Heathen’s Progress: Julian Baggini on Atheism & Nihilism
I just finished writing a post over at A Borrowed Flame about John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, so it’s apt that I write here about Julian Baggini’s refreshlingly honest piece about contemporary Atheism in the Guardian which is part of his series entitled “Heathen’s Progress”:
Atheists have seemed rather keen in recent years to stress their jolly side. As well as the whole “brights” movement, there’s the “happy human” logo used by the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the British Humanist Association and several other humanist groups. Then there were the atheist bus posters telling us that we should stop worrying and enjoy life.
Given how the atheist stereotype has been one of the dark, brooding existentialist gripped by the angst of a purposeless universe, this is understandable. But frankly, I think we’ve massively overcompensated, and in doing so we’ve blurred an important distinction. Atheists should point out that life without God can be meaningful, moral and happy. But that’s “can” not “is” or even “should usually be”. And that means it can just as easily be meaningless, nihilistic and miserable.
Atheists have to live with the knowledge that there is no salvation, no redemption, no second chances. Lives can go terribly wrong in ways that can never be put right. Can you really tell the parents who lost their child to a suicide after years of depression that they should stop worrying and enjoy life? Doesn’t the appropriate response to 4,000 children dying everyday as a direct result of poor sanitation involve despair at the relentless misery of the world as well as some effort to improve things? Sometimes life is shit and that’s all there is to it. Not much bright about that fact.
No one that I know of is saying that Atheists can’t have meaningful lives, but the point is rather that in such a view, any meaning is illusionary, and not grounded in anything concrete. If Atheism is not as commonly Nihilistic as Nietzsche might have suggested, it’s because most Atheists (like most people, in fact) are not always consistent in matching their worldview and philosophies to how they live.
As an interesting continuation he writes:
Stressing the jolly side of atheism not only glosses over its harsher truths, it also disguises its unique selling point. The reason to be an atheist is not that it makes us feel better or gives us a more rewarding life. The reason to be an atheist is simply that there is no God and we would prefer to live in full recognition of that, accepting the consequences, even if it makes us less happy. The more brutal facts of life are harsher for us than they are for those who have a story to tell in which it all works out right in the end and even the most horrible suffering is part of a mystifying divine plan. If we don’t freely admit this, then we’ve betrayed the commitment to the naked truth that atheism has traditionally embraced.
What I would like to know is why we should, on Atheism, be concerned with and committed to ‘naked truth’, especially over and above a rewarding feeling and existence? After all, nothing in the Atheistic naturalist worldview gives any good reason for thinking we can know truth, let alone that we ought to strive for it; at least, not that I can see anyway.
But it is the ‘moral nihilism’ which Baggini deals with, which I find most interesting:
Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the threat of moral nihilism. Atheists are quite rightly keen to counter the accusation that life without God cannot be moral. The British Humanist Association, for instance, claims that “Right and wrong can be explained by human nature alone and do not require religious teaching”. But, just as with happiness, there is a need to distinguish the possibility of atheist morality from its inevitable actuality. Anyone who thinks it’s easy to ground ethics either hasn’t done much moral philosophy or wasn’t concentrating when they did. Although morality is arguably just as murky for the religious, at least there is some bedrock belief that gives a reason to believe that morality is real and will prevail. In an atheist universe, morality can be rejected without external sanction at any point, and without a clear, compelling reason to believe in its reality, that’s exactly what will sometimes happen.
Again, I don’t know of any serious theistic thinker who claims that non-believers cannot be moral (on the contrary, that they generally are makes sense of the theistic moral compass framework, actually). What they do argue is that if God does not exist, then objective moral values and duties do not exist. In other words, non-believers who act as if moral values and duties do exist (i.e. that some things are wrong, and others shouldn’t do them either) are basically spending left-over Christian capital.
Baggini is right, that ethics is not easy – even Sam Harris’ recent attempt to ground objective morality within his naturalistic worldview was met with a great deal of criticism for having fallen foul of Hume’s Is-Ought problem. It’s also refreshing to see his recognise that on Theism, there is a basis for objective moral values and duties which Atheism simply does not have, and moreover, that this will sometimes mean that we’ve no grounds on which to hold anyone accountable for their actions. Why should they not reject our claim that doing a particular thing is wrong?
Baggini’s suggestion then? Just get on with it, even if it turns out miserably. Not a particularly appealing worldview, is it?