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God or the Greater Good

by Chauncey Tinker – 20 Aug 2019

A recurring theme among many on the right is that we need a revival of Christianity in order to save the West. For example, this article by one Greg Sheridan recently appeared in the Spectator:

The West cannot survive without a re-energised belief in Christianity

Mr Sheridan claims that:

atheism is a faith like any other, only less reasonable

He conflates atheism and “liberalism” but of course atheism is not a belief system, it is the absence of a belief system, and atheists are not by any means all “liberals” (a code word for left leaning authoritarians). A person can have the same traditionalist values as a Christian without believing in a God, contrary to what Mr Sheridan implies in the article.

A well known figure who also argues for the revival of faith is Dr Jordan Peterson, who has repeatedly claimed that there is nothing to stop a drift to nihilism when people abandon a belief in God. In a discussion with Dr Peterson, Ben Shapiro asks:

[@5:54] There’s something deeply wrong here … most of us don’t know or trust our neighbours, all this stuff speaks to a dissolution of the social fabric, so why is that happening?

I have long thought one of the problems in the modern West that has seldom been identified is the breakdown of community that resulted from the invention of the motor car. When cars became widely available, people began to travel greater distances to seek work. The young go off to university often far away from their childhood home, and many end up finding work far away from home as well. How many of us even know our neighbours these days, let alone socialize with them?

In days gone by, the church was a place to socialize as well as follow religion, now all we have is pubs and special interest clubs of one sort or another, and even pubs are in decline. The church was a place where people from different walks of life came together, but nowadays people mainly socialize through work, pastimes, and online, and so people from different walks of life tend to socialize less often if at all. Could this fragmentation of society partly explain the polarization that has occurred in politics as well perhaps?

Mr Sheridan writing at the Spectator blames the deterioration in moral values in part on the emergence of the internet, in particular social media. What he fails to notice is that, thanks to the internet, growing numbers of people (myself included) are now spending an increasing amount of their spare time listening to people discussing subjects such as morality and religion. This is no small phenomenon either, a recent debate between Sam Harris (an atheist) and Jordan Peterson on these subjects achieved over 2 million hits. Another video that features Dr Peterson talking about his book 12 Rules For Life has had an astonishing 4 million hits. Although Dr Peterson may be arguing for a revival of faith in his lectures, paradoxically in his 12 Rules For Life book he does not argue from a religious perspective at all, but in it he gives an entirely rational explanation as to why he thinks we should follow his rules.

Those (including Dr Peterson) who argue for a revival of faith often take a dim view of the reasoning power of ordinary people. In his debate with Ben Shapiro linked to above, Dr Peterson implied that ordinary people are not capable of following rational arguments about morality, and he implied that the irrationality of religious faith was somehow necessary for those not as intellectually gifted as the atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris:

[@1:00:50] That’s right, they’re not going to turn into fully fledged humanistic, positively thinking enlightenment types merely as a consequence of abandoning their religious superstitions

Rational arguments for morality are not so hard to make in fact, I mentioned above already Dr Peterson’s own arguments in his book 12 Rules For Life, which are not terribly hard for anyone to follow.

Incidentally there is another problem with this argument that we need religious stories to explain to ordinary people how they should behave, namely that religious texts often seem to require more learned explanations from religious scholars to make sense of them. There are sometimes disagreements even between the religious scholars! Anybody who has studied the chaos of the early reformation will know that the Christian texts in particular are open to different interpretations (note carefully that I am specifically talking about Christianity here). Some particularly alarming events in a town called Münster during the early reformation were described in this rather entertaining account (I don’t know the exact degree of historical accuracy in this account, but certainly events of this nature did go on in those times):

Hardcore History 48 – Prophets of Doom

The difficulties we often encounter when trying to interpret the Bible were again I think illustrated in a debate we had here (last year) about the meaning of the story where Jesus intervened in the stoning of the adulteress (see also comments below the post):

Was Jesus Against The Death Penalty?

