Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Freedom, with and without God

Banksy westbank wall balloon girl1

[Warning: very long read :)]

A video that has been burning a hole in my pocket since last November is the recording of the opening evening of the Berlin Courtyard of the Gentiles, that I already wrote about in a previous post.1 While I focused on Cardinal Ravasi’s talk on beauty and art there, today I’d like to cover the opening session’s discussion of morality, which was conducted under the title “Freedom, with and without God” and where Dostoevsky’s controversial dictum: “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” provided the initial impetus.

To open the evening’s dialogue, Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi starts with a quote from Albert Camus’ The Plague, which says: “Can one be a saint without God? That’s the problem, in fact the only problem, I’m up against today.” and then proceeds to set the scene by being critical of the obstacles to open and fruitful dialogue between those who hold religious beliefs and those who do not:2
“These days a kind of fog engulfs both true religion and rigorous atheism. This is more of a sociological than an ideological phenomenon. It is an indifference, a superficiality, a banality, a sarcastic derision. In this atmosphere of indifference, mythos rules over logos, the pamphlet replaces the analytical essay, a fundamentalist approach is stronger than a critical weighing of alternative positions, jeering conflict is valued over a calm exchange of ideas, faith gives way to a spiritual collage. Syncretism uses a spiritual menu from which to compose an a la carte offering from which everyone can pick and choose what happens to suit him or her. These pathologies both of unbelief and of religion can benefit from a response in the form of the following dialogue.”
Ravasi then acknowledges the differences of the two positions and proposes that they nonetheless share a common element:
“In fact, the two logoi, the two argumentative positions that will be presented next, have an intrinsic difference, an objective difference. The secular non-believer takes the individual as their point of reference - the subject who seeks their own, personal and social, ethical orientation. The religious person, on the other hand, is convinced that truth, nature and moral order precede and exceed us. To use a famous image from Plato’s Phaedros, these realities are like a plane that stretches out in front of the chariot of the human soul, which proceeds through it towards discovering its objective foundations. A first point of agreement between these obviously differing perspectives - one which is predominantly subjective and the other objective - could be the thoughts of St. Augustine, who claimed that in each one of us there is an innate, original knowledge of good and evil, which enables the capacity for moral judgment. […] A reference to conscience is not a optional call to situational subjectivism, but a return to this radical anthropological structure, which is our conscience. At the same time we have to constantly bear in mind the limitedness of the human subject inherent in its being a creature.”
The opening remarks are then followed by two talks, one by a non-believer and the other by a believer. The first speaker was Prof. Herbert Schnädelbach, an agnostic philosopher whose work has included social philosophy and theories of rationality, epistemology, free will and values. Here Schnädelbach kicks off with an anecdote:
“A friend of mine, who is also a philosopher, said: “This sentence should be place on a list of the most stupid sentences ever - and fairly high up. Even in the absence of the existence of God, I am not allowed to break a red light, to withhold the payment of my taxes or to hit my wife, if that were even physically possible for me. And it is irrational to think that all of this were permitted without God.””
And proceeds to argue that the Dostoevsky quote is meant to teach us a fear of atheism and of atheists, and a fear of what supposedly follows: senselessness and anarchy. Dostoevsky’s quote implies that all rules and norms cease to have power in the absence of God. However:
“we live in a whole network of rules that we adhere to because we consider following them to be rational (e.g., the highway code), or because we want to avoid penalties imposed if they are broken (e.g., paying taxes). I can’t imagine though that Dostoevsky would not have know this. [...] Dostoevsky claims that reason is an insufficient basis for our normative culture, that its normative power is too weak, that a more resilient basis is needed to hold up their edifice and that this foundation can only be God.”
This leads Schnädelbach to asking whether “God is even a suitable foundation for norms and who this God is?” and to drawing a parallel with Plato’s dialogue about the nature of piety in his Euthyphro: ““Is the pious loved by the gods because it is pious? Or is it pious because it is loved by the gods?” (10a). By analogy, Schnädelbach asks “is what is good and right for humans, good and right because God commanded it, or did God command it because it is good and right for humans?” and argues that there are two possible answers, using the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament as context:
  1. In the first case, God is sovereign and can freely choose what is good and right and no one can hold him to account. This is a voluntaristic image of God, which is closely related both to fundamentalism and to normative nihilism. They are two faces of the same coin. They rely on the same model of thinking of the all or nothing: either there is an ultimate justification or there is no justification, which is why systematic philosophers, at least since Descartes and until Hegel, have always looked for an absolute first justification for knowledge and claimed that the alternative is skepticism.
  2. In the second case, if God commands what is good and right, he is not an unaccountable tyrant, who could, at will, one day, make law what is evil and unjust. He commands what every person can see to be good and right with their own, healthy reason. This makes commandments 4-10 merely God teaching the People of Israel what they themselves could have discovered with their own reason, and the same would hold true for all of humanity too. This God, who commands what is rational because it is rational, and for no other reason, is the God of the Johannine Logos.”
Schnädelbach then proceeds to argue that only one of the above scenarios is problematic:
“If one assumes a sovereign God who commands without it being possible to ask them for reasons, i.e., where norms are divorced from reason, and if one then denies their existence, then truly everything is permitted. Then our normative culture would have its foundations removed. This danger does not exist, however, if the God who commands what is right and just, because it is right and just for humans, does not exist, since there is still the chance that people will discover it with their own reason and will make it hold even without God’s teaching.”
And, finally, the argument is brought to its logical conclusion, which, along the above lines or reasoning leads to a redundancy of God:
“Why should the practical reason of people and their free consent to what they discover to be normative in the process of rational discourse not be sufficient? Admittedly, this does presuppose the mutual recognition of discourse participants as free and equal partners, and their uninhibited participation in processes where public will is built and set. My final questions is: what could an transcendent God add at this point?”
I have to say that I find Schnädelbach’s reasoning very clear and compelling. There is a basis for morality derived from reason and consensus that is well-founded without the need for God. As a Christian I see this is as being extremely positive, and consistent with my belief in a loving God, who does not make a pursuit of what is good contingent on a person believing in His existence. There’d be more to say regarding the idea of a God who “can freely choose what is good and right,” but I’ll leave that for another time :).

