chicago studies Summer 2018 | VOLUME 57:1
Editor’s Corner Christian Smith University of Notre Dame
Why Scientists Playing Amateur Atheology Fail Just How “Good without God” are Atheists Justified in Being? John Kartje
Why Theologians Practicing Professional Science Succeed Melanie Barrett
Ethics and the Need for God Maria Pascuzzi
Paul, the Body and Resurrection
Chicago Studies Editorial Board Thomas Baima
Melanie Susan Barrett
Founding Editor George Dyer
CHICAGO STUDIES is edited by members of the faculty of the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary for the continuing theological development of priests, deacons, and lay ecclesial ministers. The editors welcome articles and letters likely to be of interest to our readers. Views expressed in the articles are those of the respective authors and not necessarily those of the editorial board. All communications regarding articles and editorial policy should be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Indexed in The Catholic Periodical & Literature Index and New Testament Abstracts.
Cover Design by Thomas Gaida. With the current cover, the designer combined Michelangelo's image of the creation of man with cells of the human body, splitting and changing, to tie in the ideas of science and morality with God's plan for humanity.
Copyright ÂŠ 2018 Civitas Dei Foundation
Atheist Overreach in Science and Morality: A Theological Response Editor’s Corner – Summer 2018 By Very Rev. Thomas A. Baima, S.T.D. This issue of Chicago Studies presents the papers from the 2017 Albert Cardinal Meyer Lecture Series at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake. This issue is an important exercise in cultural engagement. As is the usual format for the Meyer Lecture series, the Visiting Lecturer delivers two keynote papers. These are followed by two responses which extend, qualify or critique the main papers. Consequently, you should read the four articles as a conversation: first between the three authors, and secondly with you, the reader. Christian Smith is one of America’s best-known scholars studying and writing about religion. In his first essay, Dr. Smith uses his considerable competence as a sociologist to engage with some issues of philosophy of religion. Whereas it is common today for atheists to paint all religious people as fundamentalists, Smith shows that science has its own form of fundamentalism: the ideology of scientism. Any kind of fundamentalism is at its root about authority, the authority to make “claims that stick,” to use Smith’s words. The question that is proper for a sociologist to ask is: “what kind of issues or claims is science legitimately competent to address?” Science has a claim to legitimacy over things that can be observed and measured. Scientism, or vulgar imperialistic scientism, as he calls it, makes claims about what it cannot observe or measure. Like any ideology, scientism seeks a monopoly on truth. The real world is a bit more complicated. Since the monotheistic God of the Near East is understood to be transcendent, science is limited in what it can assert since the transcendent is not measurable. But this does not mean it is not knowable. Transcendent reality “may be humanly known, but if so it must be through means other than scientific experiment, such as divine revelation or enlightenment, operating with reason and experience.” Science is a legitimate way of human knowing. However, there are other ways too. To claim otherwise, Smith says, is simply a category mistake. In John Kartje’s response, we hear a priest and scientist dialogue with a religious sociologist. He picks up on Dr. Smith’s title about scientists doing bad theology and explores what theology could be like if theologians were good at taking the legitimate insights of science into account, contending that good science can make for better theology. Fr. Kartje argues that “science may well help to stretch the theological imagination and serve as an antidote against an overlysimplistic comprehension of profound truths.” Smith’s second article engages the question of the basis for morality in society. At the outset, as a sociologist, he moves beyond the philosophical or even scientific question, “can atheists be good?” and asks what kind of good is being claimed. He identifies that religious people understand good as a higher-order quality than atheists. This modifies the question, as two different outcomes are being claimed. Dr. Smith continues by examining why having reasons for moral behavior matters in the final analysis. He insists that they matter because they are what form the basis for the socialization of behavior in a society. It is the institutionalization of values that grounds a culture.
If the problem in the first essay with which Smith wrestles is “vulgar imperialistic scientism,” the problem in the second essay is “unjustified egalitarian universalism.” Smith identifies a utopian vision beneath the moral claims to be good without God. Like fundamentalism, unjustified egalitarian universalism has the same flaw; it cannot provide justification for its claims. It is as much a call to “just believe” as was “that old time religion.” It is another case of overreaching. In her response, Melanie Susan Barrett briefly surveys the contributions—and limitations—of key modern philosophers, and then considers a theological alternative. Unlike the philosophical ethicists, she argues, “a theistic approach—that of Catholic Christianity in particular—can provide for such universalism.” In particular, Dr. Barrett proposes that theism possesses at least three advantages over Smith’s atheist interlocutors: “it avoids being selfcontradictory; (2) it can account for both goodness and badness in human nature simultaneously, rather than being naively optimistic about human nature; and (3) it proffers a practical solution to the ‘sensible knave’ problem, so that we can reduce at least some of the badness in society and improve life for everyone.” The final article of the issue by Maria Pascuzzi on Pauline studies connects well with the essays from the Meyer Lecture Series. Dr. Pascuzzi notes that “for many people today, even Christians, the Epicurean view of things remains attractive and makes great sense especially in view of contemporary science.” She further comments, I do admit to being quite surprised a few years back, in the course of teaching a scripture class at a Catholic university, to discover how many students were rather agnostic about the resurrection. Most seemed fine with idea that death brings disintegration followed by reintegration into the cosmos. Rather than intellectually wrestling with the idea of bodily resurrection, they seem to have viewed it as little more than a quaint, pre-scientific explanation that needed to give way to the certainty that the new science has given them about where they have come from and where they are going. Millennials are not alone in thinking this way. Many older adult Christians share these same views. Pascuzzi turns to Paul to explore the resurrection of the body. She paints a sharp contrast between Christianity and Epicureanism through the doctrine of the resurrection. I found especially compelling her contrast between the experience of life that Epicurus brought to his followers, and that which Jesus brought to his disciples. It points out so clearly that if you change doctrine you change experience. Dr. Pascuzzi’s examination of the ethical implications of Pauline theology complements nicely Dr. Barrett’s essay. This issue of Chicago Studies can be of immense practical value to pastoral ministers, as it addresses several of the big questions on the mind of our communities. This is especially true of the all-important “next generation” for whom the science/religion question is quite serious. Simple responses may work well on Twitter, but the Catholic tradition has more to offer. It is in the depth and breadth of that Great Tradition that we find the guidance for which our people are longing.
Why Scientists Playing Amateur Atheology Fail By Christian Smith, Ph.D. Introduction Good evening. First, I want to thank you so much for inviting me to give this lecture. I am honored to be here, and I hope that my thoughts in these lectures prove to be stimulating and useful for your lives, learning, and work. The overall theme of my two lectures tonight and tomorrow is “atheist overreach.” What I will be suggesting is that very many contemporary atheists are overreaching—trying to claim and accomplish too much, more than they are rightfully able—when it comes to their arguments about science and morality. To be clear up front, my intention will not be to argue directly that atheism is wrong. Many others have been carrying on that argument for a long time. It seems to me to be an interminable debate and I am not the most qualified to contribute to it. My aims here instead are more modest than somehow refuting atheism. I simply wish to push back on a lot of atheists—and by that, I mean, the so-called “New Atheists,” the more recent strain of the species, who write for and wish to influence the reading public—for their trying to claim too much. That is to say, when I read a lot of contemporary atheists, I find that many of them try to get away with promoting ideas that simply cannot be justified, that are unwarranted even presupposing their own atheist assumptions. So, for the sake of intellectual honesty and realism in public discussions about the larger consequences of religion and atheism, my purpose is hold atheism’s “feet to the fire,” so to speak, on some crucial issues—to try to chasten and reign in atheist overreach, to ask from them more candid and realistic assessments of the consequences and limits of atheism. But why am I talking here about atheism? I am a sociologist, not a philosopher of religion. And I think what Father Barron originally had in mind when he invited me a few years ago to give these lectures was that I would talk about my empirical research on the religious lives of American youth, not on atheism. Well, okay, besides the fact that I have been talking about youth and religion for too long, I also find sociology as a discipline too constraining and so I also dabble in philosophy (for better or worse). Perhaps more convincingly, however, there is actually a significant connection between the new atheism and the religious (and increasingly non-religious) lives of American youth. As you probably know, the category of the so-called “Nones”—that is, people who self-identify as not religious—has been growing remarkably in the United States since the mid-1990s. And the demographic sector among whom this disassociation from religion is growing the most are young people, between the ages of 18 and 29. Therefore, to be concerned in any way with the religious and spiritual lives of American youth necessarily means taking the new atheism seriously. Many younger Americans actually find the arguments of the new atheists to be compelling and persuasive. And so, I am suggesting here, the question of the warrantability or justifiability of atheists’ claims is actually not simply an academic philosophical question (as interesting and important as those are) but also a hugely consequential cultural and social concern, especially as it affect the beliefs, outlooks, and lives of American youth. And so here I am here, among you, talking about atheist overreach.
The Turf Questions Okay, enough for preliminaries, let me get to tonight’s lecture. I want specifically this evening to address a particular concern related to the very big topic of the proper relation of science and religion (tomorrow I talk about atheism and morality). The science-and-religion issue is hugely important, one that has generated a lot of controversy. It matters because: science and religion are both weighty matters in their own right, because science and religion sometimes address questions and make claims about the same subject matters, and because how we think that science and religion ought to properly relate to each other has big consequences for how we think about life and how we operate important social institutions, such as schools. Furthermore, there is a lot of misguided and sloppy thinking about science and religion going on these days, including among some otherwise very smart people, and critiquing that can help to sharpen our own critical thinking skills. Again, I am a sociologist, who is also interested in certain philosophical questions. So, my addressing the question of science and religion here is going to engage some philosophical issues, but in a way that is framed by a sociological perspective. I am going to say that arguments about science and religion not only concern clear and unclear thinking about ideas, which philosophy encourages us to consider, but also the question of the control of turf. By turf, I mean something like the areas of neighborhoods that gangs rule. Except that with science and religion, the turf in question is not controlled with threats and violence, but with institutionalized beliefs about authority and legitimacy that are struggled for and carefully protected by different groups of people with divergent interests. The general sociological question is: who has the right, the competence, the legitimate authority to make claims that stick, claims that others should recognize as valid? The specific question here is: what kinds of issues and claims is science legitimately authorized to address and make? And what kinds is religion legitimately authorized to address and make? This is a sociological issue because it concerns the cultural construction of claims-making authority by different and sometimes rival social groups and institutions.1 I will complicate this turf metaphor in a bit below, but it is a good place to start. So here is what I want to focus on this morning. I have observed that certain well-known science authors, often writing for popular audiences, seem to feel entitled to write with authority not only about science, but also to pronounce on metaphysics and religion. And I think that is often a problem. Here is what I mean. I read a lot of books about science. I really believe in the importance of science and want to learn from science all I can. I don’t mean that I read super technical science books or journals, but rather those written for the well-educated public. What I have noticed in reading such books is that some of their authors abruptly slip from making scientific claims based on scientific methods and evidence, to suddenly asserting metaphysical and theological claims, seemingly based on scientific authority, but which in fact have no properly scientific merit. Invariably, such claims contradict and dismiss religion. They are clearly made to undercut religious claims, authority, and plausibility. Here is one example. Recently I was reading the globally best-selling book, entitled, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, published in 2015 by the Oxford-educated, Israeli scholar, Yuval Noah Harari. 2 In it, Harari pulls together massive amounts of scientific evidence to tell us about the long story of human biological and cultural evolution. So, I was enjoying this book when, on page 28, I suddenly found myself reading these words: “There are no gods in the universe…outside of the common imagination of human beings.” “No…things [like gods] exist outside of the stories that people invent and tell one another.” “Religious myths” are “imagined,” “fictions” produced from “collective imagination,” not “objective reality.” I found these claims to be really jarring. I had just been reading about the human Cognitive Revolution, which good empirical evidence demonstrates occurred many tens of thousands of years ago. Next thing I know and without warning, I’m reading theological metaphysics: “There are not gods in the universe.” Really? 5
How, I wondered, does or could Harari possibly know these things? From artifacts dug up in archeological excavations? From fossils archived in natural history museums? I think not. Said plainly, Harari is here engaging in a deceptive sleight of hand, an unacknowledged smuggling of theological metaphysics in through the back door of science, seemingly with the authority of science. I have no doubt that Harari would on principle defy religion setting two toes onto science’s turf. But he obviously feels entitled to wander onto religion’s turf, to pour a tank of gasoline on it, and set it on fire. Worse, Harari does not even seem to be aware of his own intellectual category-shifting here. I will provide other examples like this in a moment, but first I want to make a crucial distinction. That is between (1) on the one hand, a scientist publicly offering a personal confession of her or his best evaluation of all of the available evidence and concluding that they cannot as an individual believe certain religious claims; and (2) on the other hand, a scientist publicly suggesting or claiming with scientific authority that what science has learned itself shows that religious claims are false or almost certainly false. The first position is legitimate. Every scientist has the right to decide for his or herself whether they can or cannot believe certain religious claims, and the findings of science may play an appropriate role in that discernment. Furthermore, scientists, like everyone else, have the right to tell others about their personal beliefs. It is the second position, by contrast, that I take issue with. Scientists as public intellectuals have no legitimate intellectual grounds for making many of the dismissive metaphysical or religious claims that they make, supposedly on the basis of the findings of science itself. So, just to make sure you do not think I am cherry-picking an anomalous passage from an exceptional case, let me offer other examples of scientists interloping in this way onto the turf of metaphysics and theology. The biologist Edward O. Wilson claims in a book published in 2015 that: The evidence is massive enough and clear enough to tell us this much: We were created not by a supernatural intelligence but by chance and necessity…. There is no evidence of…[a] demonstrable destiny or purpose assigned to us, no second life vouchsafed us for the end of the present one. We are…completely alone. 3 Really? Empirical evidence tells us that? The University of Hawaii particle physicist, Victor Stenger, similarly writes: Empirical data and the theories that successfully describe those data indicate that the universe did not come about as a purposeful creation. Based on our best current scientific knowledge, we conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that a God who is the highly intelligent and powerful supernatural creator of the physical universe does not exist.4 Hmmm. Paleoanthropologist Richard Leakey and science writer Roger Lewin claim that the “important message that comes to us from the fossil record” is that any (alleged) “God surely had no plans for Homo sapiens, and could not even have predicted that such a species would ever arise.” 5 For a final example sufficient for present purposes, Marcelo Gleiser, the Brazilian physicist and astronomer on faculty at Dartmouth College, writes: “There is no Final Truth to be discovered, no grand plan behind creation.” 6 In case you think this kind of writing is only a recent expression of the New Atheism, think again. It has a long history. Consider, for example, this quote of Bertrand Russell, the British mathematician, logician, and philosopher, in a 1903 article in the Independent Review, which describes “the world which Science [capital S] presents for our belief”:
Man is the product of causes which had no provision of the end they were achieving… His origin, his growth, his hopes and fear, his loves and his beliefs are but the outcome of accidental collections of atoms… No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling can preserve an individual life beyond the grave… All of the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspirations, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system… The whole temple of man’s achievements must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins—all of these things…are so nearly certain that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. 7 So “Science” here is supposedly telling us what we must believe about the meaning and purpose and destiny of humanity and the universe: namely, there is none. Really? Science can tell us that? No, it can’t. The “meta” prefix of metaphysics makes a huge difference in distinguishing it from mere physics. So, does the “theo” prefix in theology make it a fundamentally different discipline of inquiry than other “ologies,” like biology or cosmology? Yet scientists regularly venture such claims anyway. Consider this more recent statement by the physicist, Steven Weinberg, in his book, The First Three Minutes: It is almost irresistible [although false] for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning.... It is very hard to realize that this is all just a tiny part of an overwhelmingly hostile universe. It is even harder to realize that this present universe has evolved from an unspeakably unfamiliar early condition, and faces a future extinction of endless cold or intolerable heat. The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless. 8 Weinberg here is trying to drive us from a physics description of the Big Bang, about which he has real expertise, to the conclusion that the universe is in fact pointless, which his expertise does not authorize him to make. What entitles him to move from science to metaphysics so effortlessly? It’s unclear. And my simple point here is that it is illegitimate. The metaphysics does not rationally follow from the science, and never could. So, on what grounds do such scientists seem to think they are entitled to pronounce like this on metaphysics and theology, when they are not philosophers and theologians? Some, I suspect, do not even realize what they are doing. They appear simply to be oblivious to the relevant epistemological and discursive boundaries, and so do not realize that they have wandered onto someone else’s turf. The simple word for that, I am afraid, is “ignorance.” Others, it seems, instead simply appear to believe that because they speak with the authority of science, then they are authorized to pronounce authoritatively on any topic they please. The simple word for that is “arrogance.” It goes without saying that neither ignorance nor arrogance befit good science, or those who represent science to the public. Epistemological Assumption However, what I observe in such science writing is not simply the result of ignorance and arrogance, but instead also often follows from a particular epistemological assumption that is powerful but rarely explicitly stated. This assumption is fallacious, and it sounds like this: If science cannot observe or discover something, then it cannot be real or true. Stated slightly differently, the only things that could be true or real are those that science can observe and validate. So, this is what we call vulgar 7
