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?

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