Returning to the Berlin event, the second speaker of the evening was Prof. Hans Joas, a Catholic sociologist, who has worked in areas like social philosophy and the history of values. Joas first appeals for specificity, arguing that there isn’t a single religious or even Christian position, like there isn’t a homogeneous secular or atheist position and that “the level of discussion on this topic rises as the level of abstraction is lowered.” He then proceeds to present his view of the role played by morality in atheism:
“In the 20th century the vast majority of thinkers and writers who have self-identified as atheists did so for strong moral reasons. Often their arguments against faith were moral arguments: a focus on the afterlife would limit one in working for the good here on earth, one would do good only in the hope of a reward in the afterlife, or, a focus on the afterlife inhibits living this life to the full. Religions lead to unnecessary feelings of guilt, risk leading to hypocrisy in interpersonal relationships, or to a denial of one’s corporeality. For those who thought or think in this way, the absence of God is even a heightening of morality. This has to be taken seriously and I have high esteem for philosophers or writers who thought in this way, such as Ludwig Feuerbach or George Eliot. These are people who understood an exceptionally great deal about faith and who were exceptionally serious about going beyond what religion and Christianity had to offer.

For us Christians, it is necessary to look at the history of these views as a history of our failures. These weren’t lunatics, but people who understood certain things very precisely, and it was a failure of Christians to present their faith to them. An example is also the strong secularization of the workers’ movement in 19th century Germany, instead of its alignment with the Church. When asked, some of its members said that they didn’t go to church because they didn’t have the right clothes … This is an actual quote from a survey of Protestant pastors about dwindling numbers at the time. What shocked me here is that the pastor in question didn’t think, “What can I change about the Sunday service, so that people don’t stay away for a stupid thing like clothes.”

The atheism that had such strong moral motives in the beginning, has in some instances also degenerated, as in the case of the German Democratic Republic (GDR), where its leading philosopher claimed that the supreme moral point of reference was the wellbeing of the GDR. And today, there is often a tiredness on the side of non-militant atheism and a rigidity on the militant side. The first challenge, in my opinion, is to reopen a dialogue between believers and non-believers and a mutual awareness.”
Joas then moves on to distancing himself from the Dostoevskian quote and from belief in God being a prerequisite for morality, and instead argues for a developmental and experiential basis, from which God can then be sought:
“I don’t agree with the statement “Values need God.” Many findings in the context of developmental psychology and cultural anthropology point to another source, which has nothing whatsoever to do with religion, and which consists in experiences of reciprocity. Already games played by children point to fundamental rules that underlie human coexistence. Reflecting on them points to the value of justice, to the value of fairness in interpersonal relationships. At the same time, such relationships are under threat of falling apart if one of the participants chooses not to adhere to the rules, e.g., when these are to their disadvantage.

