Summer Reading Group: “Naturalism and Nihilism”

This is the first post in a seven-part series for Spectrum’s 2017 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of the book Humanism and the Death of God by Ronald E. Osborn. You can view the reading/posting schedule here.

I haven’t recovered from my incredulity at the female ethics professor, Harvard-trained, who refused to allow that the shooting of Malala Yousafzai in the head because of her efforts to promote literacy among girls was, as a matter of fact, immoral. I assume such reprehensible renunciation of moral discernment, ominously common at this cultural moment in the West, is the provocation for Ron Osborn’s recent book.

My otherwise decent disputant did indeed reject my assertion regarding Malala, in part, because she held that the concept of human rights was a cultural construct that can authorize no valid normative claims. Other ethicists, even if they have an antipathy toward or despair about the possibility of establishing any robust metaphysics to undergird morality, wish nevertheless to defend the reality of universal human rights. Can this be done?

Osborn articulates the issue this way. “Can we have a rationally coherent, morally compelling, and historically sustainable discourse as well as practice of humanistic values and human rights without a ‘thick’ metaphysical or religious framework such as the one provided in the Western tradition for some two millennia by Judeo-Christian sources?” And more concretely he asks, “Will we still be good to the stranger in our midst, or good in the same ways, once we have truly and utterly abandoned the idea that every person is made, in the enigmatic language of Scripture, in ‘the image of God’?” (4, emphasis his).

His answer to these questions is “no.” “In order for humanistic values to have deep coherence and motivating power, they must find their moorings in essentially religious ways of thinking” (5). The rights at issue, he says, “can only be sustained…both theoretically and practically within a vision of personhood such as the one found in a historically unprecedented way in Christian theological anthropology…” (ibid., emphasis his). What are these rights? They are the human dignity and intrinsic human equality that attaches to each individual merely because they are human. Moreover, these rights are inalienable.

Partly because of its eloquence and partly because of the central significance to his project that it has, I quote at length his statement of the Christian theological anthropology he wishes to promote.

God incarnate—the humanly visible face of the Ultimate Reality of the universe—is a poor manual laborer from a defeated backwater of the Empire who was tortured to death by the political and religious authorities of his day on charges of sedition and heresy. What is more, the Gospel writers assert, this ‘weak’ God remains present among us in the lives of the wretched of the earth. Christ summons all who would share in his resurrection to embrace a path of selfless service and voluntary suffering for the sake of the most marginalized members of society, imitatio Christi, since how one treats ‘the least of these’ is how one treats God himself. There is thus no pathway to the divine except through a risky venture of faith, hope, and love marked by costly service to the God made visible in the lives of our fellow human beings, and in table fellowship or communion that breaks down barriers of class, education, nationality, race and gender. In the words of the Apostle Paul in the book of Galatians “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (6).

Having articulated his aim, Osborn offers some careful and instructive definitions of the key terms he has used and will use in developing his proposal for a religious apprehension of the good that can coherently conceive of human rights, as well as motivate respect for and defense of them. These definitions serve to differentiate his proposal from both anti-humanists and anti-religious humanists whose positions he wishes to expose as inadequate. They make clear the central contentions to come in upcoming chapters.

‘Naturalism’ is often used to name a view that holds that natural science is the only way to know anything because all reality, mental phenomena included, goes back to physical events. Some naturalists might argue for non-reductive ways to speak of some phenomena but any “emergent” entities will have a purely physical basis.

‘Nihilism,’ the belief that there are no non-arbitrary normative values or goods nor any non-arbitrary restraint on sheer egoism of either indifference or rejection of any distinction between good and evil, is implied by naturalism. That is not to say that, generally speaking, individuals holding to naturalism willingly endorse nihilistic conclusions. The flattening of all of reality into “objective” facts open to instrumental or intellectual control or mastery is a kind of nihilism prevalent in the academy. In general, nihilism of whatever variety is typified by ignoring the mystery of being.

Religion involves talk of a “greater mystery” than scientific method can comprehend. A definitive religious intuition is that our deepest sense of right and wrong, good and evil, beauty, and love “corresponds with the grain of the universe” (11, emphasis his). As Noam Chomsky has observed, appeals to justice and humanistic values are based on “structures of hope and conviction.” If these structures “must be there for our ideas about goodness, value, and justice to make any sense” then it is religion that informs them (ibid., emphasis his).