imperialistic scientism. (Not science, but the ideology of scientism.) And running at even deeper levels, driving imperialistic scientism, are the pre-scientific presuppositions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism. With all of these assumptions at work, science is turned by this ideology from legitimately being (1) one fantastic way to know many things about ourselves and the world, instead into being (2) an imperialistic, exclusivist, totalizing source of any and all legitimate knowledge about everything. All comers must enter by the narrow gate of The Scientific Method if they hope to be welcomed into the Kingdom of Knowledge. This very scientism is clearly reflected in the passages by Wilson, Stenger, Leakey, and Lewin quoted above, which try to make “empirical data,” “massive and clear evidence,” and “the fossil record” the sole adjudicators of God’s existence and a purpose for the universe. To spell this out a bit further, let’s return to Steven Weinberg’s claims about the universe being pointless, to see how this works. Weinberg has repeated his view about the pointlessness of the universe other places. In one of them, he tellingly states that, “There is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science…. [We are] faced with this unloving, impersonal universe [and] we make [in it any] warmth and love…for ourselves.” 9 Now, I do not disagree with Weinberg’s first statement, that “There is no point in the universe that we discover by the methods of science.” Of course, physics cannot discover a point to the universe, any more than my kitchen thermometer could tell me what emotions you are feeling inside. Weinberg’s statement about what science cannot discover is obvious. But the problem is that Weinberg concludes that, because science cannot discover it, there actually in fact is no point to the universe. But that is silly. Simply because physics cannot discover the universe’s possible point does not mean there isn’t one. All that Weinberg’s conclusion really tells us is that he comes to his argument operating with the working presupposition of imperialistic scientism, that is, that if science cannot observe or discover something, then it cannot be real or true. But if we reject that presupposition, as we should, then suddenly the universe might actually be found by other means to have a point, a meaning, a significance. The bemusing irony in all of this is that the epistemological presupposition that supposedly authorizes only science to tell us what is real and true, and which produces such dramatic conclusions about the universe’s pointlessness, is not itself a scientific statement and could never itself be validated by empirical science. It is instead a point of philosophical presupposition, something actually not unlike a faith commitment. The logic of imperialistic scientism, then, turns out to be internally self-defeating. It depends on a non-scientific position to take the position that only science authorizes us to take positions worth taking. And that is like calling someone on the telephone to tell them that you cannot call them to talk because your telephone is not working. The very claim itself shows that the claim actually cannot be correct. A second irony here is that, in the name of hard-nosed intellectual rigor, many such publicintellectual scientists show themselves to be deeply confused about the basic nature of the religious ideas they are dismissing. For instance, the God of the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is by nature radically transcendent, of an absolutely entirely different order of being than creation, and so of course is not subjectable to human empirical observation and experimentation. Any even half-educated believer in these traditions knows that God cannot be subject to human empirical observation and experimentation. So, what such scientists are essentially saying to religious people is this: “I am going to ignore your religion’s actual claims, which I am sure are dumb, and instead substitute my own caricature of them, then I am going to dismiss my ill-informed caricature as failing to pass the test of my scientific standards, and then conclude that your religion is unbelievable.” This we are supposed to take as a model of intellectual rigor? I rather think it is an embarrassment, of exactly the sort noted by the British, Marxist, Roman Catholic literary critic, Terry Eagleton, whose London Review of Books review of Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, begins thus: 8
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins…are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster. 10 Now, to be very clear, I am not saying that no religious claims could be disproved by science, that all religious claims are somehow protected from scientific scrutiny simply by virtue of being religious. No, in fact any religious claim that concerns workings in this observable world are potentially liable to scientific invalidation—that is, if and when science has the tools and evidence to evaluate them. If, for example, a faith healer claimed to have cured someone’s cancer, but medical tests show the cancer remaining, the faith healer’s claim would be invalidated. If science could figure out a way to send researchers back through a time machine to observe the few days after Jesus’s crucifixion, and recorded on a reliable video tape the disciples stealing Jesus’s dead body from the tomb and then claiming that Jesus rose from the dead by the power of God, that would put an end to all but the most demythologized, liberal Christianity. Or if historians with new empirical evidence were somehow able to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the claims of Joseph Smith about the revelations of the golden plates in the woods of upstate New York were a hoax, that would sink Mormonism. Usually the passage of time and the lack of evidence (or time machines) make such scientific invalidations of religious claims impossible, for better or worse, even if in principle they are possible. But my main point here is a conceptual one: Some religious claims about reality are in principle subject to scientific evaluation, and some in fact—those inherently beyond science’s capacity to observe and analyze—simply are not. Now, back to sociology. The fact that the kind of science writers I have quoted blithely interlope into metaphysics and theology without compunction and sometimes, it seems, even without awareness that they are making such moves, and that they usually get away with it, reflects not only ignorance and arrogance and scientistic ideology, but also the institutional fact that science has accumulated in the public sphere massive cultural authority, status, and prestige, much more than religion possesses. And, however much modern people, including scientists, would like to believe that we operate purely rationally, we know that cultural status cognitively biases people’s tendency to offer and accept beliefs generally, even erroneous beliefs. Stated differently, science is a dominant institution when it comes to knowledge claims. And one of the privileges of dominance is not having to learn and think as hard as one should when it comes to making claims beyond one’s core competence. Peripheral voices, by comparison, have got to think very hard about their claims if they hope to not be sectarian, but instead to have their ideas taken seriously by the mainstream. But when one is already, by virtue of one’s great institutional status and authority, Taken Very Seriously, one can afford to get a bit intellectually sloppy with one’s claims and still get away with them. Once all of these institutional forces get moving in the same direction, the kind of public representatives of science I have quoted can take advantage of and reinforce the following double standard:
1. On the one hand, for religious believers, religion is a personal matter that must as subjective opinion be kept closeted in private life, and certainly not be allowed to say anything about science or education. 2. On the other hand, for scientists, religion is a public matter subject to reductionistic dismissals on the authority of supposedly objective science. In other words, viewed as turf struggles between science and religion, the science gang has gained nearly complete control of the religion turf. Members of the religion gang may stay in their neighborhood, as long as they keep off the streets. Then again, for representatives of the more aggressive, New Atheist persuasion—like Richard Dawkins—the religion gang itself needs simply to surrender and disappear. Turf Question in Historical Context Let us set this question of turf struggles in some historical context. The institution of western science has spent the last few centuries working to establish its epistemological autonomy from religion, magic, hucksters, superstition, and others that it has believed made competing and erroneous claims about how the world works. That is, science has struggled against perceived rivals—such as young-earth creationists and defenders of Intelligent Design—to define a controlled turf of knowledgeclaims over which it has authorized, professional, institutional jurisdiction. And while, like most such struggles, this has involved some unfortunate and embarrassing aspects—such as, for example, mainstream science’s authorization of the eugenics movement prior to WWII—I think, personally, as a real believer in science, that this has been a largely good and legitimate process. And as part of that process, science has increasingly insisted that—whether or not religion is a good and valid thing in and of itself—religion should not try to make claims that do not belong to its proper epistemological jurisdiction, which religion does not have the competence to make. Science’s authority to tell us that we live in a heliocentric solar system, for example, ought not to be questioned by the possible religious claim, based on misused scriptural evidence, that we live in a geocentric solar system. (Here I refer to the Galileo affair, an incident which looms large in the minds of most of science’s boundary police.) Now, assuming that it is a fair demand of science that religion should not intrude on science’s legitimate turf, I think it follows that science, given its inherent limitations, should also not intrude on religion’s legitimate turf when it lacks the competence to make claims about metaphysical theology, as it almost always does. At the very least, when science writers publicly pronounce on metaphysics and theology, they should be obliged to satisfy two conditions. First, they should learn enough about real metaphysics and religion to be able to speak accurately and intelligently about them. And, second, they should make clear in their writing and speaking that they are no longer making scientific claims but rather switching modes of discourse and epistemological frameworks to discuss metaphysics or religion. To fail to do either of these I think is irresponsible and deceptive. But to be clear, we must observe that the situation here is more complicated than science and religion simply needing to respect each other’s turf. Because the metaphor of turf and gangs implies equal kinds of rivals fighting with the same sorts of weapons over control of territory. In fact, that is exactly how the misguided writers I quote above seem to view reality, which enables them to think that science can simply vanquish religion as a competitor. However, my most important point here is that science and religion or metaphysics are actually not equal kinds of rivals struggling with the same means over identical turf. Instead they operate on different axes of thought according to distinctive epistemological sources and standards. So, whether or not certain religious claims are actually true or false, it is inherently beyond the scope of the proper competence of science to address and judge most of them. Thus, when Yuval Harari 10
argues that, “According to the science of biology, people were not ‘created.’ They have evolved,” he not only wrongly thinks that evolution and creation are mutually exclusive, but also fallaciously assumes that biology is somehow actually equipped to disprove the existence of a creator God. 11 What is most fundamentally wrong about the science writers who I cite above, in other words, is not that they are disrespecting a “rival gang’s turf,” but that they are making a basic category error in thinking in the first place that they can even judge such religious claims with scientific tools. Now, to be perfectly clear, I am not saying that science “owns” “the facts” and religion is stuck with a crazy “leap of faith.” That simple dichotomy is false too. Science is itself grounded on a set of presuppositions that are ultimately taken on faith or not. And, as Michael Polanyi has shown, scientific discovery is actually driven not by strict adherence to some Method, but by deeply personal, prescientific commitments to human values like wonder, beauty, and truth. Both science and religion are thus implicated in personal belief commitments of various kinds, and to the evaluation of the truth of those beliefs through the facts of lived experience. These processes are not identical, but neither are they absolutely different. However, the difference that does matter here is something like this: science seeks to understand the natural workings of matter, energy, life, the mind, and society that can be theoretically understood through direct and indirect empirical observation, whereas most religions seek to understand and engage realities that either transcend creation, even if they interact with creation, such as a personal God (as in Abrahamic faiths); or realities that the immanent material world actually obscures, such as the force of Brahman (as with Hinduism and Buddhism). In either case, even the most powerful of science’s tools are constitutionally incompetent to penetrate and evaluate the latter. These may be humanly known, but if so it must be through means other than scientific experiment, such as divine revelation or enlightenment, operating with reason and experience. One last thought about explaining scientists smuggling metaphysical theology into their science writing. I think when we get down to it, a good part of what motivates many of these scientists to reject God, religion, and other non-naturalistic metaphysical views are not actually the findings of science, but instead personal moral and emotional objections. I do not wish to psychoanalyze atheists. But, years of discussions and observation have suggested to me that in many cases, if one scratches just below the surface of many allegedly scientific objections to religion, one finds not scientific problems but instead often very personal moral and emotional concerns. These may be understandable, valid, and compelling. But let us be clear that they are not science. Some science writers are more transparent than others. Consider, for example, Steven Weinberg again, who in a 2003 interview, said this: Maybe at the very bottom of it... I really don't like God. You know, it's silly to say I don't like God because I don't believe in God, but in the same sense that I don't like Iago…or any of the other villains of literature, the god of traditional Judaism and Christianity and Islam seems to me a terrible character. He's a god who [is] obsessed [with] the degree to which people worship him and anxious to punish with the most awful torments those who don't worship him in the right way. The traditional God [is] a terrible character. I don't like him. 12 Or take Edward O. Wilson’s moral objections to religion, that, “Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things…. The great religions are…tragically sources of ceaseless and unnecessary suffering. They are impediments to the grasp of reality needed to solve most social problems in the real world.” 13 Again, we can understand these personal moral and emotional objections to religion (even if some are grossly overstated). But, let us be sure, they are not good science, and ought not to carry the weight of scientific authority, even if those who personally feel them are scientists professionally.
Clarification Before I finish, let me clarify two points. First, nothing I have said here positively validates the truth claims of any religion. That is not my point. All I have said is that science, by virtue of the inherent limits of what science is and does, cannot validate (or for that matter refute) atheism, a pointless universe, a nihilistic destruction of all things human at the end of time, or any similar claim of metaphysical atheology. And so, scientists who write with the authority of science should not suggest otherwise. At best, science can help to fill out a picture of the world and universe we live in that contributes to our discerning judgments about the relative plausibility of religious truth claims. And different people in good faith can and do end up making different judgments about religion, both believing and unbelieving. But the fact that scientific evidence underdetermines that outcome does not of course make anything about religion true. That is a separate question. Second, it must also be said that not all popular science writers play at amateur metaphysics and theology. Some, such as John Hopkins University neuroscientist, David Linden, are quite thoughtful and careful in their views, writing, for example, that, “Although the details of particular religious texts are falsifiable, the core tenets of many religions…are not. Science cannot prove or disprove the central ideas underlying most religious thought. When scientists claim to invalidate these core tenets of religious faith without the evidence to do so, they do a disservice to both science and religion.” 14 Other writers, who are clearly anti-religious, are also more appropriately careful in the way they state their critiques. Such authors usually do clearly throw the authoritative weight of science behind the idea that religion should go the way of the dinosaur. But at least they do so more carefully, suggestively, not categorically, leaving open slight possibilities that religious claims might actually have some truth or value. Such more careful writers may actually be sociologically more dangerous to religion, but intellectually we should respect their more appropriate precision in presenting their views. Bottom Line Here then is my bottom line. To all amateur scientific interlopers into metaphysics and theology, I say this: Please stick to what you are good at, to science proper, and stop doing half-baked philosophy and theology without even being clear that this is what you are doing. At the very least, learn enough to be able to distinguish in the first place between properly scientific, philosophical, and theological claims. Then, if you really want to make public claims about metaphysics and theology, first learn enough about the philosophy and religion you are engaging to speak accurately and intelligently about it, so as not to embarrass yourself. And while you are at it, please think harder about your presuppositions of naturalism, materialism, and empiricism that drive you into narrow imperialistic scientism. Hopefully then you will realize that science qua science is constitutionally incapable of disproving the possible reality of what is most important in most religions: whether that be the God of Abraham, St. Paul, Mohammad, Zoroaster, or Joseph Smith, or karma, samsara, reincarnation, and nirvana. In the end, let’s have good, rigorous arguments about science and religion. But let’s have ones that are well-informed, fruitfully constructive when possible, and fair and honest when they must be critically destructive. 1
Andrews Abbott, The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988). 2 Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (New York: Harper, 2014). 3 Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 173. Wilson also writes: “There is no predestination, no unfathomable mystery of life. Demons and gods to not vie for our allegiance. Instead, we are self-made, independent, alone” (26).
4 Victor Stenger, “The Scientific Case against a God Who Created the Universe,” in Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier (eds.), The Improbability of God (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006), 28. 5 Richard Leakey and Roger Lewin, Origins Reconsidered: In Search of What Makes Us Human (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 348-349. 6 Marcelo Gleiser, A Tear at the Edge of Creation (New York: Free Press, 2010), 226. 7 Reprinted in Russell, Mysticism and Logic, 2nd edition (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1917). 47-48. 8 Steven Weinberg, The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 154. 9 Quoted in Nancy Frankenberry, The Faith of Scientists: In Their Own Words (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 336. 10 Terry Eagleton, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching.” London Review of Books 28, no. 20 (October 19, 2006): 32. 11 Harari (2015), 109. 12 Weinberg, “The Atheism Tapes,” 2004 (interview in 2003, episode 2). 13 Wilson, 150, 154. 14 David J. Linden. 2007, The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007), 232-233.
