Reasonable Atheism (33): Moral generativity

Just pursuing a theme from the previous post (and it links in with bls’s comment): one of the ways in which I see the humourless atheist position as deficient is that I believe it is severely lacking in moral generativity. I need to explain what I mean by that.

Pursuing the good life involves rules, but it’s not ultimately a matter of following rules. There needs to be some awareness of the good that is sought by the following of rules; in other words, over time, what is most needed is an awareness of when the rules need to be broken in order to preserve what the rules were there for in the first place! This is the Christian debate about Law and Grace, but you don’t have to use theological language to understand the point.

Any creative or craftsman-like endeavour involves an awareness of learning the rules, then learning when to break the rules. There is an aphorism that goes something like: the student follows the rules, the rebel breaks the rules, the master transcends the rules (because both the rebel and the student are equally bound into rule following).

Now, when we are talking about how to navigate our lives, how to determine what is valuable and what is trivial, what sort of shape of life to pursue – Christians have recourse not just to a two-thousand year history of rules and rule development; they also have access to the founding narratives which provide a context within which to argue about whether the rules are right or not. This allows for something new to develop within the understanding of the faith. There is a space within which new forms of rules, and new understandings of the rules, and new understandings of how to assess the rules (ie to look at the rules from above) can come. In other words, there are resources here with which to build a life creatively, not just from an assembly line. This is what I mean by moral generativity.

This is important because whilst human nature remains more or less constant, the cultural situations within which humans find themselves change all the time, and thus the moral discernment needed has to develop over time too. Consider: what is the morality of using a car? We are in a new situation, we need to develop new thinking. Christianity has the resources required to meet this sort of question, as do other wisdom traditions.

I want to know what the moral resources are for a humourless atheist? What are the guiding narratives and structures from which the integrity of a life can be built, which allow a space within which to pursue the good life? Humourless atheism, just does not seem to have this. It is parasitic on other wisdom traditions – principally, but not exclusively, Christianity.

(Of course, as soon as a positive answer is given to this line of questioning, the humourless atheist is no longer such – now there is a positive hook on which to hang identity. More on that another time.)