Nostalgic For Nietzsche, Ctd

This post on the intellectual shallowness of some New Atheists stirred a number of readers to write. One connects it to two other Sunday posts on meditation and mindfulness:

If Michael Robbins wants us to worry that the decline of organized religion implies some loss of certainty about the foundations of our ethics, we will need some data showing that religiosity correlates with ethical behavior.  Did the universal piety of the European Middle Ages really make that a more ethical time?  Today, as then, we live in a world of murderous crusaders, rapist priests, and covetous megachurches.  What’s different today is that we also have deeply ethical atheists, agnostics, and secularists who debate the fine points of moral behavior with as much rigor and passion as theologists do, and who are building great ethical revolutions such as environmentalism on the surprisingly robust foundation of a practical, secular ethics.

Much of this success rests on the self-explanatory Golden Rule.  No fear of damnation is needed to explain why it’s a good idea to treat others as you would like to be treated.  It’s a contract, and you get security and stability only if you obey it.  The obviousness of this contract also makes it a firm basis for moral innovation.  You can get 80% of the way to understanding environmentalism, for example, by seeing it as the application of the Golden Rule to more remote relationships, such as between a river polluter and fishermen far downstream, or between humans and animals, or between humans and the natural forces that sustain them.

Of course, there’s a deeper basis to secular ethics for those who seek it, and your back-to-back posts by Christopher Isherwood and Rowan Williams both refer to it.

It lies in the insight that our illusion of self or ego is the real foundation of evil.  Meditation, as Sam Harris argues in The End of Faith, can briefly relieve us of the sensation of “I.” What’s left is an emptiness (“the body as a sort of cave” as Williams puts it) out of which comes Isherwood’s certainty: “Supposed knowledge of individuality … is nothing but illusion and ignorance.”  If everything we are is relational, and there is no ego to defend, then to be good toward others arises out of the essence of what we are.  Call it the social contract, or call it a spiritual insight, or call it God, but it’s definitely not the infantilizing fear of damnation. What’s more, it’s working.

Isherwood, from the 1940s until the end of his life, was a devotee of Vedanta, a school of Hindu philosophy – you can read about it in his last major work, My Guru and his Disciple. And Williams is an Anglican priest, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. There may be a secular basis for the ethics both men point toward, but neither can be claimed for the atheist camp. Another reader:

The religion Robbins, Hart and their ilk describe is not the religion believed and practiced by the vast majority of the religious. Good grief, Christians are burning witches in Africa, the US is littered with creationist “museums”, and Robbins wants atheists to focus on “austere abdication of metaphysical pretensions”? When Robbins says his religious belief isn’t like belief in the Easter Bunny, I’m happy to agree. For the vast majority of the religious, it’s exactly like belief in the Easter Bunny.

The religious intelligentsia want to embrace the vast majority of Christians (who believe nothing like they do), as part of their faith, and at the same time decry atheists who focus on that vast majority as failing to engage “true” Christianity and the deep, meaningful arguments for the faith.

When Robbins writes: “Of course the dead in Christ don’t intervene with God to help you find your car keys, and of course the Bible is inconsistent and muddled (no matter what the Southern Baptists claim to believe), and of course I find it extremely unlikely that Mohammed flew to heaven on a winged horse”, that’s when he gets to criticize atheist focus.

And this from a reader who notes that it “always is your threads on belief and atheism that prompt me to write a grumbling missive to you”:

What Robbins, and by extension you and Nick Spencer, seem to want is a Christian monopoly on “good values” – charity, humility, self-sacrifice, concern for the downtrodden; essentially liberal humanism with the theological scaffolding still attached – such that an anti-Christian (opposite of Christian) morality is by definition against all of these things and for “bad values.” Nietzsche, for all his brilliance and insight, was a fiercely anti-democratic elitist who hated weakness and had no use for social justice (Ayn Rand aped much what Nietzsche was doing, but with far less wit and humor). Presumably Robbins wishes contemporary atheists would own up to this and get down with their bad selves. In value-neutral terms, he thinks Christianity is a cat and Atheism is a dog and modern “New” atheists are dogs that eat cat food.

This is wrong for at least two reasons. First is Nietzsche’s gross misreading of social history and his own time. He castigates Christianity for glorifying weakness and poverty across millennia, without noting that Europe’s nations and their institutionalized Christianity, whatever their rhetoric of altruism, operated by the values he extols: aristocracy, patriarchy, indifference to suffering. It was the conditions created by these values and systems that birthed socialism and communism, largely atheistic movements that Nietzsche loathed.The other, related reason Robbins is wrong is his ‘no true Christian’ assumptions. The Christianity of doubt that you and he seem to both favor is a lovely little thing, but it has little truck in the popular consciousness. Mainstream Christianity, especially that which is most influential in our politics, is as it ever was in Nietzsche’s time: mouthing pieties of love and sacrifice, while in practice giving cover to a plutocratic status quo, and holding contempt for anyone that doesn’t fit its definition of humanity.

It also has evolved a proud scientific illiteracy. Atheists spend so much time knocking down what Robbins thinks are self-evidently stupid ideas like Creationism, because those are the kinds of ideas that are being most advanced by American Christianity. If modern atheists are theologically illiterate, it is only because modern Christianity is too. These aren’t strawmen being knocked down; as the top comment on that Slate review points out, 46% of Americans believe in literal creationism. No atheists are going to meet Robbins in metaphysical combat, because the battle is being waged elsewhere.

To close, if atheists were the anti-humanists of the “true” Nietzschean type, there would be far fewer fellow advocates for the purported Christian values of human rights, social justice, and egalitarianism. You certainly won’t find them in the bulk of American Christianity.