For starters, I will reiterate what I wrote in my response to Hellenistic Christendom:
Both Irenaeus and Hick systematized human (Libertarian) free will.1 Arguably, there’s an inconsistency in their view of free will because they don’t focus on the origin of the human propensity for evil, i.e., original sin. If one were interested in a systematic reconciliation of the Original Sin Theodicy and Hick’s theodicy, it would be a rather simple task. The only issue would be in assuming that God allowed the Fall because he wanted human beings to ascend to moral perfection. He wanted to give us a choice and of course, a choice isn’t real unless there are alternatives. You can choose to lead an immoral life, to live in sin, or you can, per the Old Testament, keep God’s commandments or, per the New Testament, confess your sins and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior. This sort of theodicy would run into exegetical issues, however. Human beings do not, on their own will, ascend to moral perfection. According to Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”
Moral perfection or perhaps better put, holiness, isn’t a summit one reaches; it is more like, especially given allusions in the Bible (e.g. Colossians 3), a garment that you are adorned with. So Irenaeus and Hicks failed at this systematization because they forgot that “he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5). As a person driven by great personal pride, I can see the allure of Irenaeus and Hicks’ point of view; we are essentially Sisyphus, but we succeed at pushing the boulder to the summit! It is, however, not a Christian point of view.
But can it be a naturalistic, atheistic point of view? There’s quite a lot to unpack if one were to entertain the pertinent and yet tangential discussion on determinism and free will. If human beings have free will, it is highly probable that it is not congruous with the Libertarian view, the notion that ceteris paribus, one could choose a different course of action. Suffice to say that a Nietzschean view is more probable: the great person is distinct from the ordinary person and it is through great people that we achieve moral nobility.2
I happen to think that Nietzsche was right in his conclusion though one would be hard pressed to find in his works anything resembling a cogent argument supporting said conclusion. Nietzsche thoroughly explains the difference between great people and the herd and these allusions are present in his treatment of master and slave morality and in his idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche, however, does not provide us with a road map detailing how a slave becomes a master, how a member of the herd ascends to greatness. In fact, for Nietzsche, it’s not so much an ascent to greatness, but rather a descent, especially given how important suffering and solitude were to him and should be for a great person.
So I want to offer an informal argument because, to my mind, determinism is the wind at the back of every member of the herd. Even absent Irenaeus’ omniscient god, in where it would be hard to reconcile human free will with this deity’s predetermination, on naturalism, there is a sense in which most actions, moral or otherwise, are predetermined. Although I don’t think determinism applies to mundane actions (see here), I think it certainly applies to actions carrying greater consequences and moral implications. So before a person becomes great and strives for moral perfection, one must first become aware of as many determinants as possible, so that in having this awareness, one assumes control of the determinants that would otherwise determine a given decision.
Nietzsche’s great person does not leave the herd by accident, but rather by getting to know the chaos. Nietzsche describes it thus:
Cause and effect: such a duality probably never exists; in truth we are confronted by a continuum out of which we isolate a couple of pieces, just as we perceive motion only as isolated points and then infer it without ever actually seeing it. The suddenness with which many effects stand out misleads us; actually it is sudden only for us. In this moment of sudden- ness there is an infinite number of processes that elude us. An intellect that could see cause and effect as a continuum and a flux and not, as we do, in terms of an arbitrary division and dismemberment, would repudiate the concept of cause and effect and deny all conditionality.3
A great person therefore has the kind of intellect that doesn’t separate and breaks things, and categorizes them as causes and effects. Such a person would see the entire continuum and moreover, their role within that continuum. As such, this individual would not be controlled by cultural norms, societal expectations, religious tenets, and so on. This person would be able to act free from all determinants, assuming a well-placed tumor doesn’t dictate his/her behavior.4
An atheist who subsumes Irenaeus’ theodicy or perhaps more accurately, the thinking that underlies his theodicy, has to be the kind of individual that becomes great. Then s/he is free to pursue moral perfection. In keeping with Sartre’s atheistic existentialism, such an atheist would will meaning for the suffering and evil we see in the world and may take it upon themselves to help others transcend the herd mentality. This thinking is implicit on the Kardashev scale. Michio Kaku, for instance, thinks of the human race as a type 0 civilization, on the cusp of a worldwide language (English), interconnected (the Internet), and technically advanced enough to harness the energy of the planet. It is not, however, a type I civilization capable of harnessing the energy of its star (e.g. Dyson Sphere) or controlling natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes.5 Scientists and philosophers alike have entertained the idea that the destiny of humanity is an ascent up the Kardashev scale, but prior to doing so, what’s implied is a moral ascent, for it will take a moral species to disarm its militaries and set aside its sociopolitical and cultural differences.
So while Irenaeus’ theodicy is incongruous with Christian theology, it is not inconsistent with atheism. We do not need a god who wants us to achieve moral perfection. We can very well expect that of ourselves and of one another. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of work to be done both personally and collectively. Assuming Nietzsche was right, greatness is reserved for a select few while mediocrity awaits the herd. Perhaps then what’s needed is the right kind of master so that the subordinates have a good example to follow. I hold that Irenaeus had in mind a noble view of the human species and that regardless of the fact that his view is not in keeping with Christian theology, for an atheist to write off his theodicy either as an ineffective justification of suffering and evil or an interesting heresy is tantamount to tossing the baby out with the bath water. Irenaeus saw the great potential in the human race and he thought it possible that we could, of our own will, achieve moral perfection. It is a noble view that any atheist should adopt; it is probably the view at the heart of humanism. We are truly better without a god!
1 Cramer, David C. “John Hick (1922-2012)”. International Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. ND.
2 Anderson, R. Lanier. “Friedrich Nietzsche”. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. 17 Mar 2017. Web.
3 Kaufmann, Walter. “The Gay Science”. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, 1844-1900. The Gay Science; with a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. New York :Vintage Books, 1974. p. 173.
4 Choi, Charles. “Brain tumour causes uncontrollable paedophilia”. New Scientist. 21 Oct 2002. Web.
5 Creighton, Jolene. “The Kardashev Scale – Type I, II, III, IV & V Civilization”. 19 Jul 2014. Web.