Friedrich Nietzsche

In Friday’s Church Times Andrew Brown quotes an article by John Gray:

With few exceptions, contemporary atheists are earnest and militant liberals. Awkwardly, Nietzsche pointed out that liberal values derive from Jewish and Christian monotheism, and rejected these values for that very reason. There is no basis – whether in logic or history – for the prevailing notion that atheism and liberalism go together. Illustrating this fact, Nietzshe can only be an embarrassment for atheists today. Worse, they can’t help dimly suspecting they embody precisely the kind of pious freethinker that Nietzsche despised and mocked: loud in their mawkish reverence for humanity, and stridently censorious of any criticism of liberal hopes.

This is one of the reasons why atheism is now losing out to various versions of spirituality. By and large nineteenth century atheists could see the issues better than their successors today. If the existence of the universe, and our lives, result from impersonal, unthinking processes and nothing else, there is quite literally no point in living. There is no purpose to life, no moral truths, no meaning in anything. Every time we consider something good or bad, valuable or meaningful, these thoughts are merely products of an evolutionary system lodged in our minds purely because they give us greater chances of survival.

At first atheists responded to this thought by developing existentialism. They agonised over the pointlessness of life, debating whether to resign themselves to it or live their lives in defiance of it. Such agonising could not stand the test of time. It was too uncomfortable. Eventually most atheists settled for the idea that ‘we create our own values’.

We don’t. To say that we create our own values can mean one of two things: that values are created by each of us as individuals, or by societies. If the former, we are being invited to fantasise about a prior state when we had absolutely no values and decided to create some. It never happens. If we had no values we would have no reason to create any; and if we did all create values like this, they would be much more diverse than they actually are.

If, on the other hand, values are created by societies, this would mean that truths about right and wrong, purpose, value, meaning and progress are all determined by the ruling classes. Nobody in real life finds this acceptable. If the ruling classes really did start from scratch to create society’s values, the resulting values would serve their interests even more single-mindedly than they do at present.

In reality we – individuals and societies alike – inherit values. Sometimes we change them, but we only ever change them in the light of other, more deeply held values. Otherwise we would have no reason to change them.

This explains why present day atheists end up with values that are watered-down versions of earlier systems based on God. European atheists have inherited the values of Christianity – with some Jewish and Islamic contributions – and removed bits. Some bits needed removing; they have dispensed with the threat of hell in the afterlife and the longstanding Christian suspicion of sexual activity. However the idea of objective values given to us by a divine creator has been replaced by the vain hope that educated societies can work out the best values through reason. The most influential works of secular ethics, such as Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, attempt just this. The result is usually a kind of consequentialism which overrates the ability of the human mind to work out the best thing to do in the circumstances but would not lead anyone to make life-threatening sacrifices for a cause they believe in.

Christianity has the edge here, with its focus on someone who did exactly that; but we don’t have to focus on Jesus. This video shows a young woman suffering at the hands of some police officers a few days ago because she disapproves of fracking. I have no idea whether she believes in God, but quite clearly she put herself in a position where she was likely to endure intense suffering for the sake of a cause she believed in, even though she had no reason to anticipate any personal reward for her efforts. Why? Was she (and was Jesus) just driven by the chemical make-up of her brain? As she fell to the ground and felt the kicks and punches, I doubt whether she was saying to herself ‘I’ve come on this protest because this is what I evolved to do’. Either there are true values, true purposes built into the way things are, values that justify self-sacrifice, or there are no true values and the intelligent response is, as Nietzsche could see, to live for oneself and despise altruism. If that woman does not believe in God, she still behaved in a way which, if she thought about it, only makes sense if there are true values transcending any values ‘we’ create.

We need people willing to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of the common good. Society would be much the poorer without them. We therefore need to believe in higher values than the ones ‘we’ create.