Most of you quit reading the post, Is religion more bad than good?, a long time ago. But these discussions sometimes take on a life of their own, and several of us have been hammering away at the question of morality: “Is there an objective right and wrong?”
I believe morality is objective, contra Simen. Contra Michael, I don’t see how it is possible to defend an objective morality without appealing to God.
A similar issue arises when we discuss whether life has meaning. I maintain that life is meaningless if there is nothing beyond death and, ultimately, the disintegration of the cosmos.
Atheists insist that life is meaningful without God. Each one of us makes her or his own meaning. Reading philosophy may give meaning to your life, or making sexual conquests; doing research to seek a cure for cancer or flying kites. Each of us finds meaning in whatever is meaningful to us.
That is not an objective definition of meaning. In light of our earlier discussion about morality I think it’s important to point that out. If the meaning of life is not objective, is it possible to maintain that morality is objective?
I follow the atheist’s logic to a point, because it is true to my own experience. I find meaning in studying theology, history, science, and other disciplines; in my relationship with MaryP; in my work as a policy analyst; in listening to music and in taking photographs. Other people would not find meaning in those pursuits, but would substitute others that hold no significance for me.
At a certain point, the logic of the atheist’s position breaks down. The problem arises when we include infirmity, suffering and death in the equation.
Infirmity, suffering and ultimately death are the final chapters in every human life. Yes, some people stay relatively healthy right up to the end — but the emphasis is on the word “relatively”. Elite athletes provide a convenient measure: by age forty their talents are already noticeably diminished, no matter how hard they practice and work out. It’s tragic how young we still are when age begins to bend us toward the grave.
Intellectually, humans seem to fare much better. Many scientists, philosophers and theologians continue to be productive and profound far beyond the traditional retirement age. On the other hand, their deepest insights typically occur to them in relative youth — not unlike elite athletes. And there are no guarantees: if physical disease doesn’t shorten your productive years, senility or dementia might.
In the face of these depressing realities, people turn to religion — mythology, if you prefer — for meaning.
The Buddha confronted this issue courageously. His quest for enlightenment began when he left his sheltered life in a palace and he encountered poverty, age, and infirmity for the first time. Similarly, a great part of Christianity’s appeal lies precisely here: it speaks powerfully to the question, “Does suffering negate life’s meaning?”
At least, I think it speaks powerfully to that question. Other people mock the idea:
In many respects, Muhammad’s career as a prophet was more impressive than Jesus’ was. At the very least, he escaped crucifixion. Of course, Christians have managed to make even the crucifixion of their Savior into a success story. It would seem that faith can rationalize anything.
That’s Sam Harris writing in his latest missive to Andrew Sullivan. They have been debating whether God exists, and whether moderate religion is any better than fundamentalism.
Harris’s argument may be irreverent, but it isolates a core issue. Jesus’ crucifixion is either Christianity’s greatest liability or its greatest asset. This was already understood in the first century:
For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1Co. 1:22-24)
A crucified Messiah was an oxymoron to Jews then, and it remains so today. St. Paul defended Christianity against this objection by developing an elaborate mythology to derive meaning from Jesus’ death.
(Note to the Christians among my readers: I’m not implying that Paul’s explanation is false; merely that the meaning he ascribes to Jesus’ death does not arise from the raw historical facts.)
Whatever one may think of St. Paul’s interpretation, it has been a source of great comfort to Christians ever since. In the face of poverty, powerlessness, disenfranchisement, slavery, physical infirmity, pain, misery, and death, Christians find solace in Christ’s crucifixion. There they find meaning: not despite suffering, but in it.
The atheist says life is meaningful. I don’t buy it. Unless your worldview can find meaning in infirmity, suffering, and death, the claim is contingent on favourable circumstances. Since suffering is universal, life is ultimately absurd.