Even More on Consequences…

Here there is more to echo the last couple of posts on this topic.  Here we see that what I’m saying is hardly a strictly “Christian” perspective but most certainly a transcendental one.  I think we can also note another category here as far as evaluating differing narratives as to their truthfulness and, as we noted in the last posts on this subject, something being “true” has several aspects.  And please keep in mind the entire thread of comments noting that none of this “proves” that God exists—no need to rehash that again. 
But another evaluating factor is this: How well does a narrative provide the cultural resources to oppose evil?  From the essay:
But not for more attuned readers, because religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. That is what the greatest of all atheists, Nietzsche, understood with terrifying clarity and what his latter-day successors fail to grasp at all.
Time and again in his later writings, Nietzsche tells us that losing Christian faith will mean abandoning Christian morality. No more “Love your neighbour as yourself’; instead the will to power. No more “Thou shalt not”; instead, people would live by the law of nature, the strong dominating or eliminating the weak. “An act of injury, violence, exploitation or destruction cannot be ‘unjust’ as such, because life functions essentially in an injurious, violent, exploitative and destructive manner.”
Nietzsche was not an anti-Semite, but there are passages in his writing that come close to justifying a Holocaust. This had nothing to do with him personally and everything to do with the logic of Europe losing its Christian ethic. Already in 1843, a year before Nietzsche was born, Heinrich Heine wrote:
“A drama will be enacted in Germany compared to which the French Revolution will seem like a harmless idyll. Christianity restrained the martial ardour of the Germans for a time but it did not destroy it; once the restraining talisman is shattered, savagery will rise again … the mad fury of the berserk, of which Nordic poets sing and speak.”
Nietzsche and Heine were making the same point. Lose the Judeo-Christian sanctity of life and there will be nothing to contain the evil men do when given the chance and the provocation.
In one respect the new atheists are right. The threat to western freedom in the twenty-first century is not from fascism or communism but from a religious fundamentalism combining hatred of the other, the pursuit of power and contempt for human rights. But the idea that this can be defeated by individualism and relativism is naive almost beyond belief.
Humanity has been here before. The precursors of today’s scientific atheists were Epicurus in third-century BCE Greece and Lucretius in first-century Rome. These were two great civilisations on the brink of decline. Having lost their faith, they were no match for what Bertrand Russell calls “nations less civilised than themselves but not so destitute of social cohesion.” The barbarians win. They always do.
The new barbarians are the fundamentalists who seek to impose a single truth on a plural world. Though many of them claim to be religious, they are actually devotees of the will to power. Defeating them will take the strongest possible defence of freedom, and strong societies are always moral societies. That does not mean that they need be religious. It is just that, in the words of historian Will Durant, “There is no significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining moral life without the aid of religion.”
I have no desire to convert others to my religious beliefs. Jews don’t do that sort of thing. Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant’s point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. 

A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.
This entry was posted in Consequences, Narrative. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Even More on Consequences…

  1. Burk Braun says:

    Oh, right- intellecual depth on the the Mary MacKillop canonization site. Preach on!

    The fact is that the pot calling the kettle black doesn't help the pot very much. The depths that your correspondent draws on are emotional, not intellectual. He cares about ritual. Fine.. that is a psychological issue that in no way validates the fairy tales of Christianity or any other religion.

    “…there are some who simply do not understand what is going on in the Book of Psalms, who lack a sense of transcendence or the miracle of being, who fail to understand what it might be to see human life as a drama of love and forgiveness or be moved to pray in penitence or thanksgiving”

    Here he simply convicts himself as a sentimentalist, or worse. Atheists are not against sentiment, but not in place of intellectual “depth”. The syllogism being promoted here is that the Christ nailed to a cross story somehow leads to artistic sense of being that are otherwise unattainable. Typical claptrap of someone who has truly drunken the koolaide. You'll recall the Muslims saying the same of their religion, the Catholics of theirs, etc. and so forth.

