Over at Secular Right , David Hume has words for our PAL:

Though the author of Atheist Delusions is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and philosopher, Lawler reports that his criticism of the New Atheists starts from a Nietzschian perspective. All I have to say is that homey don’t play that game. Friedrich Nietzsche was the product of a line of Lutherans pastors, so it should not surprise that his atheism engages so directly, and inverts so forcefully, the thrust of Christianity. As philosophy goes much of what Nietzsche had to say was captivating, but then I also find science fiction captivating, as well as some portions of the Bible.

The atheism of Nietzsche plays on the terms of Christianity, and that is why Christians often admire his work. It is entirely intelligible to them insofar as it operates in the same universe of morals, albeit characterized by inversions. So naturally Christians castigate atheists who are not Nietzschians, such a stance creates much greater difficulty in fashioning rhetorical thrusts. Too many presuppositions simply are not aligned. Where Lawler and many others declare that Christianity is a necessary precondition of humane values, I simply assert that humane values, or more accurately the values we hold today, used Christianity, as well as other religions and philosophies, as cultural vessels. Morality and ethics existed prior to religion, and the emergence of “Higher Religions” which fused a moral sense with supernatural intuitions was a process which occurred in the light of history [DH’s bold] . It was no miracle, and may even have been inevitable once humans reached a particular level of organization.

Of course this sort of argument leaves many loose ends hanging. So be it. Those who believe that they have the Ultimate answer do not, and yet we continue to muddle on.

In comments, he states further that
i’m just really tired of christians telling me what i should believe [ditto] if i’m not going to be a christian.

The passage in which Hume thinks Lawler told him what he should believe seems to be this:
Nietzsche was right that secular Christianity or Christianity without Christ is unsustainable, and that the sentimental preferences of the new atheists are no more than that.

Now, I am all for religious/secular understanding, but I think Lawler’s key word, “unsustainable,” was really not intended at all to apply to individuals. At the level of the individual — that is, of at least some individuals — secular morality of the sort associated with Christianity minus Christ (and God, etc.) is often quite sustainable. Clearly even Nietzsche conceded that the sentimental bluestockings of the world — to use Nietzsche’s language — could carry on in fine post-Christian ethical style for a good long while: either until a world-historical poop-out at the exhausted and enervated end of history, or until some ruddier race or tribe came along and wiped Mr. and Ms. Well-Adjusted Secular Bourgeois into the dustbin of history that Machiavelli associated with the once-flourishing but now forgotten Etruscans.

The broader issue is that smart political theologists have always conceded the same point: there is always a more or less small number of individuals who are able to live pretty well on Earth without recourse to religion. Usually this has been on account of philosophy; but the idea developed that the philosopher could not secure the good life for the many without taking away their liberty. So a project emerged aimed at extending a reasonably good life to the many without imposing either religious or philosophical authority upon them. As far as this political project is concerned, the stakes are high indeed; the number of secularists who are content to secure a good life for themselves while consigning the rest of their fellow man to ignorance and false consciousness seems fixed at a lower level than the number of secularists who can secure a good life for themselves. In brief, ethically humanist secularists have to find it impossible to live well as self-realized parasites on a social order with religious foundations. The internal logic of their morality requires a mission, however incremental, to bring the good (secular) life to the masses.

Secularists of a more Nietzschean persuasion, of course, might find exactly this realization the very condition of possibility for living well. (Cesare Borgia as Pope — is he understood?) Hume’s assertion that our ‘religious phase’ may have been the “inevitable” precondition or ‘vessel’ of secular morality (it isn’t clear whether he means naturally or historically inevitable) can’t get the ethical humanist secularist around the more haunting question of whether the secular political project of mass ethical secularism is viable, much less sustainable — especially if that social order is not to be grounded in philosophy, and especially if the politics in question must, as apparently it must, be one grounded in rights to freedoms.

Articles by James Poulos


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