XFiles Weekend: the Good guys

(Book: Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, chapter 5, “We Have Cause To Be Uneasy”)

We come now to one of the more interesting things C. S. Lewis has said in the entire book so far. It’s an off-hand remark, a casual comment tossed in as a obvious truism, and one that you’ll hear echoed by an astonishingly large number of ordinary rank-and-file believers. And yet, despite all the people who take it for granted that things must be this way, it’s fairly trivial to show that it’s nonsense. Logically, rationally, it means something that can be called true in only the most trivial and even tautological sense. And yet people take it as one of the most fundamental Absolute Truths a person could base their life on. Why?

This is a very interesting question to me, and I’ve got a few ideas that I think are at least part of the answer. But still something about it mystifies me. I’d be interested to hear other people’s comments on this topic.

As you may recall from last time, Prof. Lewis has “not yet got as far as a personal God—only as far as a power, behind the Moral Law, and more like a mind than it is like anything else. But it may still be very unlike a Person.” Yet despite this, the next part of Lewis’ argument assumes that this “power” is indeed a person, with likes and dislikes, and a very strong preference for “Good.”

[Y]ou know at bottom that unless the power behind the world really and unalterably detests [evil] behaviour, then He cannot be good. On the other hand, we know that if there does exist an absolute goodness it must hate most of what we do. That is the terrible fix we are in.

Not half so terrible as the fix Lewis himself is in, rationally speaking. Not only has he failed to provide any reason why this “power” would be capable or interested in “loving” or “hating” anything, he’s trying to assess the “goodness” of this power by measuring it according its own definitions. It need not have “good” reasons for requiring us to be “good,” nor is it really even meaningful to use the term “good” to describe the fundamental definition of what “good” means. Ask anybody in marketing: arbitrarily designating something as “good” is no guarantee that it really is good!

There is a deeper, more fundamental definition of “good,” by which we instinctively judge whether things like the Moral Law or even God Himself—erm, excuse me I mean “the mysterious power behind the Law”—can rightly be called Good. And, in a bit of poetic justice, Lewis finds that he must rely on this real-world standard of Good and Evil/Right and Wrong, in order to spin his argument to favor Christian doctrine. If this real-world standard exists independently of the Law, however, then Lewis’ whole premise is mistaken and/or misleading, whereas if it does not exist, then he cannot correctly appeal to it here.

That’s pretty much where we left off last week, but now for the interesting bit.

If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.

This may be the most fascinating statement in the whole book. Notice how Lewis (and millions of other believers) make two assumptions here which they assume to be absolutely and incontrovertibly true:

  1. The universe is governed by an absolute goodness, and
  2. This is necessary in order for us to have hope in the long run.

These two assumptions are why it is practically impossible for an atheist to win an argument with a believer over morality. The atheist must be wrong, because the universe must be governed by an “absolute goodness” (i.e. God), because without God, all our efforts are hopeless in the long run. Or in other words, “it must be true because I don’t want it to be false.”

Fascinating, isn’t it? Lewis tosses it off as though it were a common-sense observation, even though it’s fallacious nonsense in all but the most trivial of senses. Yet somehow this “observation” provides a powerful psychological motive that drives the moral reasonings of millions if not billions. What’s behind it? Is it simple denial? Some kind of psychological insulation to shut out the realization that “someday I will not be”?

That’s a big part of it, I think. Logically and rationally, it’s easy for the atheist to highlight just a small portion of the real-world evidence that’s inconsistent with the idea that the universe is governed by an absolute goodness. Trying to show that to a believer, however, is the psychological and emotional equivalent of saying “the universe is out to kill you, and someday it will succeed.” People tune that out, and tune out the atheist along with it. That makes C. S. Lewis’ job a walk in the park.

I think there may be another important dynamic here as well, a more tribal dynamic. Remember, moral laws are primarily social laws. “Good” behaviors and “evil” behaviors are defined relative to how they affect other people. Different groups within society, however, may have different standards of right and wrong. Especially among believers, the defense of Moral Law goes hand in hand with the assumption that our definition of goodness is the definition of goodness. To champion a particular moral code is to assert the supremacy of the cultural group that “owns” that standard. In that light, those who argue for “absolute goodness” as the supreme authority are merely taking the idea of a Christian Nation and applying it to the whole physical universe. “We are the rightful arbiters of morality, because the entire cosmos is subject to a Ruler whose opinions are the same as ours!”

This is a particularly vexing dynamic because it means that if you have a believer wise enough and self-aware enough not to let fear of death cloud their consideration of morality, they will still have a very powerful psychosocial motive for advocating the validity of Moral Law. Defending this kind of moral reasoning means going up in the esteem of your peers. Propagating it means raising the status of your group in society as a whole. Even if it’s a transparent rationalization and hopeless self-contradiction, you can gain politically and socially by selling it to the “unwashed masses,” who are not at all reluctant to swallow it. “We are the Good guys, led by the Hero, and we’re going to win.” Who wouldn’t want to jump on that bandwagon?

What can we, as unbelievers, do to counter this kind of diseased thinking? I’m open for suggestions. One thing I think we can do is to simply raise awareness of the issues. For example, it’s nonsense to claim that “all our efforts are hopeless in the long run” unless the universe is governed by “absolute goodness.” Hope, by its very nature, is an expectation of change for the better. If any state would rightly be called hopeless, it would have to be heaven, or some other variation on eternal bliss, since you could never hope for things to get better there. And that in turn shows us that it’s pointless to hope for things to be better than they can be.

