Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Why I Like Atheist Morality

In my review of the Hitchens-Wilson debate I said that I liked Douglas Wilson's argument about how Christianity provides a narrative framework for concepts of good and evil. Christopher Hitchens chose not to take this argument on directly, except by reiterating several times throughout the debate his belief that human beings had evolved an innate moral sense which might stand us in good stead if it were not periodically hijacked and perverted by organized religion.

After reading and reviewing the debate, I learned a bit more about the morality of Douglas Wilson. I posted a link to an account of Wilson's biblical defense of slavery, and the divisive effect his fundamentalist church has had on the small Idaho community where they are located. Among other things, I learned of Douglas Wilson's commitment to the literal extermination of people like me. I felt sick to my stomach. I felt sick for a couple of days actually, sick and depressed. On the basis of my reading of the Hitchens-Wilson debate, I had concluded that Douglas Wilson was a decent man, a man of "passion and compassion." I'd like to go on record saying I don't think that any more.

Part of me wants to be able to separate the man from the argument, the man from the affirmation of Christian faith. The most generous thing I could think to say on that score, however, is that Douglas Wilson has very skillfully co-opted Christian language about love and morality in order to promote an agenda of profound hate. At best he's a wolf in sheep's clothing. He certainly had me fooled. But what does the vicious agenda of the man say about the arguments he used? Does it say anything about faith in general? Is Douglas Wilson living, walking proof that Christianity is in fact very bad for the world?

I was exposed to atheist philosophy in a significant way for the first time at, of all places, Brigham Young University, in a modern French literature course. A unit of that course was devoted to the existentialists Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. These men came face to face with the terrible fact that they could no longer believe in God. Not that they did not wish to believe or would not believe, but that they could not believe. The angst in their works is driven, in large part, by the collapse of the over-arching narrative that Christianity had provided, which offered the framework for notions of good, evil, and meaning. Camus compared the task of modern man in the absence of God to the fate of Sisyphus, damned to roll a boulder up the mountainside each day, only to find the next morning that it had returned to its place at the bottom of the mountain. Atheists had to continue to be good even in a world where they could no longer find any overarching justification for goodness. On what could they rely as a moral guide? Only the innate sense of compassion and morality that Hitchens (and Dawkins, and other modern-day apologists for atheism) insist on.

That innate sense is what Christians call "conscience" and what Mormons call "the light of Christ." Within the Christian/Latter-day Saint framework, that conscience is guided by "the still small voice" of the Spirit, which speaks to us not outwardly in strident, stentorian, coercive tones, but inwardly and quietly, so quietly we can miss it if we pay too much attention to the "earthquake and the fire" (I Kings 19:12). It is those quiet, inward sources of morality that move all human beings, regardless of religious affiliation or non-affiliation.

In the LDS framework, human beings are believed to be children of God living in an amnesiac exile. Why the veil of forgetfulness? Because God is testing us to see what kind of beings we are in his absence, with nothing but the light of conscience to guide us. In other words, from a Mormon perspective we might say that atheists who strive for moral conduct in the absence of God have accurately perceived and are "faithfully" responding to the best of their ability to the human condition as understood in Latter-day Saint theology.

LDS scripture warns that in the "last days" "there shall also arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders, insomuch, that, if possible, they shall deceive the very elect, who are the elect according to the covenant" (JS-M vs. 22). A false Christ or a false prophet would be not someone denouncing Christ, but someone putting Christ on falsely, someone exploiting people's faith in Christ in order to lead them down dangerous paths. Someone, say, using the overarching Christian narrative of good and evil in order to pervert people's native sense of compassion and fairness, and enlist them in campaigns of hate.

I personally do not reside in a world where God is absent. God is very much present in my daily life, in a way that guides, strengthens, and comforts me, and in a way that opens my heart, that strengthens my commitment to love and fairness for all. I choose to disarm, to walk with nothing but faith and love. This is a dangerous path, a vulnerable path. I am especially aware of how dangerous and vulnerable it is in the face of wolves who believe -- no, who know -- that God sanctions slavery and commands the extermination of infidels.

I believe in some sort of cosmic good and evil. I trust that good will eventually triumph. But I am willing to say that this overarching narrative bequeathed to us by religion cannot, should not be used as an excuse to banish pity and compassion from our hearts. We can find comfort in belief, we can let it sustain us through the hard times, but we should always, always follow the light of Christ first, listen to the still, small voice that leads us slowly and steadily, one step at a time, down the path of unconditional love.


Bored in Vernal said...

John, you never fail to fascinate me. What an excellent essay this is! I am a believer also, but for me, the encounter with intolerant religion almost puts me in the shoes of Camus. It's such a horrible place to be in when religion turns human beings into bigots instead of gods. It's hard to make sense of the world in the face of that. Most especially, when your inner narrative has told you that your religion is the true one, and that although other sects may be deceived, yours is not. Then when you discover hate and intolerance in the very fabric of it all, it seems the weight of it all will crush your very being. Thanks for comparing this to Camus and Sartre, it made a lot of sense to me.

Maraiya said...

Amnesiac exile - fabulous.

You have such a perspective on the world and a knack for conveying yourself clearly and eloquently. Beautiful series of posts. And I'm sorry for the disappointment of Mr. Wilson; as always, it makes me question my own morality and if I am truly living the love of Jesus that preach.

Beck said...

"...we should always, always follow the light of Christ first, listen to the still, small voice that leads us slowly and steadily, one step at a time, down the path of unconditional love."

I needed to hear this today. You needed to write this for me to read this today! My spirit's current state of amnesiac exile has forgotten to listen...

J G-W said...

BIV - There is a very real sense for me in which religion that does not actively enable love can't possibly be true, no matter how "orthodox" it may be in terms of its doctrinal formulations. And love, of course, is more than warm fuzzy feelings. For Jesus, love was not something felt so much as shown, by taking in the wounded stranger on the side of the road, binding his wounds, and nursing him back to health.

Maraiya - The irony of Doug Wilson's argument is that he admits that some Christians are horrible people and not Christian at all in their beliefs or behavior, and he emphasizes that Christianity provides the moral framework in which hypocrisy or inconsistency is "coherent." Well.

Our Aunt Dottie, visiting over the entire week of Thanksgiving read the book, and she too "liked" Doug Wilson. I wonder how I will break the news to her that he thinks slavery is fine and dandy?

Beck - You've been very much in my thoughts lately... I am always grateful when anything I have written gives you some encouragement. Big, warm e-hugs!