February 12, 2012 § 11 Comments
In the series of extracts from my almost-finished book on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 14, which is devoted to the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. This extract is from the discussion of Nietzsche’s The Genealogy of Morals.
Nietzsche trained as a philologist, not as a philosopher, and his writing is quite unlike traditional philosophical work, whether the dry, rigorous plodding of an Aristotle or a Kant, or the flights of sometimes barely-intelligible fancy that mark the work of a philosopher like Hegel and, later, Heidegger. It is, rather, frothy, pithy and aphoristic, often fragmentary, usually poetic, always provocative. Nietzsche himself saw his work neither as philosophy nor as literature, but ‘declarations of war’. He was not a writer, nor even a prophet, but a ‘battlefield’ on which was being fought the struggle for Europe’s very soul. There was always a touch of the megalomaniac fantasist about Nietzsche.
Beneath the light and the froth and the absurd self-regard lay, however, an engagement with the most profoundly unsettling issues of the day: the ‘death of God’ and the moral chasm that now seemed to have opened up. Though Nietzsche is usually credited with coining the phrase, it was actually a Young Hegelian, Johann Caspar Schmidt, better known by his nom-de-plum Max Stirner, who first wrote of ‘the death of God’ in his 1844 work The Ego and His Own. Stirner also nurtured many of the key anti-moral themes in Nietzsche’s work, including an early notion of the ‘Superman’. It was, however, Nietzsche who quite unlike any other gave voice to the spiritual disorientation of fin-de-siècle Europe with startling insight. Few spoke to the dilemmas of modern nihilism with as much force and clarity. One of his last books, The Twilight of the Idols, is subtitled ‘How to Philosophize with a Hammer’. Nothing could better express both Nietzsche’s method and his impact on subsequent moral thinking. « Read the rest of this entry »
February 6, 2012 § 44 Comments
Like a lion, perhaps, in a den of Daniels, I gave a talk last week on ‘Why I am an atheist’ to theology students at Bristol’s Trinity College. It was an enjoyable event, and hopefully helped me to think through and sharpen my arguments (though not, I suspect, to change anyone’s mind). Here’s the transcript.
There are three kinds of arguments that an atheist can make in defence of the insistence that no God exists. First, he or she can argue against the necessity for God. That is, an argument against the claim that God is necessary to explain both the material reality of the world and the values by which we live. Second, he or she can argue against the possibility of God, against the idea that a being such as God is either logically or materially possible. And third, an atheist can argue against the consequences of belief in God. This is the claim that religious belief has pernicious social, political or moral consequences and that the world would be better off without such belief. « Read the rest of this entry »
December 27, 2011 § 6 Comments
I have been reading Sophocles’ Theban Plays, a loosely connected trilogy which reworks the myth of Oedipus, the mythical king of Thebes who unknowingly kills his father and marries his mother, and whose family is fated to be doomed for three generations. I also came across the text of Berthold Brecht’s celebrated 1948 production of Antigone, the last of the Theban trilogy (though the first that Sophocles wrote). What is striking in reading the scripts side by side is the chasm between the meaning of the heroine for Sophocles and her meaning for Brecht.
Antigone tells of the confrontation between the eponymous heroine, the daughter of Oedipus, and Creos, the current king of Thebes. Just before the play opens, Oedipus’ two sons Eteocles and Polyneices have killed each other. The two brothers had shared the throne of Thebes, each the ruler in alternate years, until Eteocles had refused to turn over power at the end of his annual term. Polyneices gathered an army and attacked the city in furious retaliation. The brothers died at each others’ hands in single combat. Creon, their uncle, who now becomes king, decides that Eteocles should be buried with full honors as defender of the city. The body of Polyneices will, however, be left outside the city gates, to rot, unmourned, as a traitor. Anyone who would honor him with a burial, Creon decrees, would be put to death.
The play opens with Antigone, sister to both Eteocles and Polyneices, resolving to defy Creon’s decree and to bury the latter. She pleads with her sister Ismene to help her. Ismene refuses, recalling the family history of tragic defiance of both fate and lawful order. Alone, Antigone slips out and scatters funeral oil and earth over her brother’s body. A furious Creon condemns Antigone to be buried alive, letting the gods dispose of her as they will. « Read the rest of this entry »
October 20, 2011 § 43 Comments
I wrote some notes a few months back on Pandaemonium on Rethinking the idea of ‘Christian Europe‘. I reworked that post into an essay, which has now been published in the latest issue of New Humanist. And I’m posting it here, too.
In the warped mind of Anders Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utøya earlier this year were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one, to defend what Breivik called Europe’s ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’. Few but the most psychopathic can have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. Yet the idea that Christianity provides the foundations of Western civilization, and of its political ideals and ethical values, and that Christian Europe is under threat, from Islam on the one side and ‘cultural Marxists’ on the other, finds a widespread hearing. The erosion of Christianity, in this narrative, will lead inevitably to the erosion of Western civilisation and to the end of modern, liberal democracy.
