Monday, March 24, 2014

Gray on Nietzsche, and on becoming "gods"

Although John Gray's review of The Age of Nothing by Peter Watson and Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton, "The ghost at the atheist feast: was Nietzsche right about religion?" begins with an egregious nonsequitur (described below), Gray really doesn't have much to say about modern atheism in this review. Gray first summarizes Watson's book, which Gray claims the book centers the modern debate on secular ethics around Nietzsche's charge that secular ethics, such as Bentham's and Mill's utilitarianism, relied on "theistic concepts and values," and must thereby be rejected. Subsequent ethical philosophy, according to Gray's view of Watson's book, consists in substantial part of answering Nietzsche's challenge. In contrast, Gray reads Eagleton as placing religion outside culture, taking the role of a force to restore a sense of "tragedy" to modern society. Although Gray rejects Eagleton's thesis, objecting that both Christianity and secular revolutionaries such as Lenin are the complete opposite of the ancient Greek notion of tragedy — "a conflict of values that cannot be revoked by any act of will" — he finds Eagleton's book profound in many ways, especially praising Eagleton's description of a "mythologised" Englightenment divorced from modern reality. While both books seem interesting, Gray's connection of these books to modern atheism seems strained and artificial.

As noted above, Gray begins with a nonsequitur: "There can be little doubt that Nietzsche is the most important figure in modern atheism, but you would never know it from reading the current crop of unbelievers, who rarely cite his arguments or even mention him." Perhaps Gray means here that Nietzsche should be the most important figure, but importance would seem to be defined by use; if Nietzsche is, as Gray asserts, widely ignored, then he is ipso facto unimportant. If Gray means something else by importance, however, the case must be made directly, not simply assumed. Furthermore, Gray cites Watson's argument that much of late 19th and early 20th century philosophy, politics, and culture forms a direct engagement with Nietzsche; to the extent that 21st century atheism has abandoned its engagement with Nietzsche, a more nuanced explanation than Gray's facile and dismissive denigration of modern atheists as "loud in their mawkish reverence for humanity, and stridently censorious of any criticism of liberal hopes." Although Gray simply fails to connect Watson's and Eagleton's books to modern atheist thought, Gray at least raises a point worthy of consideration.

As I have written many times before, modern atheism is primarily a social, cultural, and especially political movement. Our aim is to destroy the social privilege to claim any sort of moral authority on any "religious" basis. We oppose religious moral authority on methodological, not consequential, grounds (although obviously negative consequences do form an important critique); thus, we oppose religious moral authority even when that authority demands moral beliefs we find agreeable. Inexorably tied to this political stance is what Gray describes as the "Nietzschean imperative — the need to construct a system of values that does not rely on any form of transcendental belief." This imperative raises three specific challenges. First, is the Nietzschean imperative itself a transcendental belief? Second, does the pervasive liberalism of modern atheists rest on a transcendental belief? Finally, is the Nietzschean imperative untenable? Must morality itself rely on a transcendental basis? Finally, do modern atheists successfully address these challenges?

Even though Gray does not raise the first challenge, and I include it here only for completeness, it is relatively easy to address. First, even if the Nietzschean imperative were transcendental, it is not itself a moral belief; it is a meta-moral belief. In just the same sense, the* definition of science as "conclusions about objective reality logically drawn from observation and experiment" is itself not a scientific statement; it is a meta-scientific statement. It is not a statement about objective reality, it is a statement about how we choose to draw conclusions about reality. Second, the Nietzschean imperative is easily repaired by restating it as a project rather than an imperative: we want to construct a system of values without transcendence. Stated so, it simply becomes a descriptive statement about preferences, without any need to invoke transcendence. The self-referential challenge is therefore not a compelling challenge to the atheist project.

*I use the definite article not to imply that there is only one definition, but simply to refer to the specific definition offered.

The second challenge is more pointed. To a certain extent, it is not terribly relevant; the atheist propensity towards "liberalism" (which term, it must be noted, is extremely vague) may just be an artifact of the general propensity of the population to be liberal, with perhaps a bias against "illiberal" (also a vague term) people superficially denying some sort of transcendence. But denigrating a group because it has only a popular political agenda would seem to privilege only philosophers to have "legitimate" political opinions, which seems anti-democratic and in need of a more direct argument; furthermore, this criticism seems to be rarely applied to groups other than atheists. Atheists are political in the ordinary, prosaic sense that everyone is (or is expected to be) political in a (more-or-less) democratic republic. Big deal.