    Not to mention other national and ethnic groups. As I recall, only the Germans had true artistic and heroic feelings at one point. Let us have no more dehumanization of the “other” by such cheap syllogisms.

    Anyhow, this tired argument is disposed of by the exemplary secular countries which are the happiest in the world- the Scandinavian countries. They do not seem to be going berserk with darwinian bloodlust. Maybe there are other restraining talismans (or indeed *reasons*) besides the fairy tales we grew up with in the mists of cultural infancy.


  2. Darrell says:

    You mean the Australian “public” broadcasting company is a bastion of Catholicism and anti-intellectualism? Wow, who knew? Or did you mean the Rabbi has no intellectual depth? Or maybe you meant just the ABC? Australians in general?

    And who is the world here (or anywhere) is opposing intellectual depth to sentiment? Why does one preclude the other? Who is saying one should be in “place” of the other? I thought joining the two was normally referred to as wisdom.

    Anyway, I’m sure there were Nazi soldiers (or present day soldiers) who whispered to their mates and perhaps even their leaders that what they were doing was wrong, only to hear some of them reply: “Don’t be so sentimental.”

    Is that what you have to offer? Nice.

    And you forget that the Scandinavians countries have a deep Christian heritage. You dispose of nothing.


  3. Burk Braun says:


    Joining the two may be wisdom, but conflating the two is not. This abc site is a pet site of religionists, as is the BBC's platitude of the day. Thankfully the head of the State church isn't throwing her weight around any more!

    As for the “deep Christian heritage”, many aspects of it are indeed of continuing relevance, like the work of Bach. But the idea that we turn into barbarians when we leave the church.. the same church that has visited such horrors on the Irish and Spanish, on children, etc… really, it is an insult to our basic humanity.

    But we do need culture of some sort. I am, incidentally reading a book of fairy tales at the moment. Only- they are not understood to be true … only fairy tales! If only religions could get along without making absurd and untrue claims, they would be perfectly fine artistic artifacts, practices, morality tales, rituals, etc. It is this need to *believe* in the unbelievable that is so toxic and off-putting.


  4. Darrell says:


    Please tell us where he is conflating the two. Where?

    The ABC site is one where many different views are presented fairly including those of atheists. Perhaps that bothers you.

    As noted in my original post, this isn’t an attempt to avoid the dark side or history of any narrative. I did however point out the difference between a dark side arising from logical links to the core of a narrative (what Nietzsche was pointing out) and aberrations or betrayals of the core of a narrative. So why not address the argument as presented rather than the one you wish someone had made?

    Your continual need to claim that you alone know what is true while everyone else believes in fantasy is what’s toxic and off-putting.


  5. Burk Braun says:

    “Whatever happened to the intellectual depth of the serious atheists – … Where is there the remotest sense that they have grappled with the real issues, which have nothing to do with science and the literal meaning of scripture and everything to do with the meaningfulness or otherwise of human life, the existence or non-existence of an objective moral order, the truth or falsity of the idea of human freedom, and the ability or inability of society to survive without the rituals, narratives and shared practices that create and sustain the social bond?”

    ” But not for more attuned readers, because religion has social, cultural and political consequences, and you cannot expect the foundations of western civilisation to crumble and leave the rest of the building intact. “

    These are samples where his claims of intellecual depth are really about sentiment.. how do we survive without rituals.. read religious rituals… and without our foundation … read christianity, judaism, religion…

    It is all heavily coded. In fairness, he is asking psychological questions that really are not matters of intellectual depth, but of social sentiment, empirical evidence, and a bit of imagination. So life has no meaning, sub specie aeternalis. So what? That is as far as intellectual depth goes. Now if we decide to go on anyhow and portray our desires and ideals in art, and through our lives, what is wrong with that?

    But evidently, intellectual depth only satisfies the writer when it agrees with religion, and finds the most moving sentiments and bonds in the reading of the scripture and reviewing lost battles (for catholics,.. drinking of the blood, and the bowing to the pope). That is where this piece is going, and what a load of hooey.

