From across the pond comes an interesting take on atheism, especially as a move away from some bestselling authors on the subject (the writer of this article calls Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens “undergraduates”). The article reviews books that argue for the ethics of religion, without the religion:
There is, Johnston argues, “a religious argument…that we should hope that ontological naturalism is true. For ontological naturalism would be a complete defence against…our tendency to servile idolatry and spiritual materialism.” Spiritual materialism involves retaining our ordinary selfish desires (for security, comfort, success, etc) and trying to get them satisfied by manipulating supposed supernatural forces. Idolatry is similar, placating the gods to get what we want. Authentic spirituality, by contrast, must address the “large-scale structural defects in human life” — arbitrary suffering, ageing, our and our loved ones’ vulnerability to time and chance and, ultimately, death. The religious or redeemed life, Johnston argues, is one where we are reconciled to these large-scale defects.
I find it interesting that this writer debunks much of religion as an exercise in lever-pulling (maybe if I pull it enough, or am humble enough, or pray enough, then I’ll get what I want — something I am sometimes guilty of), while arguing that religion is ultimately about dealing with the huge defects in human life — suffering, vulnerability, death. How often I forget to make it about the latter and debase it to the form of the former.
Johnston’s achievement here is to grasp the crucial difference that authentic religion makes to ethics — to the whole question of how we should live. The ordinary secular virtues (self-confidence, fairness, good judgment, etc) “take life on its own unredeemed terms and make the most of it”. By contrast, the theological virtues (faith, hope, love) are “not merely intensifications of ordinary virtue, but conditions of a transformed or redeemed life”.
That is, too much of religion is about mustering a little courage, when deep faith, hope, and love are what is needed to overcome or even face death, suffering, and the terrifying vulnerability that we all possess.
The problem? Johnston ultimately deletes the traditional loving creator God.
In the end, his naturalism must mean that, despite his sympathy for true religion, and despite his frequent use of the word “God”, and phrases like “The Highest One”, he cannot really believe in anything like the personal God of the traditional Abrahamic faiths.
If you read the whole article, the author finally asserts that we need fidelity to the tradition that shaped us, in order to not only flourish but to survive the pain that this world has for us, and that we cause for each other. Fidelity, he asserts, combined with humility that the religious tradition demands, brings us only a short step away from faith.
We need the humility to accept that we cannot create our own values, or pick and choose the rootstock from which our fragile moral sensibilities have sprung. Instead of embarking on the project of “saving God” by replacing him with the naturally and humanly shaped world, it is perhaps time, even at this late stage, to acknowledge that it is we ourselves who need saving, and that the salvation cannot be entirely of our own making.