In defense of religion, chapter VI

In this chapter, I look at the relationship between God and morality.  First, I consider God’s nature as unqualified goodness.  Then I compare theist and atheist ideas of human dignity, authority, and sex.  This is the next-to-last chapter.

In defense of religion VI:  Value, Morality, and God

The idea of God allows us to make sense of otherwise puzzling aspects of positive existence, particularly the fact that it seems to be neither univocal nor straightforwardly analogous.  God performs the same function in the realm of practical reason, where the relevant quality is not being, but value or goodness.  We can ask of value the same thing we asked of actuality:  what do valuable things have in common?  What makes something good?  Of course, I should point out at once that by “goodness” and “value”, I mean the value something has in itself, not the value something might have for us as a means to some other goal.  Things valuable in themselves may also be valuable for us, but the sign of intrinsic value is that we feel obliged to recognize the goodness of something whether or not it is of any use to us.

Being has at least three levels—material, vital, and mental—and value also has these levels.  At the material level, we have aesthetic value or beauty.  For living beings, there is the value of organisms achieving their own telos, i.e. health and vitality.  Mental existence has a different kind of teleology, and thus a different kind of goodness, because mental life is directed towards other beings, not to some purely immanent kind of completion.  Goodness for conscious beings means giving everything its due.  The most important virtues are the moral virtues that allow us to respond adequately to the value of other beings.  Just as in the case of actuality, univocal and proportionately analogical theories of goodness fail to explain the thing.  A good dog, a good novel, and a good neighbor don’t have a quality, the same for all of them, that makes them good.  Understanding “good” in an analogical sense is better; we could say that to be good means to fulfill one’s nature, whatever it is.  A good dog is one that fully executes canine nature, rather than imperfectly instantiating canine nature due to sickness, injury, isolation from the pack, or whatever.  Similarly, to be a good bridge, a good argument, or a good eye means having the relation of full execution to bridge, argument, or eye nature.  This is true as far as it goes, but value seems to have an element that cuts across natures.  It’s better to be a good dog than a bad dog, and better to be a good human than a bad human, but it’s also better to be a human than to be a dog.  We have no trouble making the latter comparison of value even though there’s no common nature to use as a reference.  If goodness were just proportionately analogous, all we could say about a dog that transformed into a human is that it got better by the standard of human nature but worse by the standard of dog nature.

So we need a third theory.  Inspired by its success in studying being, the religious mind naturally tries analogy by participation—we postulate a mode of being that would be unqualified goodness, and say that other things are good by participating in this type of goodness but to a limited extent.  Not surprisingly, unqualified being and unqualified goodness turn out to be the same thing, namely God.  This is because value is always associated with some form of actuality, while vice is always associated with the absence of something that should be present:  an incomplete execution of some nature, a failure of self-control, or a failure to fully recognize the value of something or someone.

Thus things are ultimately good by reference to God.  This does not mean that they are valuable only because God arbitrarily chooses to value them (although since He is unqualified goodness, we can be sure that He fully values all that is valuable).  It means that they are valuable insofar as they reflect His nature, insofar as they are “close” to Him.  On the one hand, the religious man values all good things for God’s sake; on the other hand, it is his knowledge of God that prompts him to see the intrinsic goodness of all God’s creatures.  An injustice against any creature is a mistreatment of a divine manifestation and hence an offense against God.  Furthermore, since all beings are linked by drawing their existence and goodness from a single Source, a sin against one being can be seen as a sin against them all.  From this intuition comes the conviction that a single sin can separate a man from nature, society, and God.  The intuition that all sin offends God also gives believers a stronger motive to avoid “victimless” crimes like non-malicious lies, use of pornography, masturbation, or disrespect toward the dead.  An atheist may realize the immorality of these things, but he would not have the same incentive to avoid them, because, after all, he wouldn’t see how they harm anyone.  The believer’s love for God gives urgency to all aspects of morality.

In Chapter II, we introduced the idea of the holy—holy things attain a higher level of value by the fact that they are uniquely close to God and because they have the power to show forth His presence.  This idea of sacredness is the main thing that distinguishes religious from secular morality.  Where the two clash, it’s always because religious men and women identify something as sacred, and their secular colleagues can make no sense of this.  One way to test the plausibility of theism versus atheism is to compare the moral intuitions fostered by each and ask which seems more adequate and wiser.

