John Hare: Can morality and happiness coincide?

by Ray Waddle, Editor, Reflections magazine

Belief in God in the 21st century: it wasn’t supposed to happen.

According to secular theorizing in its 1960s and 70s heyday, traditional faith would soon be killed off by the steady march of science and rationalism. Secularism would prevail.

HareIt hasn’t turned out that way. Non-believers could have saved themselves bewilderment by reading Yale Divinity School theologian John Hare, who has been thinking about the persistence of God for decades—and our need for God’s assistance to sustain the moral life.

Without God, human moral behavior cannot be rationally justified, Hare asserts. In a world without God, there is no way to justify the faith that the moral demands are consistent with our happiness.

“The question is, Why should I accept the moral demand made upon me—how do we justify it?” says Hare, the Noah Porter Professor of Philosophical Theology. “I don’t think it can be done apart from belief in God. God calls us to the moral life.”

We can narrow the “moral gap” between the moral demand and our natural inclinations, with God’s assistance. Hare argues that God can help us overcome our tendency to put ourselves first—by inspiring discipline, offering forgiveness—in ways that sheer reason cannot.

“God has organized the world in such a way,” Hare has said, “that our morality and our happiness can be consistent with each other.”

John Hare is a British-born theologian who is grounded in classical philosophy, Duns Scotus, Kant, Kierkegaard, modern ethical theory—a Christian philosopher pursuing careful arguments about God’s relationship to the ethical life.

In a post-9/11 era crackling with scrimmages between theists and skeptics, Hare and his arguments are in demand. He was featured in a Veritas Forum discussion with atheist Peter Singer at MIT in 2009 (see the transcript in the book A Place for Truth, edited by Dallas Willard). In February he will deliver the Wilde Lectures at Oxford University. His subject will be “divine command.”

Asked about the high-profile phenomenon of the New Atheists of recent years, Hare says: “There’s a lot of variety to New Atheism, but I have a hypothesis about why they emerged when they did, and it has nothing to do with 9/11.

In the 1960s and 70s, there were just as many strong atheists in academic and intellectual life as now, according to Hare.  But they didn’t take a public stance. They saw no need for it. The reason: they believed the secularization theory. They believed that religion would disappear all by itself. They thought they could just be quiet about it. Let sleeping dogs lie.

“But religion didn’t disappear,” observes Hare.  “Instead, atheists are seeing Christianity continue as a forceful presence. In the academy, they see Christian historians and philosophers, for example, speaking with confidence and expertise. So now the New Atheists feel the need to go public about it. And they have in turn energized a whole generation of Christian apologists.”

One argument against religion is to say the world’s faiths perpetuate bloodshed and division. Hare says it’s not so simple as that.

“We do have to acknowledge as believers that religion has done a lot of harm. Christians have to be repentant about what our fellow Christians have done and are still doing. But if we look at history—if we look at what was done by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and many others—then it’s not at all clear that the people of the Abrahamic faiths did worse. The trouble is, any ideology can be used to evil purposes.”

New research in the sciences has intensified arguments for and against God. Hare points to recent developments in evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience, which some non-believers use to buttress denials of the existence of God. But they can easily lapse into the mistake of drawing metaphysical conclusions from scientific premises, he argues.

“One (atheistic) argument is: religion has an entirely scientific explanation, and neuroscience can give us details that it couldn’t a generation ago. But we need to distinguish between metaphysical naturalism and methodological naturalism. It’s perfectly appropriate for a scientist to be a methodological naturalist, because you can’t put God in the lab and do testing. But to proclaim God therefore does not exist —that’s doesn’t follow. It’s a category mistake, a muddle.”

Hare does not deny evolution. He sees it as an instrument of God. Does evolution destroy the doctrine of the Fall, as some Christians believe? Hare says no.

“I want to accept evolution, but I don’t need to jettison images of the Fall. At some point in our evolutionary history, we became aware of the presence of God —the presence of something so good that the claims of self-interest were silenced. And it was only after that encounter that we could sin—only then were we choosing against something. Ever since, we have found ourselves choosing against it, repeatedly, constantly. But there is power available to us outside ourselves to accomplish what Kant calls the revolution of the will.”

The author of God and Morality: A Philosophical History (Blackwell, 2007), Why Bother Being Good? (InterVarsity, 2002), The Moral Gap (Clarendon, 1996), Plato's Euthyphro (Bryn Mawr, 1981) and other works, Hare came to YDS in 2003, succeeding Nicholas Wolterstorff. He previously taught at Lehigh University and Calvin College; he succeeded Wolterstorff at Calvin as well. He is also a musician and composer of sacred music.

Hare’s foundation in philosophy was enriched by family pedigree: his father was the utilitarian R.M. Hare (1919-2002). The elder Hare gave the Taylor Lectures at Yale in 1968, providing his own version of the argument for providence, though he was not an orthodox believer.

“He went to church, sang the hymns, knew many psalms by heart—but if you asked him about the Apostles Creed item by item, he would have said he didn’t believe it,” John Hare says.

“I think I can say about him what Kant said about Spinoza—he had too much trust in the theoretical power of reason. I’m willing to believe things I don’t understand; my father was not. There again, I follow Kant, who said we have to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith.”

Regarding the mystery of the divine will and the human endeavor to understand it, Hare borrows an image from Rev. 2:17. There it says: “To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”

Hare says: “I want to say God has a plan for each person, and it’s different for each person. We have a picture of this in Revelation. God has a name for each of us, and God is calling us by name. I think we are called into this name, and we get glimpses of it every now and again. … God cares about our morality and our happiness —our justice and our peace. We can have the hope that, in the long run, under God’s providence, justice and peace will kiss each other.”


Date Posted: Saturday, February 4, 2012 - 5:00pm