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We all have values. Some things matter to us. We have views about right and wrong.
But how do we make sense of our values? Are they just inventions of our minds, or are they in some sense true?
I am grateful to Sally Gardner for pointing out a weakness in a recent post of mine. Compared with ancient polytheism, I wrote, modern atheism ‘insists all the more emphatically that we don’t matter’. Sally pointed out that atheists do think they matter, and get irritated with religious people saying they don’t.
Fair point, and I apologise for the offence given. I should have been clearer about what I meant. There are two different discourses on atheist values. This post describes the contrast between them, and concludes with a religious alternative.
One discourse operates on a popular level. Promoters like the British Humanist Association rightly insist that atheists can be just as moral, and can feel their lives have just as much meaning, as religious believers. Often enough they argue that atheists are more moral; after all, the rise of atheism over the last few centuries has been largely provoked by moral revulsion at a god who consigns most people to a painful eternity after death.
Values in philosophical atheism
The other discourse is philosophical. It analyses how we can, or can’t, justify our values. There is a huge scholarly literature on it. The following quotations are brief; my Why Progressives Need God includes references and more details.
In atheist theory the universe is maintained by impersonal laws of nature. Whether determinism or chance or quantum indeterminacy, the process isn’t in any way intended. It doesn’t think, let alone have values. The only beings that can attribute values to anything are humans. Thus our lives have no meaning or value given to us from outside. All values are created by the human mind.
Nietzsche first saw the problem with this. If there are no transcendent authorities competent to judge any of our choices right or wrong, we can make any choice at all and there is no sense in which it was the right choice compared with alternatives.
The 20th century witnessed many movements debunking values. Two major theories rejected all morality.
In the 1940s Charles Stevenson’s theory of Emotivism argued that each moral judgement is a combination of a factual statement with an imperative. ‘This is wrong’ means ‘I disapprove of this; do so as well’. All morality is therefore nothing but psychological manipulation.
Some evolutionary psychologists produced a different approach which was popular in the 1980s. The theory was that all our moral beliefs are an evolutionary trick to increase our chances of survival. E O Wilson argued that ‘morality has no other demonstrable ultimate function’ than ‘to keep human genetic material intact’. To Michael Ruse, ‘ethics… is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate’. The most popular book in this tradition is Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.
The absurdity of life
One of the biggest 20th century movements was Existentialism. Its best known exponent was Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre argued that what we think, say and do is justified by our values, but our values are not justified by anything else at all. We are always free to choose different ones. Therefore our values are absurd. Ultimately, there is no point in anything we do:
Nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies me in adopting this or that particular value, this or that particular scale of values. As a being by whom values exist, I am unjustifiable.
More recently Thomas Nagel has developed the theme further. We live, Nagel tells us, with two perspectives on life. In our ordinary daily lives we do things and want things. At the same time, however,
Humans have the special capacity to step back and survey themselves, and the lives to which they are committed, with that detached amazement which comes from watching an ant struggle up a heap of sand. Without developing the illusion that they are able to escape from their highly specific and idiosyncratic position, they can view it sub specie aeternitatis – and the view is at once sobering and comical… We see ourselves from outside, and all the contingency and specificity of our aims and pursuits become clear. Yet when we take this view and recognize what we do as arbitrary, it does not disengage us from life, and there lies our absurdity: not in the fact that such an external view can be taken of us, but in the fact that we ourselves can take it, without ceasing to be the persons whose ultimate concerns are so coolly regarded.
Our lives seem full of meaning. The conclusion that they have no meaning at all seemed to Nietzsche and Sartre to have devastating implications; but Nagel, like other more recent philosophers, accepts it more calmly. We have no choice but to live our lives as though they were not absurd. We can reflect on the fact that they are absurd, but then
we return to our familiar convictions with a certain irony and resignation. Unable to abandon the natural responses on which they depend, we take them back, like a spouse who has decided to run off with someone else and then decided to return; but we regard them differently.
This ‘irony’ is, in effect, a matter of training ourselves to remember that despite our emotional responses to the ups and downs of life, nothing matters in the slightest. Nagel has followed the logic of atheism through to its inevitable conclusion.
This debunking of all values was much more popular in the 20th century than it is now. Times have changed. Today atheists are busy insisting that, as far as values are concerned, they aren’t missing anything. Philosophers like Nagel have not been refuted; they are ignored.
Why? I suspect that underlying those rejections of values was hostility to the ethical teachings of church leaders. Aldous Huxley described how he and his young 1920s contemporaries longed for two kinds of liberation: from the norms of sexual ethics, which inhibited their desires, and from the political and economic system which seemed unjust.
The supporters of these systems claimed that in some way they embodied the meaning (a Christian meaning, they insisted) of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and at the same time justifying ourselves in our political and erotic revolt: we could deny that the world had any meaning whatsoever.
Today things are very different. Church leaders have precious little moral authority, and anyway are increasingly concerned with other things. Atheists often appeal to ‘secular values’ as though that whole value-denying tradition had never existed. Perhaps many of them have never come across it.
Values in faith traditions
Faith traditions open up more constructive possibilities.
When we explain why something matters to us, a lot of the time all we can say is that it matters to us because it contributes to something else which also matters. For example, the women who attended the vigil for Sarah Everard thought their action mattered. If you or I had asked them why it mattered, maybe they would have talked about the importance of protesting about violence against women.
This is a characteristic way of explaining why things matter. P matters because of q, q matters because of r. Things matter because they contribute to some kind of ‘bigger mattering’.
Few of us would claim to have a complete account of everything that matters and how they all fit together. To decide what is worth doing we often only think one step ahead. But to do so is to presuppose that there is a bigger story of things that matter, and that within that bigger story our own action counts.
In this kind of way we characteristically think of our values as embedded in wider values. Somehow, we matter to a greater value which we can’t explain, but which makes our lives meaningful.
Moral judgements have a similar logic. Atheists and believers alike repeatedly appeal to values that transcend the human. For example, when western politicians denounce what the Chinese are doing to the Uighurs they usually appeal to human rights. By doing so they are affirming moral truths that transcend all humans.
In these ways, we characteristically assume that our senses of meaning and morality are expressions of higher, true meanings and values. Just as scientific research begins with what scientists know and examines it with a view to discovering new knowledge, so also when we examine the nature of our values we can discover how they fit within higher values.
If we think there really are higher values that transcend all human minds, this raises the questions of how these values exist and why we should accept their authority.
At this point we enter the realm of theology. It won’t go away.