Why Theologians Practicing Professional Science Succeed By Fr. John Kartje, Ph.D., S.T.D. In 1988, Pope John Paul II wrote an influential letter to the Director of the Vatican Observatory, Fr. George Coyne, SJ, pointing out the proper spheres of influence for religion and science: To be more specific both, religion and science must preserve their own autonomy and their distinctiveness. Religion is not founded on science nor is science an extension of religion. Each should possess its own principles, its pattern of procedures, its diversities of interpretation and its own conclusions…While each can and should support the other as distinct dimensions of a common human culture, neither ought to assume that it forms a necessary premise for the other. 1 All would-be scientists who are in fact proponents of what Christian Smith labels “imperialistic scientism” would do well to heed the Pope’s distinctions. In his fine lecture, Smith underscores the fundamental irony of those scientists who ignorantly (or arrogantly) pontificate on matters of metaphysics or theology about which they have little competency: their very statements belie a methodology that evinces poor scientific rigor and integrity. Statements such as those he cites from Weinberg, Harari, and Wilson regarding the validity of beliefs about the existence of God or the practice of religion are often blithely made without demonstrating a firm grasp of foundational knowledge in the field. Neither do such authors provide the support of empirical evidence or carefully reasoned arguments. This reflects scientific carelessness and lack of discipline which would never pass muster in a refereed science journal if the same methodology were applied to reach a sweeping conclusion about the physical or biological sciences. Furthermore, even if greater care and discipline were exercised, the exclusive application of empirical methods to draw conclusions regarding the physically transcendent realities of which theology and metaphysics treat represents, as Smith notes, a violation of the scope of reference to which the sciences are limited. In fact, within the sciences themselves, the erroneous assumption that the techniques of one discipline automatically translate to another is to be avoided in the strongest terms. For example, one would never attempt to apply Newtonian physics to describe the motion of a single molecule between two neurons in the brain. 2 Once again, the scientists Smith highlights are not only bad at theology, but (at least in these matters) bad at science qua science. Finally, Smith’s most perceptive (and damaging) point is the recognition that many of these practitioners of “imperialistic scientism” are ultimately driven not by a desire for objective accuracy but rather by a personal resistance to faith and religion per se. Such resistance can be grounded, for example, in a fear of violence wielded in the name of religious fanaticism or in the apparent absurdity of how a loving God could possibly permit the existence of evil. To be sure, these issues must be squarely faced by any self-consistent theology, but their challenging nature does not justify an a priori certitude that the divine must be reduced to an unfounded mythology. As with the other points noted above, scientism fails here precisely because it is bad science (even before it is bad theology). One of the worst errors a scientist can commit is to be unaware of (or to turn a blind eye toward) his personal biases, prejudices, or compromised perspective. While no one can see themselves with perfect objectivity, science has developed powerful methods for ferreting out and exposing biases within the investigator. If a scientist neglects to exercise such self-examination when exploring theology or religion, he is a poor practitioner of the scientific method, his poor theology notwithstanding. 14
If Smith has helped us see that bad science makes for worse theology, perhaps he points the way to its obverse: good science makes for better theology. In fact, the proper practices of professional science (as opposed to scientism) can enhance the methodology of the theologian. Good science can hone the questions that theologians pose and the conclusions they infer. Smith notes that science can be useful to theology insofar as it contributes to the discussion about how the divine is or is not manifested in the observable world. For example, extraordinary physical cures can be rigorously investigated to determine whether they constitute evidence in support of a miracle or are simply uncommon occurrences of successful medical treatments. Beyond such applications, the scientifically responsible analysis of collected data has the potential to deepen our understanding of some of the fundamental tenets of theology. For example, advances in psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary anthropology (to name but a few interrelated disciplines) can tell us a great deal more about what it means to be a human person— with all a person’s complex emotions—than Augustine, Aquinas, or even John Henry Newman could have imagined. This vast array of information can only enrich the meaning of such basic truths as “God is love” or “human beings are made in the image and likeness of God.” 3 Here, science may well help to stretch the theological imagination and serve as an antidote against an overly-simplistic comprehension of profound truths. Before one can comfortably affirm that God is love, one must first wrestle with the timeless query: What is love? More specifically (and science is the vey discipline whereby one pursues the specific): What is that experience which the human person deems to be “love”? How is love different—if it is—from what other animals’ experience, and so forth? We can say much more about such questions today than ever before in human history. Surely, theology ought to willingly embrace these insights and attempt to grapple with how they contribute to the meaning of love in all its physical and metaphysical glory. Another theological concern that could benefit from the insights of careful scientific analysis is the question of eschatology/teleology: whether there is a purposeful, intended “direction” toward which the universe is evolving. Such a possibility immediately raises questions about how one would even define a “direction” for the universe (The fate of physical matter? The convergence of criteria for moral decisions? The unification of the Body of Christ?). It is hard to imagine how one could approach these questions without at least engaging the findings of the physical, biological, and social sciences. If, for example, the observed evolution of species was unfolding according to a particular divine purpose, then at some point—even if that purpose were purely metaphysical—it would have to be responsible for influencing the empirical physical acts by which we scientifically know evolution is affected. In other words, at some point, final causality must influence efficient causality, or else it is a purpose which has no effect. And if such a purpose exists, it is science, not simply metaphysics, that will provide a window into how the purpose is accomplished (in the case of evolution: cosmic ray mutations, lateral gene transfer, etc.). By carefully observing the “How,” the scientist provides data with which the theologian’s “Why” must be consonant. Smith illustrates that when scientists succumb to ignorance (imagined philosophical or theological expertise which they have never acquired) and/or to arrogance (imperialistic scientism), they not only produce poor theology, but they expose a serious chink in what might otherwise be an impressive armor of scientific credentials. Nevertheless, the sobering examples that Smith provides need not dissuade the good theologian from amassing and digesting as much information as possible from the scientific disciplines. Indeed, good science provides a premise upon which the practice of good theology rests. 1
https://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/letters/1988.index.2.html Even this example fails to fully capture Smith’s point, since physics and neuroscience at least both fall within the purview of the empirical sciences. Nevertheless, the scientifically recognized folly of erroneously mixing 2
these two disciplines only serves to highlight the greater folly of attempting to draw metaphysical conclusions solely from physical observations. 3 This is not to claim that love can be reduced to pheromones or that the defining characteristics of Homo sapiens are anatomically mirrored in the divine persons of the Trinity. However, it would be both scientifically and theologically irresponsible to ignore our ever-growing body of knowledge regarding such concepts as “love” or “person.” Employing empirical evidence to enrich the understanding of a term such as love which, admittedly, embodies much more than a simple anatomical phenomenon, does not doom one to close-minded reductionism.
Just How “Good without God” are Atheists Justified in Being? By Christian Smith, Ph.D. Suppose that tomorrow everyone on earth woke up and decided that no God, gods, or superhuman powers or forces existed. Everyone became an atheist. What kind of moral commitments would humanity then rationally be justified affirming, promoting, and living? 1 In this lecture I examine the question—much debated of late—of whether humans can be “good without God.” I focus on arguments advanced by activist atheists who answer this question in the affirmative, claiming that a robust, universal, humanistic ethic of care and respect for the rights and wellbeing of all other human beings can be derived rationally from atheism. I evaluate these arguments by conducting a close reading of a body of texts addressing the matter. To preview, I will argue the following: First, of course atheists can be “good” despite not believing in God. I witness this empirical fact around me and suspect that most of you do too. When asked if he believed in infant baptism, Mark Twain once replied, “Believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it!” On the simple empirical question of whether atheists can be good, my answer is the same. 2 However, we need to distinguish between the practical fact of many atheists’ evident capacity for “being good” and the philosophical question of what kinds of goodness atheism actually rationally warrants. Just because someone can and does act “good” does not mean they necessarily have good reasons to do so. 3 And if they do not have compelling reasons, perhaps they or their children will eventually wise up and stop acting so good. Third, I will say that we need to disaggregate monolithic and ill-defined notions of what “good” is—that is, what we mean when using the adjective “good”—by identifying and describing distinct versions of what “being good” might entail. Most arguments in this debate proceed by assuming an implicit good-bad binary, as if people’s lives are either simply “good” or “bad,” which is crude and obfuscating. We need to work out more helpful distinctions to make better sense of the issues. I will distinguish what I will call “modest” or “moderate” expectations of goodness that are fairly demanding from “high” or “strong” expectations that are universalistic and very demanding. I will conclude that atheists are rationally justified in living according to a certain conception of moral standards that we can rightly call “good,” but that this standard ought to be ethically modest, setting no more than a moderately high bar of moral expectations on human behavior. And this modest standard of morality falls far short of the kind of robust, universal, humanistic morality that most atheist activists have in mind today when they insist that we can be “good without God.” I went into this inquiry with a genuinely open mind, interested to see if atheists really could make a solid case for the rational justification for a strong morality. I read nearly all the relevant recent works directed at (mostly) popular audiences that I could get my hands on, written both by scholars and atheist activists (my intention is to engage more accessible works designed to influence mainstream culture, rather than to drill down into the technical literature on the topic in academic philosophy journals). My analysis here focuses on a close reading of four particular works. They are Philip Kitcher’s Life after Faith (along with his more in-depth, companion book, The Ethical Project), Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, Greg Epstein’s Good without God, and Lex Bayer and John Figdor’s Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart. 4 Two of these are written by academic scholars (Kitcher a philosopher and Harris a neuroscientist) and two by humanist chaplains at Ivy League universities (Epstein and Figdor) and a leader of an atheist nonprofit (Bayer). In addition, I read and will sometimes reference related works, such as Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist, Phil Zuckerman’s Living the Secular Life, Katherine Ozment’s Grace without God, Walter Sinnott-
Armstrong’s Morality without God?, Kai Nielsen’s Ethics without God, and Ronald Lindsay’s The Necessity of Secularism. 5 These books offer a representative sampling of what today presents itself in popular culture as the best arguments for being “good without God.” I will refer to the authors as “atheist moralists.” Two last preliminary points. First, this essay should not be construed as a positive defense of religion or religious ethics. That is not my purpose. I am concerned here only with evaluating recent atheists’ claim that humanity can be “good without God.” I do not here take on any burden of offering a constructive alternative to atheist ethics. Second, this essay emphasizes the idea of having good reasons for moral behavior. I must clarify why I think that matters. I do not think that good reasons always directly determine people’s moral actions. Humans are not simple rationalists who follow the best ideas. People’s behavior is influenced by many, often conflicting reasons, forces, and emotions. Other influences can override the genuinely good reasons people have to act a certain way. However, having good reasons for moral commitments still matters, for at least three reasons. First, even if having a good reason for it does not guarantee moral behavior, most people are more likely to behave in ways for which they believe they have good reasons than ways lacking them. Unjustified cultural norms can propel costly behaviors, but not indefinitely; eventually people begin to question them and, lacking a good justification, may adjust the moral norms. Second, when good reasons are culturally shared, they often become institutionalized. At issue here is not merely isolated moral actors, but institutional practices, expectations, and habits that shape behaviors long-term and contextually. Over the long run, institutionalized cultural and moral norms rarely rise above the best ideas and reasons that leaders can articulate and people can believe. If we want good institutions that last, we need good reasons explaining them. Third, rationality and intellectual honesty require that we evaluate important claims; and if we cannot find good reasons to justify them, then on philosophical grounds the claims must be judged lacking. But what are good reasons? When it comes to justifying potentially costly moral behaviors, to have good reasons requires two parts: a warranting explanation and a justifying motivation. The first aspect of having a good reason for moral action is understanding the rationale for such action (the warranting explanation). The second aspect is understanding why one actually should care about the elements of the explanation (the motivation). It is possible to possess a logical explanation for “being good” that lacks any motivating justification to care about and act upon it (just like it is possible to be motivated to “be good” when one actually has no explanatory warrant for doing so). 6 By my account, then, a good reason for being “good without God” must entail both an explanation and a motivation for why people should be so. How Good without God Ought We to Be? So, what kind of morally good living 7 do our moralists say atheism can generate and sustain, and how and why so? None of these authors are highly systematic or clear about exactly what “good” is. A few are muddled and unclear. Sometimes they describe moral goodness with vague phrases like “behaving ethically,” our “deepest values,” and helping others to “be more of a person.” 8 But let us concentrate on the clearest of what they write. Our atheist moralists begin their arguments by setting a fairly low bar for human goodness, focusing first on the kind of basic transactional behaviors that sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists emphasize—namely, cooperation, reciprocity, fairness, restraint on aggression, kin altruism, conflict reduction, and earned reputations of trustworthiness. 9 Those basic goods are not very morally demanding or admirable. So, the claims escalate.
Atheism, we continue to read, justifies much stronger moral goods. These include kindness, compassion, refraining from hurting others, respecting and providing aid for others, solidarity, taking responsibility, commitment to the truth, “prosocial feeling,” and concern for the common good. 10 These are not simply ways to make self-interested social exchanges more efficient and pleasant. They actually demand genuinely caring about at least some other people and expending oneself for them. In fact, many of these authors say that their ethical approach can be summarized by the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” 11 Our atheist moralists, however, do not settle for these arguably more realistic ethical aspirations and obligations. They push up the moral stakes to more elevated heights, calling for an egalitarian and universalistic humanism that requires honoring the dignity and rights of all human persons everywhere. According to Philip Kitcher, for example, atheism justifies a morality that compels everyone to work toward “remedying or ameliorating the plight of millions, even billions” in order to provide all humans with “the opportunity for a worthwhile life.” 12 Atheism, he says, compels us to become “responsive to the desires of the entire human population,” and so afford the “provision of equal opportunities for worthwhile lives for all” and the redistribution of “basic resources for the poor” so that “the necessities of life can be stably maintained for all.” These, he writes, must include “quality education and medical care…distributed to all,” in order to realize social equality. This is not mere social cooperation. It sets a very high moral standard indeed, requiring real sacrifice by the haves for the benefit of the have-nots. Greg Epstein says that atheism justifies our leading “ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity,” “treating each person as having an inherent worth and dignity” and “improving society…and developing global community.” This will require that we “minimize inequalities of circumstances…and…support a just distribution of natural resources”; honor diversity, respect, human rights, civil liberties, open participation in the democratic process; and fulfill a “planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.” Everyone, he says, will have to learn to practice “voluntary simplicity” and to promote global sustainability requiring the constraint of consumption. 13 Sam Harris, for his part, says that being good without God involves promoting “happiness for the greatest number of people” and “maximiz[ing] personal and collective wellbeing” for all of humanity. 14 And Beyer and Figdor write that atheism obliges people to create “the greatest lifehappiness for [other] people in society.” 15 In short, our contemporary atheist moralists assure us that we humans still can and must aspire to a highly demanding version of a universalistic, egalitarian, and inclusive humanism. Why Be Good Without God? What kind of moral reasoning in the absence of the divine could give rise to such lofty moral commitments? Each author spells out a somewhat different rationale for being so very good without God. All of their arguments, however, rely on a combination of pragmatic functionalism, enlightened self-interest, and social-contract reasoning. Pragmatic functionalism here means appealing to the predictable practical results that certain human norms and behaviors tend to generate in real life, focusing on how things actually tend to work when people interact in different ways (for example, with trust and cooperation instead of suspicion and hostility). 16 Arguments appeal to enlightened selfinterest when they observe that people are generally able to gain greater rewards in the long run by behaving nicely than by behaving selfishly. Social-contract reasoning suggests that people do or should agree to establish and enforce shared norms of behavior that, if upheld, will improve their collective wellbeing. These our authors supplement with various appeals to Adam Smith’s writings about natural human moral “sentiments,” Kantian rational universalizing 17, Benthamite utilitarianism, 19
the reproductive-fitness value of kinship selection and reciprocal altruism, and explorations of gametheory experiments, such as the Prisoner’s Dilemma game and the so-called Trolley Problem. Sam Harris’s argument for being good is simple. All humans at all times and everywhere, he says, want to enjoy lives free from suffering, anxiety, and want. All people desire health, safety, security, pleasure, and prosperity. We all want to live good lives that go well. The one universal human motivation, in short, is to maximize our wellbeing. We can also learn through experience and, increasingly, science how to improve human life. And one thing we learn, he says, is that life is vastly improved when people practice moral goods, such as reciprocity, kindness, respect, fairness, selfrestraint, and compassion for others. Therefore, it is in our individual and collective self-interest to be good to each other. No religious rationale is needed—only pragmatic social learning, enlightened self-interest, and rational social agreements, which, Harris writes, will produce a “net positive contribution to well-being," a “compassionate view of our common humanity,” and a promotion of “the public good.” 18 According to Kitcher, as humans evolved, our hunting-gathering ancestors struggled with social conflicts over the inequitable distributions of tasks and resources, when some of the more selfish of them failed to act altruistically and did not share with others. Social life in such small bands was fragile, so survival required such social conflicts be resolved. The social structures of huntinggathering tribes were highly egalitarian, Kitcher writes, so resolutions were worked out by everyone together, collectively, around the campfire, in ways that benefitted everyone. An evolved capacity for psychological altruism expressed itself in established social norms of equal cooperation and sharing— resulting in functional cultures of fraternity, social solidarity, and altruism. Humans eventually began to internalize these norms and so feel guilty when they violated them. As civilizations developed, gods and religion were invented to justify and enforce these codes. Even if in today’s modern world we realize no gods exist, we can and must nevertheless embrace strong norms of moral goodness, Kitcher says. That is partly because it is simply our human inheritance and nature, and partly because moral norms enable us to overcome selfish temptations and practice the altruism needed to avoid social conflict and promote social harmony. Bayer and Figdor’s approach is simpler. In reality, they say, there exist no moral truths or rules or laws in nature or objective reality. Whatever moral beliefs we have are pure human inventions. They even write that “There’s no absolute moral code that dictates that murder is unethical.” 19 Nonetheless, they observe, everyone does want to be happy. A simple fact of life is that all people both do and should “behave in ways that we think optimizes our life happiness.” There are many ways to be happy, both good and bad. Morality, then, is a matter of choosing to align one’s own happiness with that of others. What it means to be moral, Bayer and Figdor stipulate, is to decide to make one’s own happiness contingent upon the happiness of others. “A person can be said to act in a moral manner,” as they define the term, “if he or she derives a great deal of self-happiness from other people’s happiness.” This view should motivate the “balancing what you want against what’s best for everyone,” “identification with others,” finding “happiness in observing the happiness of others,” “wanting what’s good for” others, choosing “to help others find happiness,” and behaving ethically and supporting an ethical society. Finally, Epstein similarly assumes that humans only have their own needs and interests to work with, nothing else. “Our morality,” he says, “is based on human needs and social contracts.”20 And our ultimate human need or interest is to flourish. Ethics tell us how to live in ways that will promote flourishing. We also know that we value our own lives. Therefore, Epstein says, “logic commits us to universalize from there” to overcome selfishness and live in ways to respect the dignity of all people. 21 That then leads us to see that, if we gain this right perspective, we should promote the dignity of all humans. “The dignity of mutual concern and connection and of self-fulfillment through service to humanity’s highest ideals is more than enough reason to be good without God,” he writes. 22 20
