On Manilow and Myths

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I had the very great pleasure last night of debating the nature of the satisfied life from the perspective of Augustine with a local atheist who did so from the perspective of Bertrand Russell.  I had not done a debate since I was sixteen (when I had the invidious task of arguing for the absurd motion 'This House Believes Britain Should Remain in the European Economic Community').  As always, I assume, there were things I wish I had now said, or said better, but I do not think I did too badly on the whole.  My favourite moment was when my interlocutor really dodged my question about his  basis for saying that human beings were a higher form of life than potatoes.

Two striking moments came at the end, when we moved in to a time of open questions from the audience.  One gentleman challenged my earlier assertion that my interlocutor was wrong when he declared that religion had opposed everything that we now see as progress: science, the emancipation of the slaves and democracy.  What about the Royal Society, Wilberforce and the rise of the British trade union movement? I had asked.  The questioner from the audience asked whether these things were actually the result of the impact of Enlightenment ideas on Christianity.   My answer to that focused on the fact that scripture gives meaning to creation and dignity to human beings; both of these drove the Christians who were involved in science and politics.  I also noted that the church is sinful and that Augustine understood that.  I wish I had also noted that the Enlightenment too has much blood on its hands:for example, the French Revolution and the political children of Hegel - Marxism and German nationalism.  To quote Barry Manilow - hence the grammatical error -- 'just who shot who at the Copa Cabana' is a somewhat pointless question when Christians and Enlightenment types are trading insults.

The second moment came when a member of the audience asked how she, a homeschool mum struggling with depression, could be satisfied.  I answered that the Bible (and Augustine) indicate that life is tragic, a struggle in a fallen world, marked by moments of satisfaction but much frustration.  Sometimes life is just miserable, I said, but the hope of the resurrection will make all things right.

My interlocutor then answered that Russell would give a much more sensitive answer, that he would have stressed the value of what the lady was doing and that, in twenty years time she might well be satisfied when she sees what she has achieved.  He thus earned one of the few spontaneous rounds of applause of the night.

This answer went to the heart of the problem which the evening highlighted: my interlocutor had spent much time deriding Christianity as providing a fairy story to make life bearable through its metaphysical myths, its 'pie in the sky when you die.'  Yet here he was, providing just such a fairy story.  The audience member may not live twenty years. She might be hit by a bus today or die of a heart attack or cancer next year.   She might live to a ripe old age but see her children grow up to be massive disappointments or to predecease her.  Why is 'pie in twenty years' time on earth' more plausible than the heavenly variety when it comes to satisfaction today?

More to the point - and this was a point to which we had come again and again during the debate, what basis had the man who said the following to claim that this mother was doing anything worthwhile at all?

That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins -- all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built.

On Russell's account, this mother is just one random bunch of atoms caring for some other random bunches of atoms.   If so, any meaning is purely subjective.   Why is satisfaction even an issue?  To says she does something worthwhile is to assume some kind of fairy story that gives dignity to the whole and.... simply makes life more bearable.  

This is one reason why I find atheism so implausible.  If Russell could dismiss Christianity in part because he had met so few Christians who seemed to take the faith seriously, I consider atheists to be much the same.   Do not tell me that we are a random bunch of atoms and then try to impose your myths on me.  Do not create a morality in your own image and then try to give it some objective, transcendent status.  A random world does not give privileged status to the moral myths of an upper class English proto-hippy.  Do not tell me that serial killers are morally worse than aid workers. At best, you might say that you find them personally more distasteful.  If you are an atheist, have the courage to take heed of the words of Nietzsche's Madman:

Have you ever heard of the madman who on a bright morning lighted a lantern and ran to the market-place calling out unceasingly: 'I seek God! I seek God!' As there were many people standing about who did not believe in God, he caused a great deal of amusement. Why! is he lost? said one. Has he strayed away like a child? said another. Or does he keep himself hidden? Is he afraid of us? Has he taken a sea-voyage? Has he emigrated? the people cried out laughingly, all in a hubbub. The insane man jumped into their midst and transfixed them with his glances. 'Where is God gone?' he called out. 'I mean to tell you! We have killed him, you and I! We are all his murderers! But how have we done it? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the whole horizon? What did we do when we loosened this earth from its sun? Whither does it now move? Whither do we move? Away from all suns? Do we not dash on unceasingly? Backwards, sideways, forwards, in all directions? Is there still an above and below? Do we not stray, as through infinite nothingness? Does not empty space breathe upon us? Has it not become colder? Does not night come on continually, darker and darker? Shall we not have to light lanterns in the morning? Do we not hear the noise of the grave-diggers who are burying God? Do we not smell the divine putrefaction? --for even Gods putrefy! God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console ourselves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has hitherto possessed, has bled to death under our knife--who will wipe away the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? There never was a greater event--and on account of it, all who are born after us belong to a higher history than any history hitherto!'--Here the madman was silent and looked again at his hearers; they also were silent and looked at him in surprise. At last he threw his lantern on the ground, so that it broke in pieces and was extinguished. 'I come too early,' he then said, 'I am not yet at the right time. This prodigious event is still on its way, and is traveling--it has not yet reached men's ears. Lightning and thunder need time, the light of the stars needs time, deeds need time, even after they are done, to be seen and heard. This deed is as yet further from them than the furthest star--and yet they have done it!'

Posted December 14, 2012 @ 7:08 AM by Carl Trueman
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