First, religious reason and secular reason differ in how they explain the special value of human beings, i.e. what reason is given for the “dignity of man”.  From the religious point of view, this is simple:  the greatness of man is that he is ordered directly to God, and his fulfillment is to know and love God.  Lesser beings can be fulfilled by finite goods.  An animal with food, warmth, mates, and children is completely satisfied; if it knows how to procure these things, it will have no further curiosity about the world.  Human beings have a higher calling.  Our minds are open to all of existence, even those parts—like distant galaxies—that don’t affect us.  Our intellects search for the reason behind everything.  Morally, we feel obliged to respect all true values; we would acknowledge the rights of extraterrestrials if we ever found them.  We might violate those rights, but then we would be sinning, and we would know it.  Now, if an animal got nutrition from anything with some certain chemical, we would say that that chemical itself was a part of, or a prerequisite to, that animal’s flourishing.  Since humans recognize goodness in all its forms, the goodness we are ordered to isn’t just some aspect of goodness, but goodness itself, i.e. unqualified goodness which is God.

The atheist also recognizes this radical openness of human beings.  However, he can only state it negatively.  He sees that no finite good exhausts man’s capacity for allegiance, but he knows of no other kind of good.  Therefore, he expresses the intuition by saying that man’s dignity is that he has no fulfillment.  He has no fixed nature to fulfill.  Through his own will, he creates his own self, his own values, and his own meanings.  His dignity lies in his indeterminacy and freedom.  Justice between persons is reduced to giving equal weight to each person’s will.  There is something to the atheist’s idea of human dignity, but it is insufficient—it reduces a human being to his capacity for free choice, while taking away the idea of objective value that makes our choices meaningful.  The religious man knows the intuition that the atheist is getting at, and with the language of God, the religious man can express it more adequately.

Second, religion deepens a person’s idea of authority.  For the religious man, all legitimate authority is delegated from God.  When a man obeys his ruler, he is really obeying God.  Without a divine commission, what right would any man have to rule over any other?  To express it concisely, authority is sacred.  It doesn’t matter whether the authority is monarchical, aristocratic, or democratic; however the ruler or rulers are chosen, their authority comes from God.  Whatever the majority thinks, these rulers are bound by the laws of the One who grants them their legitimacy.  The atheist, of course, rejects the idea that government is in any way sacred, but in doing so, he finds it impossible to maintain the idea of authority at all.  He invents devices like the “social contract”, which justify government by invoking the implicit consent of the governed or appealing to their enlightened self-interest.  In either case, the reality of authority is lost.  Saying a people should obey because they have (implicitly) decided to obey is not a reason.  Saying they should obey because it’s in their interest is a reason, but a practical rather than a moral one.  It doesn’t capture the distinct nature of authority, which is a kind of moral obligation.

Third, religions assert that sexual intercourse belongs to God in a special way.  This is the act whereby new humans are made; it is a portal through which the divine creative power replenishes the human world.  Religious men and women feel a particular awe for everything touching on the sex act.  It is a sacred thing, and religious sexual morality is largely an expression of the religious imperative to keep the sacred unpolluted by the profane.  The simultaneous religious and sexual overtones are perfectly captured in the virtue called purity.  The pure man and woman see the sexual realm as belonging to God in a direct way.   They do not presume to enter this realm without the divine permission of a wedding ceremony.  Once married, they refuse to instrumentalize the act by frustrating its natural end—it is not for us mortals to pick out bits and pieces of a sacred act to suit our fancies.  Of course, nothing infuriates the atheist more than this idea of sex, which he doesn’t understand at all.  Sex is not sacred, he says, and thinking that it is just makes people miserable by keeping them from harmless satisfactions.  However, in “liberating” sex, the atheist inevitably trivializes it.  Why limit oneself to one partner?  Why think the act creates any kind of bond, any more than having someone scratch your back creates a bond?  Why not engage in the act in public for the whole profane world to see?  Surely there is more to sex than the atheist allows.

These are the main differences between the religious and the atheist moral visions.  In each case, the religious vision seems to more fully capture our moral intuitions about the world.  The atheist vision, by contrast, seems gravely inadequate.  I would not say that this is a proof that the former is true, and the latter is false, but it is important collaborating evidence.

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