These arguments contain some solid and admirable features 23 but also a host of problems— including dubious premises, slippages of reasoning, and ignored counter-claims—which I could elaborate if I had the interest and space. For present purposes, I will limit myself to examining just a few crucial problems in their arguments. The Problem of Unjustified Egalitarian Universalism The first problem for our atheistic moralists is that none of them provide a convincing reason—sometimes any reason—for the universal scope of our asserted obligations to promote the good of all other human beings. It is one thing for people to be good to those who are proximate and similar to them. It is quite another to demand that every person is morally obliged to advance the wellbeing of every other human on earth. A careful reading of our moralists reveals good reasons why atheists should be motivated to be good to a limited set of people who matter to them. But they do not provide good reasons to be good to everyone. That our atheist moralists do champion universal, egalitarian, and inclusive moral standards is clear. Philip Kitcher, whom I already quoted on these matters above, is the most insistent among them. He writes that “a world counts as good to the extent actualizing it would lead us toward Utopia,” that is, an “imaginary social state” in which “each member of the human population has a serious chance of living a good life,” where “the chances of living such lives are equal across the population.” 24 “Almost all human beings,” he says, “can advance from a state in which the good life is understood in terms of the satisfaction of basic needs…to a condition in which a richer conception of the good life makes sense for them.” 25 “My secular ideal,” he thus writes, “commits itself to making available to all people the human possibilities proliferated by the ethical project.” 26 Similarly, Epstein writes that, “We [humanists] are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity.” Everyone must make “a decision together—not just as a family, clan, tribe, city, nation, or bloc of nations, but as the human species. We must decide, all of us together, to survive.” Epstein endorses the Humanist Manifesto of 2003, which encourages all to “aspire to the greater good of humanity” and “ground values in human welfare…extended to the global” level, in the “hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all,” so that “as many as possible can enjoy a good life.” 27 What arguments, then, do these two of the strongest universalists among our moralists provide to justify their positions? Kitcher’s argument runs like this: If you want to live a good life, to enjoy your own wellbeing (which you do), then you should realize that other people also want to live good lives and enjoy wellbeing. The human ethical project has always been about enhancing personal and social wellbeing. The more humans can live good lives, the better. Therefore, morality compels each person to commit to providing the conditions of wellbeing to every other person. To quote him: “Almost all human beings want a future in which the younger members of their societies…can grow healthily…. [But] today the actions of people in some areas of the world [pollution, global warming] interfere with the realization of such desires.” 28 Therefore, “Continuation of the ethical project should include an attempt to frame a conception of the common good responsive to the desires of the entire human population…. We urgently need a conception of the good that considers the desires of all people…. Where there are serious consequences for distant others, there must be an attempt to respond to them.” 29 Epstein’s justification of moral universalism consists of four sentences referring to (without footnoting) the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein’s reference to the philosopher Thomas Nagel, who argues in his book The Possibility of Altruism that “logic commits us to universalize…certain natural attitudes that already commit us to valuing our own lives.” That is, we can reason that “we all know 21
for ourselves that there is a right or wrong…so from there only radical selfishness could prevent us from understanding that these concepts are universal.” And since selfishness leads to unhappiness, that is not an option. Hence, universalism. “Ethics really isn’t that complicated,” Epstein concludes. 30 Neither Kitcher’s nor Epstein’s arguments for universalism are remotely persuasive. They may “convince” people who, for other (good or bad) reasons, already want to believe in inclusive moral universalism without thinking too hard about it. But convincing people who are already or mostly convinced is not the challenge. The challenge is to convince reasonable skeptics. So let us consider the position of a reasonable skeptic whose starting point is something like this: “I can see why, even without God, and understanding moral norms to be mere human inventions, I should be motivated to behave ethically and be good to the people around me who could affect my wellbeing. Beyond them, however, I see no compelling obligation to promote the wellbeing of other people who are irrelevant for all practical purposes to my own life, happiness, and welfare.” What can Kitcher and Epstein say to such a skeptic? Kitcher would reply, “But don’t you see that those other distant people have the same aspirations and desires as you do? What you want for yourself they deserve equally too.” I imagine the skeptic would ask: “Why should I care about their aspirations and desires? Dealing with my own life is hard enough. Charity begins at home. I cannot be responsible for what everybody deserves. They and their people can take care of themselves.” Kitcher answers: “But that is unfair! They also belong to our common humanity, as we benefit together from following moral norms. You have an obligation to help them and every other person.” To which the skeptic replies: “Says who? Anyway, life isn’t fair—get used to it. If morality only exists to benefit us, then I will be moral with people I wish to benefit and who might benefit me.” What can Kitcher say? “You are a bad and selfish man”? No, that is desperate name-calling. What Kitcher needs, but does not possess, is a compelling argument, good reasons that could actually persuade the reasonable skeptic to be motivated to care about all other people. Kitcher does not have such reasons because his morally demanding inclusive and egalitarian universalism does not follow from his atheist, naturalist, functionalist premises. There remains a disconnect; there is no logical link between them. The reasonable skeptic sees that. Kitcher’s metaphysics and moral ontology probably do justify the moral approach taken by the reasonable skeptic, but they do not justify the obligations that Kitcher himself wishes to lay upon a secular society. 31 If Kitcher’s argument does not succeed, Epstein’s fails miserably. His actually is not even an argument; instead it is a placeholder that dodges the problem. “Trust me,” Epstein essentially says, “Goldstein and Nagel are really good philosophers and they have got this covered—logic forces us to universalize our own experience. It’s really not complicated.” Anyone who doubts, he suggests, is guilty of “radical selfishness” (more name-calling)—and needlessly over-complicating ethics. Epstein’s brevity and dismissiveness suggest either that he does not grasp the gravity of the issue at stake, or that he intuitively senses the weakness of his position and nervously wishes quickly to change the subject. He has made not a dent in the position of the reasonable skeptic who accepts the value of socially bounded moral commitments and behaviors but sees no reason for accepting demanding, egalitarian, universal obligations. 32 Universally inclusive systems of moral obligations are extremely tall orders that are very difficult if not impossible to fill. They require us to respect the (alleged) “dignity” of all people, not just nice and good people, but also the most damaging, costly, ungrateful, and irredeemable of people on the planet. 33 They expect us to identify and empathize with the needs and sufferings of every person, even those on the other side of the earth whose cultures are alien to ours. And we are to devote to them not merely passing sympathetic feelings but understanding, material aid, and resources. When we follow the Golden Rule, the “others” whom we “do unto” as we want done to ourselves are not only the friends and strangers with whom we interact, but everyone out there, from every social class, race, ethnicity, religion, political persuasion, country, and continent. Being good also requires, at least 22
for Kitcher, more than sending donations to faraway victims of earthquakes, tsunamis, epidemics, and other disasters. It means that the world’s privileged must proactively redistribute material resources and social services to ensure that everyone on the planet possesses an equal opportunity for wellbeing. If human beings are asked to do these things, they will, given the demands involved, have to hear really good and strong reasons clearly justifying them. 34 Yet our atheist moralists have none to offer that a reasonable skeptic cannot easily shrug off. They simply make assertions as if an inclusive, egalitarian universalism is the obvious next step in shared human progress, in “service to our highest ideals,” the “uncomplicated” and inexorable outcome of the dutiful exercise of Kantian practical reason. But this is just wishful thinking, an evasion of reason. What ought we conclude on this point about being “good without God?” I think that atheists are rationally justified in being morally good, if that means a modest goodness focused primarily on people who might affect them and with a view to practical consequences in terms of “enlightened self-interest.” “Good,” however, has no good reason to involve universal moral obligations. Atheists who wish to promote being “good without God,” if they are intellectually honest, need to scale back their ambitions and propose something more defensible, forthright, and realistic than what most of these moralists seem to want. A more modest goodness may or may not suffice for functional human societies and happy life, but—unless our atheist moralists have so far missed a big reason yet to be unveiled—that is all it seems atheism can rationally support. The Problem of the “Sensible Knave” The second problem in the arguments of our atheistic moralists is that none of them successfully explains why rational persons in an atheistic universe should not uphold a culture’s moral norms only most of the time. Why not be good when it serves one’s enlightened self-interest but strategically choose to break a moral norm at opportune moments, when violation has a nice payoff and there is little chance of being caught? You may be familiar with the history of this question. It is known as “Glaucon’s challenge” to Socrates, recorded in Plato’s Republic, and it is the problem of David Hume’s “sensible knave,” addressed in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. 35 (Today we might call Hume’s sensible knave a “shrewd opportunist.”) Neither Socrates nor Hume successfully resolved this problem, and neither do today’s atheist moralists. In fact, only one of the latter even confronts the challenge directly. The others either raise the question briefly and brush it aside, as if it is trivial; or else float some version of Socrates and Hume’s (unsuccessful) answers and then hurriedly move on. In the end, Glaucon’s challenge and Hume’s “sensible knave” continue to stare all of their claims in the face, waiting for a more convincing answer. One will not be forthcoming, because there is not a more convincing answer to bring forward. Recall our atheistic situation. There is no objective, external source of moral order, such as God or a natural law. Humans invent morality through learning and social contract to make society function better—to benefit themselves. People are motivated to follow their culture’s moral norms because breaking them will lead to punishment in the short run and unhappiness and reduced wellbeing in the longer run. This kind of enlightened self-interest should produce societies of people who are morally good without God. But the fact is that, if this is indeed our situation, there is no good reason for a perceptive and intelligent person not to act as Hume’s sensible knave, if they so desire. In fact, the more intelligent such a person is, the more they will want other people to follow all of the moral codes consistently, while they themselves opt to violate them when it is in their enlightened self-interest to do so. Let everyone else, who is not so clever, do the work of upholding the moral norms. To use the economist’s language, many perceptive people in an atheist universe will be tempted on occasion to “free ride”— 23
that is, let others pay the full fare for the collective benefits of moral order, while they themselves occasionally jump the turnstile and ride for free. 36 To these reasonable responses, our atheist moralists have no good reply. 37 Thus, we cannot avoid concluding that “the imperfect coincidence of morality and self-interest implies that immorality need not always be irrational.” 38 Let us return to the details of the argument. The traditional reply to Glaucon’s challenge and sensible knave is to argue that immoral behavior inevitably inflicts psychological damage on the immoral one, disturbing their mental tranquility and generating anxiety about being caught. So the mere desire to enjoy peace of mind and satisfaction with one’s own moral integrity should suffice to motivate everyone (except already morally corrupt reprobates) to be consistently morally good and never to “free ride.” 39 How do our atheist moralists reply? Only one of our authors, Philip Kitcher, addresses the problem directly. And in the end he admits to having no answer against the sensible knave. 40 Kitcher begins with the traditional answer, saying we should tell the sensible knave that “he will be disturbed and worried, that he will forfeit that tranquility of mind that good conscience bestows” and that he will also not actually achieve his goals. 41 But, Kitcher acknowledges, “in many instances, these responses will be ineffective.” He then suggests telling the knave that his ability to take advantage of the moral system depends unfairly upon hard-won inherited moral systems and “the obedient docility of [his] fellows” upholding them. Kitcher knows, however, that the knave will reply that “this is all past history” and that “he is grateful so many of his predecessors went along with the codes” of morality so that “he can take advantage of that fact and pursue his egoistic goals.” Kitcher admits that a Kantian appeal to our duty to be consistent with rational principles is “powerless to prevent the [knave’s] shrug. Who should care?” In the end, he admits that “Knave cannot be silenced” and that his own moral argument can do little more than “offer a diagnosis of what [knave] is doing”—namely, “the knavish incoherence” is taking advantage of humanity’s moral inheritance “that sustains human cooperation” and the good behavior of others. Quite so. Still, Kitcher concludes that the knave “shrugs his shoulders, unmoved by the rhetoric.” In a last effort at self-defense, Kitcher claims that no other available moral system is able to answer the knave any better than he can. 42 He then moves on to another topic. As a moral philosopher, Kitcher is professionally the most qualified among our atheist moralists to solve this problem. Yet by his own admission he cannot provide a satisfactory reason why sensible knaves should not carefully free-ride morally on others who are more cooperative and gullible. And if Kitcher cannot, there is no chance that Epstein, Harris, or the others can. And in fact they don’t. Imagine that you own a computer firm whose work involves protecting highly sensitive information. Imagine that you are approached by a salesperson offering a new data-security program that provides full security against honest computer users; the only problem, this salesperson admits, is that the program also unfortunately has an irreparable systemic security hole that is vulnerable to being breached and exploited by malicious hackers. Do you want to buy this program? You should not. For you do not need to protect your sensitive data against honest users, but malicious hackers. This by analogy is the problem besetting the “good without God” moral systems that Kitcher and his fellow moralists are selling. They may work properly among well-intentioned people who uphold moral norms, but they are systematically and irremediably vulnerable to violation by sensible knaves. Worse: the more sensible the knaves, the more vulnerable the moral systems are; and the more knaves exist who understand these systems’ vulnerabilities, the more often they will be breached, and people will not be good. Further, since these moral systems are “public goods,” like subway systems, which remain functional only insofar as they are widely supported by “full-fare-paying riders,” they are also vulnerable to de-legitimation and possibly breakdown when a critical mass of sensible knaves behave in exploitive ways that the proponents of the moral systems cannot prevent with convincing reasons. And those I take to be debilitating problems for any “good without God” moral system. 24
Also note this ironic difficulty that the problem of sensible knaves generates for atheist moralists: it commends on pragmatic functional grounds popular ignorance instead of enlightenment about the facts about morality. For any enlightenment atheist, preferring ignorance over illumination of the truth is perverse. Yet if atheism is correct, human practices of ethics will function more effectively if the general public remains in obfuscated darkness about morality’s mere human origins and sheer functional purposes. People who believe that their moral norms reflect objective standards of moral truth—what philosophers call “moral facts”—will be more likely to uphold them than people who see that they are mere human constructions that evolved to reduce social conflicts and enhance general human wellbeing. The Great and Terrible Oz of morality, so to speak, was only revered and obeyed when the denizens of Oz paid “no attention to that man behind the curtain.” When he is revealed to the masses as just a humbug man with a hot air balloon from Omaha, the dikes holding back sensible knavery will be breached. Thus, ironically, moral education will not promote greater moral living but increased moral skepticism and knavery. Therefore, to minimize that threat, better for those in charge of social order to allow and even encourage people to believe the myths that morality is based in God or natural law or karma or whatever else the atheists are debunking. It would be better for a “good without God” world to be populated by misled conformists than enlightened knaves—because the former will be more likely to be consistently good, even when they have no good reason to be so. That is a perverse bind for atheists, who claim to be our greatest champions of enlightened intelligence, scientific realism, and education in the facts. Furthermore, our atheist moralists have not eliminated from their moral systems the judging and punishing God that they so loathe and wish to eradicate; they have simply substituted for a religious God the punishing god of “society.” Nobody suggests that people will voluntarily behave morally without the threat of sanctions. Every moral system under consideration, atheist and otherwise, recognizes that the monitoring, judgments, rewards, and punishment of some kind of super-individual power are necessary to enforce compliance. Getting rid of God does not change that; it just shifts the burden of behavior-regulation to the informal and formal social-control functions of human society: surveillance, gossip, snitching, state regulations, police forces, courts, prisons, and so on. Even people motivated by an enlightened self-interest in increasing their own wellbeing also need the fear of punishment to inform their calculations. Bayer and Figdor frame this fact nicely: “The choice to be a comparatively moral person is easier in the context of a society with well-considered ethical laws, since breaking these laws will usually fail to optimize a person’s life-happiness. In other words, laws often set up an incentive structure that aligns individual self-interest with behavior that benefits society at large.” But the harsher reality also emerges: “That’s why we often reinforce ethical values when we see others straying by…publicly shaming them.” 43 And when it comes to society’s powers of social control, public shaming is only the beginning. Likewise, for Kitcher, egalitarian hunter-gatherers collectively agreed upon moral norms, but those who may violate them are necessarily threatened with punishments and social exclusion: “Behind [morality] must stand practices of punishment. Unless there were sanctions for disobedience, fear could hardly be central to the initial capacity for normative guidance. Conversely, when punishment is present in a group, it can make possible the evolution of elaborate forms of cooperative behavior.” 44 Hence the importance of the risk of being caught for wrongdoing and having one’s reputation ruined. 45 Atheists scorn the idea of a punishing God who induces fearful obedience, but in the end, they must substitute their own version of the same, a watchful and punishing human society, to secure moral order. So, if anyone thinks “good without God” means a system in which oversight, control, and punishment are eliminated, in favor of widespread voluntary expressions of ethical behavior, he will be waiting forever. The choice between God and (social) god, between one’s creator and judge and the myriad social control mechanisms of society, is inescapable.