Concerning ‘God’ Osborn writes, “When I refer to God…I have in mind the personal Creator God of the biblical narratives who is also the One glimpsed in partial and imperfect ways in diverse philosophical and religious traditions as the utterly transcendent and, at the same time, fully immanent ‘ground’ or ‘ocean of being’” (12).

It is somewhat puzzling that Osborn’s definition of goodness starts with a denial that there might be a problem in the relationship between God and goodness. He supports that denial with reference to the classic Christian contention that God just is goodness. What is puzzling about this is that if goodness as such (that is goodness in itself) is conceivable, it should be possible to conceive the good in non-religious terms, in purely ethical ones if you please. And the exclusive humanist would be just the sort of person to attempt that. If, however, one cannot conceive goodness except in theological terms then it would seem some account must be offered as to God’s relationship to goodness. Put differently, if God just is goodness itself what additional significance attaches to thinking of goodness as divine? Why not simply speak of goodness and be done with it. In other words, why not have a non-religious metaphysics of the good?

And it is at just this point in Osborn’s setting forth the parameters of his proposal that I would want to note that a successful response to the rejections of metaphysical or religious accounts of the good advanced by Darwin, Marx, and Nietzsche will be incomplete until it addresses Kant’s critique of Christian theism precisely in its efforts to affirm transcendence that is “fully immanent.” If, as Kant contended, the metaphysics of being of the tradition is logically incoherent, then one will have trouble claiming greater coherence for a Christian religious understanding of the good as against an exclusively humanistic one without addressing the logical problems of affirming immanent transcendence. Osborn’s mention of an analogy of being points to the direction he may take in addressing these issues. (It’s not clear to me, at this point, that Osborn will be doing this, at some point, in this book.)

In his elucidation of the term ‘humanism’ Osborn refers to a classification of positions suggested by Charles Taylor according to which there are “exclusive humanists” who are optimistic naturalists, “Neo-Nietzschean anti-humanists” and “acknowledgers of transcendence.” Osborn is an acknowledger of transcendence. Against the exclusive humanists, he would side with the anti-humanists in denying a naturalistic basis of the human good. Against the Neo-Nietzschean anti-humanists he sides with the exclusive humanists in defending non-arbitrary goodness.

Although Osborn takes pains to defend real goodness he does not, he says, aspire to portray a “view from nowhere.” Nevertheless, a merely parochial view, the arbitrary view of a single individual, or of a religious tradition, for example, is no more acceptable to him than some putative view from nowhere. Instead, it would seem that he, like all those who wish to attend to the mystery of being, aspires to portray the view from everywhere.

This monograph is a very welcome essay in defense of the intuition that wherever you are, precisely the view from everywhere, requires that we condemn the attempted murder of Malala Yousafzai and we defend and celebrate the right of girls to learn to read just because the good has the face of a poor Palestinian Jew who is present to us in them.

Daryll Ward attended Andrews University, Tübingen University, and the University of Chicago (where he earned his PhD) and spent many years working in the field of addiction treatment, business ethics, and pastoring. He currently serves as Professor of Theology and Ethics at Kettering College.

Image Credit: Oxford University Press.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

Thanks for your thoughtful comments Daryll. On one point let me attempt to clarify an argument I make in the book that seems to be a source of confusion.

You write that my “definition of goodness starts with a denial that there might be a problem in the relationship between God and goodness” because “God just is goodness.” This is not in fact my view. I think that there are some very significant problems with the relationship between God and goodness, and I have wrestled at some length with the theodicy dilemmas of animal suffering (in my book Death Before the Fall) and the Holocaust (see my chapter “The Trial of God” in Anarchy and Apocalypse) without any tidy or comforting resolution.

What I do deny, however, is that Plato’s “Euthyphro Dilemma” poses some kind of insuperable challenge for classically orthodox theology. The Euthyphro Dilemmas is basically the idea that either 1) things are “good” simply because God wills or names them to be good, which leaves us with a completely arbitrary, nominalist picture of God and values (e.g., if God declares the genocide of Canaanite babies to be “good” we have to just accept it because “he says so”), or alternatively 2) things are good intrinsically, in and of themselves, which means we can apply Ockham’s razor and dispense with God altogether–or as you write, “Why not simply speak of goodness and be done with it. In other words, why not have a non-religious metaphysics of the good?”

