Thursday, August 26, 2010

For Goodness' Sake

So I went back to the beginning of Frank Schaeffer's Patience With God. He says that when he plays with his five-month-old granddaughter Lucy,
I find myself praying, "Lord, may none but loving arms ever hold her." This prayer has nothing to do with theology. I'd pray it whether I believed there is a God or not, for the same reason that when I'm looking at the view of the river that flows past her home I sometimes exclaim, "That's beautiful!" out loud, even when I'm alone [ix].
Maybe it's the same reason, but what is the reason? Schaeffer doesn't like the New Atheists any more than he likes fundamentalists, but New Atheist Daniel Dennett has written that, after a sudden health crisis that nearly killed him,
I saw with greater clarity than ever before in my life that when I say "Thank goodness!" this is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!" (We atheists don't believe that there is any God to thank.) I really do mean thank goodness! There is a lot of goodness in this world, and more goodness every day, and this fantastic human-made fabric of excellence is genuinely responsible for the fact that I am alive today. It is a worthy recipient of the gratitude I feel today, and I want to celebrate that fact here and now.

To whom, then, do I owe a debt of gratitude? To the cardiologist who has kept me alive and ticking for years, and who swiftly and confidently rejected the original diagnosis of nothing worse than pneumonia. To the surgeons, neurologists, anesthesiologists, and the perfusionist, who kept my systems going for many hours under daunting circumstances. ...

The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.
The trouble is, "goodness" is no more a real thing than, say, God. It's an impersonal abstraction, and you can neither thank it, nor owe it a debt. All those people who kept Dennett alive are not "goodness." "Goodness" didn't give us Randy Newman's music, nor fresh water nor fair elections (do those exist?), any more than God did. By doing good things, I am not trying to "repay my debt to goodness." At most I'm repaying other people who've done good things, but if I create goodness, I do it for its own sake, because creating goodness is both subjectively pleasant to do and objectively useful.

More serious, though, there's widespread disagreement as to what "goodness" is. Dennett appears to be blissfully (and remarkably, for a professional philosopher) unaware of this. Even among atheists there's no consensus. Dennett thinks it would be good to "cage" and "quarantine" theists who get in the way of his scientific triumphalism. Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris think it's good to kill ragheads. Ayn Rand thought that selfishness (as she very tendentiously defined it) is the paramount human good. Once theists get beyond generalities like loving and serving their gods, they too get bogged down in details. "Kill them all, let God sort them out" is a good for many theists. Divorce? Homosexuality? Wealth? Family? Believers prefer to sweep these issues under the rug, but they shouldn't be allowed to get away with it. But neither should atheists.

It's natural for human beings to personify the impersonal, and there's no harm in saying "Thank goodness" (though I don't think I agree with Dennett that the phrase is not merely a euphemism for "Thank God!", any more than "God" is a euphemism for "goodness," though some believers use it that way). It seems reasonable to me to want to thank someone for good or beautiful or pleasurable things in our lives that don't come from specific, identifiable persons -- but there's no one and nothing to thank for the beauty of a sunset or the river that flows past your house. "I prefer real good to symbolic good," Dennett declares, but "goodness"as he's using the word is symbolic good. Ah, my fellow atheists are such an embarrassment to me sometimes.

So back to Schaeffer. I'm not a parent or a grandparent, but I don't need to be to feel the same way about babies and young children, about human happiness in all its fragility. I hope too that such happiness and beauty will last, though I also know it won't. (In the long run, John Maynard Keynes said, we are all dead.) But the last person I'd ask to preserve these things is the god Schaeffer prays to, a being who kills babies and children and adults and old people without mercy, often stretching out their suffering to a horrifying extent. (Schaeffer, who survived childhood polio, knows this very personally.) It's easy to feel gratitude toward a god when you're dandling a healthy, happy baby; not so easy when you're burying that baby after it dies of one of the diseases to which your god made babies so vulnerable. It's easy to be dazzled by Nature when you see a picturesque landscape; not so easy when Nature rears up and drowns you and your whole family. I've mentioned before my agreement with the Peter De Vries character who'd rather deal with an empty universe than with a universe under the sway of an omnipotent, omniscient Someone who sees horrible things happening and does nothing about them.

Schaeffer declares at the outset in Patience with God that he's writing for people who believe in God already, but are put off by nasty fundamentalists, bible-thumpers, preachers of hate. Preachers like Jesus, if he was paying attention. It seems that he's going for a feel-good religion that won't make many demands on him -- sort of like Philip Kitcher, an equally moderate, middle-of-the-road atheist. That's fine with me to a point: I too want to feel good, and I want everyone else to feel good too. But in the world Frank Schaeffer and I share, life isn't always like that. Whether you believe in gods or not, it seems to me that your engagement with life has to address the bad things as well as the good, the pain as well as the pleasure, the misery as well as the joy. I'm now curious to see if Schaeffer will grapple with the wholeness of life in this book, but it doesn't look promising. His main approach so far is to blame other people (and the occasional marginal biblical book) for everything that goes wrong, but any half-trained philosopher could tell him that won't work.