinks will take good care of him. Douthat might bristle at that – but how is he to argue with someone who made a more Stoical choice, choosing to master himself?

Evolutionary psychology comes in to explain why some kind of morality is natural, since we can’t rely naively on an Aristotelean teleology which we now know has no empirical basis (but which, I cannot stress enough, Aristotle thought was scientific – I feel pretty confident that, were he alive today, Aristotle would be making precisely the same move). But much of the edifice of Aristotle’s ethics can be readily re-built on a Darwinian foundation. Now we have a theory of virtue and human flourishing, and an ethics to promote same within society. Between Aristotle and the neo-Darwinians, we’ve also probably got a Burkean bias towards existing institutions and arrangements and a preference for spontaneous order over imposed rules.

This leaves Mill, who we’ll bring in because we want to come to liberal conclusions (as Coyne does; I see nothing wrong with reasoning from conclusion back to premise, provided one knows that this is what one is doing; the argument is as strong or as weak no matter which end you start from). The thing about Mill is that he’s also readily assimilable to a Darwinian-Aristotealian framework. Mill’s liberalism isn’t terribly wedded to Lockean foundations; it’s very pragmatic, and more wedded to a notion of liberal virtues than to a notion of liberal rights. “Do unto others” is a very old, a very widely accepted ethical principle – no doubt the evolutionary psychologists have a ready just-so story as to why. Mill builds much of his edifice on that very comfortable foundation. What I also like about Mill is that he provides us with a model for a liberal hero, someone who is the exemplar of the liberal virtues as surely as a Christian saint is an exemplar of the Christian virtues or Achilles is the exemplar of the Homeric virtues.

Is that going to convince everybody? Is it going to satisfy everybody’s yearnings? Is everybody going to aspire to be a liberal hero? Of course not. But in case he didn’t notice, Douthat’s own church hasn’t yet convinced everybody, and hasn’t satisfied everybody. Will it assure that everybody behaves morally? No again – but, not to beat the same drum too hard, Douthat doesn’t have an empirical theory. He can’t prove that Christianity makes people less-likely to commit murder, all else being equal. He hasn’t even tried to demonstrate that.

But why be moral? If the universe has no point, and human beings are not here for a reason, why not be a hedonist? Or worse – a sociopath?

I’m always mystified by this question from theists. Douthat complains that Coyne’s argument is circular: “If my question is ‘what’s the justification for your rights-based egalitarianism?’ saying, ‘because it’s egalitarian!’ is not much of an answer.” But his own argument is equally circular: secular liberalism is “unjustified” because it lacks a foundation in belief in God, but a belief in God is “justified” because without it you don’t have a foundation for morality! I don’t know about Douthat, but I suspect that, at least some of the time, what I’m really hearing with this kind of argument is a species of Straussianism. To whit: yes, I know, and you know, that there isn’t really any arguing with a cold and empty cosmos. But most people can’t handle that kind of truth; they need to believe that there’s an objective meaning to their lives. So, for the sake of the greater good, we have to affirm publicly that there is such a thing, that God is the foundation of morality. I’ve always suspected that Strauss would have got on just fine with the Grand Inquisitor; in any event I’ve never liked this line of argument.

I appreciate that Rod Dreher, who also makes arguments like the above that I don’t have much use for, often takes a more personal turn, talking about how he experienced Christianity as salvation from a state of being that now fills him with some mixture of sadness and disgust. I understand that kind of argument – or, better, testimony. And I don’t see how the arguments of someone like Coyne would have any impact on it. What would he say – that the experience wasn’t real? Meaning what – that Dreher didn’t actually experience it? No – the heart of any “demystification” would be that Dreher was not supposed to allow that kind of experience to affect him deeply. To which I would say: what’s the argument within your secular morality for that attitude toward life, and towards one’s experiences?

I don’t think there is any such argument. But I also don’t think the attitude is simply smug social prejudice. There’s a masculinist tinge to some of the smugger atheists that I think deserves closer examination. And I think that affects the arguments of the more articulate theists to their detriment. What, after all, is the problem with arguing from experience, talking about one’s own soul’s longings? The problem, I suspect, is partly that it all sounds rather feminine.

Much better to be able to say: no, my arguments are objective, they have logical coherence, they are properly justified, they rest on firm foundations – it is you who are deluded, dancing in the air. That’s a properly masculine approach to reality, and we want our religion to be real in the way that would command masculine respect. We don’t just want our Christian heroes; we want them to kick Achilles’s primitive ass.

Much better. Pity it isn’t true.



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