I’m Sorry, Patton Oswalt, but We Have to Pick

I’ve seen Patton Oswalt in lots of movies and TV shows, and so have you: “The King of Queens,” “Magnolia,” “Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.,” “United States of Tara,” and many more. And we’ve heard him, too, as the narrator on “The Goldbergs” and the voice of Remy the culinary rodent in “Ratatouille.” He’s always highly likable, so I thought I’d watch his recent Netflix comedy special, “Annihilation.”

Okay. Well. It wasn’t what I expected. Much bluer than I would have guessed. (“You voice Remy with that mouth, mister?”) But also much darker. For the last part of the show, he selected material from…his wife’s recent death. You don’t get darker than that.

Oswalt clearly loved his first wife, Michelle. (He has since remarried, but the special was filmed only a year or so after Michelle’s passing.) And he invoked her twice—near the beginning of this material, and then as his sign-off for the show: “It’s all chaos—so be kind.”

After all the tears-and-laughs he elicited through this performance, not to mention revulsion at some of his coarser stuff, the phrase “It’s all chaos—so be kind” was welcomed by the audience with a roar of approval and applause. But, in fact, Oswalt poses a choice, not a consequence. It’s either chaos or kindness.

Years ago, the political scientist and ethicist Glenn Tinder posed a powerful question in the pages of The Atlantic: “Can We Be Good without God?” Lots of thoughtful Christian thinkers have echoed that challenge, in both personal and social realms, from the philosopher Alvin Plantinga to the law professor Steven Smith to the novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson. And the verdict is the same.

To be sure, lots of people clearly are acting in lots of good ways that most of us would gladly acknowledge as “good,” even though they aren’t serious followers of a theistic religion, or even token believers in God.

The question must be more carefully put: Are there adequate grounds to make categorical moral judgments if one jettisons belief in a divinity at least something like the God of Abraham—a God who is all-good, all-wise, and all-powerful, and who has communicated a sense of goodness to humanity and expects us to discern and follow it?

Can we be coherently good without God?

Let’s put in terms of Mr. Oswalt’s wife’s counsel. If everything truly is chaos, why be kind? And why imply that everyone ought to be kind?

Dostoevsky, of course, famously wrote that “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” (The Brothers Karamazov). He was a Christian, but his judgment was echoed by the arch-atheist Friedrich Nietzsche (Beyond Good and Evil). A person might prefer people to act kindly, might even have a strong intuition that everyone ought to act kindly. But what are the grounds to believe that that intuition is anything other than one’s own preference, or the preference of one’s own social group? Why is the urge to be kind intrinsically better than the preferences of a pedophile social group, or a white supremacist society?

Preachers sometimes still moan that our society is hopelessly relativistic, one in which everyone is free to do whatever he or she likes. But if those days ever existed (and I don’t think they did), they’re not the days we live in now. Today, it seems, everyone is strongly and loudly convinced of the intrinsic rightness of his or her views.

If we are going to make progress in understanding each other, let alone toward healing some of the divisions in our society, we must get clearer about why we think and feel and believe and say and do what we think and feel and believe and say and do.

If we clarify those grounds, we may find that we lack good (enough) reason for holding to this or that opinion, and we might therefore be open to changing it. We may find instead that we have very strong grounds to keep believing what we believe, and so we will. In both cases, we are better off taking the time to think things through, rather than just blithely (or bellicosely) assuming we’re right.

Everyone is entitled to respect. (We Christians think so because of our commitment to the idea that humanity is created in the image of God. Why do you think so, if you do?) But not every idea is entitled to respect.

Bad ideas, in fact, ought to be exposed as such, whether in math and science, or in history and philosophy, or in religion and politics. We do each other a service, in fact, by helping each other see the error of our ways.

So, neighbour Patton, I’d like to take your late wife’s advice to be kind. May I therefore kindly say that if you want people to be kind, then you can’t offer them chaos.

May I offer you Christ, instead?

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).