22 January, 2012

Can Christians be nihilists? Not a chance!

Many believers argue that atheism is nihilistic.  Atheists respond to this contention as if it were a personal insult. This response naturally leads to an important question: What is Nihilism?

Existential nihilism is defined as "the notion that life has no intrinsic meaning or value, and it is, no doubt, the most commonly used and understood sense of the word today.” (Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy) Put simply, nihilists deny ‘absolutes’ exist, at least in the moral, political or social spheres.

Theists disagree. They propose that such social constructs should be oriented towards their particular end which reflects an absolute good. Believers cannot hold to the tenets of faith while accepting the proposition that a society can be fruitfully nurtured without moral absolutes. They are by their particular natures, mutually contradictory propositions. The denial of the existence of ‘absolutes’ would vitiate the truth of God and His influence in this world.

The dividing line between theists and nihilists is whether such a thing as ‘absolute’ right and wrong exists.  Religions strive to make use of faith as a ‘compass’ by which to navigate cultures towards the ‘common good’ and to avoid the perils of ‘evil’.  By what ‘standards’ do postmodern nihilists  navigate  turbulent waters? The solution offered is to say that we will ‘know’ what to do based upon the situation of the moment, guided by some innate collective consciousness of what constitutes right and wrong.  Yet these human talents have failed societies and cultures time and time again.

When faced with the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide, or  ‘ethnic cleansing’, can one  hold  a belief in an innate, universal understanding of right and wrong to protect and guide humanity if one rejects a belief an 'ultimate' right and wrong?  I realize that different participants in these slaughters claimed to be adherents of different religious faiths, but it was not religion that fired their conflict. It was ethnic and national passions that fueled these heinous crimes against humanity. Nihilists have nothing to offer in response to such barbarism.

Christians do. They believe that  a ‘Natural Law’ which God imprinted upon creation and written within our hearts exists. It imposes a higher authority than the State or tribal loyalty. It calls them to oppose such evils because God demands it, not because of some collective human consciousness forces it. Sacred scriptures and  corpus of theology provides a fount of wisdom and experience to assist believers in acting according to the prescripts of this natural law. It establishes that war can only be waged in defense of innocent life. It teaches that civilians are to be protected. It demonstrates that those whom the state describes as being the ‘enemy’ are actually our brothers and sisters, irrespective of any  detail that places them outside of a tribal or national group.

Can all of these horrors be brought to the feet of atheists? Clearly not. Many who do not believe in God are as horrified when confronted with such human depravity as any believer. Nor can we say that all atheists are certainly knowing advocates of nihilism. Whether or not they accept the divine origins of the Natural Law, they are as capable as believers in accessing its knowledge and following its teachings. Neither can believers claim that they are immune from falling under the influence of propaganda the State wields when they try to whip up a society to attack another. But at least the teachings of faith offers a yardstick by which to measure the ‘rightness’ of such an act of war - a tool that is denied to those who do not hold to the existence of moral, political or social absolutes.

2 comments:

  1. Hi Tim,

    You are correct: the common notion of nihilism is that life has no intrinsic “meaning”. I would also agree with you that most atheists would conclude that life has no “intrinsic” meaning. In other words, life only has whatever meaning we choose to give to it.

    Having said that, I am not sure why you would think that any of this might confer some kind of superior moral status upon Christians or Christianity.

    Is it so wrong for an atheist to feed the hungry because they are moved by ordinary human compassion to do so? Is it so wrong for an atheist to volunteer to coach their daughter’s soccer team because they enjoy doing so? Is it so wrong for the atheist to cure the sick because they believe that it represents a worthwhile use of their time and talents?

    Does the Christian only do these things because they believe that their god commands them to do so? Is it not possible that the Christian does exactly the same things for the same reasons as the atheist? Perhaps the Christian only gives god the credit for their good deeds as some kind of “post-hoc rationalization”?

    Let’s examine this a bit further: if a Christian only does good works because they believe their god commands it (and their god will punish and/or reward them accordingly), then is the atheist not the more virtuous individual because he/she will do good works without thought of personal reward or punishment?

    My guess is that your chief concern is not so much that the Christian and the atheist might have the same practical motivations for doing good works, but rather, the atheist has no good reasons for doing good or avoiding evil. You are fixated upon the idea that Christian theology and “Natural Law” are the only sound basis for morality.

    Firstly, there is nothing unique about the idea of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This idea is the cornerstone of most moral systems, and it predates Christianity by centuries. Moreover, adherence to this maxim does not even require a rewarding or punishing deity in order to work. Adherence can be viewed as a kind of social contract: I help out others now, and by doing so, I will show myself as being worthy of help if disaster should befall me in the future. It is a form of enlightened self-interest via a social contract. No god required.

    Continued...

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  2. Continued...

    Secondly, your much ballyhooed “Natural Law” is not a law at all. It is only one of many competing moral theories. It has two great shortcomings as a moral theory:

    a) The “is/ought” connection. Just because something “is”, in no way implies that it ought to exist. For example, forceful sexual coupling among many species is a fact of life in the natural world, yet no one would seriously argue that this endorses rape in human relationships.
    b) Natural law requires human interpretation and meaning in order to be decoded. Natural Law is not objective in any sense, and I would contend, is only a form of post-hoc rationalization. As I have pointed out many times before, Natural Law is a ruse to smuggle god into the theist’s moral conversation. It is how a theist makes a moral argument appear secular.

    In short, I contend that most Christians behave pretty much like most non-believers. Both groups are motivated to do good or ill for pretty much the same reasons. In fact, theistic belief appears to give believers no better outcomes than non-believers. You may take the spectacular failure of your Bishop Raymond Lahey as one data point, and you can easily find articles such as this one supporting my point:

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/guest-voices/post/is-religion-good-for-society/2011/10/17/gIQA9HutrL_blog.html

    In the end, nihilism is just a big scary label attached to some atheists. Atheists find the notion of a punishing or rewarding god either a childish or a clownish basis for morality.

    If the meaning of my life is to exist in the monotony of heaven - playing endlessly upon a harp in praise of a tyrannical god - then I will gladly take the sublime peace of non-existence as my fate after I shake off this mortal coil.

    Cheers…Martin

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