Now, to be clear, returning to my main argument, I am not advocating that everyone in an atheist universe should morally free-ride or ought to become sensible knaves. Many people may well choose to abide consistently by their culture’s moral norms. My point is simply that nobody in an atheist universe confronts a good reason not to free-ride morally under the right conditions, if they so desire, because atheist moralists do not possess such a good reason. Kitcher knows that, and the other moralists have just ignored it. But the problem of moral free-riding and sensible knavery is not trivial. If we are to move into a future that is intent on being “good without God,” these morally corrosive facts, this systemic vulnerability to moral hackers must be acknowledged and our moral expectations adjusted accordingly. Again, I say, atheists have reasons to be good without God, but not as faithfully and consistently good as our atheist moralists would like us to think. Conclusion So, let me conclude. I said in the introduction to this essay that I began this inquiry with a genuinely open mind, interested to see if atheists really could make a solid case for the rational justification for a strong morality. I’m afraid I came away disappointed. 46 “The question,” Charles Taylor has asked, “is whether we are not living beyond our moral means in continuing allegiance to our [high] standards of justice and benevolence. Do we have ways of seeing-good which are still credible to us, which are powerful enough to sustain these standards? If not, it would be both more honest and more prudent to moderate them.” 47 My conclusion about the atheist moralists examined above is that they are trying to live beyond their reasonable means and would be honest and prudent to moderate their claims. The atheist moralists are over-reaching. An ethics of genuine goodness without God may be possible. But the substantive obligations of such a morality are not what most activist atheists claim they can justify. They will need to lower their standards to fit the premises and parameters that their atheistic universe actually provides. People seem justified in being “moderately” good without God, motivated by a concern about the practical consequences of morality for their own and their loved ones’ wellbeing, understood in terms of “enlightened self-interest” (what I have called a modest or moderate goodness). But rational and intellectually honest atheists do not have good reasons justifying their strong, inclusive, universalistic humanism, which requires all people to adhere to high moral norms and to share their resources in an egalitarian fashion for the sake of equal opportunity and the promotion of human rights. Judging by their own accounts of their lives, most of our atheist moralists had pretty clear ideas of what was morally good, right, and just prior to committing to atheism. Some even admit that these ideas were religiously formed early in life. When they later became atheists, they then set out to reaffirm the core of their prior moral sensibilities and commitments in light of their beliefs in a godless universe. Their conclusions, in other words, were to some extent determined before they began to think and write—so they are reasoning to a preferred conclusion, not a necessary one. That is not the best way to work out a coherent moral philosophy, and it will not convince the reasonable skeptic. It sets up some of our moralists to try to force and finesse arguments that in fact do not succeed. 48 Still, mine is a qualified conclusion. I am not convinced, as are some religious people, along with Dostoyevsky, that “If God does not exist, then all things are possible,” or that an atheistic universe must unavoidably degenerate into Nietzschean nihilism. 49 I used to believe something like that, but I am not so sure anymore. I have come to think that a secular neo-Aristotelian virtues ethics can provide a more moderate, chastened approach that avoids both Nietzschean nihilism and the overreaching optimism of new atheists yet is also broadly compatible with theism. 50 Meanwhile, my answer to the good-without-God question, in the end, is: To some significant extent, yes, humans can 26
be good without God. But please don’t get carried away with high expectations and stringent demands. 1
I am grateful to Steve Vaisey, Diana Brown, Kraig Beyerlein, Keith Meador, Chris Eberle, Doug Porpora, Bridget Ritz, Justin Farrell, Beth Green, John Evans, Todd Granger, McKenna LeClear, Rick Garnett, Mike Wood, Jenna Wertsching, and Kristine Kalanges for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this essay. 2 The empirical question of how religious and secular populations compare on various moral issues is, however, far from settled. Simply to observe that atheists can be and often are morally good does not itself answer the question of whether they tend to be as good as or better than religious believers. For an example of empirical tests of these questions, see John H. Evans, What is a Human?: What the Answers Mean for Human Rights (New York: Oxford, 2016), 49-70, 197-206. 3 Nonetheless, the philosopher Paul Kurtz bases nearly his entire normative argument that atheists can be good without God on the empirical observations of goodness, that while, “millions of people do not believe in God,” still “they do believe very deeply in morality” and “have led exemplary lives of nobility and excellence, and…have contributed greatly to the common good” Paul Kurtz and William Lane Craig, “The Kurtz/Craig Debate: Is Goodness Without God Good Enough?” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?, Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King, eds. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 25-29, 33-36, 42-44. 4 Philip Kitcher, Life after Faith: The Case for Secular Humanism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Philip Kitcher, The Ethical Project (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010); Greg Epstein, Good without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Do Believe (New York: Harper, 2009); and Lex Bayer and John Figdor, Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart: Rewriting the Ten Commandments for the Twenty-First Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). 5 Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates (New York: Norton, 2013); Phil Zuckerman, Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions (New York: Penguin, 2014); Katherine Ozment, Grace without God: The Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Belonging in a Secular Age (New York: Harper, 2016); Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Morality without God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Kai Nielsen, Ethics without God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus, 2009); Ronald Lindsay, The Necessity of Secularism: Why God Can’t Tell Us What to Do. (Durham, NC: Pitchstone Publishing, 2014). I also read and at times reference essays in Robert Garcia and Nathan King (eds.), Is Goodness without God Good Enough? (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009). 6 Below I will suggest that the Kantian theory of universalizing rationality may present an explanation for the imperative of moral behavior, but it lacks an account providing a warranted motivation for doing so, and thereby falls short of providing an adequately good reason it. 7 For present purposes, I follow my atheist moralists in treating “moral” and “good” as interchangeable concepts, even though a more precise analysis would need to distinguish them. 8 Bayer and Figdor, 110; Kitcher, 64; Epstein 93. 9 Harris, 55, 65, 79-80, 106, 110; Kitcher, Life After Faith, 58; Kitcher, The Ethical Project, 17, 82, 255, 409; Epstein, 21, 118; Beyer and Figdor, 92, 93, 97; also see Zuckerman, 13; de Waal, 49, 156; Lindsay, 77-78. 10 Harris 55, 106, 110, 191; Kitcher, Life After Faith, 53, 87-88; Epstein, xviii, 25, 118; Beyer and Figdor, 94, 110, 139; also see Zuckerman, 13, 15, 20, 36. 11 Bayer and Figdor, 97; Epstein, xviii. They do not distinguish between doing the good to others we want done to ourselves (the golden rule of Jesus) and not doing the bad to others we do not want done to ourselves (the so-called silver rule of Rabbi Hillel and Confucius), which is a huge ethical difference, but for present purposes let us set that aside (see Doug Porpora, Landscapes of the Soul: The Loss of Moral Meaning in American Life (New York: Oxford, 2001). Zuckerman writes: “What is good?... Simple: the Golden Rule…. Treating others as you would like to be treated…. Not harming others and helping those in need…which flow easily and directly from…the simple logic of empathetic reciprocity” (13). Franz de Wall is the only one of these authors that explicitly rejects the Golden Rule as an inadequate moral guide, on the grounds that it has the fatal flaw of assuming that what others want is identical to what we want (“that all people are alike”) and that, due to its “very limited reach,” it “doesn’t help resolve most [moral] dilemmas” (181-182). 12 Quotes in this paragraph come from Kitcher, Life After Faith, 158; Kitcher, The Ethical Project, 304, 367, 374-375, 376, 396. 13 Quotes from this paragraph come from Epstein, Good Without God, 223, 224, 225, 146-150. 14 Harris, The Moral Landscape, 28, 36, 43, 50, 52. 15 Bayer and Figdor, 106. Other authors also agree. The University of Calgary atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen, for instance, claims that “morality requires that we attempt to distribute happiness as evenly as possible. We must be fair…. Requirements of justice make it necessary that each person be given equal consideration”, Ethics Without God, 122).
16 Nielsen says: “Our individual welfare is dependent upon having a device [morality] that equitably resolves social and individual conflict” (126). Lindsay writes: morality “creates stability, provides security, ameliorates harmful conditions, fosters trust, and facilitates cooperation in achieving shared and complementary goals. In other words, morality enables us to live together and…improve the conditions under which we live” (77-78). 17 Nielsen actually conflates deontological and functionalist ethics in saying: “The Kantian principle of respect for persons is actually bound up in the very idea…that our individual welfare is dependent on having a device that equitably resolves social and individual conflicts” (Ethics Without God, 1990, 126). 18 Harris, 65, 110, 191. 19 Bayer and Figdor, 107. The following quotes in this paragraph come from 89, 92, 96, 95, 97, 110, 139. 20 Epstein, 35. 21 Epstein, 34. 22 Epstein, 103. Unclear throughout Epstein’s writings, however, remains the question of whether we should by social contract treat people as if they have dignity because we prefer that—as is suggested by much of his language about dignity needing to be “promoted,” “struggled for,” “cultivated,” “a goal to strive for,” and, indeed, of humans as having “the potential for dignity” (37, 89, 90, 91)—or instead take the realist position that people should be treated well because they are objectively endowed with a real dignity that as a moral fact must be honored, whether or not anyone does so. 23 For the most part, the arguments are straightforwardly honest in acknowledging that if God and/or some moral natural law do not exist, then what we think of as morality really is a human construction, with no external, objective reference. (I do not think they take the implications of that premise seriously enough, but at least they are unflinchingly clear about the premise.) I also largely agree with these writers’ arguments against the modern rejection of the so-called “naturalistic fallacy,” inherited from David Hume, which insists that facts and values must be divorced. To make their cases, these atheist moralists must show that morality derives from the facts of human life, and so they must undercut modernity’s rejection of the naturalistic fallacy. Values, they must show, are informed by facts. My own neo-Aristotelian critical realist personalism agrees with them on this point. Thirdly, I think that some of these atheist moralists do a better job than most moral philosophers today in taking seriously what we can learn from relevant social scientific, cognitive, and neurological research relevant to moral behavior. They go overboard at times, but in general I appreciate that some of them try to take relevant science seriously. 24 Kitcher, The Ethical Project, 316, 317, italics added for emphasis. 25 Kitcher, The Ethical Project, 314-15, italics in original. 26 Kitcher, Life After Faith, 51, italics added for emphasis. Likewise, the atheist philosopher Kai Nielsen insists on “the need to do what we can to diminish the awful sum of human misery in the world.” He adds, “Morality requires that we attempt to distribute happiness as evenly as possible. We must be fair: each person is to count for one and none is to count for more than one” (Nielsen Ethics without God (Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1990, 117). 27 Epstein, 34, 148, 223, 224, 225, italics added. 28 Kitcher, The Ethical Project, 304, 305. 29 Ibid., 304, 305. 30 Similarly, the moral philosopher Ronald Lindsay explains those who “want an explanation of the reason for acknowledging moral obligations”: “It’s largely a matter of logical consistency. If we accept the institution of morality, then we are tacitly agreeing to be bound by its norms. We cannot logically maintain that moral norms apply to everyone except us.” More Lindsay: “In saying an action is morally wrong, we are committed to making the same judgment regardless of whether it is I or someone else doing the action” (The Necessity of Secularism, 110). The dubious rationalist presupposition here is that human behavior is straightforwardly driven by logic and the desire for rational consistency, to which I should say that I have never been convinced by Kantian ethics, for reasons beyond the scope of this essay, and am confident that few reasonable skeptics are either. On the key question of moral motivations, Kant and his followers seem to me to presuppose one of the most important points for which they bear the burden to demonstrate. 31 If Kitcher wanted to succeed, he would need to have supplied more explicit premises to connect his argument to its conclusion, such as, (1) the increased connectedness of a globalized world means that the wellbeing of every other society and person on the planet actually does impact every other person’s wellbeing; or (2) every human is highly morally responsible for not only their own lives and those of their children but also for many generations of humans into the future. But I do not think either of these would or should be plausible premises to the reasonable skeptic. 32 Bayer and Figdor promise to address the challenge of universal inclusion in chapter 11 of their book but end up only discussing how to weigh trade-offs of goods between different people, which is a different matter (“We haven’t yet explicitly discussed…how inclusive a society should be. How should we weigh the preferences of the many against the preferences of the few? We’ll discuss this in the next chapter”) (Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, 109). 33 Charles Taylor asks: “Is the naturalist affirmation conditional on a vision of human nature in the fullness of its health and strength? Does it move us to extend help to the irremediably broken, such as the mentally handicapped,
those dying without dignity, fetuses with genetic defects?” (Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, 516). 34 “High standards need strong sources. This is because there is something morally corrupting, even dangerous, in sustaining the demand simply on the feeling of undischarged obligation, on guilt, or its obverse, self-satisfaction” (Ibid.). 35 Hume: “According to the imperfect ways in which human affairs are conducted, a sensible knave, in particular incidents, may think, that an act of iniquity or infidelity will make a considerable addition to his fortune, without causing any considerable breach in the social union or confederacy. That honesty is the best policy, may be a good general rule; but is liable to many exceptions: And he, it may, perhaps, be thought, conducts himself with most wisdom, who observes the general rule, and takes advantage of all the exceptions.” That is the difficulty. Hume admits: “I must confess, that, if a man think, that this reasoning much requires an answer, it will be a little difficult to find any, which will to him appear satisfactory and convincing” (David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Principles of Morals (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983, 81.). 36 To formalize this, the “sensible knave” scenario requires three conditions together and is enhanced by a fourth: (1) knave almost always upholds moral norms and thus develops a reputation for being good, honest, and reliable; (2) knave also privately monitors situations to recognize exceptional opportunities in which (a) violating moral norms would (b) provide significant self-serving advantages (c) at very low risks of being caught; and (3) knave is mentally and emotionally prepared to capitalize upon such situations without hesitation (in contrast to what would be expected based on knave’s public reputation) in order to maximize chances of success. Knave is psychologically aided in this by (4) understanding the conditions and consequences of atheism (e.g., that moral norms are only human inventions, that one only need fear being caught, not the judgments of God or the inexorable consequences of karma or some other natural law or superhuman force). 37 Some social scientists have tried to solve the free-rider problem by appealing to “selective incentives” (e.g., receiving a $5 mug from National Public Radio for donating $40), but the latter can only contribute partially to other reasons not to free ride and never alone make that decision justified. 38 David Brink in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism: “The question really asks about the rational authority of morality. That question arises for most of us because of a perceived tension between the other-regarding demands of morality and a broadly prudential conception of practical reason, according to which what one has reason to do is to promote one’s own aims or interests. For meeting the demands of nonaggression, cooperation, fidelity, fair play, and charity often appears to constrain one’s pursuit of one’s own aims or interests…. As long as we understand the prudential justification of morality in terms of instrumental advantage, the secular coincidence between other-regarding morality and enlightened self-interest must remain imperfect. Sometimes noncompliance would go undetected; and even where noncompliance is detected, the benefits…sometimes outweigh the costs…. Compliance involves costs as well as benefits. It must remain a second-best option, behind undetected noncompliance, in which one enjoys the benefits of others’ compliance without the costs of one’s own” (David O. Brink, “The Autonomy of Ethics,” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 20007), 160-161, italics in original). Also see Candace Vogler, Reasonably Vicious (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). 39 Hume’s reply, for example: “In all ingenuous natures, the antipathy to treachery and roguery is too strong to be counterbalanced by any views of profit or pecuniary advantage. Inward peace of mind, consciousness of integrity, a satisfactory review of our own conduct; these are circumstances very requisite to happiness, and will be cherished and cultivated by every honest man, who feels the importance of them. Such a one has, besides, the frequent satisfaction of seeing knaves, with all their pretending cunning and ability, betrayed by their own maxims” (1983: 82). For “honest men” to act like sensible knaves, they will “have sacrificed the invaluable enjoyments of a character…for the acquisition of worthless toys and gewgaws…above all the peaceful reflection of one’s own conduct” (82). MacIntyre rightly inquires: “Why should we obey rules on occasions when it is not to our interest to do so? Hume…tries to conclude that it is to our long-term advantage to be just, when all that his premises warrant is the…conclusion that it is often to our long-term advantage that people generally should be just. And [Hume] has to evoke…what he calls ‘the communicated passion of sympathy’: [that] we find it agreeable that some quality is agreeable to others because we are so constructed that we naturally sympathize with those others. The…[more honest] answer would have been: ‘Sometimes we do, sometimes we do not; and when we do not, why should we?’” (Alasdair MacIntyre, 1984. After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), 229-230, italic added). 40 All quotes following come from Kitcher, The Ethical Project, 275-76; Life After Faith, 56. 41 Sinnott-Armstrong similarly claims that “despite popular rumors, it is normally to be in our interest to be moral. Immorality rarely pays…. Even when [cheaters] get away with it, they usually won’t be happier, or much happier, than if they had made more modest gains honestly. They will often be hounded by guilt or fear of rivals or of punishment” (Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Morality without God? (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 114). 42 “The diagnosis seems no worse than that offered by the major rival approaches to ethics” (Kitcher, 276). 29
Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, 109, 110. The Ethical Project, 87. 45 On this point our authors suffer some slippage between the need for people to be truly and consistently honest, despite the costs, and merely developing a reputation for trustworthiness. De Wall for example speaks about “reputations of honesty and trustworthiness” (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 234); and Bayer and Figdor talk of people who “desire to be seen as an honest person” (Atheist Mind, Humanist Heart, 97). 46 The difficulties on which I have focused above are by no means the only problems besetting these atheist moralists. A fuller critical treatment of their works could interrogate many more, including the following. All of these writers indulge in vulgar expressions of empiricist scientism, basing allegedly knock-down arguments against religion on naïve and outdated epistemological assumptions. Moreover, they all display a (what should be) embarrassing ignorance of the variety and nuances of religious accounts for human morality, substituting caricatures of divine-command theory which they assume are easily defeated by the “Euthyphro dilemma.” They display an incredible neglect of Aristotle, whose virtues ethics could present both great help and significant challenges to these moralists. Some of these writers tend to confuse the question of whether atheists have reasons to be morally good with the distinct question of whether atheists can lead meaningful or purpose-filled lives—thus failing to recognize that one could well lead a meaningful life that is anything but morally good (e.g., I have no doubt that the lives of many Nazi fascists were highly meaningful). Many of these moralists exhibit a total captivity to the incoherent moral emotivism criticized by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), declaring gratuitous negative moral judgments (of things they do not like as “crass,” “sad,” “misled,” “unfortunate,” “unhealthy,” “elitist,” “cruel,” “silly,” and “misguided”) that are unjustifiable by their own moral systems. Some of these moralists shift inconsistently between the view that our evolutionary inheritance is a nearly determinative control shaping our lives, on the one hand, and the view that we humans are free to transcend the dictates of our evolutionarily inherited traits, on the other, as their purposes dictate (e.g., Harris says of our evolved functional “penchant for out-group hostility” that “such evolutionary constraints no longer hold…. We are now poised to consciously engineer our further evolution,” After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 102). Most of these writers treat all moral questions as a matter of how people treat one another in interpersonal relationships (e.g., Frans de Waal says, “Morality is a system of rules concerning the two H’s of Helping or at least not Hurting fellow human beings. It addresses the well-being of others and puts the community before the individual” (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 156), which reductively truncates the way most cultures and philosophers have conceived of ethics and morality. Those who emphasize human happiness treat, in good utilitarian fashion, everyone’s search for happiness as similar; they fail to recognize how perceptions of the content of and best strategies for achieving happiness and wellbeing depend very heavily on people’s locations in social structures and institutions, a fact that greatly complicates the kind of aggregations of happiness that utilitarians seek. And these atheist moralists are also oddly obsessed with hell, when few contemporary religious people, including American evangelicals, talk much about the subject. 47 Taylor, Sources of the Self, 517. 48 Similarly, MacIntyre explains inconsistencies in Hume’s moral account, which lacks any criteria of judgment beyond “the passions of men of good sense,” thusly: His “appeal to a universal verdict by mankind turns out to be the mask worn by an appeal to those who physiologically and socially share Hume’s attitudes and Weltanschauung…. What Hume identifies as the standpoint of universal human nature turns out in fact to be that of the prejudices of the Hanoverian ruling elite.” His account is thus “an attempt to claim universal rational authority for what is in fact the local morality of parts of eighteenth-century Northern Europe” (After Virtue, 231-232). This is related to what Charles Taylor calls a “subtraction story” of secularization, namely, the view that we can retain a liberal humanism inherited in part from millennia of religious influences even after we subtract God from the picture (Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007). 49 Charles Taylor has said: “Only if there is such a thing as agape, or one of the secular claimants to it succession, is Nietzsche wrong” (Sources of the Self, 516). I suppose at issue there is what could count as a “secular claimant” to succeed God’s agape love. Also see Philip Yancey, “Nietzsche Was Right,” Books and Culture. (January/February 1998): 14-17; David Bentley Hart, “Christ and Nothing,” First Things (October 2003) https://www.firstthings.com/article/2003/10/christ-and-nothing. 50 I have made tentative effort to elaborate this idea in two books, What is a Person? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010) and To Flourish or Destruct (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015). But see John Hare, “Is Moral Goodness without Belief in God Rationally Stable?,” in Is Goodness without God Good Enough?, Robert K. Garcia and Nathan L. King, eds. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), 85-99. 44
Ethics and the Need for God By Melanie Susan Barrett, Ph.D., S.T.D. In his paper, “Just How ‘Good without God’ are Atheists Justified in Being?”, Notre Dame University professor Christian Smith evaluates the ethical arguments made by some prominent contemporary atheists: Philip Kitcher (a philosopher), Sam Harris (a neuroscientist), Greg Epstein (Harvard’s Humanist chaplain), John Figdor (Stanford’s Humanist chaplain), and Lex Bayer (a technology entrepreneur who also leads an atheist/agnostic/humanist nonprofit organization in the Bay Area). Smith observes that notwithstanding certain methodological differences, what all of these thinkers share in common—aside from their metaphysical commitment to atheism—is the belief that “a robust, universal, humanistic ethic of care and respect for the rights and wellbeing of all other human beings can be derived rationally from atheism.” 1 Upon dissecting the various arguments that each thinker proposes, Smith acknowledges that atheism can rationally ground an “ethically modest” standard of moral goodness—one which sets “a moderately high bar of moral expectations on human behavior.” 2 However, he ultimately concludes that “this modest standard of morality falls far short of the kind of robust, universal, humanistic morality that most atheist activists have in mind today when they insist that we can be ‘good without God.’” 3 In my estimation, Smith’s analysis is sufficiently comprehensive and internally coherent as to be persuasive; hence, I will neither rehearse nor critique the precise contours of his argument. In principle, one could offer an external critique of Smith’s argument, by citing philosophers other than the ones he specifically engages: philosophers who do succeed at erecting a “robust, universal, humanistic morality” upon an atheistic foundation. 4 But to offer such a critique, one would first have to find such thinkers, and in my own study of the Western philosophical tradition, I have yet to discover one. There have many been laudable attempts, however. Aristotle’s virtue-based approach sets a fairly-high bar for morality, and without reference to Christian (or any other religious) revelation. But for Aristotle, not all humans are equal (i.e., women are rationally inferior, and slaves lack the capacity to reason), so his ethic is not fully universal. This universality is further limited by the fact that the moral norm guiding practical reason (what Aristotle terms “phronesis”) always emerges within a particular context—how the esteemed “wise man” in one’s particular polis would reason—so different moral norms could arise in diverse communities. In addition, Aristotle metaphysically grounds his ethics on a teleological structure to the universe (in which all creatures are oriented naturally to some end, and consequently ought to act in accord with the proper function bestowed upon them by nature), which itself relies upon postulating God as the universe’s unmoved mover. David Hume, for his part, rejects such classical metaphysical underpinnings, though he does propose an ethic in which human beings are deeply relational. According to Hume, we human beings are internally motivated to care for one another because we tend to value agreeableness and utility, and we derive happiness from pleasing others. Hence, sympathy is natural to us, so we enjoy being friendly, gracious, and benevolent toward others; and we will relate to them with truthfulness, fidelity, and justice if we have been properly formed by our families and communities to appreciate what is useful. However, because of Hume’s thoroughgoing skepticism—most notably his declaration that one cannot logically derive an “ought” (a normative claim regarding what should be the case) from an “is” (a descriptive claim regarding what is the case)—he provides no rational basis to justify why individuals “ought” to act with sympathy or justice toward others.
Nor does he aim to do so. Hume offers instead merely a set of discrete observations, coalescing around the idea that when we organize society so as to aesthetically form certain moral sentiments within its members, then they are more likely than not to act benevolently toward one another. Immanuel Kant, who sought explicitly to construct a rationally-necessary, universal morality on the basis of reason alone, was persuaded by much of Hume’s skepticism, and he similarly rejected classical metaphysics as a foundation for morality. Moreover, to ensure that his morality would be rationally necessary, Kant also rejected a posteriori reasoning (reasoning that is experiential): limiting himself to a priori reasoning (reasoning that is prior to experience). Yet in contrast to Hume, Kant derived a normative moral principle: his famous “categorical imperative,” which stipulates that we should always treat humanity, whether in ourselves or other people, as an end-in-itself, and never merely as a means to an end. 5 Kant’s ability to derive this foundational principle within such strict, self-enforced, metaphysical and epistemological constraints is impressive indeed. However, it falls short of full universality; it leaves out those human beings who are incapable of exercising their rational capacities (due to illness, injury, or stage of life), leaving them vulnerable to exploitation by the broader society. In addition, the categorical imperative is insufficiently robust, because lacking a teleological account of what is authentically fulfilling for human nature, “treating someone as an end” amounts to nothing more than non-interference with one’s personal rational freedom. While this prohibition is helpful, by disallowing many forms of maltreatment, it remains too minimal to foster the full range of human well-being to which even the atheist moralists aspire. In the past few centuries, many philosophers have taken up Kant’s mantle and sought to construct a robust, universal morality not dependent upon religious revelation or even philosophical conjectures of God’s existence. But none of them have succeeded either. Given this complete lack of viable alternatives elsewhere in the Western philosophical tradition, I will not pursue an external critique of Smith. Rather, I wish to extend his analysis in a theological direction, so as to further deepen his well-excavated terrain. I will argue that a theistic approach—that of Catholic Christianity in particular—can provide for such universalism because it possesses three advantages that Smith’s atheist interlocutors lack: (1) it avoids being self-contradictory; (2) it can account for both goodness and badness in human nature simultaneously, rather than being naively optimistic about human nature; and (3) it proffers a practical solution to the “sensible knave” problem, so that we can reduce at least some of the badness in society and improve life for everyone. First and foremost, if we begin with the metaphysical assumption that God exists, then the very concept of being good without God is utterly nonsensical. As the theologian Thomas Aquinas has argued, God both creates our essence and sustains us in existence. This dependence on God pertains to all creatures in the universe, even the angels. Only God is truly independent. God is not a thing (an essence) who also happens to exist; rather God’s essence is identical with His existence. 6 God is actus purus, pure act. As Bishop Robert Barron is fond of saying, God is not a noun—a thing—but a verb: an act, the very act of being, the act of “to be.” Aquinas validates this theologically by directing his readers to chapter three of the book of Exodus, where Moses asks God His name, and God replies, “I AM WHO AM....You shall say to the children of Israel: HE WHO IS has sent me to you.” 7 So only God is completely independent. Only God is one whose existence depends on nothing outside of Himself whatsoever. By contrast, we human beings necessarily depend upon God in two ways. First, we are “individual substances of a rational nature” (to use Boethius’ famous expression) but only because God created us as such; we are not self-creating. Second, we
continue to be alive rather than dead; we walk and talk and breathe; we work and rest; we rejoice and despair: but only for as long as God sustains us in existence. We cannot render ourselves immortal. Consequently, the very fact that the atheist has been born into this universe as a creature with rational capacities to observe, listen, read, and contemplate necessarily presupposes God. Moreover, each and every time the atheist utilizes these same capacities to publicly profess God’s non-existence, this ironically presupposes God as well. The atheist cannot help but rely upon God’s gifts (of essence and existence) as the means with which to claim that God does not exist. By so doing, he or she engages in what philosophers call a “performative self-contradiction.” Or what an etiquette maven would characterize as an appalling lack of gratitude, exemplifying bad manners indeed. Thus, from a theological perspective, no one—not even an atheist—can accomplish any good whatsoever without God. This is an unavoidable, inescapable facet of creaturely existence in the universe, wherever creatures happen to exist. The Catholic Christian theological perspective possesses a second significant intellectual benefit as well. It can coherently account for the natural goodness observed by the contemporary atheist philosophers, yet without the naïve optimism regarding human nature that leaves their moral systems “vulnerable to de-legitimation and [possible] breakdown.” 8 Or, to use Smith’s framing of the problem, Catholicism can successfully explain “why rational persons in an atheistic universe [might] uphold the moral norms of a culture’s social contract most of the time,” yet also “on carefully chosen occasions, strategically choose instead to break the moral norms when that has a large payoff and when there is extremely little chance of being caught.” 9 Catholic moral theology accomplishes this balance by means of its conception of the human person within the drama of salvation. I will expound upon this point only briefly: Human beings are fallen but not entirely, so they are capable of performing some good acts, some of the time. But without the supplementary assistance of grace, they are incapable of performing thoroughly good acts—acts that are both externally good, and internally motivated by love—on a regular basis. Furthermore, because grace is not a coercive power but a free gift that can be accepted or rejected, even Christian believers can fall away from practicing the fullness of life demanded by Christ in whom that they profess to believe: which is why Catholics make recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. While many believers actively endeavor to cooperate with grace throughout their lives, and eventually become saints who heroically model the Christian life to others, we also find within the world a full range of characters: including both moderately-good atheists (atheists who visibly perform many morally-good acts) and emphatically-not-good believers (believers who visibly perform morally bad acts, including some that are downright malevolent). In contrast to the naïve optimism embraced by many contemporary atheists, Catholicism can account for both goodness and badness in human nature simultaneously. The third fundamental advantage of the Catholic Christian theistic account lies in its potential ability to improve society by diminishing the number of free-riding “sensible knaves,” as Smith characterizes them, by re-forming their consciences. As Smith asserts, “certain kinds of theisms…provide rationally good reasons for constraining knavery,” most notably: (1) that trust in God’s love and providential care for us can overcome the temptation to do evil for our own advantage, and (2) that God is all-knowing and will judge and punish eternally those who choose evil rather than good. 10 To these two reasons mentioned by Smith, I would add one more: Knavery is intrinsically distasteful to well-formed, virtuous Christians.