The claims about the ‘Muslim takeover’ of Europe, while widely held, have also been robustly challenged. The idea of Christianity as the cultural and moral foundation of Western civilisation is, however, accepted as almost self-evident – and not just by believers. The late Oriana Fallaci, the Italian writer who perhaps more than most promoted the notion of ‘Eurabia’, described herself as a ‘Christian atheist’, insisting that only Christianity provided Europe with a cultural and intellectual bulwark against Islam. The British historian Niall Ferguson calls himself ‘an incurable atheist’ and yet is alarmed by the decline of Christianity which undermines ‘any religious resistance’ to radical Islam. Melanie Phillips, a non-believing Jew, argues in her book The World Turned Upside Down that ‘Christianity is under direct and unremitting cultural assault from those who want to destroy the bedrock values of Western civilization.’ « Read the rest of this entry »
September 23, 2011 § 3 Comments
I was asked by the The Browser, a wonderful, indispensable website that trawls the web and fishes out some of the best writing, to choose, for its ‘Five books’ section, five books (naturally) on morality without God. Here’s my somewhat eclectic list and the interview that accompanies it.
Many believers think that the only way to be truly moral is to follow a religion which teaches us morality. How would you respond?
One of the great selling points of religions – in particular the monotheistic religions – throughout their history has been their importance as a bedrock of moral values. Without religious faith, runs the argument, we cannot anchor our moral truths or truly know right from wrong. Without belief in God we will be lost in a miasma of moral nihilism. ‘To remove God’, as the theologian Alister McGrath has put it, ‘is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality.’
Looking back on history one might question just how successful God has been as ‘the final restraint on human brutality’. What really concerns me, however, is the way that religious concepts of morality degrade what it means to be human by diminishing the importance of human agency in the creation of a moral framework. From a religious perspective, it is the weakness of human nature that ensures that God has to establish and anchor moral rules.
In truth, morality, like God, is a human creation. Even believers have to decide which of the values found in the Torah or the Bible or the Qur’an they accept and which they reject. What God provides is not the source of moral values but, if you like, the ethical concrete in which those values are set. Rooting morality in religion is a means of putting certain values or practices beyond question by insisting they are God-given. The success of religious morality derives from its ability to combine extreme flexibility – just look at the degree to which religious morals have changed over the centuries – with the insistence that certain beliefs and values and practices are sacred and absolute because they are divinely sanctioned. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 18, 2011 Comments Off
Continuing the series of extracts from the book that I am writing on the history of moral thought, I have reached Chapter 9, a chapter that explores medieval Christian thought, and in particular the work of Thomas Aquinas, perhaps the greatest of Christian theologians. Western Christendom had recently rediscovered Aristotle, largely through translations from the Muslim world. Aquinas found in Aristotle both a reason for, and a means to, transform the traditional relationship between reason and faith in Christian theology.
For Augustine and early Christian theologians, reason had been subservient to faith. The yen for knowledge had led to Original Sin and Original Sin had corroded human intellect and will. Aquinas, echoing the arguments of the Muslim Rationalists, reversed the relationship between reason and faith. Reason was not a corrupting expression of human hubris, too great a reliance on which denied humans access to the divine, but a divine gift to enable humanity to understand God, and bring them to Him. Aquinas was, of course, a devout and obedient Christian and for all his defence of reason, divine revelation remains the foundation of his moral framework. Yet Aquinas does something novel with the Christian moral framework. He grasps the tension at the heart of Christian belief between human agency and the consequences of the Fall and, unlike Augustine, tries to rethink that tension to minimise human degradation and maximise the possibilities of reason.
This extract is from the final section of Chapter 9, which explores the importance of Dante, and in particular of The Divine Comedy, in giving poetic life to Aquinas’ moral vision and in sketching out the outlines of the moral landscape that was to come.
August 19, 2011 § 30 Comments
UPDATE: this post won the 2011 3QD Politics and Social Sciences Prize.
In the warped mind of Anders Behring Breivik, his murderous rampage in Oslo and Utoøya were the first shots in a war in defence of Christian Europe. Not a religious war but a cultural one. Breivik acknowledged that he was not religious but, he wrote in his manifesto in a section entitled ‘Distinguishing between cultural Christendom and religious Christendom’:
Myself and many more like me do not necessarily have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ and God. We do however believe in Christianity as a cultural, social, identity and moral platform. This makes us Christian
Few but the most psychopathic have any sympathy for Breivik’s homicidal frenzy. And most Christians have rejected the Breivik’s claim to be one of them. Yet the idea that Christianity is a ‘cultural, social, identity and moral platform’ that provides the underpinnings of ‘Western civilization’ and that ‘Christian Europe’ is under threat finds a widespread hearing. From Mark Steyn to Christopher Caldwell to Melanie Phillips to Martin Amis and beyond, alarm about Muslim immigration, the rise of ‘Eurabia’ and the collapse of the Judeo-Christian tradition is rife. « Read the rest of this entry »