Anyway I have digressed somewhat here, I said incidentally above because I am not particularly trying to make arguments AGAINST religious belief in general in this post, as will hopefully become clearer as I move towards my conclusion. My point was simply that those arguing that ONLY religious beliefs can provide moral guidance to the majority have that difficulty, the opaqueness of much religious guidance, to overcome.

Returning to the subject at hand, I think the crux of a rational argument for morality has to introduce the idea of the greater good. If we ignore the greater good, then the effects may not be immediately apparent to us (although we may feel some suppressed anxiety, some “niggling doubt” may persist in our minds about our actions or inaction). When we ourselves commit a sin against the greater good we may even feel some guilt that will trouble us for longer than we anticipated.

Ben Shapiro in the above mentioned discussion with Dr Jordan Peterson claims that an argument about the greater good could be used to justify the atrocities committed by the Communists and National Socialists in the last century:

[@56:25] You could easily make the case for the greater good on behalf of human flourishing, I mean Hitler did.

However I think we can just as easily counter this by saying that the arguments used by such ideologically driven dictators were not rational and didn’t in any sense lead to a benefit for the greater good, because of course millions of people died during the course of the last century, and many more suffered terribly, during devastating conflicts as a consequence of those dictators’ actions. Perhaps it’s easier to see the flaws in those ideologies with our benefit of hindsight in this new millenium, but we do have the benefit of that hindsight. We have also the benefit of the knowledge of more recent history such as the devastating economic collapse of Venezuela under the rule of Maduro.

Communism has been exposed for the flawed ideology it is, and now that we are seeing a resurgence in the ideas behind communism in the West, and increasingly violent attempts to re-establish this ideology by force, then surely it is obvious to the rational people in society that this resurgence must be opposed: FOR THE GREATER GOOD. When the antifa blackshirts are wielding their hammers, and throwing their milkshakes laced with cement, to oppose them requires risking our own personal safety, and yet we see both atheists and followers of religions standing shoulder to shoulder to take those very risks. If we stay at home hiding underneath our bedsheets we know well enough that worse consequences await the wider society in the not too distant future, and our society may well descend into chaos and even violent conflict that probably will in any case affect us personally.

Another point that I haven’t seen made anywhere before is that, thanks to ever increasing automation, we simply have more time on our hands in the modern world. Perhaps religious beliefs were more useful in an age when there simply wasn’t time for the ordinary man to stop what he was doing and think deep philosophical thoughts. Nowadays we not only have more time on our hands, we also have the means to propagate ideas and arguments in a split second right around the world. Surely with such incredible tools at our disposal, as are provided to us by the mass communication revolution, in tandem with the greater amount of spare time that most people now have, we can truly move towards a more rational age.

All that said, I believe people should be free to follow religions as long as those religions don’t encourage their followers to infringe on the personal safety, rights and liberties of others. As long as religions are indeed encouraging their followers to act for the greater good of society, then I see no reason to object to people following those religions.

People are social animals, it is simply unnatural to live our lives in the pursuit of entirely selfish ends. Although many people do live in this way, I don’t believe it is the road to fulfilment in life, and such a lifestyle is indeed at the heart of the decline of Western civilization. In summary my own conclusion is that what is most important is that regardless of whether we believe in a God or not , the important thing is that we rediscover a sense that we are part of something larger than ourselves (the Greater Good). We should be mindful of the fact that there is more to life than simply the pursuit of our own personal interests and pleasures. We should not ignore our niggling concerns about trends in wider society but take action, join the political struggle, otherwise eventually things will fall apart once again, as they did too many times in the last century.

ELSEWHERE ON THE WEB:

Dr Jordan Peterson in debates with Sam Harris (an atheist who argues the case against religion).

Sam Harris & Jordan Peterson – Vancouver – 1 (CC: Arabic & Spanish)

From Wikipedia, a description of the events in Münster in 1534-35 that I mentioned briefly above:

Münster rebellion

 

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