But the way you have presented the alleged riddle ignores what classical metaphysics actually says about the unity of truth, goodness, and beauty, and what classical theology says about God as “ground of being”, including the “ground of goodness”. If there are real challenges for believers contemplating the relationship between God and goodness, the Euthyphro Dilemma just is not one of them–or at least the dilemma has been greatly overstated. As David Bentley Hart writes in his book The Experience of God:

It is indeed an interesting question for any polytheist culture that conceives of its gods as finite personalities, contained within and dependent upon nature; it is probably a good question to ask of a deist as well, or of any other believer in a cosmic demiurge; but, applied to classical theism, it is simply a meaningless query, predicated upon a crude anthropomorphism. It is no more interesting than asking whether light shines because it is light or whether instead it is light because it shines.

To your question about the possibility of conceiving of goodness in non-religious terms, I think we have to carefully distinguish between perceiving and conceiving. One need not be a believer of any sort to perceive goodness, or for that matter to be good. My argument is not one about individual psychology. But can one give a fully coherent and satisfying conceptualization of the sources of the goodness one perceives if one is committed to a strictly naturalistic and materialistic worldview? I argue that philosophical naturalism simply cannot give any kind of coherent and persuasive account of the goodness naturalists themselves perceive, and that Kant’s attempt to ground moral commitment and humanistic values in reason alone runs aground of Nietzsche’s anti-humanist critique of that entire optimistic strand of the Enlightenment project (which continues up to the present in any number of secular liberal thinkers, some of whom I engage in my final chapter).

If we were to allow for the possibility that God doesn’t exist, should we, even in that situation, postulate the existence of God simply because we need God as a grounding for morality?

Here is the Nietzschean version of your question for secular humanists: If we allow for the possibility that goodness doesn’t exist, should we postulate the existence of goodness simply because we need it as a grounding for life?

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Thanks Ron. I’m just trying to figure out the nature of your argument, though it’s a bit difficult from this brief synopsis of only an introductory segment of your book.

If you are simply saying that a naturalistic perspective cannot provide an adequate basis for morality and should therefore be discarded, an atheist/agnostic/secular individual will probably respond that the lack of a basis for morality is not a good reason to create imaginary deities. And, I don’t think we live in an age when we could still ignore the legitimate objections of this people group.

Or otherwise, are you building a Kantian-type epistemology where you argue that the reality of morality is itself evidence for a deity?

You are still speaking of the problem as a two-cornered rather than three-cornered fight. There are not two disputants in the debate (“acknowledgers of transcendence” vs. secular humanists) but three, with secular anti-humanists also in the mix. Any two sides in this contest, according to Taylor, will join together against the third on certain issues. As an acknowledger of transcendence, then, I agree with secular anti-humanists that secular humanists have failed to confront the logical, epistemological, ontological, and moral implications of their naturalism. They have failed to face up to the essential nihilism of their worldview. To borrow your words, secular humanists cannot “still ignore the legitimate objections” of secular anti-humanists who have declared that the death of God spells the death of the image of God in the Other, and all that went with it. I agree that “the lack of a [naturalistic/materialistic] basis for morality is not a good reason to create imaginary deities”. But neither is the lack of a naturalistic or materialistic foundation for morality a good reason to deny morality. As Thomas Nagel (who is not a religious believer) writes, “since moral realism is true [as our intuitions and experiences strongly prompt us to believe], a Darwinian account of the motives underlying moral judgment must be false, in spite of the scientific consensus in its favor." I am not a Kantian but a Dostoevskian, if that is any help.

Ok. Yes, that makes a lot more sense.

I cannot say personally that I am fully persuaded by that argument however.

I can imagine a naturalistic scenario where humanity comes to grips with its reality and still finds ways to develop a sound ethical framework. For example, one way to do it is to consider the possibility that throughout the endless passing of time, this is the one instance where all the necessary elements coincidentally came together to produce conscious, intelligent life. It is likely the only break from an eternity of deterministic/probabilistic interactions between particles. And, this is something worth nurturing and preserving. Thus, a secular morality could be developed on the grounds that ethics is that which best promotes the survival of intelligent life.