Why is this the case? Christianity in general (and Catholicism in particular) proposes a revolutionary new understanding of goodness: one which is extraordinarily arduous—and substantially more demanding—than the moderate standard erected upon atheism, but which captivates and compels us nevertheless because of its inherent beauty, making genuine conversion possible. God’s grace, with which we are freely invited to cooperate, both facilitates faith and bestows the interior ability to live according to this more rigorous standard. Knavery then loses its tempting power. How might this transforming experience of conversion occur? I suggest the following. The novel conception of goodness is encapsulated within a rationally coherent framework put forward by Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians identify as the Word made flesh: as the metaphysical foundation of reason itself (the Word) incarnated (made flesh) in a living, breathing human being. As New Testament scholar Frank Matera has shown, in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus presents himself as the supreme interpreter of the law for his church, who comes not to destroy the law but to fulfill it. Jesus demands that if the disciples wish to enter the kingdom of God, they must produce a righteousness that surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (Mt. 5:17-20). 11 Only then would they authentically love both God and neighbor as originally intended by God’s covenant with Israel. Jesus concretizes this love most pointedly in his Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus further declares that the penalty for such lust is eternal damnation: to be thrown “into Gehenna” (Mt 5:27-30; cf. Ex 20:14 and Dt 5:18). Similarly, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5:43-45; cf. Lev 19:18). And again, the penalty: “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions” (Mt 6:14-15; cf. Sir 28:1– 5; Mk 11:25; and Mt 18:35). Later on, in chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gives concrete examples of how to love one’s neighbor—by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting prisoners—and once again decrees eternal damnation for those who fail to carry out this mandate (Mt 25:31-46). In other encounters, Jesus’ adopts a tone that is inviting and encouraging rather than condemning, but in those cases, the bar for what constitutes authentic moral goodness is raised even higher. Consider the following story found in chapter 10 of Mark’s gospel (and paralleled in both Matthew and Luke): As [Jesus] was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus answered him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.’” He replied and said to him, “Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.” Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said to him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to [the] poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” At that statement his face fell, and he went away sad, for he had many possessions. Jesus looked around and said to his
disciples, “How hard it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. So Jesus again said to them in reply, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to pass through [the] eye of [a] needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them and said, “For human beings it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God” (Mk 10:17-27; cf. Mt 19:16–26 and Lk 18:18–27). Here Jesus specifies that the attainment of eternal life requires more than just obeying the commandments. One also must be interiorly detached from one’s material possessions: spiritually prepared to forfeit them entirely if called to do so. Yet Jesus also acknowledges that such interior detachment exceeds our natural human capacities, so this requirement cannot be fulfilled without additional help from God If such exacting, moral demands were given to us merely on paper, abstracted from their animating context—the person of Jesus himself, who embodied this morality within a life of sacrificial love, love accorded even to his enemies, and even at the personal cost of suffering torture, crucifixion, and death—then they would probably strike us as ridiculous to the point of absurdity. However, when we immerse ourselves within the Biblical narratives of Jesus’ life and death, the beauty of the love that we observe therein—the love between Jesus and his Father, and God’s love for us while we were still sinners—has the power to captivate our intellects, enflame our hearts, and set us on a path toward existential conversion. As I have argued in my book on the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, The unparalleled intensity of Christ’s love—a love that extended even to the cross—is so un-familiar that it appears as a scandal. Reason finds itself groping to grasp it, and the perceiver is thrown into an existential crisis. For in encountering Christ, one encounters God’s love, and thereby experiences true love. But at the same time, one also experiences the fact that one’s personal love is not merely inadequate; it is so vastly inadequate that it is not really love. The person realizes that he or she is not a lover but a sinner and an egoist. The beauty of God’s love in Christ is so far beyond what the person commonly understands as love that it is “too beautiful to be true” (Balthasar, Love Alone, 83). And yet, this love is so beautiful that it shakes the person at their foundations and they know that it must be true. The person is ultimately persuaded by what Balthasar calls the “evidential power of love,” the fact that when all other things are in disarray, only love can be believed (Balthasar, Love Alone, 68). 12 All goodness is inherently attractive, but the goodness of love is especially attractive. The reason for this is that perfect goodness is found in God, and God’s very essence is love; hence, the more authentically loving something is, the more it expresses God, illuminates God, provides evidence for God. The beauty of goodness can lead us to truth; the beauty of perfect goodness—expressed in sacrificial love—guides us to the sublime truth of God’s existence as Love. Furthermore, an enrapturing encounter with God’s love can lead a person not merely to faith—belief in God as the author of Love, who providentially cares for him or her as a son or daughter—but also to acts of love that naturally emerge from that faith. These subsequent acts of
love are directed externally to both God and neighbor. But they are motivated internally by gratitude (for one’s unmerited gift of salvation), by sacramental grace (especially the cleansing and sanctifying power of baptism, and the strengthening power of the Eucharist), and by the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Once the person’s own love has been awakened and elevated (beyond its natural capacity), a thoroughgoing conversion of one’s life becomes possible. The more one actively cooperates with God’s grace—by performing acts of love, even to those who are difficult to love, for the sake of Christ and his kingdom—the less tempting the “sensible knave” lifestyle becomes. The very idea of pursuing one’s own self-interest at other’s expense would be unthinkable: not merely because one fears God’s judgment, or trusts in God’s love, but also because vice is no longer attractive to one who has become virtuous. To the lover of Christ, the lover of God, the lover of one’s neighbor in God, knavery is intrinsically distasteful. In conclusion, no thinker to date has achieved what the atheist moralists have failed to accomplish: namely a robust universal ethic that does not depend rationally upon the existence of God. A Catholic theistic approach can provide for robust universalism because it possesses three advantages that the contemporary atheist moralists lack: (1) it avoids being self-contradictory; (2) it can account for both goodness and badness in human nature simultaneously, rather than being naively optimistic about human nature; and (3) it proffers a practical solution to the “sensible knave” problem, so that we can reduce at least some of the overall badness in society and improve life for everyone. 1
Christian Smith, “Just How ‘Good Without God’ are Atheists Justified in Being?” Original text presented at Meyer lecture series, University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary, March 17, 2017, p.1. (Revised version published in this issue of Chicago Studies). 2 Smith, p.2. 3 Smith, p.2. 4 Smith, p.2. 5 Immanuel Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, trans. Thomas K. Abbott (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.), 1949 (originally published in 1785), p. 47. This is the second formulation of the categorical imperative; the first formulation asserts that an action is morally correct if it is universalizable, meaning its maxim can be willed as a universal law without contradiction. 6 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, bk.1, ch.22, no.9: “Everything, furthermore, exists because it has being. A thing whose essence is not its being, consequently, is not through its essence but by participation in something, namely, being itself. But that which is through participation in something cannot be the first being, because prior to it is the being in which it participates in order to be. But God is the first being, with nothing prior to Him. His essence is, therefore, His being.” http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/ContraGentiles1.htm 7 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, bk.1, ch.22, no.10, quoting Exodus 3:13-14. See also Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I, q.13, art.11. http://dhspriory.org/thomas/english/summa/FP/FP013.html#FPQ13A11THEP1 8 Smith, p.14-15. 9 Smith, p.11-12. 10 Smith, p.16. 11 See Frank Matera, New Testament Ethics: The Legacies of Jesus and Paul (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996). 12 Melanie Susan Barrett, Love’s Beauty at the Heart of the Christian Moral Life: The Ethics of Catholic Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar (Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2009), p.143-144.
Paul, the Body and Resurrection By Maria Pascuzzi, C.S.J., S.S.L., S.T.D. Introduction In his 2011 best-seller, The Swerve, Harvard University humanities professor, Stephen Greenblatt, traced the discovery of one of the most influential literary works of all time, entitled On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Naturam). According to Greenblatt, this work presents a view of reality that has always collided with the faith of the Church. A Roman poet and philosopher, Lucretius, composed the work in the form of a didactic poem ca. mid-first century BC. However, it was only in AD 1417 that an unemployed papal secretary discovered this text, which Lucretius composed to explain Epicureanism to a Roman audience. 1 Within its pages, Lucretius also provides a profound meditation on the fear of death. Anxiety over death, and especially the lot that would befall a person in the afterlife, was a major human preoccupation in antiquity, which the various philosophical schools sought to address. 2 The Stoics, who along with the Epicureans attracted the most adherents in Paul’s day, taught that the soul would survive death when, at last, it would be freed from the worthless body. For Stoics, death was not something to fear. It was simply part of the natural order. Moreover, to grieve death only reflected one’s lack of wisdom and ignorance of the divine will. The Stoics held that “What upsets people is not things themselves but their judgments about the things. For example, death is nothing dreadful (or else it would have appeared so to Socrates), but instead the judgment about death is that it is dreadful— that is what is dreadful.” 3 For the Stoic, the ideal wiseman remained unperturbed by life’s ups and downs and accepted that some things in life could not be controlled or changed. 4 The Epicureans, as we learn from Lucretius’ work, also believed that spending one’s life in the grips of anxiety over death was sheer foolishness. This belief was rooted in their physics. They held that the world was made of an infinite number of atoms, randomly moving and clashing through space. They taught that clashing atoms, not supernatural forces, caused every event. The Epicureans believed that everything that exists is involved in an endless process of creation and destruction. Nothing is fixed or predetermined; nothing can escape this process. Some forms of existence may be higher than others, but nothing — not our own species, not the sun, not the moon — lasts forever. Only the atoms are immortal. Given this view of reality, the Epicureans insisted that death, the most fearsome of evils, is nothing to us, seeing as when we exist, death is not present; and when death is present, we do not exist. So death is nothing to those who are living or to those who have died, seeing as for the one, it is nothing, and for the other, they are nothing. 5 Since death was just a matter of extinction, the only thing that mattered to Epicurus was to live a life free of anxiety and attain a state of tranquility (ataraxia). To do so, a person needed to practice the virtues, accept death, which is nothing more than extinction, and recognize that the gods do not punish humans according to their deeds. Epicurus advocated the pursuit of pleasure (hēdonē/ hedonism) by which he meant the pursuit of tranquility and a life free of psychological
stress. 6 Unfortunately, hedonism became associated with licentious living, which was not what Epicurus intended. In any event, Epicurus advised people to avoid fretting over death and reminded them that if the gods did exist, they existed in eternal bliss, far removed from humans, and completely indifferent to them. They were not concerned with judging humans according to their deeds, whether to punish them with everlasting punishment or welcome them into some new life. There was no new life. There was only extinction. Thus, for Epicureans, fear of the gods, as well as fear of death, were both self-inflicted tribulations that needed to be overcome as they were incompatible with tranquility. Apparently, many among the population also expected complete extinction as evidenced by the numerous Roman tombstones engraved with the popular Epicurean epitaph, “Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo”! “I was not. I was. I am not. I care not.” For many people today, even Christians, the Epicurean view of things remains attractive and makes great sense especially in view of contemporary science, which insists that we are all stardust, a composite of atoms exchanged multiple times over the course of our lives; our origins are cosmic, and, at death, we will simply reintegrate into the cosmic mix of matter. As Carl Sagan declared: “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.” 7 The wellknown astrophysicist, Neil de Grasse Tyson, also insists, “We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.” 8 Given this insistence, perhaps it was to be expected that someone would propose to rephrase the Ash Wednesday dictum to say, ‘remember you are stardust and unto stardust you shall return.’ 9 However, I do admit to being quite surprised a few years back, in the course of teaching a scripture class at a Catholic university, to discover how many students were rather agnostic about the resurrection. Most seemed fine with idea that death brings disintegration followed by reintegration into the cosmos. Rather than intellectually wrestling with the idea of bodily resurrection, they seem to have viewed it as little more than a quaint, pre-scientific explanation that needed to give way to the certainty that the new science has given them about where they have come from and where they are going. Millennials are not alone in thinking this way. Many older adult Christians share these same views. Nascent Christianity The situation of the earliest church was not much different. As recounted in Acts 17:1632, Paul’s visit to Athens included an attempt to argue his case for the gospel before Stoics and Epicureans, who are singled out for mention in v. 18. According to Acts, Paul was given the floor at the Areopagus 10 where his audience was attentive until he mentioned that God would judge the world in righteousness through a man whose appointment God confirmed by raising that man from the dead. The idea of resurrection brought jeers from all but a few in the audience who came to believe (v.32-34). Paul probably anticipated that he would have difficulty persuading Epicureans, Stoics, and others of the pagan intellectual elite in Athens, who were unanimous in rejecting the idea of bodily resurrection. 11 However, after spending eighteen months evangelizing at Corinth, he must have been disconcerted to hear that some among those he himself had evangelized were denying the resurrection. That denial called forth from Paul a long defense of the resurrection of the body.
The Resurrection: The Bed-Rock of Christian Faith For Paul, some matters could be negotiated. However, belief in the resurrection was not one of them. It was one thing for Paul to be flexible regarding marriage or sacrificed meat (cf. 1 Cor 7-10). But this issue was not a matter of what was better for the community and contributed to its growth. It was the foundational belief of Christianity, later preserved in the great creedal statements of the Church. For Paul, the resurrection guarantees the significance of all other aspects of Christian life. It is the reason why those baptized into Christ live as they do. Their faith, hope and love derives from the fact that having been “united with him in a death like his,” they would be “united with him in a resurrection like his” (Rom 6:5). Therefore, to deny the resurrection, was to deny the Christian faith and the core and essence of Christian hope, which is that a post-mortem existence that is incorruptible, eternal and bodily, awaits those in Christ. Paul’s most sustained discussion of the ultimate destiny of humans is found in 1 Corinthians 15:1-58. Responding to the Corinthian Deniers Who Say, “There is No Resurrection”! Both the exact identity of the community members who denied the resurrection, and precisely what it was they were denying, remain a matter of scholarly debate. Regarding the latter, scholars usually subscribe to one of the following views: (1) The Corinthian deniers rejected any form of post-mortem existence (both body and soul) and believed death resulted in extinction. This seems to be the prima facie meaning of v. 12 “if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead?” (2) They denied the resurrection of the dead at the Parousia, or 2nd coming of Christ, which is when it would happen, according to Paul (cf. 1 Thes 4:13). (3) They denied that resurrection was future, in line with the heretical view that held that the resurrection “is already past” (cf. 2 Tim 2:17-18). (4) They were dualists who, like the Platonists, or Stoics, believed that only the soul has value and is immortal. 12 It is not possible to solve this debate, although a few clues from the text are worth noting. First, Paul’s reference to the Corinthian practice of “baptizing on behalf of the dead” (v. 29) suggests that the deniers believed in some type of post-mortem existence or, as Paul points out, their practice is absurd. Moreover, the question Paul begins to answer at v.35, “…with what kind of body are the dead raised?” seems to suggest that what was being denied was the resurrection of the “physical body.” Thus, it is possible that the deniers were anthropological dualists who believed the soul alone was immortal, while the body would perish. This view was common to many philosophical schools, except the Epicureans, and was widespread even at the popular level. Yet, other influences may have contributed to the Corinthian deniers’ confusion. The statement at v. 32, “if the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die” sounds like some may have held Epicurean views, denying any type of post-mortem existence. New Testament scholar Ben Witherington thinks the saying reflects the social reality in Corinth where some, not counting on any final reckoning or resurrection, spent their time eating and drinking. Witherington cites 1Cor 8-10 in support of his view. However, these chapters, concerned with whether believers can consume meat offered to idols, provide little evidence that some Corinthians considered death absolute. 13 By citing this dictum associated with the Epicureans, Paul may simply have been recognizing this approach to life as one possible way to live when someone denies the resurrection. One final observation worth noting is that at v. 28 Paul’s comment about
the end, when “God will be all in all,” is very reminiscent of the Stoic belief that in the end, at the final conflagration, “Zeus will be all in all.” 14 These observations, coupled with the awareness that Paul’s Corinthian converts were adult converts shaped by the ideas and culture of Corinthian society, should caution us against assuming that only one influence was at work in the Corinthian community. The first believers in Corinth did not live in a bubble, unexposed to the variety of views on what was apparently a topic of intense interest and debate: What happens when we die? Where we do find greater agreement among scholars is in recognizing that chapter 15 has an integral bearing on many other issues in this letter. We will consider what that means later. For now, let us consider Paul’s argument in view of a few of its most salient emphases. The first is the reality of death. Paul preached to the Corinthians, the proclamation or kerygma, that he himself had received. The first affirmation contained in the kerygmatic statement that Paul cites beginning at 1 Cor 15:3, is that “Christ died.” This fact is then qualified theologically, “for our sins.” Not only has Christ died, a fact confirmed by his burial, but so have many who witnessed his resurrection (v.6). In v. 36, using the example of the sown seed, Paul reminds readers that, “death precedes coming to life.” Therefore, ‘death” is not a metaphor but refers to a physical reality which Paul stresses throughout this chapter. However, Paul knows that though Christ has died, he is no longer dead. Had death had dominion over Christ, there would be no hope. But, Christ is alive, having been raised from the dead (v.20). Paul also emphasizes that the resurrection of Christians is in the future. This emphasis is present in various ways throughout the chapter, beginning at v. 20 where he contrasts the consequences of being in Adam and being in Christ. In v. 22 Paul says, “In Christ all will be made alive” using the future tense (passive voice) of the verb (zōo-poiēō). In this same text segment, (vv.20-28), which focuses on end-time events, Paul makes it clear that Christ was raised as the first-fruits, (aparchē) but believers’ resurrection will take place “at his parousia or coming,” i.e., Christ’s second coming! (v.23). Then from v. 35 on where Paul is at pains to explain with what body the dead will be raised, he treats two interconnected issues. The first is the continuity of the human person before and after death which he emphasizes in v. 46, insisting that, “it is not the spiritual which is first, but the physical, then the spiritual.” The second issue concerns the difference between “this life” and “future life” which is underscored by his statement at v. 49, that “as we have borne (ephoresamen - aorist) the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear (phoresomen – future). Paul also emphasizes the physical nature of the resurrection which is asserted in the kerygma by the phrase, “he was seen.” English translations often render the Greek verb as “he appeared” placing the emphasis on the action of Christ. But the verb, hōrao, “to see” is used here in the aorist passive and should be translated, “he was seen.” When rendered that way, the emphasis is properly placed on humans who, using nothing more than the normal human sense of ‘sight,’ were able to see him. This suggests a physical/material body, visible to the human eye. Here and elsewhere in chapter 15, bodily resurrection, and bodily afterlife continue to be emphasized. In responding to the question, “with what kind of body are the dead raised” (v. 35), Paul says, what is sown is a physical body (sōma psychikon), is raised a sōma pneumatikon, (v.44). The Greek phrase, sōma pneumatikon, is usually translated “spiritual body.” This rendering can be misleading if taken to mean something immaterial, which is beyond what is normally perceptible to humans via their five senses. It is important to recognize that both psychikon (physical) and pneumatikon (spiritual) are adjectives that describe the noun “body” and serve to differentiate present and future bodily existence. In the present, a physical body is animated by a natural force,
