The Worst of All Possible Worlds

As I announced about a week or so ago, I’ve been doing some reading and research in hopes of writing something not entirely incoherent about the subject of free speech as it relates to the internet. So I decided to start by reading some background on the freedom of speech and I started with the books I already have lying around. (It’s nice being a blogger rather than an academic.)

A squirrel sitting on a stump in a Rhoddodendron bush.

Without God, how does this Sciurus carolinensis know that it’s a squirrel?

It’s often crossed my mind that the effect of the Reformation and the wars of religion on the Enlightenment is often underestimated. That a philosophical project to ground society’s institutions on something unrelated to religion should follow on the heels of a century of devastating wars caused by doctrinal differences hints to me at a close connection between the two.

So, when I came across a book a couple of months ago entitled The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, I bought it on impulse. The writer, Brad S. Gregory, it turns out, is motivated by more than simple intellectual curiosity. He is prodded to write by a disgust for the modern world. The object of his disgust appears to be the word “whatever.” This word, according to him, is brought forth from people’s lips by a condition known as “advanced secularization.” The book is enjoyable to read as long as he remains in the past, but when he tries to deal with the present one gets the painful image of a man trapped in a nightmarish hall of mirrors screaming to get out. Is our modern world really that bad? And even more bizarrely, is it really that bad because of our insistence on respecting human rights?

What horrific things are happening in the modern world? Is it a woman, miscarrying, screaming in pain for hours, perhaps days, because a Catholic hospital won’t administer certain treatments? (I’m actually thinking about a friend of mine, not Savita Halappanavar.) Is it a transperson being beaten up because someone thinks he or she is unnatural? (I’ve encountered this in my own life as well.) No, it’s opposing those things without being able to explain why you oppose them in a manner satisfactory to Brad S. Gregory.

The creation of modern, liberal states as the institutional guarantors of individual rights might have avoided the subjectivization of morality if modern moral philosophy had succeeded in its principal objective: to discover or create a convincing secular foundation for ethics and thus for a a shared moral community independent of inherited Christian or other religious beliefs. But that did not happen, whether with respect to the good, human priorities, or right and wrong.

And if one of the warring Christian sects had succeeded in establishing, to the satisfaction of everyone in sixteenth or seventeenth century Europe, the truth of their religious tenets, there would have been no need for modern moral philosophy in the first place. Modern moral philosophy exists because Christianity failed. Furthermore, even if modern moral philosophy has failed, it doesn’t follow that Jesus was born of a virgin, walked on water and flew up to the sky.

Regarding Jonathan Israel’s claim that the naturalism of some Enlightenment thinkers “secured a foundation for modern, liberal human rights, Gregory says,

The antireligious, metaphysical naturalism of radical Enlightenment thinkers neither did nor could do anything of he sort that Israel alleges given what empirical investigation by the natural sciences has disclosed since the eighteenth century. Assertions such as Israel’s ignore the lack of any connection whatsoever between normative moral claims, whatever they are, and the empirical investigation of natural regularities based on the assumptions of the natural sciences. As Christian Smith rightly puts it, “Matter and energy are not a moral source. They just exist and do what they do.” that includes the matter and energy that happen to be doing what they are doing, regardless of what they are doing in bodies of members of the species Homo sapiens that happen to exist today. If we restrict ourselves to the findings of the natural sciences, then feeding the poor, buying one’s fifth Lamborghini, and selling girls into sexual slavery are morally equivalent. By design and necessarily, the natural sciences per se are definitionally amoral and disclose no values, whether secular or religious – they are nihilistic in the etymological sense. Their practitioners discover no “dignity” or “goodness,” just as they discover no rights to “equality” or “liberty” or “autonomy” or anything else. Nor does anyone else who understands the demands of knowledge as dictated in the academy by the metaphysical naturalism and epistemological empiricism of the natural sciences. In their modern, secular forms in the Western world, all such rights are derived and adapted from Christianity and Judaism, religions in which it makes sense to say that rights are real because it is believed that all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God.

Another nice thing about being a blogger is that I don’t have to write in an academic style. 🙂

The basic thrust of Gregory’s argument is that, despite denials to the contrary, modern morality is derived from Christianity because there is no place else it could have come from. If contemporary non-believers don’t sell girls into sexual slavery, it’s because we have Christians in our collective past. I’m glad I didn’t know that when I was living with a boyfriend whose parents were atheists of Chinese descent. I would have never been able to sleep at night. I guess I should presume no one offered him the right price. Lucky me.

A page later, after a delerious paragraph in which Gregory bizarrely asserts that without any god we have “no basis for regarding individual members of the species Homo sapiens as persons,” Gregory continues:

Nietzsche rightly saw that the belief in natural rights that sustained modern rationalist ethics was dependent on Christianity (and on the Judaism he likewise hated); hence atheism entailed nihilism, which cleared the way for Dionysian instinct. To which in recent decades especially, many Westerners have in effect added the expansive coda – “or whatever” – that has become increasingly apparent in the prevailing ethos.

I’m used to this sort of histrionic hand-wringing, in which the writer appears to believe that we live in the worst of all possible worlds, from people who appear to have little sense of history. To hear this from an actual historian is a surprise. Gregory, who is so bothered by the ethos of whatever, is perfectly aware of the corrupt behavior of Christians in the years preceding the Reformation. Does he really believe that none of these king and princes, after public displays of piety, didn’t quietly roll their eyes and think to themselves, “Whatever.”

There are days when I think that we atheists perform an invaluable function for believers. If ever they succeeded in fully suppressing us, they’d turn on each other.

Gregory could have written a much better book had he stuck to the field in which he was trained. Instead, he wrote an incoherent mess in which he tries to take on everyone from Kwame Anthony Appiah to Ray Kurzweil, with swipes at Sam Harris, Pat Benatar, and some guy on a dating site called evileddie in between. When you find yourself arguing with evileddie, it’s time to take a break – which I’ll do now.

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1 comment
  1. On whether we are living in the worst possible worlds I can’t comment on but on the question of our morals being religiously drawn I agree with him. And the main question which I think Nietzsche alludes to is do we need the morals? Like when he discusses the need for truth, is it necessary and can we separate the desire to get to an absolute truth from god belief?

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