Is there a god? The simplicity of the question shrouds the complexity of the answer. Perhaps more importantly, the complexity of the answer shields those who would rather not wrestle with the natural follow-up question: If so, then what? In this day and age, these questions are more important than ever.
In his gripping memoir The Great Good Thing, Andrew Klavan recounts his lifelong journey of addressing both questions. He began the journey a secular Jew upset with his family’s religious formalities that were devoid of divine meaning; he finished it a fully converted and baptized Christian. Along the way, he encountered numerous ups and downs with his family, his career as a writer, and his mental health. His life experiences and reflection led him to a series of epiphanies that left him believing not only in God, but in the Christian God of divine revelation.
Philosophers have attempted to prove or disprove the existence of God for ages. One of the most famous examples is Aristotle’s “Unmoved Mover” concept, the idea that if every action is a reaction to something else, something must have initiated the first action, and that something is God.
Klavan takes a different approach. Coming out of a deep depression cured by Freudian psychology, Klavan began to read the works of prominent atheists because he felt indebted to Sigmund Freud, an atheist himself. However, he didn’t find their arguments convincing because they hinged upon constructing morality as a mere duty to advance human kind for its own sake. In Klavan’s view, it makes no sense to sacrifice one’s self for another human being just for the sake of doing so. If there is no God, then why not always do what is in your own self-interest?
Klavan then came across the first arguments for atheism he found convincing: the works of the Marquis de Sade. The Marquis de Sade made no effort to explain morality. In his worldview, there is no God, and therefore humans should pursue anything that brings them pleasure regardless of its impact on others. Klavan found this to be a logically consistent representation of atheism, and he says the only leap of faith he ever took was in denying this worldview as truth. He believes in God because he believes in absolute morality. And after much thought and reflection, he ultimately decided that he believes in the Christian God – a God of love and mercy.
I’m a frequent listener of Klavan’s podcast. He has repeatedly said that people can be moral without believing in God, but that their worldview makes no sense; it can’t be explained down to the ground.
I’m not sure I agree. As my Catholic Ethics class would tell you, there are five reasons why we have morality: to keep society from falling apart, to promote human flourishing, to ameliorate human suffering, to resolve conflicts in just and orderly ways, and to reward the good and punish the bad. Even if there were no God, each of these would seem like worthy goals in and of themselves.
Without morality, society falls apart. And a man cannot succeed nearly as well on his own as he can within a well functioning society. Therefore, it can be said that it is well within man’s self-interest to practice moral actions.
But let’s pretend for a minute that everyone in society except for you practices moral actions. Would it then be within your self-interest to exempt yourself and pursue pleasure at the expense of others? Aristotle would say no. According to him, you must pursue objective elements to be truly happy. He also said that of all things, pleasure is most likely to lead you astray. This is easy to imagine. Would you ultimately be happier if you blew everything on sex, drugs, and alcohol or if you settled down, had a family, and lived an otherwise moral life? The moral life is the happy life.
For these reasons, I’m not convinced that the logic of morality without God doesn’t “work down to the ground.” That doesn’t mean I’m not sympathetic to Klavan’s arguments, but I don’t think the choice is as stark as either the Marquis de Sade’s hell on Earth or Christianity.
I even got into it on Twitter with Austin Petersen – the former Libertarian Party candidate for president – over the subject of religious impact on society, and I defended Christianity. Read through the link, but his argument that a secular culture could be just as cohesive and moral as a Christian one didn’t hold weight with me either. While I believe that man can individually reason to correct morality on his own, I think it’s evident that Christian cultures have been more moral and prosperous over time than non-Christian cultures. And secondly, even non-Christian westerners live under a Christian worldview because Christianity built the west.
These are important discussions that Americans need to continue to have as we move forward into the 21st century. In his podcast, Klavan has said that he believes a religious and moral revival is in order if our nation is to be great once again. While we might not be able to logic our way there, I can’t say I disagree.