It’s the Pictures that Got Small

(I wrote this in March, 2013)

I am no more eager than Damon Linker to rehash the arguments of the Lesser Atheism, but I don’t quite follow him this far:

If atheism is true, it is far from being good news. Learning that we’re alone in the universe, that no one hears or answers our prayers, that humanity is entirely the product of random events, that we have no more intrinsic dignity than non-human and even non-animate clumps of matter, that we face certain annihilation in death, that our sufferings are ultimately pointless, that our lives and loves do not at all matter in a larger sense, that those who commit horrific evils and elude human punishment get away with their crimes scot free — all of this (and much more) is utterly tragic.

There’s a lot going on here, and I don’t object to all of it, but it expresses some confusion. I’ve highlighted the words that I think are doing most of the work here. Would this paragraph make any sense if you took them out? Leaving aside the concepts of intrinsic-ness or ultimacy or larger senses, does anyone believe that human life has no dignity, that suffering is pointless, and that lives and loves don’t matter? I suppose some people do, your true and sincere cynics. But pretty much everything in the crazily diverse human enterprise establishes that we think of ourselves as having some kind of dignity–even if it’s the lonely dignity of being the sole consciousness in the universe (unlikely as that may actually be, I don’t know)–and that we consider sufferings and loves to be meaningful, at least potentially. Does any of that cease to be true once we no longer imagine a God underwriting the whole concept of significance?

Linker is right to contrast the mournful atheism of people like Nietzsche and Philip Larkin with the cheerier, duller versions available in the publishing world today. But it seems clear enough, to me at least, that the Matthew Arnolds, the existentialists, and all the rest were living, to borrow Julian Sanchez’s splendid phrase, in the shadow of God. I’m going to keep linking to that post until everybody reads it, but in case you don’t have time, here’s the nut:

God or whatever other transcendent sources of certainty we might posit just serve as baffles to conceal the ineradicable circularity that’s going to sit at the bottom of any system of knowledge. You’re always ultimately going to have a process of belief formation whose reliability can only be vouchsafed in terms of the internal criteria of that very process. Calling it a divinely endowed rational faculty rather than an adaptive complex of truth-tracking modules doesn’t actually change the structure of it any.

He is talking specifically about epistemology, but it’s just as true for things like morality, aesthetics, and meaning more generally. The old atheists were mourning an absence. They imagined God granting things–meaning, specifically, but also truth and beauty and so on–which His absence deprives us of. But I don’t think they were right about that. I’m not saying it makes no difference whether Something takes note when you pray the Our Father in an empty room. But the astonishing thing about religions is that God doesn’t have to exist (a tricky word to use in connection with God, by the way) in order for them to be, substantially, true.

Consider Christianity. There is no way to prove the existence or non-existence of God, with all due respect to people who spend time attempting either. But let’s stipulate that you are convinced, as many are, that the word “God” does not convey anything meaningful. That does not in any way invalidate or detract from any of the discoveries about humanity that have come through the 2,000 year adventure–in its crimes, its glories, and its morally indifferent oddities–of the Christian Church. People really can forsake everything to follow Jesus, turn the other cheek, and compose the Mass in B-minor. The claims we make about human life, human capacity, and human relationship are true enough even if there’s no God to furnish a transcendent “because.” The discovery that the universe is huge, old, and without evident guidance happened quite independently of any one person’s judgment of whether the word “God” means anything, and it would have provoked considerable vertigo among humans whether or not we decided to clutch God as a talisman against that vastness.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer pointed out seventy years ago, the world gets along just fine without recourse to the “working hypothesis” of God. The church has tried to hold a place for God by insisting–as Linker does here, intentionally or not–that while we can do trivial things like fly airplanes without any reliance on the God hypothesis, we can’t have meaning, truth, or morality without God to ordain them. But Bonhoeffer anticipated the failure of this “God of the gaps,” and I think it’s pretty evident that he was correct to do so.

The truth of Linker’s argument can be captured, without these cobwebs, if we stop thinking of God as a philosophical principle we need in order to do certain Ultimate and In A Larger Sense mental functions and we start thinking of faith as a cultural, literary, and even political tradition. The problem, for example, with “natural law” arguments over anything (especially same-sex marriage) is that they involve neither nature nor law. It tends to wound “natural law” partisans a bit when you point this out, and they offer the ancient and coherent quality of natural-law philosophy in defense of its truth. What they don’t seem to appreciate is that the coherence is the argument. If people like Rod Dreher thought of “natural law” instead as a theory of, say, “cultural good,” they might get somewhere.

And that, I think, is what the church more generally will have to do if it wants to speak meaningfully. We can’t terrorize the world with the specter of meaninglessness because, behold, people still experience meaning. We can’t harass our fellow humans with the unreliability of our non-divine sense-perceptions. None of us truly worries about that, since we willingly put our lives in the hands of technology developed and used with no reference to God. What we do have–what we have always had–is a unique culture and literature that expresses a kind of vastness in what it means to be human. God, for us, really emerges from that vastness–in moments of individual and collective miraculous experience, in the unbounded capacities of the mind encountering the world, in the ordinary transcendence of love and solidarity. Jesus’s “‘being there for others’ is the experience of transcendence,” as Bonhoeffer put it. We write that experience back into our description of the universe, which we believe against all evidence to be ordered by love.

What difference does it make that modern secular culture has borrowed our picture of a grandiose humanity without attribution? We should be pleased. The naiveté and shallowness of the Lesser Atheists is just fine, so long as we remain committed to maintaining a distinctive culture that coheres with its tradition. If all we think we can do is stash God in a philosophical foundation or in the realm of ultimate things, we’ve already lost him.

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