Where is ethics without God?
‘To expect an answer to a question is the wrong way to look at the world’. With this sentence Peter Watson summarises the thinking of the pioneer aviator and author of The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery. It is a point of view with which Watson largely agrees and in his book The Age of Nothing (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) he aims to show how people have tried to live in the wake of the death of God without asking futile questions of the universe.
The book has faults. It attempts to cover too much ground and Watson often relies on secondary sources. He depends on WD Hudson’s account of Wittgenstein’s views on religion, for example, rather than on a close reading of the philosopher himself. Theologians get short shift. In an interview with Prospect Watson revealed he has little interest in or respect for the subject.
But believers should not dismiss this book too quickly. Watson makes criticisms of religion that deserve to be taken seriously. Although he acknowledges the stand Barth and Bonhoeffer made, he is right to accuse the churches of failing to rise to the challenge of Hitler. He could have broadened his criticism. David Kertzer’s recent account of relations between the Pope and Mussolini makes painful reading.
One reason why church leaders were slow to condemn Hitler was because they were worried about Stalin. Here the churches were right (with odd exceptions like the Red Dean) and a host of public intellectuals on the left were wrong. Religious opposition to communism played a significant part in its downfall.
Another criticism Watson makes is that religion claims to provide a privileged viewpoint from which to look at the world. He quotes James Wood’s paraphrase of Thomas Mann that ‘the idea of overbearing truth is exhausted’. Watson appears not to twig that there is a danger in setting relativism up as an ‘overbearing truth’. Nonetheless his view chimes in with a widespread opinion that religion attempts to short circuit the human quest for wisdom and supply ready-made, simplistic answers to questions that may be incapable of receiving any answer at all.
Watson writes that with a few exceptions (Chagall, Rouault) ‘the art of modernism was secular art - religious themes are notable by their absence’. But the 20th century was not without artists inspired by religion. In Britain the names of Spencer, Sutherland, Moore and Piper spring to mind. Their work shows how faith can inspire, not stifle, creativity
Watson is attempting to describe how people have lived since the death of God, so it might be argued he cannot be expected to look at the impact faith has made. But it is unfair to criticise religion without examining its positive impact. His book actually prompts the question of why faith survived as well as it did in 20th Century Western Europe.
Not only religious artists but Christian poets and novelists are absent from Watson’s pages. Eliot and Auden are mentioned but not the way faith inspired them as poets. There is no reference to Greene, Waugh, Solzhenitsyn or Pasternak. Pasternak wrote that his way of seeing he world was shaped when Christian influence in his life was greatest. We hear plenty about Philip Roth but nothing about Saul Bellow or John Updike.
Clearly one reason why faith survived was because it stimulated creative imaginations. Another was because people saw what the evil secular gods were capable of achieving. Communism and Nazism were more dangerous metanarratives than Christianity and, as Watson shows, both were in some degree inspired by the man who first proclaimed the death of God, Friederich Nietzsche (although Wagner also has a claim to this honour).
In the Old Testament faith in God was check against idolatry. In 20th Century America Reinhold Niebuhr donned the prophetic mantle to show how faith in a transcendent God questions human certainty and undermines overweening ideologies.
Although Watson appears somewhat in their awe, it is not the new atheists who have mounted the most serious recent intellectual challenge to Christianity but 20th century analytical philosophers. A group of Christian philosophers, some of the analytical school, others in some sense Thomist, managed to fight off the challenge. Thomas Nagel may be unable to embrace the concept of God but he sees the strength of the rebuttal of the modern critics of belief made by Alvin Plantinga. As well as Plantinga, Swinburne, Polkinghorne, Hick, Mitchell, Farrer and many others in the English-speaking world have provided able defences of theism.
The relationship between faith and ethics is complicated. By the dawn of the 20th century religion had already played its part in shaping moral values in Europe and other parts of the world. Watson thinks evolution is a ‘better authority as far as morality is concerned’ and concludes it is well on the way to explaining forgiveness, for example. The selfish gene pushes us towards cooperation. The difference between altruism as a survival mechanism and the genuine article clearly escapes him.
[i] The Age of Nothing is a good title for the alternative to what faith offers. The book itself can be read as a signpost to some of the reasons why religion has survived as well as it has.