the psychē. In the future, the spiritual body will be a body/person animated by the Spirit of the living God. Paul uses various examples from agriculture, the animal world, and astronomy to argue his point which is that the resurrection will be corporeal, but the resurrected body will be a Spiritempowered body. Without that transformation and animation by a new principle, the Spirit, humans are mere “flesh and blood,” unable to inherit the kingdom of God (v.50). To summarize, briefly, for Paul, eternal life was not some state of disembodied existence. As he argued in 1 Corinthians 15, it would be a life with a body but a transformed body with a new animating principle, the Spirit of God. This was the kind of resurrected bodily existence Christ Himself enjoys, and the kind of resurrection existence for which believers are destined. As Paul says elsewhere, “he will change our lowly body to conform to his glorified body” (Phil 3:21). It is important to remind ourselves that Paul believed in Christ’s bodily resurrection. When he spoke of Christ’s resurrection, he was not using these words symbolically to mean Christ’s ongoing presence in the church, or his living on in the memory of believers. 15 Paul the Pharisees was not a Platonist, who believed in the disembodied existence of the soul. For Paul the body mattered. It was not the prison of the soul, but the way we exist now, and in the future when it is fully transformed. Resurrection to New Life in the Body, in the Present The future resurrection of believers, assured on the basis of Christ’s own resurrection, was not just a matter of theological debate, or doctrinal instruction, which Paul tacked on at the end of 1 Corinthians after he dealt with all the nitty gritty issues of life in community. These discussions may appear completely disconnected but, in fact, they are not. Why? Because, as Paul sees it, resurrection is a future reality that impinges on the present. While we await the completion of God’s victory over death in the future, Paul exhorts the Corinthians, in the final verse of chapter 15, to “excel in the work of the Lord,” using the same verb he had used at 14:12 when he exhorted the Corinthians to “excel in building up the church.” As one scholar succinctly put it, Paul considered the Corinthians God’s end time community which meant they had a significant present time vocation to unity and holiness. 16 God’s resurrecting of Jesus initiates a new age which for believers also involves a resurrection to a new life in the present. Thus, resurrected life begins now and is manifested in our power over Sin, that ever-present force seeking to re-enslave humans. It is a present reality that begins in baptism when we “put on Christ.” But this is not a one-time action in the past. Rather, in baptism, one is initiated into resurrected life which is about putting on Christ every day. This involves a total resocialization and reorienting of one’s life in the Body of Christ. It involves a divesting of one’s old person and becoming ‘alive to God in Christ” (Rom 6:11). The transformation believers must undergo has already begun and will continue until it is complete at Christ’s second coming when God is all in all. (15:28) But as one whose transformation has begun, the Christian is enabled and expected to behave accordingly. Paul makes this clear at Romans 12:1-2; “I exhort you, through God’s mercies to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God, your spiritual worship. Do not be conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.” What this means concretely is that present resurrection life calls forth an appropriate ethical response. The transformed person does not live in any other world than the world of ordinary daily life, with ordinary activities, needs and desires, and ordinary relationships (cf. 1 Cor 5:9). Thus, transformed living does not
demonstrate itself in some other sphere but in this one. In the case of the Corinthians, Paul expected them to live transformed existences in a societal context where they were surrounded by unbelievers who comprised the majority. In that place, in the present, in the mundanity and struggle of daily existence, they were supposed to live in a way that attested to their ultimate future destiny. The practical implications of this extended even to what each one did with his own body, since through baptism, each person belonged to the Body of Christ. This is clear from 1 Cor 6:12-20 where Paul argues against illicit sex with prostitutes, which the Corinthians apparently saw as another biological activity with no more moral value than eating. Paul begins by reminding believers of their ultimate destiny: “the body is not meant for immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God who raised the Lord, will also raise hēmas (us).” Note that for Paul “body” and “us” are interchangeable terms. The fact that God will raise the body/us means the body is of moral significance. Therefore, what we do with it matters both because of its present dignity as a member of Christ and dwelling place of the Holy Spirit, (cf. 6:12-20), and because of its future destiny. Paul’s need to remind the community here that the future impinges on the present bodily existence and, in this case, sexual behavior, already establishes the connection between chapter 15 and the rest of the letter. Resurrection life in the present is, paradoxically, a life shaped by the cross. 17 The cross is the basis and foundation of the transforming work of the Spirit who makes us and all of creation new. In being raised to this new life, Christians do not leave the cross behind. But what does that mean? If we examine Paul’s writings, it is evident that the historical fact of the Christ’s crucifixion with details of how he was beaten, nailed to the cross, and died, are absent. What Paul stresses in his letters are not crucifixion details but cross-values: Christ’s humility, other-centeredness, selfsacrificing love and service, Christ’s spirit of reconciliation and His obedience to God, all of which landed Him on the cross. Therefore, the new normal for those resurrected to new life now, who are part of the Body of Christ, the church, are the values reflected in the Cross. These values form the framework and basis for actions. They are all ordered to the ‘upbuilding of the Body of Christ/the church and the maintenance of its unity and holiness. Present Resurrection Living and Politics: 1 Cor 15:20-34 In Paul’s world to acknowledge, worship and witness through resurrection- living to God’s eschatological plan for humanity also had significant political ramifications. The social world in which Paul lived was structured according to Roman imperial values. Moreover, Rome had a theology and an eschatology which were essentially political. In brief, Rome proclaimed that the transformation of the world and its restoration to the golden age of peace, blessing, and security was the work of Caesar Augustus and the Roman Empire. They conceived the Empire as the political vehicle through which the gods deigned to bring about the salvation of the whole world. Anyone who visited Corinth would have seen monuments testifying to the victory of the Caesars who restored order and prosperity to the world, and all its inhabitants— although history tells us that the so-called Pax Romana benefited mainly the elite. For his part, Paul proclaimed that God, at the second coming of Christ, would bring about the transformation that the Romans alleged to have accomplished. At Christ’s return, the reversal and transformation of the entire created order would be complete. Those in Christ, who were the least in imperial society, had no need of the Romans and their propaganda. They already enjoyed resurrected life while awaiting the completion of their own transformation.
By witnessing to God who makes everything new in Christ, not in the Caesars and Rome, Christian resurrection living, in the present, challenges and critiques Roman eschatology. Why? Because resurrection living testified to a different agency, that of Christ, and a different eschatological plan for humans, that is, God’s plan for salvation. It would be unfolded in Christ according to a tagma, or order, of God’s design. According to that order, at the end Christ will deliver the kingdom to God the Father, after destroying every rule and authority and power, and finally, the last enemy, death. Then God will be all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15:23-28). Thus, the resurrection signals the renewal and the vindication of the faithful who lived resurrection lives, resisted imperial propaganda, and avoided compromise with the world. 18 What God has done in Christ has made it possible for all those in Christ to live new possibilities now, until our transformation is complete at the second coming. That complete transformation, eternal life, awaits everyone who, in the present, walks in the newness of life. Therefore, believers must examine themselves to see whether their faith is genuine and whether they are living the life of those in Christ (2 Cor 13:5). If they persist in sin (2 Cor 12:20) they put their salvation in question. They must not be mismatched with unbelievers (2Cor 6:17-18) but must live as those who have been washed, sanctified and justified (1Cor 6:11) and who have begun to walk in the newness of life. Otherwise, eschatological destruction was always a possibility. Paul never assured the Corinthians, or any other of his converts, that they would be saved on the last day regardless of how they lived. Nor are we assured. Like the first believers, we are to “excel in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58) whose resurrection confirms that Jesus alone is the reigning Lord. Paul expects believers to proclaim that to all by the witness of their lives, and to renounce whatever else they may have allowed control over them. Conclusion In a recent essay, New Testament scholar Richard B. Hays commented that many preachers and teachers today have tried to reinterpret the scriptural witness to the resurrection in a way that does not conflict with a modern scientific worldview. Either they deny the truth that God raised Jesus from the dead or waffle about it, betraying their own lack of faith in the power of God, and leaving believers in an unfortunate state of uncertainty. 19 These comments underscore the cultural and cognitive pressure on Christians who want to believe in the resurrection. According to Jon Levenson, that same pressure weighs on Jews who believe in the resurrection. 20 In the co-authored work, entitled Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, Kevin Madigan a Christian and Jon Levenson a Jew, underscore that both Christianity and Judaism inherited a belief in the eschatological resurrection of the dead from currents of thought in Second Temple Judaism. They comment, “Against the consensus of the Greco-Roman world, in which they lived and to which they were also indebted, they strove to uphold faith in a God who transcends nature and can overcome it, even bringing back the whole person body and soul, a God who acts in history fulfilling his amazing promises to people.” 21 In our modern culture, even among Christians who affirm immortality, and are comforted by the idea that our lives do not end at biological death, the long shadow of Platonic dualism is evident. Many understand immortality as little more than ongoing spiritual existence. While the corpse decomposes and turns to dust in the earth, they believe the spirit lives on in some way. Paul rejected such a view. His writings continue to challenge us to affirm, despite cultural pressure, that the all-powerful God, who raised Jesus from the dead, will transform and give life to our mortal bodies (cf. Rom 8:11) which will be reunited with their souls. The resurrection is an act of
God that transcends human understanding. It remains a mystery, the core mystery and foundation of our faith, the basis for our hope. It is also the reason that we strive to live ethically and spiritually rigorous lives, aware that in everything we do and say we acknowledge, worship and witness to God who destines us for eternal life. 1
Epicureanism, based on the teaching of its founder Epicurus, ca. 300 BCE, remained one of the most influential schools of philosophy during Paul’s lifetime. On Epicurus and his philosophy, cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, trans. R. D. Hicks (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925), Vol II. Bk X. 2 Speaking of death, Seneca remarked, “Take my word for it: since the day you were born you are being led thither. We must ponder this thought, and thoughts of the like nature, if we desire to be calm as we await that last hour, the fear of which makes all previous hours uneasy,” cf. Seneca, Epistles, trans. R. M. Gummere (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1917) Ep., 4. 3 Epictetus, Discourses. Fragment. The Encheiridion, trans. W. A. Oldfather (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928), 5. 4 Ibid., Bk. III.18. 5 Lucretius, On the Nature of Things, trans. W. H. D. Rouse (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1924), Bk III.175-76. 6 Cf. Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 10.123-35. 7 Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 244. 8 De Grasse Tyson’s full statement, cited on numerous websites, reads: “The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust.” 9 Cf. for example, http://fscaston.org/you-are-dust-and-unto-dust-you-shall-return-stardust-that-is/ Also, https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/reimagining-ash-wednesday-stardust-stardust 10 According to Aeschylus, it was at the Areopagus that the god Apollo declared there was no resurrection of the dead; cf. Eumenides, trans. H. W. Smyth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983), 647-8. 11 Among ancient pagans there were various beliefs concerning what happened in the afterlife but no belief in resurrection, cf. N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), esp. 32-83. 12 These positions are discussed in Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2000), 1172-3. 13 Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1995), 282. 14 Noted by Timothy Brookins, Corinthian Wisdom, Stoic Philosophy and the Ancient Economy (SNTSMS 159; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 196 15 Cf. N. T. Wright, who argues throughout Resurrection of the Son of God, that early Christianity was a “resurrection movement,” based on the unparalleled claim that Jesus of Nazareth had been bodily raised from the dead, a claim meant literally, and the equally powerful belief that those in Christ would also, like Jesus, go through death and enter into a new kind of bodily existence. 16 Cf. Victor Paul Furnish, The Theology of the First Letter to the Corinthians (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 106. 17 On cruciform values and living, cf., Michael Gorman, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2001). 18 Cf. Rollin Ramsaran, “Resisting Imperial Domination and Influence,” in Paul and the Roman Imperial Order, ed. R. Horsley (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2004), 89-102. 19 Richard B. Hays, “Reading Scripture in Light of the Resurrection,” in The Art of Reading Scripture, ed. E. F. Davis and R. B. Hays, (Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 2003), 216-38. 20 Jon Levinson, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel. The Ultimate Victory of God (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), esp. ch. 1. 21 Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 236.
Authors’ Page Christian Smith Christian Smith, Ph.D. is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Sociology at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Director of the Notre Dame Center for Social Research, Principal Investigator of the National Study of Youth and Religion, and Principal Investigator of the Science of Generosity Initiative. Smith worked at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from 1994 to 2006, where he served as Associate Chair of the Department of Sociology from 2000 to 2005. Smith holds an M.A. (1987) and Ph.D. (1990) in Sociology from Harvard University, and he has studied Christian historical theology at Harvard Divinity School and other Boston Theological Institute schools. Smith’s B.A. is in sociology (1983) from Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts. Before moving to UNC Chapel Hill in 1994, Smith taught for six years at Gordon College. Since 2006, Smith has brought in more than $7.5 million in research grant money to Notre Dame. During his years at UNC Chapel Hill, Smith brought in about $8 million of research grant money. Smith is the author, co-author, or editor of numerous books, including Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Emerging Adults; What is a Person?: Rethinking Humanity, Social Life, and the Moral Good from the Person Up; Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood; Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers; Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money; Moral, Believing Animals: Human Culture and Personhood; The Secular Revolution: Power, Interests, and Conflict in the Secularization of American Public Life; American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving; and The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. He is also author or co-author of many journal articles. Smith’s scholarly interests focus on American religion, sociological theory, cultural sociology, adolescents and emerging adults, generosity, the philosophy of social science, and personalism.
John F. Kartje The Very Rev. John F. Kartje, Ph.D., S.T.D. is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and Rector/President of the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. He is also the Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture and Assistant Professor in the Department of Biblical Exegesis and Homiletics. Both a Biblical exegete and a scientist, he is the author of Wisdom Epistemology in the Psalter: A Study of Psalms 1, 73, 90, and 107 (De Gruyter), and Models of the continuum polarization in active galactic nuclei : implications for unification schemes (University of Chicago). He is the former Associate Pastor of St. Benedict Parish (Chicago, IL), and the former Chaplain and Director of Sheil Catholic Center at Northwestern University. Father Kartje holds a Ph.D. degree in Astrophysics from the University of Chicago, and an S.T.D. degree in Biblical Theology from the Catholic University of America.
Melanie Susan Barrett Melanie Susan Barrett, Ph.D., S.T.D. is Chairperson and Professor of the Department of Moral Theology at the University of Saint Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary. Doctor Barrett is the author of “Continuity, Pope Francis, and Amoris Laetitia,” in Vatican Insider; “Doctrine and
Praxis in Pope Francis’s Approach to Evangelization,” in Pope Francis and the Event of Encounter; and “Co-Creating With the Creator: A Virtue-Based Approach,” in Science, Faith, & Human Fertility: The Third Conference on Ethical Fertility Health Management. She also authored the book, Love’s Beauty at the Heart of the Christian Moral Life: The Ethics of Catholic Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. Currently, she is completing a second book on suffering and the moral life in the work of Thomas Aquinas. Doctor Barrett is a member of the editorial board of Chicago Studies. She holds professional memberships in the Society of Christian Ethics, the Academy of Catholic Theology, and the American Academy of Religion. She holds a Ph.D. in Religious Ethics from the University of Chicago, and an S.T.D. in Moral Theology from the University of Fribourg.
Maria Pascuzzi, C.S.J. Maria Pascuzzi, C.S.J., S.S.L., S.T.D. is Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies at Seton Hall University. Before her July 1, 2017 appointment as Associate Dean, Dr. Pascuzzi was dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at St. Thomas University (Miami, FL), and an Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the University of San Diego. She also taught Biblical exegesis and Biblical languages at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie, NY), and Immaculate Conception Seminary and Graduate School of Theology (Huntington, NY). As a scholar, Doctor Pascuzzi specializes in the New Testament Letters of Paul. She is the author of Paul: Windows on His Thought and His World. (Anselm Academic); 1 and 2 Corinthians. A Commentary (The Liturgical Press); and Ethics, Ecclesiology and Church Discipline: A Rhetorical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 5 (Gregorian University Press). Her latest work, a commentary on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians for the third revised edition of the Jerome Biblical Commentary (Bloomsbury Press), is forthcoming. Dr. Pascuzzi is an active member of the Catholic Biblical Association, an associate editor of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly, and a member of the international advisory board of the Irish Theological Quarterly. Doctor Pascuzzi holds an S.S.L. from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, and an S.T.D. in Biblical Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University.