    We are well past an earlier generation of atheists who were raised so drenched in the christian world that they saw an enormous conflict and loss in escaping it, into a world of no gods. Now we are on the other side, in a largely secular world, and while there are plenty of issues, “crumbling” and “barbariansim” are not among them. Those are the fevered imaginings of a true believer. And the new atheists have no reason to oblige this kind of thing with polite respect.

    “Nor do I believe that you have to be religious to be moral. But Durant's point is the challenge of our time. I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other.”

    I like the direct contradiction there. How can a non-believer be moral? They can't. What would be the natural consequence of that kind of theory? Obiously it would be discrimination, even pogroms and the like, were the Rabbi in charge of things. Israel stands as exemplar of where this is going, and it is not a good moral example in the least, trending from a secular to a religious state, along with a depressing (and related!) moral decline, over the last half-century.

    So one can make the opposite case, right within his own community. He has not found yet.. because he hasn't looked. Which is understandable, since he is a Rabbi.. hardly an unbiassed source!



  6. Burk Braun says:


    OK- about my truth vs everyone else's fantasy.. I am very circumscribed in these claims. I only claim that the central doctrines of christianity, like the Nicene creed, express total fantasy. Believers can conduct perfectly rational lives on other planes (cf Francis Collins, et al.) by evidently compartmetalizing these religious beliefs away from beliefs about reality by which their lives need to be conducted otherwise. Conversely, my own beliefs are true insofar as they partake of conventional scientifically validated facts and similarly well-established knowledge. I do not take “leaps of faith” in order to believe in things in any positive way, though in fairness I do look at the piles of negative and missing evidence about things like the religious creeds above and draw a conclusion, rather than remaining forever on the fence of agnosticism.


  7. Burk Braun says:


    I guess I should address the issue of morals, in your claim that even a bad rule poorly followed is better than no rule at all.

    You have to ask.. who makes these rules? Who really thought them up and set them down? People did. Even if you think god did, humans have over the years done a tremendous amount of editing, throwing out, and reinterpretation.. out with Leviticus, in with Paul. Then out with much of Paul, and in with the age of Aquarius, etc… Even in the most charitable interpretation, there is little clarity about whether we are not just really making up those rules for our selves, under cover of whatever authority and costume the current social structures allow.

    So we end up in the same place- the existentialist position of being ultimately in charge of our own affairs. Does the church put up with gays? Does it throw them out? These things are clearly being decided by people throughout the christian and religious world generally, and frankly, biology has had a great deal more to say about the matter than any evident god.

    And of course, if the atheist refuses to acknowledge god as the source of her moral prescriptions, that hardly prevents god from implanting them anyhow and making them just the same in the end anyhow. It is not at all clear what worship and prostrating recognition has to do with it, unless god is some kind of narcissist who needs to have her story told all the time and accept so many insincere professions of love. Frankly, I would think such a god beneath contempt.

    We happily make up rules for ourselves, and we are constantly trying to make up rules for others as well. One our most common activities as humans is to tell others how to think and what to do. So there really is no shortage of rules, at least in potential form.

    The next question is who has authority, making out of those potential rules social structure? There we come to the real crux of the matter. Does a magic book speaking of unbelievable tales and absurd philosophies confer on its fraternity of priests some special role to tell the rest of humanity how to behave? Or do people make up their authority in a more democratic way, and a more spontaneous way, taking moral leadership from exemplary people and ideas wherever they may come from?

    In this respect, the Jewish tradition, at least in its more liberal precincts, has done very good work, in making true study and communal searching (via the synagogue, descended from the Hellenistic Academy, in a way) their way of life, after being deprived of the temple. Leaders are hired by the community, as is true in many protestant sects as well, and do not put on great airs. Indeed, the population of atheist Jews who still participate in this system is quite high.

