Thursday, November 01, 2007

Carting Harlots

Atheists are surging. The churchless militant is selling stacks of books.

The current form of the neverending debate over Christianity and Western civilization interests me because many of the public writers I respect on a range of topics come down on different sides of it.

And I come down on no side of it, seemingly. I'm a more-or-less agnostic (who presumes the answer is "no," but admits he can't be sure of that), lacking the bump of veneration, who generally is happy to live in a Christian society (considering the alternatives, but not under a Christian government) and will defend the bulk of Christians (but not bigots or extremists) from the more vicious fundamentalist atheists while generally agreeing with the worldview of the atheists on other things.

Here, for instance, Theodore Dalrymple, whom I respect greatly, takes on Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett, whom I also respect (along with a few others I'm less fond of). And though my intellectual sympathies are with the atheists, I subscribe wholeheartedly to Dalrymple's observation that "Reason can never be the absolute dictator of man’s mental or moral economy."

Meaning it should never be. If reason alone is allowed to guide moral choices, you end up with the sort of mass ruthlessness you get in -- well, creation.

Dalrymple, writing about a Dennett book, notes that the scientist who rails against those who doubt evolution himself lapses into writing about nature as though it has a consciousness and an intent. But all evolutionary biologists do this at one time or another. It's a shorthand way to write the life story. The cumulative effect of natural selection, operating in hundreds of billions of births (most of them wasted) in specific environments (most eventually destroyed) over billions of years has the appearance of deliberation. But it's the appearance of a nasty and unintelligent deliberation.

The stupidest, and oldest, excuse for persecution of atheists is that they lack morality. I seem to be very concerned with morality and virtue -- you have to be especially attentive to it when you don't believe you've been handed a complete manual for it, with every answer for every problem spelled out (in a language you never bothered to learn).

I don't think there is any formula for doing right all the time, but I'm convinced that the innate instinct to know right and do it (conscience) is a great gift -- from whom? I don't know -- and worth heeding.

[Sometimes I read my attempt to describe my moral self and realize I soaked up a deal more of my childhood Quaker surroundings than I realize.]

You start with the knowledge of deep-set human urges and visceral tendencies bred into the species over millions of years of precarious living in hostile turf. As useless now as a full set of flesh-rending teeth numbered for much larger jawbones than ours. But you don't stop there. Morality begins where evolution ends.

It's always a bit puzzling for me to read the Christian view of what an atheist would not think, or feel, in a certain situation. Dalrymple introduces a delightful, forgotten apologist, the 17th century English bishop Joseph Hall. He quotes Hall’s meditation “Upon the Sight of a Harlot Carted:"

With what noise, and tumult, and zeal of solemn justice, is this sin punished! The streets are not more full of beholders, than clamours. Every one strives to express his detestation of the fact, by some token of revenge: one casts mire, another water, another rotten eggs, upon the miserable offender. Neither, indeed, is she worthy of less: but, in the mean time, no man looks home to himself. It is no uncharity to say, that too many insult in this just punishment, who have deserved more. ... Public sins have more shame; private may have more guilt. If the world cannot charge me of those, it is enough, that I can charge my soul of worse. Let others rejoice, in these public executions: let me pity the sins of others, and be humbled under the sense of my own.

And he contrasts it with some chillingly rational passage from Sam Harris or someone like him.

But I've had that reaction many times. We don't cart harlots anymore, but we have the media equivalent when some prominent politician or celebrity gets caught doing something society loathes. I even feel it without the "Neither, indeed, is she worthy of less." Goats know shame as well as sheep do.

Labels: , ,