It is therefore useful to think about what it could be that would make humans adhere to moral rules, other than rational appeal, and what could make them adhere to them even when these are to their short-term detriment. What motivates the start of moral reasoning, what makes one start thinking about moral questions, what makes one adhere to shared moral rules? This still doesn’t bring us to God though. I believe we arrive at strong values, at intense convictions of there being such a thing as the good. This can be rooted in positive experiences, such as an encounter with someone who lives in an exemplary way, or in negative experiences, such as wanting to make sure that something doesn’t ever happen again the way that it happened before. For example, on German soil, National Socialism was an obvious, direct experience of evil itself, without the need for rational underpinnings. Then, a long journey can begin that can lead to an understanding how God relates to these values and rules.”
The position of Joas is very clear here: morality played a strong role in early atheism and is in no way in need of divine justification. Even the simple experiences of children lead to a recognition of the good of justice and fairness. My takeaway here is the importance of the emphasis of our common ground, which is what Joas chose to do here - an emphasis of the role of experience and the innate ability to identify good and evil, with only a hint of how God relates to morality for a Christian.

In the discussion that followed, Joas returned to the role of reason in morality, and emphasized the psychological perspective:
“Many things appear as obviously good or evil to us; reasons for why that is are needed when we encounter others who don’t share these evidential experiences with us and challenge us to explain why we value certain things. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that whether something is good or evil is a matter that does not require rational justification to ourselves - it is obvious to us, and even in the face of counterarguments from others, instead of changing our minds about what appeared good to us from the start, we will look for reasons to support our original intuition. Note that this is a psychological, not a philosophical argument.”
The final contribution to the discussion was Schnädelbach’s sharing his personal experience of what it is like to be a - as he self-labeled himself - “pious atheist”:
“I have great respect for personal piety and for religious experiences, but personally I have to say that I can’t connect these to the God of the Bible - neither the Old nor the New Testament. At times, when something very good happens, I feel the desire to thank someone. But whom? And when something bad happens, I feel - like Job - the urge to argue with someone. But there is no one. I think though that this is the point that makes me who I am - a pious atheist.”
And to conclude the evening, Cardinal Ravasi was invited to share his thoughts, which he prefixed with saying that he is resisting the temptation to join the conversation between Schnädelbach and Joas or even to summarize it. Instead, he decided to present his understanding of the verb “to know”:
“In Hebrew the verb is yada, which has the same meaning as the New Testament Greek word genoskein, which reflects very well the polymorphism of anthropological knowledge, of human knowledge. Knowledge, according to this view, which is a symbolical view that is important also in the current dialectic or counter-positioning of faith and science, arrives along four ways. There is first the intellective, rational way. Added to it is the volitive way; decision, the willed intensity of knowing. The third line then is that of affectivity, of feeling. And the last, the fourth way, is that of action - knowing, which, e.g., in the Bible also means a completion of the sexual act. In other words, an encounter between two people in the fullness also of corporeality.

At this point, knowledge arrives in diverse ways, and each of these ways may lead to different stages. However, all of the stages are necessary. Hence the knowledge of the horizon of God, of transcendence, is a knowledge that has to pass through all of this, this whole itinerary. Therefore, the scientific way is certainly also relevant, as is a well-elaborated theology. But what is also indispensable is a knowledge of the esthetic kind, also of the spiritual kind, of a mystical kind. And this is why individual concepts and individual disciplines reveal themselves to be insufficient if they don’t travel along all the four ways.

This is also true of human experience itself, in general; To know a reality fully, it is not enough to only have knowledge of the phenomenon, knowledge of the context, knowledge of the “documentation.” A knowledge of love is also necessary, a knowledge that is substantially narrative. This knowledge that is also historical is the one that predisposes us to the ultimate foundations, to extreme questions.”
Since this post is massively long as is, I’ll refrain from attempting to present my own understanding of this topic, and will defer to do so at a later time. In any case, my intention with this post was just to share with you the above conversation among Cardinal Ravasi and Profs. Joas and Schnädelbach, which was such a joy to follow and whose availability only in German has been bugging me over this last half year.

1 It may come as a surprise to long-time readers of this blog, but I am actually following up on a strand from a previous post that I said I’d follow up on :).
2 All quotes from the event here are my crude translations from the evening’s recording in German.