Thursday, December 25, 2008

Atheism and Kierkegaard's Way to Religion

I had high hopes for the new Secular Right blog, which promised to defend conservative principles from a purely secular perspective. I think this can be done, and should be done, since our political arrangements are a matter of the natural virtue of prudence. Religious principles may inform political principles, but they are not reducible to them, and it should be possible to arrive at and defend sound political principles from purely natural reason.

Unfortunately, the secular right blog has turned fairly quickly into just another atheist religion-bashing venue. Now I have no problem with atheists bashing religion, or with Christians bashing atheism, for that matter. But there are already plenty of blogs and websites dedicated to that noble purpose. Just when does the atheist leave off telling us how ridiculous religious belief is, or spending all his time fending of the slings and arrows of his religious adversaries, and start telling us how one may find and pursue the path of "human flourishing?"

For this is ultimately what politics is about - organizing our common life for the common good. And the common good is really a collection of individual human goods. This brings me to my real problem with atheism.

I believe the existence of God can be defended as a matter of philosophy. But it is rare that anyone comes to believe in God purely as a matter of intellectual conclusion. God may be the answer to certain metaphysical questions, but those questions only have weight for us if God is also the answer to other questions, questions that bear more on the will than the intellect. What I mean is that God may be the answer to the question: How can I become the man I know I was meant to be, or should be?

When I ask this question in the way (I think) Kierkegaard meant it, I am no longer interested in defending myself or defending my principles. Instead of questioning God and finding Him wanting, I have questioned myself and found myself wanting. I know I can and should be a better man than I am. The skepticism becomes subjectively rather than objectively directed. The locus of danger has shifted; instead of being worried primarily about objective errors (i.e. that my metaphysical beliefs might be in error) I am worried about subjective errors (that I may fail to become the man I should be). I have become a "subjective thinker" rather than an "objective thinker."

The subjective thinker sees God as a possible answer to the subjective questions he asks himself. Yes, he is concerned with the objective question of the existence of God, but the weight of the objective question is not absolute. Is it better to be a bad man but be "right" about the objective question of God, or be a good man but be "wrong" about the objective question of God? Yes, yes, I know that many atheists are good men. In fact, just about every atheist I've met has been a better man than I am. That is the point. Atheism seems to be a club for men who are naturally good. It's not primarily about the question of becoming better men, but about defending the fact that we already are pretty good men. What, then, does it have to say to the man who is convinced that he is not a pretty good man? I ask for bread and they give me a stone.

I don't intend irony in those last points. I hold no brief for those Christians who denounce atheists as necessarily bad or doomed to some kind of evil existence. Atheists are quite right that the run-of-the-mill atheist is probably a better man than the run-of-the-mill Christian. This is because your typical atheist is well-educated and well-brought up, while the vast majority of Christians are poor and poorly educated. But it wasn't atheism per se that made them good, but their education and their upbringing - which, more times than not, has been Christian. 

But all that is by the board. "For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." One way to interpret this is that Christ is calling those who are thinking subjectively and not objectively. Kierkegaard goes into this in wonderful detail in the Philosophical Fragments and Concluding Unscientific Postscript. For the man approaching Christianity in Kierkegaard's way - subjectively - the very fact that Christianity is speaking to him in a way that atheism won't or can't, is reasonable subjective grounds to believe in it. But don't try to defend this objectively with an atheist!


4 comments:

Anthony said...

"Atheists are quite right that the run-of-the-mill atheist is probably a better man than the run-of-the-mill Christian. This is because your typical atheist is well-educated and well-brought up, while the vast majority of Christians are poor and poorly educated. But it wasn't atheism per se that made them good, but their education and their upbringing - which, more times than not, has been Christian."

I think this is important. Can you say a little more about the last sentence - in what ways, exactly, has their upbringing been importantly Christian? Why do you think the causal structure runs this way, instead of the way many atheists think it runs (Christianity acts as a dullifier, makes people saps, inhibits their reasoning and natural inquiry, and so on)?

David T. said...

Anthony,

Thanks for stopping by.

I was thinking primarily of the largely unconscious imaginative education one receives when the culture is fundamentally Christian. Chesterton makes a lot of this point in "Orthodoxy." The classic fairy tales and the great literature of the West are imaginatively Christian even when they are not explicitly so.

I subscribe to the view that our culture is coasting along on the accumulated momentum of 2,000 years of Christianity, momentum that is leaking away as Christianity becomes more of an historical memory than a living one. Even most atheists still subscribe to specifically Christian values unknown in the pagan world - that the strong should serve the weak rather than dominate them, for example.

Anthony said...

Interesting, thanks for the response - I think that a more fleshed-out account of the specifically Christian values atheists subscribe to would be invaluable ... (I am curious, though, *do* most atheists believe that the strong should serve the weak?)

The point is to get a better picture of exactly what is at stake - what "irrational" Christian values would in all propriety be thrown out by the atheist?

David T. said...

Anthony,

I'm leaving for an overseas trip in a few hours, so this will be my last comment.

I don't think I could say exactly which Christian values atheists typically subscribe to (I'll be looking for an answer on your blog!) But it's reasonable, I think, to suppose that the new post-Christian world (if it comes to that) will resemble pagan antiquity more than it will resemble the Christian past. Stuff like outright infanticide will become common and no longer seem outrageous; it wasn't outrageous in the ancient world. This is already coming to pass.

Slavery will also become the norm, as I've argued in this post about natural slavery