Grand Canyon of Philosophy

Grand Rapids is a fairly conservative place, filled with common-sense Midwest types who don’t take a cotton to extremism of any stripe.  My hometown is, significantly, the home of President Gerald Ford, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, and Rep. Vern Ehlers — gentle pragmatists, all.

So it’s with equal measures of curiosity and distaste that I witness the anti-war protests occuring routinely in the downtown area. 

West Michigan is not anti-war.  We’re not pro-war, per se, but we support our troops, and even if some (or many) don’t much care for the present enterprise in Iraq, we don’t protest about it.  Of course, every metropolitan area has its wackos and firebrands, yet it’s curious that anti-war protests continue unchallenged by anti-anti-war counter-protests in this fair city.

I think that the response to the conflict in Iraq and the current hysteria over climate change — just two of several warning signs — reflects a major break in American society.  I refer not to the usual suspects of ideology or economics, or of red-versus-blue, but of philosophy.

It is said that those who abandon belief in God lack the philosophical grounding to land anywhere but in a sort of fatalistic relativism, where no truth can be held to be absolute, since any truth-claim lacks an absolute frame of objective reference.

Perhaps that’s true; perhaps it’s not.  But as a working hypothesis, let’s run with it for a moment.

What is the biggest fault line in American civil society?  Not race.  Not language.  Rather, religion.  Those who profess a faith in God (typically the God of Abraham) see the world in much different ways from those who do not.

Pollsters and political scientists chalk up religion as a confounding variable.  Fair enough.  But is there something deeper to it than that?

If one accepts the existence of God, then certain modes of thinking about the world become possible, among them a cosmology that is not human-centric and an ethics that permits absolute value claims.  It is not idle coffeehouse chatter to note that the conclusions of high philosophy, especially in the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, lead to understandings of man’s place in the world and our duties to each other that conflict with secular philosophy.

Let’s consider two examples.

First, cosmology.  If God exists, and if God created people in His image and likeness, then people — as part of creation — have a duty to respond to the creator.  If God does not exist, then man has no duty to creation, since creation is an accident of chemistry, biology, and quantum mechanics that cannot be considered as the product of a rational and conscious supernatural actor.  It follows, then, that theists see themselves as part of a divinely ordered creation, whose status as “created” implies a subordination to some degree to the will of the creator.  And, that atheists are not compelled by logical necessity to recognize any higher authority than themselves (or, more generally, whatever authority they choose to accept).

Second, ethics.  The theistic duty described above takes its shape in the ethical norms revealed to creation by God, in the form of natural law and the covenants.  If you believe in God, then you believe that God establishes ethical norms that transcend human custom and are not optional.  Atheists, however, are not required to accept natural-law or divine-command moral theories; the can pick from egoism, feminism, deontology, virtue ethics, consequentialism, or anything that tickles their fancy — for the arbiter of what is morally correct lies within the self.

What are the implications?

It seems the major point of contention between theists and atheists is in the degree to which human autonomy should be surrendered to some entity (God, the community, whatever) outside the self.  In general, atheism is self-focused; atheists tend toward egoism and value themselves above all else.  This is not meant in a negative way; there is much merit to considering the self.  But it means that the two strands of thought, quite apart from their theological differences, provide a welcome home to very divergent political ideologies.

We can no longer have a meaningful public discourse about “life” questions — abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide, embryonic stem cell research.  Political battle lines have hardened, shaped by religious attitudes that are all-encompassing.

The question, though, is the degree to which religious or philosophical disagreement will continue to make civil discourse more difficult.  Today, abortion.  What tomorrow?  Just-war theory and evolution have already calcified.  What’s next?  Social justice, perhaps?

Yet for all the underlying power of religion and philosophy to shape our public conversations, so few remain aware of the basic principles of logic, epistemology, cosmology, ethics, theology, and metaphysics.  We are arguing from the watchtowers, but we have forgotten where the footpaths lay.

This is not a good thing, and it doesn’t bode well for a general reconciliation in Western civil society.

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1 comment

  1. The concern I see is that you’ve somewhat boxed secular people into one of two choices, which I know you know is really not the case. It’s easy to attack the extremist sides of the issue but in reality, I would put forth the idea that most secular people are’t anti-religion. Nor do they fit the two categorical examples you chose. One can believe in a god without believing the god made man in his or her own image. A person can also accept an existence of god without stating that god created morality or ethics. A lot of people believe in god as science, that the ethical standards created are simply laws of science. This whole approach indicates that god may exist, but god is hands off because all of the parameters have already been set beforehand. This means there is no real morality to a god, but the essence of being is the basic denominator.

    The secular approach to higher ethical standards is that everything is contained in particular rights that SHOULD be granted to everyone because it is the “right” thing to do, not the religious thing to do. Yes, this sets up all sorts of problematic situations that can fuel all sorts of specific concerns, but the central foundation is somewhat of a Biblical principle in nature, do unto others as you would have done to you. A lot of people fail this “rule” but it is not because of a bad foundation, either religious or secular, but because people are flawed and sometimes the rational choice is not the appropriate, communal choice. This makes a lot of beliefs centered on one’s perceptions and experiences. To quote the true deity’s book of songs: That don’t impress her much, and therefore, you can be Brad Pitt, a rocket scientist or have an expensive car, but without the ability to make the Shania happy, you’ll never achieve a true sense of worth in life.

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