The search for meaning

Martha Nussbaum talks to Bill Moyers.

[I]f you look into the religions, they have this deep idea of human dignity and the source of dignity being conscience. This capacity for searching for the meaning of life. And that leads us directly to the idea of respect. Because if conscience is this deep and valuable source of searching for meaning, then we all have it whether we’re agreeing or disagreeing. And we all ought to respect it and respect it equally in one another.

Hmm. I would say, as usual, it depends what kind of ‘respect’ is meant. There are, as usual, different possible levels of respect – recognition respect, substantive respect, and so on. In one way I agree with that (and so, it might surprise many people to know, does that notorious ‘fundamentalist’ atheist Richard Dawkins): I do respect the search for meaning and related projects, I do respect the desire for something more than the purely greedy or trivial or selfish. In another way I’m not sure I do agree with it – though I’m not sure enough that this really is another way to say flatly that I don’t agree with it. I respect the search for meaning, but then my respect goes wobbly if the search is carried on with the wrong equipment, or with self-imposed handicaps, or if it’s declared successful too early. My respect thins out to the vanishing point when the idea boils down to saying ‘people crave meaning therefore God exists’ or ‘people crave meaning therefore it is a crime to say there is no reason to think God exists and any old lies are okay to tell about people who commit that crime.’ Nussbaum doesn’t mean that, obviously; I suppose I’m just registering some caution about the idea because a lot of very vehement and inaccurate critics of ‘new’ atheism do resort to the ‘search for meaning’ defense in just that vituperative way.

Moyers later points out that many conservative Christians believe that ‘without a belief in a supreme being, a person, an atheist, can’t be a moral agent.’

I know they think that. But I think they really should look more closely at the ethical reasoning of people who are agnostics and atheists. And I think it’s obvious that lots and lots of people in this country are– are deeply ethical, do have a sense of the ethically obligatory and of the depth and real requirement of ethical norms, while not connecting that to a divine source.

Yes, I think they should too, but I’m not very optimistic that they will. But I would certainly be pleased if they did, and if Nussbaum’s book gets some of them to do that, very good.

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