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Lord Sacks is right: 21st-century atheism is descending into nihilism

Many of today’s God-haters have nothing of significance to say about life

By on Thursday, 27 June 2013

The outgoing Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks (PA)

The outgoing Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks (PA)

There is a superb article over at the Spectator written by the outgoing Chief Rabbi on the failure of atheism. If you have not read it yet, please do so at once.

Lord Sacks reveals himself as a man of great intellect, and one quite understands what he means when he laments the fact that discussion about God has now descended to the level of a school debating society. Atheists are simply not what they once were. There is no one around today who has the intellectual weight of Nietzsche, for example. Atheist he might have been, but he was also a great existential philosopher who thought long and heard about human existence. By contrast, many of the God-haters of today have nothing of significance to say about life. Indeed, many of them claim philosophy itself is unimportant.

But the chief concern of Lord Sacks is the question of morality. Is there a pre-existing moral order, or is there not? Do we create morality? Or as Alasdair MacIntyre once put it: Aristotle or Nietzsche? I do not think there can be a third way. Either meaning is intrinsic to things, or else it is something that we impose on them as an act of will, and nature is completely malleable.

But this last simply cannot be true. There is meaning in the universe which we discover, and which we do not create. Well, how did that meaning get there?

Of course, atheists could argue that these are stupid questions, a tale of sound and fury told by an idiot and signifying nothing. This nihilist position seems to me to be the position towards which most contemporary atheism is tending. Instead of answering the question, the tendency is to mock, ridicule and belittle the question. But the question – What does it all mean? – presupposes that there is meaning of some sort, and it is this surely that should form the basis for discussion amongst all people, whatever their beliefs about God: there should be a common search for meaning and for truth.

The Chief Rabbi speaks of the threat of contemporary barbarism. He is right about that. But if we are to build civilisation, or to reinforce it, we have to have agreed foundations, and where are we to find them, unless in some shared metaphysical belief? This metaphysical belief does not have to be in God, but it does have to be in some shared value. It must at least be based on an admission that values, absolute values, exist.

Incidentally, it has to be admitted, and as a religious person I have no difficulty admitting it, that several avowed theists in our world may well be the sort of people who have no real value system whatever, or indeed may be the proponents of a system of profound ‘disvalues’ (as they are called). Cameron, Haig and others, in their desire to arm the Syrian “rebels”, show a profound lack of common sense, as well as a failure to grasp what is at stake here; they have advanced no proper argument for their position, at least none that would sound good outside a school debating chamber, to the level of which our Mother of Parliaments has long descended.

Right can never be reduced to the concept of “because I will it so.” Right must rest upon some reasoning process, and must have some reference to something that is greater than ourselves. Metaphysical truths represent a break, perhaps the only break on human stupidity, and human barbarism. They hold back the tide, they command us to think again, and sometimes to stop what we are doing. To deny any such absolute truths and values is to open ourselves up the ultimate horrors of the Holocaust, to which the former Chief Rabbi alludes.