But Gray makes more direct assertions. First, atheists today "embody precisely the kind of pious freethinker that Nietzsche despised and mocked: loud in their mawkish reverence for humanity, and stridently censorious of any criticism of liberal hopes." It's difficult, however, to see this charge as anything but a gratuitous insult. I'm not a scholar of Nietzsche, but I've read enough to know that Nietzsche's aesthetic standards, while certainly refined, usually have considerably more subtlety. Nietzsche certainly criticizes sentimentality, i.e. misplaced emotion (as I recall, he uses the example of the young bourgeois woman shedding a tear over the plight of a theatrical heroine while her footman freezes while waiting for her outside the theater. But "mawkish" is not "sentimental," at least not in the above sense, and "censorious" simply means strongly critical; if we sincerely believe liberal virtues and hopes to be of value, why should we not be censorious? (And calling atheists strident has become such a banal cliche that I object not as an atheist or philosopher but as tutor of English composition.) Gray not only fails hit the mark in his philosophical critique of atheism; he has still missed the target entirely.

Gray's second criticism is at least relevant. He asserts that atheists must believe (if his invocation of Nietzsche's argument is relevant) that "the world can be made fully intelligible, [emphasis added]" presumably through the application of reason and observation, a belief that Nietzsche holds must be an "article of faith," and not "a premise of rational inquiry." Nietzsche (and Gray) might be correct: the hope for full intelligibility might require faith, but why should the liberal rationality, or any other secular ethical philosophy, require full intelligibility? The position of modern atheists neither requires nor asserts full intelligibility; atheists claim only that rationalism provides some intelligibility, and that whatever "intelligibility" religion might provide is trivial, specious, or insupportable. We do not assert that we have all the answers; we assert merely that religion does not have any good answers we do not already have. So although not entirely off target here, Gray again misses the mark and demolishes a straw man.

However ineptly handled, Gray does raise a point worthy of consideration. Nietzsche is a subtle guy, and I'm no scholar of his work, but I've read enough to have picked out one theme: to be a "god," in Nietzsche's metaphor, is to create moral truth. Adam and Eve (the mythological characters) become human when they know God's moral truth; modern human beings, jointly and severally, become "gods" when we reject God's authority to set moral truth and create our own. And this is the "terrible" truth of atheism: there is no God to constrain, however indirectly, our individual and social moral choices. The only external constraint (other than physical law) on an individual's moral choice is what other people will compel or forbid. And there is no external constraint on our social moral choices; an uncaring and indifferent universe will not compel or guide us to create a "good" society nor forbid or hinder us from creating a "bad" society. What and who we are, in a moral sense, is entirely in our hands.

To a certain extent, I suspect modern atheists take this truth, that we have become Nietzschean "gods," for granted. We argue for liberalism (or, as in my case, various radicalisms) not because we see these visions of society as externally mandated, but simply because we want, and many people around us say they want, such a society. Unlike Nietzsche, we simply accept the responsibility of creating our own society, our own morality; we are not existentially or psychologically crushed or awed, as Nietzsche perhaps was, by the weight of this responsibility. Given that we know (or perhaps just subconsciously take for granted) our social morality is a choice, liberalism is an easy choice: who wouldn't choose a society that promoted the dignity and well-being of everyone? (And even radicals such as me are fundamentally liberals; we do not disagree on ends, only means.) If society is what we choose, let us choose and make it so.

The realization that there are no external constraints on our moral choices, neither divine nor natural, destroys the twenty-five century old fundamental project of philosophy: to discover the external constraints on our moral choices; in essence to replace moral choice with moral truth. Without this project, philosophy becomes trivial: ontology becomes materialism (or physicalism, to the annoying particularists purists), epistemology becomes the scientific method, aesthetics becomes fashion, and politics becomes pragmatism. It takes no philosophy at all to say we simply do as we please, and without the need to justify assertions of moral truth, we need no metaphysical, unscientific ontology to define moral realism and we need no rococo, unscientific epistemology to support it. All we need to do is face the truth that who we are, as individuals, as societies, and as a race, is no more or less than what we choose.

Liberal religious believers must oppose atheism because we undermine their worldview as thoroughly as we undermine the illiberal religious worldview: it is just as unfounded to ground a liberal ethic as an illiberal in a God. Philosophers have to oppose atheism because we undermine their worldview as thoroughly as the religious: it is just as unfounded to ground a liberal worldview in philosophy as it is in God. There is no moral ground. Full stop. There is only choice, which is, by definition, no ground at all.

We atheists are terrified neither by the responsibility nor the license. It is we who must make our world, so we want to make it. We "can" — nothing in the objective reality outside our minds prevents us — do anything; we choose to be kind.

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