This is just one possibility but, whatever direction one choses to go, secular philosophy, though still in its infancy, is making significant progress. In the 18th/19th centuries, liberal approaches to epistemology (ex. Kant-ethics, Schleiermacher-psychology, Barth-history) seemed to provide a pathway that ensured Christianity’s survival in the modern era. Today however, these approaches are placing its survival in jeopardy because all these elements are being replaced by secular alternatives.

I’m afraid you are attempting to construct a bridge across an “abyss of the unthinkable”, to quote G. K. Chesterton. There is simply no way, logically or empirically, to get from unconscious matter in a strictly materialistic universe to conscious, intelligent life (see, for example, Nagel’s book, Mind and Cosmos). Even if there were, however, there would be no way to then take the further leap to morality without committing some version of the so-called naturalistic fallacy (or Hume’s Law). As a matter of historical trajectories, I would also point out that far from secularism providing satisfying alternatives to religion for humanistic values, what we in fact now witness among many secular thinkers is a steady loss of confidence in the humanistic project. This growing pessimism in the ability of secular humanism to sustain its own highest moral commitments is reflected in a number of recent books that draw inspiration less from Enlightenment thinkers like Kant and Mill than they do from Nietzsche and Foucault (cf. Stephen Hopgood, The Endtimes of Human Rights, and Samuel Moyn, The Last Utopia).

This nice review and subsequent rich conversation has persuaded me to purchase the book!

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Welcome aboard, Phil. Be sure to use the coupon code for the book, if you are planning to purchase the book through the OUP website: AAFLYG6. It will give you 30% off the cover price.

Thanks for getting our conversation of this book started, Daryll. Your comments, and the comments that that have ensued, have me thinking about the constructive tension in this chapter/book between two lines of argumentation Ron is seems to be drawing together.

The first is the claim that the humanistic values shared and affirmed by many in modern societies today, our collective sense of the good, has a deeply religious, and more specifically, Christian, past. These revolve around the idea of the inherent dignity of individuals, which gives them basic worth and rights. This way of thinking about humans doesn’t rise in a vacuum, requiring a specific ‘metaphysics’ of reality and the person, i.e. the one provided by orthodox Christian theism. If I understand Ron’s line of reasoning (supported by numerous other theorists), without this way of thinking about things, humanistic values as we know and affirm them would never have risen, and it is dubious they will continue being affirmed in the future by a given culture, without them. In other words, reason, including reasoning about the good, is deeply shaped by history and culture; our sense of the good is contingent.

I’m curious about the possible connections between this line of thinking about the good, a sufficiently “post-modern” one, with the second line of reasoning evident in this chapter, that seems to draw on earlier, pre-modern views, that assume some sort of universal sense of the good accessible to reason and the relationship of that sense with some external, objective source of that good, i.e. Plato.

In other words, one line of reasoning claims that our sense of the good is historically contingent and not shared by everyone, and the other assumes we have some natural (collective) sense of the good, and this sense points to something beyond our own thoughts. Which is it? Is Ron suggesting that there some sort of basic sense of the good humans have (even those that are not religious and/or Christian) and that Christian theism builds on this basic moral intuition? If so, even without Christianity, we would have a basic sense of morality that gives us quite a bit more than the moral nihilism that Ron fears.

Thank you for your clarifications Ron and for the opportunity for me to express my concern with the classical conviction that God cannot be differentiated from His attributes, something you may or may not be prepared to share. In your response, you state it is not your view that “God just is goodness” and you did not say precisely that. I should have been a bit more careful. The closest you come to saying it in your paragraphs offering a definition of goodness in the sense of how you understand key terms you use in your book is your observation that for Plato and others “there can be no conflict between God and the good since God is nothing other than the Form of the Good—the idea, the source, and the very goodness of goodness.” (p.13) Now as I understand their metaphysics the classical Christian theists do indeed identify God with his attributes. God’s existence is his essence. He is love. He is good (goodness) etc. And the sense in which I would defend saying this is a position that “God just is goodness” is that these assertions are joined with an assertion of the simplicity of God. God has no parts. That includes no part of him which is his goodness as say distinct from his essence or his wisdom or his love. And for thinkers affirming this idea of identity between God and God’s “attributes” it seems to me that they must offer some analysis as to why these transcendentals must be conceived religiously.

