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Why do so many atheists demand free will, but curse the hand that grants it?

A few days ago, a reader sent me the link to this CNN story, which in turn was about a post on the CNN ireport.com site, titled, "Why I Raise My Children Without God". The author is a mother of two teenagers who lives in Texas. Her essay is one of the most popular pieces on the site, with about 750,000 views in less than two weeks.

I think her post is worth reading for at least two reasons. First, despite a fairly obvious lack of knowledge of, say, countless centuries of Western and Christian thought, philosophy, theology, and spirituality, she does focus on a key issue: the mystery of evil. In a section titled, "God does not protect the innocent", she writes:

He does not keep our children safe. As a society, we stand up and speak for those who cannot. We protect our little ones as much as possible. When a child is kidnapped, we work together to find the child. We do not tolerate abuse and neglect. Why can’t God, with all his powers of omnipotence, protect the innocent?

Much could be said; in fact, countless Christian (and Jewish, etc.) thinkers have addressed these and related questions. The author, again, seems obvious to the fact that the Christian tradition (by which I mean Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant) has always been keenly aware of the dark and difficult challenge of evil. (The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the rather startling statement, "There is not a single aspect of the Christian message that is not in part an answer to the question of evil."[par 309]) But, to put it rather simply, the tradition recognizes that the assertions, "This is evil" and "That is good", are appeals to a transcendent truth and a universal source of morality. The author assumes the existence of such, and in doing so thinks she has somehow trumped belief in God. But appealing, implicitly or otherwise, to what is supposedly obvious—don't murder the innocent, protect the young, fight abuse—means, logically, that there is a common, all-encompassing source of moral truth. Yet morality must be, in the end, relational and personal; we all recognize that to say, "That rock is acting badly by sliding down the hill onto the road" is meaningless. If humans possess consciousness, will, and the ability to recognize right and wrong, and if humans should all recognize "A" as good and "Z" as evil, then one must ask, "Is it possible for an impersonal, non-conscious universe to invest all humans with personal, conscious knowledge about the morality of actions?"

Viewed from another perspective, what if she were to focus on the good instead of on the bad? What if someone asked, "Why did God make us so that we believe murder is bad and love is good? Why would he force us into such a rigid notion of good and evil?" Or, better yet, "Why even worry about what is 'good'"? If we are, in fact, the products of an impersonal, materialist universe (that is, without any transcendent orientation or spiritual qualities), what are "good" and "evil" but limited, subjective constructs that can change according to human need, desire, and whim? Yet if there is anything the author knows for certain, it is what is good, bad, unfair, and forth. For instance, she writes:

A child should make moral choices for the right reasons. Telling him that he must behave because God is watching means that his morality will be externally focused rather than internally structured. It’s like telling a child to behave or Santa won’t bring presents. When we take God out of the picture, we place responsibility of doing the right thing onto the shoulders of our children. No, they won’t go to heaven or rule their own planets when they die, but they can sleep better at night. They will make their family proud. They will feel better about who they are. They will be decent people.

Hmmm—so "they can sleep better at night". Really? What does that mean? If we dig down a bit, it implicitly acknowledges the existence of a conscience, that moral core or voice that each person possesses. But, then, we are back again to the same issues above. Her language is littered with terms—"moral choices", "right reasons", "behave", "morality", responsibility", "decent"—that she apparently assumes are shared by most or all other people. How so? Are they simply cultural constructs? And if that is the case, what is "culture"? Can a culture and civilization come into existence or exist long without a shared belief in transcendent truths and objective moral standards?

This is the second reason her post is worth reading: it reveals both the myopic vision of the village atheist and the unquestioned assumptions of the same. From a historical perspective, it indicates a rather embarrassing failure to consider the ancient and religious roots of things we call "morals" and "good" and "evil". This is not, I hasten to say, the same thing as saying (as some Christians wrongly do) that atheists cannot be moral and decent people. Rather, the atheist must eventually, at some point, cut corners and avoid some uncomfortable conclusions in order to adhere to moral beliefs they apparently assume to be true and unwavering, yet without any logical, metaphysical reason for said assumption.