Hope, and meaning, and purpose, and all the things that believers associate with having some kind of eternal objective, are all things that, in fact, lose their significance in the context of eternity. The purpose of eating is to satisfy the need of the moment, not to achieve some eternal satisfaction in which you never hunger. And likewise with other appetites, like the desire for beauty, or mental stimulation, or challenge, or achievement. The true meaning and purpose of things are rooted and nourished in the changeable, imperfect, ephemeral world in which we experience them, not in some eternal and unchanging perfection that’s effectively indistinguishable from death. We have hope, we have purpose, we have meaning, because we live in a world where there is room for improvement, and the possibility of achieving better things by our efforts.

Now, if you say, “But that still leaves us without a reason to hope that we will live forever in ceaseless bliss,” then I will reply that this is true, in the exact same sense that a detox clinic will try to leave a drug addict without a reason to hope he can stay high for the rest of his life. Ok, one difference: drug-induced euphorias do exist in the real world, whereas the evidence for heaven, not so much. But the point is, hope can be a bad thing if your hope is simply a form of denial and rejection of the real world. If you routinely write checks based only on the hope that your account will have enough to cover the draft, you’ll get to know your bank manager—if not your parole officer—on a first name basis. It is far better to embrace reality as it really is, and to find your meaning and purpose and hope in the real-world truth.

And that’s it for now. I don’t feel like it’s quite enough, and I’m sure there’s lots more that could be said (and probably should be). It’s a bit of a tangent from our main topic, though, so I’m going to keep it to just one post. Next week we’ll pick up back in Chapter 5 again.

 
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Posted in Atheistic Morality, Unapologetics, XFiles. 9 Comments »

9 Responses to “XFiles Weekend: the Good guys”

  1. Ken Browning Says:

    Cognitive scientists studying religion refer to Theory of Mind whereby they mean that each of us as individuals theorize what other agents may be thinking. We humans are the most social animals on the planet so it is most important for us to navigate the nature of other human minds. Information about other social agents is of utmost importance in surviving and succeeding in our complicated groups.

    What could be more helpful than a Great Mind giving us inside information and power? However, once one posits a Great-Mind-On-My-Side the next consideration is whether the Great Mind is actually on my side or is just scamming or using me or really indifferent, specially when the info on the ground is (as it just about always appears) hazy. Thus, I think, the Great Mind must become the Great Good.

    Now one can roll over and sleep peacefully.

    We’ll see how the theory holds up over time but it looks consistent to me.

  2. Hunt Says:

    Many Christians will simply come right out and say that life without Jesus would not be worth living. Often their testimony is heart wrenching, as when they refer to dead relatives or tragically lost children. They’ll say that they’ll never, NEVER, believe what the abhorrent atheist says, that there’s nothing beyond this life. Or, they will ask the atheist how he/she can go through life knowing they’re just a meat puppet destined for the trash heap.
    IMO there’s not much to say to people with that lack of capacity to simply enjoy life. If life without God and afterlife appears so horrid to them that they will reject it solely on the grounds of their disgust, how are you really going to respond?
    It kind of reminds me of something Johnny Rotten (I think) once said, that life was so horrible he didn’t want to go through it without heroin. (He must have changed his mind, since he’s still alive.)

  3. Hunt Says:

    …In other words, it’s very much like trying to coax a person out of a fantastical vision that they really believe is true. Real life has a very hard time competing against fiction. One has only to visit the local Cineplex to understand this. If you don’t start out with a commitment to reality, it can be very difficult to gain one.

  4. pboyfloyd Says:

    “If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.”

    I think that this works at the ‘child within us’ level, exactly the same as the Absolute Morality works.

    When we are very small, there IS an Absolute Morality, it’s called Mom and Dad. They are the judge, your lawyer, and the jury of your actions. If they are not just and fair, then we don’t feel loved. But you don’t really know what ‘just and fair’ IS, so they are your model for it. Didn’t mom insist that you ought not to swear, and somehow forget her own childhood where she swore like a trooper when she was with her peers? (the hidden force who ‘hates’ what you do, in fact it’s fun to do BECAUSE she’d throw a fit if she heard you)

    “I’ll wash your mouth with soap and water, young lady/man!”

    I think that they’re pushing these old forgotten ‘buttons’. Without God, there’d be no Jesus. Without Jesus, there’d be no Christmas. Then what would we have to look forward to? Nothing, that’s what!

  5. pboyfloyd Says:

    I guess what I’m saying is that your kids ARE your ‘hope’ and every culture has to have a way of passing this hope on to the next generation in terms of their morality and in terms of giving them(the kids) hope.

    I get the feeling that another part of the ‘hope’ is in dealing with strangers. Knowing that they too feel there’s an Absolute Morality and ‘hope’, just so long as they don’t kill and steal, might give you some hope that you’re not gonna be murdered or ripped off.

    With luck, you’ll give off an air of confidence around ‘fellow’ believers and tend to look less like a victim. It’s all psychological anyways, a social thing.

  6. John Morales Says:

    Ken,

    We humans are the most social animals on the planet

    Um. Good comment, otherwise, but I note there exists Eusociality.

  7. Ken Browning Says:

    John Morales,

    Good point. Perhaps an anthropocentric bias is showing through??! :)

  8. Arthur Says:

    Maybe, once you pass a certain point, the word “social” just starts to mean something else. I mean, ants don’t agonize over what other ants are thinking, or anyway that’s what I hear.

  9. pboyfloyd Says:

    “If the universe is not governed by an absolute goodness, then all our efforts are in the long run hopeless.”

    I think also that this is a bit circular. These people that Lewis is really talking to, already sincerely believe that they’re NOT just talking to themselves. They believe that they ARE putting in a good word for the ill, the elderly and the non-believer.

    They sincerely believe in Individual Collectivism or Collective Individualism or that they are individuals and everyone else is just part of ‘the herd’.

    A World where people are willing to accept responsibility for their actions, for their greed and not be allowed to pass it off as God’s will, is a hopeless situation for them indeed.