    And just as a psychological matter, I completely agree that humans need to be raised in, and live in, a culturing community, which grants authority to someone, generates rules of behavior, and norms of morality. The question is whether religion must be that system, or whether there are other options. Religions have traditionally been the most intensive, involving community systems. But I think now they are not. We have developed numerous secular ethics and communities that sustain human values and indeed promote then to higher heights. The UN is not a religious institution. Nor are our public schools, nor are the magazines I read, nor is the newspaper I read, nor is the scientific community I participate in, nor.. etc. etc..

    In this day and age, the opposite is actually the case.. that institutions (I am thinking of the US military, but also the theocratic turn of Israel) that get infiltrated by religious culture and its agendas are weakened by that process, becoming less morally upright institutions.


  8. Darrell says:


    “These are samples where his claims of intellecual depth are really about sentiment.. how do we survive without rituals.. read religious rituals… and without our foundation … read christianity, judaism, religion…”

    I disagree. Further, I doubt very few would “read” what he is saying this way at all. You are “reading into” rather than trying to “hear” the other person. He is pointing out something even Peter Singer is beginning to realize. Some narratives have the philosophical resources to resist evil, while some are either silent or seem to provide logical connections for views that leave power alone as the final arbiter or “good” and “evil”. To ask if a narrative can resist evil is not to talk about “sentiment.” And to suggest alternatives, including ones you disagree with, does not reveal a lack of intellectual depth.

    I have no problem whatsoever attributing intellectual depth to those I disagree with. A perfect example is Nietzsche. You seem unable to do the same, which may reveal much more about your position and sensibility than you realize. It seems terribly insecure.


  9. Burk Braun says:


    It is a problem, I'll admit. It is incredibly hard to take people seriously who indulge in such magical / fantastical thinking as is routine in religion, and then demand others to respect them as “reasonable” and intellectually profound. I respect their sensitivities and imagination, occasionally their morality, but not their grasp of reality. They exhibit a fundamental lack of intellectual discipline.

    So my bottom line is that whatever narrative and social construction one adopts and lives with, it has to start with full acceptence of what is real in a comprehensive way. Then we can talk about various ethical stances and their consequences. But requiring bizarre beliefs in order to transmit beneficial morals? That is a non-starter. It would be like requiring *belief* in talking animals in order to get the benefit of Aesop's fables.


  10. Darrell says:

    I'm just curious, does anyone out there see any problem at all with Burk's response here? Any? Really?

    Talk about a “teaching” moment.


  11. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Perhaps it would help if you would spell out in some detail what you mean by the “christian narrative” (CN) – as I can think of a few variations on this theme. You want to stay away from any shade of fundamentalism and I wonder what common christian beliefs you must then leave out (if any).

    Another point… You like to oppose the CN to scientific materialism (SM) as world views but, from your own definition, the latter does not constitute a world view at all. A world view must include matters of values and ethics and SM, as you point out, is silent on these issues. Perhaps secular humanism would be a better choice if you want to discuss an alternative to Christianity.

    I think SM would be more appropriately opposed to “generic” theism, meaning a doctrine assuming the existence of some personal deity but without specifying any of its attributes – it could be a totally evil god, for example, or an amoral god indifferent to human affairs.


  12. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    I’m not sure I understand. Are you suggesting that if Burk only knew what type of Christian narrative I was talking about he would be less dismissive? That he would then accord me the designation “reasonable?” That he would not chalk it up to fantasy/magic? That he would think it had “intellectual depth”?

    How does this help (knowing what type) if one thinks all such beliefs, whether understood from a fundamentalist perspective or a traditional one, are like Aesop’s fables (philosophical category error anyone?)?

    Burk knows that both, for instance, Eric Reitan and I share the same basic sense of orthodox Christian belief, what is held in the classic creeds and what has basically been believed for centuries by both Protestants and Catholics. Plus, if you will forgive me, but I've noted on my blog for years now what type of Christian narrative I’m asserting. How is this incumbent upon me at this point? Do you really think it just a misunderstanding on Burk's part of what type narrative I'm speaking of? Is that what you hear in his response?