The atheist mother from Texas clearly loves her children. But what, really, is that love? In other words, what does the atheist say to the question, "Is your love a mere emotion? A biological connection?" If we cease to exist at death (as she states), is it possible for an atheist to continue loving someone who has died? If so, what does that really mean? After all, if the atheist says she continues to love her deceased father or mother, isn't she undermining her own mockery of those who "love God" since neither God or the dead parent exists? A few years ago, I addressed some of these questions in an essay, "Love and the Skeptic":

When we say to another: "It is good that you exist, that you are!"—what do we mean? The question is not nearly as abstract or obtuse as it might sound, for it does serious damage to the flippant claim that man is able to "make a meaning," for love is not about making something ex nihilo, but the recognition and affirmation of what already is. Or, put another way, in seeing the good of another, we choose to embrace and treasure that good.

So [Josef] Pieper makes an essential distinction: "For what the lover gazing upon his beloved says and means is not: How good that you are so (so clever, useful, capable, skillful), but: It’s good that you are; how wonderful that you exist!" (On Love II). This seemingly simple point has profound ramifications, for it is an affirmation of what is. It involves the recognition that something outside of myself is objectively good and worthy of my love. Because reality is knowable and has objective meaning—not shifting, subjective "meaning"—love is possible and can be known. This, of course, raises the question: Where does the objective meaning of love ultimately originate from if not from myself? It is a question routinely ignored by skeptics, but worth asking of both those who deny God’s existence and those who reject the existence of objective truth: "If your love for your spouse or family is subjective and of a ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ sort, what meaningful, lasting value does it really have?"

The true lover, Pieper argues, intuitively understands, even if not with precise logic, that an affirmation of the beloved’s goodness "would be pointless, were not some other force akin to creation involved—and, moreover, a force not merely preceding his own love but one that is still at work and that he himself, the loving person, participates in and helps along by loving" (On Love II).

The atheist mother's illogic comes through in several places, perhaps most obviously in this passage: "When we raise kids without God, we tell them the truth—we are no more special than the next creature. We are just a very, very small part of a big, big machine–whether that machine is nature or society–the influence we have is minuscule. The realization of our insignificance gives us a true sense of humbleness."

A "big big machine"? How many of us are aware of a machine of any size or quality that was not the product of a personal maker (yes, machines in factories make widgets, but those machines are made by humans)? She blithely refers to the "machine", but apparently finds it silly to ask, "If this is a 'machine', how did it come into being? Who or what made it? Why?" And so forth. The really sad thing about her essay is that she tries mightily to come off as the open-minded, adventurous, and liberated atheist when she is actually much more of a close-minded, angry, and trapped deist. She has allowed the mystery of evil—a most significant and real problem—to overwhelm any appreciation of the mystery of existence, the mystery of life, the mystery of being. In addition, her remarks about God, like those of many atheists, come off as the remarks of someone who knows, deep down, there is a "God", but hates or despises him for this or that reason.

My experience, time and again, is that more than a few atheists want to have it both ways: on one hand, to dismiss God because he supposedly refuses to let them do whatever they want; on the other hand, to express anger and horror that God allows people to apparently do whatever they want. They demand free will, but curse the hand that grants it.

I forwarded the atheist mother's essay to a friend, a priest, and he wrote back with an observation about this paragraph:

I only want religion to be kept at home or in church where it belongs. It’s a personal effect, like a toothbrush or a pair of shoes. It’s not something to be used or worn by strangers. I want my children to be free not to believe and to know that our schools and our government will make decisions based on what is logical, just and fair—not on what they believe an imaginary God wants.

He stated, with some sarcasm: "I guess what bothers me is that I wish she would keep her atheism at home where it belongs, instead of writing about it in the public forum.  It's a personal effect , not something to be worn by strangers like me." And then he wrote:

Also, who exactly is restricting the freedom of her children to be atheists?  Who is restricting her own freedom?  I didn't notice in the Constitution the part that says government must make decisions based upon what God wants. It seems to me that such things are generally based on what the people decide.  She may not like it that most Americans are Christians of some sort, so I guess that's why she is against the freedom of Christians to vote as they see fit, based on whatever criteria they see fit to use, and not on her idea of what is "logical, just and fair."  And, by the way, I'd like to know how she comes to those ideas about what is logical, just and fair.  I'm sure Stalin could have given her some pointers on his ideas about these three items.

And just where are those schools that are forcing religion on her children?

Perhaps they are in Texas. They certainly aren't here in Oregon!

 
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Carl E. Olson editor@catholicworldreport.com

Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight.
 
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