You open up the space that is necessary in order to make clear that human rights grounded in a non-arbitrary goodness require religious conceptuality to be rational and compelling with your statement that “For believers in the God of the biblical witness, the Name that cannot be named is more, not less, than what we imperfectly and fleetingly know of reality…” And I take it that one of the things along with the items in your list such as joy that we fleetingly know of reality is goodness.

My hunch that a metaphysics of simple necessary being opens up the possibility of a non-religious understanding of the good still seems sound to me even though you are apparently not willing to go the distance in saying that God just is goodness. My concern incidentally is not theodicy. I have appreciated your grappling with those issues in the past but did not intend to bring them to bear here and do not think they are particularly interesting in the context of this project. I do think it important for your argument if you are committed to a religious and not merely metaphysical account of non-arbitrary human rights that you describe what it is about our experience of goodness that cannot be accounted for by that experience. My inclination to think of experience as the substance of concepts tempts me to say that if I have real experience of goodness that is all I need to offer a coherent account of rights. So I might ask, what is it about goodness that requires some additional explanation before the experience of goodness can serve to obligate us to extend respect among other things to all people?

As much as I am inclined at this moment to think the equation of the divine being with goodness would invite wielding Occam’s razor I am fully aware of the additional and much more fundamental claim of classical theism that the existence of all contingent being is unintelligible apart from non-contingent being. But to make clearer my reference to Kant, I think it also true that the classical doctrine is incoherent with respect to its understanding of the relation between necessary and contingent being. Indeed it seems the classical doctrine cannot talk about any real relations between the necessary and the contingent. Those matters are too complex to address in a blog.

As I have mentioned to you elsewhere I think Euthyphro represents no problem for a Christian doctrine of God because goodness like everything else depends for its existence on God. Euthyphro seems to me to raise a question about the “what” of goodness whereas a Christian doctrine of God is interested in the “that” of goodness before concerning itself with the what. The question of a specifically religious as opposed to merely metaphysical account resurfaces here for me in the form of a question about whether or not being itself is or requires a religious concept.

Finally, you do not include in your preliminary definition of naturalism a usage that holds nature to be all there is and that nature is contingent. Clearly contingency cannot account for itself because it is, well contingent! So you seem to be on very strong ground indeed to deny that a naturalistic account can ever be adequate if naturalism is exclusive of necessary existence. I don’t think that gets us to religion.

And a quick addition with respect to Zane’s query. It seems to me Ron is willing at least and maybe committed to aruging for a universal good, as I put it, the view from everywhere. But that of course cannot be ahistorical even if it happens to be present albeit always in historically particular ways.

As one who lacks the necessary training to enter into this very enlightening conversation, I find myself wondering how the options being discussed for a proper understanding of the relationship of goodness and God impact on something that has been a source of frustration for me for some time. That is, I am frustrated by those who argue that religion should be given some space because we need it to sustain morality. I find this totally unsatisfactory. It would seem that saying that God as such is goodness would foster such a reductionist view of religion. Please help me.

Zane, I do agree that we can have a “basic sense” of the good apart from Christianity, although not apart from some sense of transcendence. I would call this “thin natural law”, or perhaps better (following C. S. Lewis’s book The Abolition of Man), the Tao. What I think is historically contingent and not shared by everyone is the specific set of humanistic values and concepts of dignity, rights, and equality attaching to each person that we find in theological anthropology. Strict philosophical naturalism, however, denies both the Tao and theological anthropology. I think that this leads unavoidably to nihilism and that nihilism is a more pervasive aspect of modern existence than most people might care to admit. In these conclusions and throughout my book I am much indebted to David Hart. See, for example, his essay “Christ and Nothing.”

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Thanks for these very insightful and stimulating additional comments Daryll. Alas, I’m going to have to beg off from posting any more notes for the time being since we are in the midst of an unusually busy week of reporting to donors here at ADRA Sudan. I’m sure we will have many opportunities to pick up this thread and continue the discussion over the coming weeks. Perhaps a more qualified philosopher than me can chime in (hint: Zane).

Thanks for the response Ron. I realize that you have to get back to work but wanted to make a few closing remarks.

