on 24 December 2014
If the past year I have read Denis Alexander’s “Creation or Evolution” and John Polkinghorne’s “Science and Religion in Quest of Truth”. Both are earnest in their argumentation; and, are books I fully recommend. Whilst disagreeing with their theistic interpretations, I had nothing but respect for the sincerity and humility with which they described their Christianity. Unfortunately, I cannot say the same for Zacharias’ “Can Man Live Without God”. This book is, essentially, one long sermon in which the argumentation is superficial and under-developed. As to humility or lack of it, the author reveals too many self-aggrandising anecdotes for my liking. To be fair the style is understandable given that the book is based on lectures that the author gave to Harvard and Ohio State universities in the 1990’s. Invited lectures, by their nature, do not allow overly sophisticated arguments to be developed – unlike an academic lecture course. It is also clear the lectures were not just intended for the author to voice his opinion but to influence and, even, change the opinion of the audience. Hence, anti-theism is couched in very individualistic terms – the “loneliness of atheism” is mentioned more than once. “You alone…” is the address given to atheists on several occasions. Here is a preacher at work, attempting to provide hope to the morally impoverished and desolate anti-theists in his audience.
This book targets its readers (and previously the lecture audiences) at an emotional level. There are many quotes from poetry and the philosophies of the likes of Kant and Nietzsche are caricatured. The author does well and the conversational style makes it an easy read but is not a Signature classic. Where Lewis wrote with intellectual authority, Zacharias seeks to establish personal authority. One of the author’s main premises is that anti-theism has robbed humanity of a sense of wonder. He cites stories of childhood wonder and innocent acceptance that things are way they are for a never to be explained reason. The parallels are drawn with the human-condition with God taking the role of an infinitely replenished wonder giver. This is a parallel that atheists would readily debate. But, children grow up. As parents many of us have or will indulge our children in the myth of Santa Claus and share their joy at seeing the half-full glass of milk and the mince-pie crumbs arranged by the parent deceivers the night before. But the child that, out of nothing but their own inquisitiveness, first asks “How can Santa visit everyone’s house in just one night?” is also a cause for parental joy. That child has taken the first step towards deconstructing the myth. As parents we want to cling to the innocence for as long as possible and the Santa myth becomes ever more fanciful as we try to preserve it.
Accepting the book’s emotional approach, I did find the intellectual arguments in the book dissatisfying on a few fronts. Firstly, Zacharias feigns an intellectual rigour that I found to be little more than a rhetorical style. No more so than he proposes his three philosophical levels: logic, art and personal conversations (table talk as he calls it). We must start at the first level, logic, and progress to the others. However, logic is smattered through the book and provides no coherent basis for the arguments. There is a discussion of non-contradiction in the middle of the book that I am not sure why it was included. Shortly afterwards he presents the Holy Trinity with only C.S. Lewis’ gauche three sides of a cube defence – surely if anything warrants the application of the non-contradiction argument it is the Holy Trinity. The author does apply one logical device that I found grating. More than once, he uses a syllogism of the form:
1. Everything in life is meaningless
2. Statement 1 is part of life
3. Therefore statement 1 is meaningless
That does not mean that statement 1 is false and to be fair the author does not claim it to be so. He just leaves us with the obvious tautology that “It is meaningless to say that nothing has a meaning”. But he does deceive by conflating the grammatical meaning of a well formed sentence with the existential meaning of life. In a similar vein, he uses a device that can be illustrated by the sentence “Santa Claus does not exist”. This statement is either false or meaningless. It cannot be true since Santa Claus must exist in order to assert his non-existence. Of course this does not help us determine whether Santa Claus exists or not – it is just a rhetorical device to trap the unwary questioner. The argument that we must accept God’s existence in order to debate his non-existence is the logic of the school-room not the lecture theatre.
Another example of the feigned rigour is the discussion around Jesus’ statement “I am the way and the truth and the life”. Zacharias correctly asserts that if we can establish the truth of this single statement then all else in Christianity follows – in logical terms it is axiomatic. I have to say I devoured the remainder of the book waiting for the level one logical proof. This did not appear. Of course, I know better: axioms are not provable within the logical systems they support. Rather they are the assumptions made to create the system.
My second dissatisfaction is that the author conflates the discussion of moral and ethical systems with questions of taste and decency. Hence, there are multiple references to the moral decadence that the author sees in post-modern America. This he blames on the fact that anti-theism has become the orthodoxy within both universities and other institutions of power. My problem is not with the assertion per se, although I disagree with it. It is with the fact that the author provides no historical context. He is particularly scathing of the Hollywood fuelled entertainment industry and the demagogues of the modern world, talk-show hosts. But at what point did this moral decline begin? As Oscar Wilde asserted “America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between.” The way the author talks of individualism and the state engendered encouragement to pursue happiness, I assume he charts the malaise from the drafting of the American Constitution, itself a beacon of Enlightenment thinking. Amusingly, having bemoaned the shallowness of modern celebrity culture, Zacharias commits the same sin that he roundly criticises in our talk show driven world of conflating Nietzsche’s ideas with his personal appearance and lifestyle as if the latter somehow invalidate the former.
My third dissatisfaction is that after the first section there is little in the way of point and counter-point. Comments on the anti-theist position become, essentially, unsubstantiated footnotes at the end of each chapter. To read this book one would think that anti-theism is single-handedly responsible for the moral malaise of modern America. Zacharias points to the flaw he sees in Rousseau’s socialism which is the assumption that humankind is essentially good. But, Adam Smith makes exactly the same assumption in his invisible hand of the market.
So, what about the charges against anti-theism? The book is divided into three sections: the second and third largely expound Christian orthodoxy with lots of anecdotes thrown in. As I wrote at the start I found the sermonising style more than a little insincere. The critique of antitheism begins, where many do, with Hitler and Stalin. The atrocities in the name of religion are neatly dismissed as aberrations and misrepresentations of Christianity. He cedes no such ground to atheism. A line is drawn back to Nietzsche and Wagner to ground Hitler’s anti-Semitism in the nihilistic philosophy of the former. Of course the lineage of anti-Semitic thinking goes much further back than Nietzsche, to give one example there was the mass expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. However, Zacharias has a neat twist on the “bad people do bad things” defence that is simplistic reflex answer often offered by atheists. This draws on the connection to Nietzsche’s philosophy and it is this: atheists have no moral compass on which to base an abhorrence of Hitler and Stalin – their deeds are just the inevitable outcome of the anti-theist position that there is no absolute moral code. More subtly, if we do express abhorrence it is because we are drawing on a Judaeo-Christian moral ethic that is hidden beneath the surface of our atheist edifice. This is a neat inversion of the theodicy argument which seeks to answer why God permits evil in the world (the quick answer is it’s the bargain humankind struck with God to get free-will).
Morality is one area where I would have liked Zacharias to expand his thoughts. Amid the diatribe, there is a subtlety to be explored. He may lay claim to an absolute moral code, but there is no denying that its interpretation and application is relativistic. I am sure there are Christians that, in 2014, sincerely object to women Bishops in the Church of England. But, after William Wilberforce, I am sure there are few that would condone slavery. The question of how a relativist moral code gains authority is a serious one. I can recommend Richard Holloway’s “Godless Morality” for a considered discussion of some modern moral and ethical dilemmas.