  13. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    Sorry for the misunderstanding: I was not responding to you remark about Burk. It was just a stand-alone comment.

    My interest in the details of the narrative concerns the parts more directly related to morality. I have been raised a Catholic, so I know that variation somewhat – and large parts of this narrative are rather irrelevant to its moral message.


  14. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    Okay, I see. So, I would place myself in the mainstream of Christian orthodoxy, with a decided lean toward Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicism. Being raised in the Protestant evangelical tradition, I am very familiar with that world (and theology) as well. I have been talking about the same Christian narrative as outlined in these traditions and by their best theologians, philosophers, and teachers. I am saying nothing new or original here.

    There may be parts of the narrative that seem irrelevant to the “moral” message, but even if a person were to say, “Let’s jettison all this irrelevant stuff and just keep the moral message,” it would still be a nod toward a transcendent origin of morality or of one still tied to that specific narrative. In other words, they were still getting it from that narrative and not another one. That still goes directly to my question of, do some narratives have the cultural resources to resist evil while some others may not?

    I think this is an aspect of “truthfulness” in the same sense as spoken in the original post.


  15. Burk Braun says:


    Sorry to be dismissive and difficult. But I guess the bottom line is .. just because you have a narrative doesn't make you or it reasonable. Even if that narrative has been hallowed forever and believed by billions. That doesn't make it reasonable. It makes it successful in a sort of Darwinian competition among human narratives competing for … for what, really?

    I wish one of those criteria were truth, but you can see from the incredibly grudging retreat of creationism and similar conflicts with science that this is not always the case. Truth & accuracy may be relented to if doing otherwise is just too howlingly absurd, but that is not the top criterion going on here … not at all. The competition takes place on an entirely different plane- of psychological drama, comfort, social binding, and legibility. Sometimes one of moral utilitarianism, but with the Catholic church in the shape it is in, one has to wonder. Hope comes into the mix as well- a topic Eric is particularly fond of, but which is yet again a criterion having nothing to do with truth, but with psychological efficacy. Power comes in to the mix as well- does the narrative effectively support the reigning social power structure (or revolt against it, depending on one's aims)?

    And the subject of moral success of a narrative is very interesting. As you point out, this is one of the criteria of the Christian narrative and one very dear to your heart. There is a lot to be said for tales, religious or otherwise, scaring us straight, inspiring us with good examples, etc. And it is fair to say also that ordinary people do, in a sort of democratic process, judge ideologies / myths/ narratives by their moral consequences. That was one aspect of the reformation, as well as the Communism/Capitalism contest.

    So we prefer to live by one rather than another. That doesn't make either story true, really- just more socially effective and morally desirable. The latter is also contestable, since, as I have noted, communal narratives over time tend to take on the moral tone of their populations, rather than the reverse. The problem with Islam is probably not mostly the doctrines themselves. Historically in some eras, and in the Sufi branch, the moral tone is relatively positive and mild. But Islam originated and exists now in heavily patriarchial cultures, giving it a very oppressive cast. And historically, one can make the case that its descent from its golden age happened by being totally overwhelmed by the Mongol invasions- something that the Europeans didn't have to face, (other than the Russians, who were also then culturally backward relative to Europe), among many other differing circumstances.

    Are morally positive narratives effective if one doesn't “believe” in their entire context and claims- if one is not immersed? Many people in the West gained a great deal from the example of Gandhi, not to mention Buddha, while not taking on much else of their systems, some aspects of which are toxic. So I think the a la acarte method is one that works pretty well, and better all the time as we become a global humanity.


  16. Darrell says:


    Just because you have a narrative (philosophical naturalism) doesn't mean you or it is reasonable either. Who has even been arguing such? No one.

    What is “true” and how we consider that question is of great importance and what I’m asserting is that it most certainly means more than what is merely empirically true.


Comments are closed.