I found it interesting that you would quote someone claiming that ‘there is simply no way, logically or empirically, to get from unconscious matter to conscious, intelligent life,’ although such a claim goes against probably what 90% of the experts in the field (biology, etc.) would agree to. If this is a debate about the limitation of naturalistic evolutionary processes then, let’s make that the debate. Otherwise, let’s be fair to our opponents and grant them the materialistic mechanism debating only their ethics project.

That said, I’m still not at all convinced that there is any logical necessity to abandon ethics/morality in a godless universe. Maybe the reason the claims of the anti-humanists seem logically consistent to us is because they resonate with our position more. Not just this, but it’s likely we’re also biased in our evaluation because, as a result of the Liberal Christianity Project of the post-enlightenment era, Christianity has been left with very little to stand on epistemically, and morality is one of those few pillars left.

I’ve spent the past few years interacting with and consuming the content of Christian theologians and philosophers and the past several years before that consuming materials and engaging mainly with atheists,agnostics and seculars. And, having been through both contexts, I often feel that Christian theologians and philosophers function inside an echo chamber. They have convinced themselves that the secular project has failed when in fact the seculars themselves never got the memo and are as optimistic as ever.

So when you say that ‘what we in fact now witness among many secular thinkers is a steady loss of confidence in the humanistic project’ I can’t help but take that the way I take creationists/IDers claiming that scientists are starting to lose confidence in evolution.

Coming back to morality, one way to view the secular ethics project is to see it as a communitarian approach to ethics very similar in principle to the communitarian approach to theology adopted now by virtually the entirety of Christendom. If one is valid, so should the other be.

Lastly, is it really a good idea to side with the anti-humanists/nihilists simply because they reinforce our views? Would it not be more beneficial to society to encourage humanists in their project, as difficult a task as that might be? If a society is going to be largely secular, I’d much rather prefer that the secular be optimistic in their attempts to develop and live up to a secular ethics.

Reading over the other comments, I should add that the secularist can incorporate the fact that humanist ideas did not emerge in a vacuum into his own narrative. A sort of survival of the fittest of ethical approaches that were for the time being dependent on mythical crutches but that can now be incorporated into a more solid framework.

Mike, thanks for your interest in the debate. I will steal a few moments from a meeting to reply. In candor, we would have a better basis for dialoging if you decide to actually read my book. It is difficult to summarize in back and forth comments an argument developed over 200 pages. You can read the reviews on the back cover to get a sense of whether or not the argument I am making is well-supported and sufficiently nuanced and documented. I will, however, offer these final thoughts for your consideration.

On the question of whether or not reductive materialism (or psychophysical reductionism) can provide an adequate explanation for consciousness, the fact that many evolutionary biologists committed to a materialist worldview insist that it can is not in fact a persuasive argument in materialism’s favor. If you carefully attend to the critiques by thinkers like Nagel, Hans Jonas, and David Hart, you will find that there is a great deal to question in the standard materialist account. In the words of Nagel (who you do not seem to be familiar with but who is one of the most important living philosophers of mind), “The more details we learn about the chemical basis of life and the intricacy of the genetic code, the more unbelievable the standard historical [evolutionary] account becomes.” This is not an argument against evolution as such (Nagel is no creationist and I happen to be a theistic evolutionist who accepts common ancestry and deep time). It is, rather, an argument against what Conor Cunningham (in his excellent book, Darwin’s Pious Idea), refers to as “ultra-Darwinism”. Why does the question of naturalism/materialism and consciousness matter? Because we cannot neatly quarantine epistemic and metaphysical questions from ethical ones. It is not “unfair” to critique materialistic mechanisms when materialistic mechanisms are precisely what is at issue. And they are unavoidably at issue in areas of metaethics, as Darwin, for one, very clearly understood. As I trace in my book, he believed that his theory had profound metaphysical as well as moral implications. A thinker like Daniel Dennett says the same thing in more sensational language when he describes the strict Darwinism he subscribes to as a “universal acid” with radical implications for moral theory. If you wish to be fair to materialists, then, I would suggest that you need to carefully attend to what many of them are actually saying.

Finally, on the question of historical trajectories and anti-humanism, you might consider what Charles Taylor has to say about anti-humanism in his magisterial book A Secular Age (which you have perhaps already read since you say you have made a serious study of secularism and Taylor’s book is essential reading on the topic). Here is what he writes in part (and goes on to support with ample evidence): “…we might want to set aside this three-cornered picture, on the grounds that contemporary anti-humanism isn’t a significant enough movement. If one just focusses one’s attention on certain fashionable professors of comparative literature, this might seem plausible. But my sense is that the impact of this third stream in our culture and contemporary history has been very powerful…”

I’m not sure I can be helpful but I’ll make a stab at it. In Ron’s book some of the key elements in his brief clarification of religion are his references to a “greater mystery” and “the grain of the universe.” The “greater mystery” reference indicates the understanding of religion which says there’s more to reality than meets the eye. The “more” in the context of metaphysical talk about God is some reality that is qualitatively different from all other reality. Naturalists deny that philosophical (and possibly religious) assertion instead claiming that reality is all of one type, namely the type we “see.” The reference to “the grain of the universe” points to the understanding of religion as one form of the quest to know what is ultimate. I could put it this way. Religion is about what is ultimately the case. One way to understand naturalism is to say that the naturalist denies there is any ultimate case. For them all things are contingent on other contingent things. The desire for some ultimate explanatory intelligibility is confused and futile.

I take it that Ron would agree with me that naturalist certainty on this is misplaced. Now if religion is the rational attempt to deal with the “more” suggested by our experience and by the desire we have for some “ultimate” understanding of nature then religion is not justified as a necessary prop for morality. It is rather the rational response to experience and the desire to understand it. And the claim Ron is making, I believe, is that you can’t understand morality or anything else if you are determined that there is no “more” and there is no “ultimate.” So it is not a strategy for making room for religion. It is a claim that you can’t understand reality coherently if you don’t recognize the fact that there is more to experience than what we see.

This is far from enough to answer your question but if it is helpful as a start I’ll be satisfied.

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At this point in time there can’t be “a view from everywhere”. No literate person, or even illiterate one, can step outside of time and space to make definitions and judgements. Christianity, or some other “…ism”, has permeated all corners of civilization and informs all such judgments. Having said that, Paul seemed to contradict that in Roans 2, when he said that it’s possible to “be good” (by God’s judgment) without knowing Him:

when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the law, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them, God will judge the secrets of men.

Now, those, “outside the Law” may have another reference point that Paul doesn’t recognize; but it sounds like those without the Juneau/Christian definitions of “good”, have the “correct” instincts to make judgements between good and evil" This is assuming. of course, that from Paul’s perspective, God is influencing them without the “system” that defines goodness. Since writing is a recent phenomenon, it’s hard to know the definitions of all this when Fred dragged Wilma by the hair.


Sirje, I think Daryll was perhaps being intentionally provocative and inverting Nagel’s famous phrase: “a view from nowhere”. To aspire to a view from “nowhere” is to aspire to a kind of universality outside of time and space. You are right to point out the futility of all such attempts. By contrast, I explicitly claim “a view from somewhere”, namely, the historically contingent Christian tradition. At the same time, note that a view from somewhere can make claims of universal or “everywhere” significance. Here is what I write about this tension in Humanism and the Death of God:

We continue to find ourselves trapped on the horns of a dilemma: In order to respect and protect difference we must appeal to concepts of universal truth and justice that transcend any particular belief system; yet respect for difference must, in the final analysis, be respect from somewhere. It must unavoidably rest upon highly contingent belief structures rooted in culturally inscribed worldviews. There is no escaping this fact. The Enlightenment attempt to transcend the particular in the name of universal Reason, for example, was in this light an attempt to conceal its own non-neutrality and inescapably metaphysical assumptions. The difference between explicitly religious accounts of human dignity on the one hand and naturalistic/materialistic anthropologies like Darwin’s, Marx’s, and Nietzsche’s on the other, in other words, is the exact opposite of what the Rawlsian appeal to secular or “public reason” asserts: only theology makes its metaphysics transparent in ways that invite public scrutiny while “secular” reason is best seen as a masked or insufficiently self-aware metaphysics that prevaricates the arbitrariness—and in the political sphere, the all too frequent violence—of many of its ontological commitments.

This really must be my final note for now. Thanks to all for your questions and comments.