SPidge Tales

Friday, May 11, 2007

Can there be Morality without Religion?

Karl Rove is known (both affectionately and derisively) as the mad genius behind the Bush Administration’s rise to power. He organizes the campaigns to get all wings of the Republican base—rich businessmen and evangelicals—into a sometimes awkward looking marriage; everything that need be done to keep Dubya in power. The recent revelation in a NY Times interview with Christopher Hitchens that Rove is “not a believer” adds an interesting twist to this tale. The man behind the evangelical rise to political power is an atheist.

The blog entry pushing the story on the NY Times Opinionator got the responses flowing. Secular progressives, those most likely to disapprove of Rove in the first place, were in a tizzy. ‘Can we excommunicate Rove?’ asked one atheist, apparently only half in jest. Conservative religious believers responded with comments suggesting that their Republican ‘bad apple’ can be explained away through his lack of faith. One commentator dared ask if we could possibly be surprised that a godless man would lack moral conviction.

The issue of belief vs. unbelief, like any other contentious issue, brings out the same arguments on all sides. Even though the topic at hand was an unbeliever working hard to keep a religiously motivated political regime in power, the debate in the comment area degenerated into the typical argument over whether there can be morality without God. And nothing bristles an atheist more than the suggestion that morality is tied into supernatural religion.

‘No,’ says the atheist, ‘we don’t need God to have morality. I can be a good person without believing in some fairy tale guy in the sky.’ The believer will predictably respond by asking, ‘What incentive is there to be good if there is no God to reward or punish your behavior in the afterlife?’ The atheist is prepared with his smug altruism: ‘Is it not better to do good for its own sake rather than for a heavenly reward?’

The atheist, in his response, misunderstands the statement, best expressed by 19th century Christian Fyodor Dostoevsky (and also believed by 19th century atheist Friedrich Nietzsche), “If there is no God, all is lawful.” This belief—that without God, there is no right and wrong—does NOT imply that atheists can’t be good people. Atheists can be good people, and many are. Yes, some atheists (Lenin, Stalin, Kim Jung Il) are bad, but some Christians are bad too. This belief—that without God, there is no right and wrong—also does NOT imply that people should only be good because God said so. The atheist is right; it is better to be good for goodness sake, as Santa Claus would say. Though, we can’t discount ulterior incentives to be good, whether this or other worldly. Yes, ideally man would refrain from killing his brother solely out of a proper sense of justice. Ideally, we would need no law for man to see that, yes, he is his brother’s keeper. And, I believe, most people would refrain from murder without legal proscriptions. But, we know human nature, and we know that incentives and prohibitions are a necessary part of bringing about proper moral behavior in man, even with the hope that man will someday transcend this and live, as the atheist (and the true Christian) dreams, a virtuous life solely because it is the right thing to do.

What this belief—that there is no right or wrong sans God—does imply is it that without God, right and wrong ultimately have no absolute value. Atheists can be “good” people if there is no God, just as Christians can, but “good” and “bad” will only have any meaning in the sense that an action is relatively beneficial. Good and bad, without God, can only be spoken of in the sense that, when a lion eats a lamb, it is good for the lion and bad for the lamb. Yes, an atheist can be a good person. Yes, it is best to be good for its own sake, not for hope in an afterlife (even if one does have hope for life in heaven). But if there is no God—if this life is the only life and we become nothing when we die—then right and wrong, good and evil, beauty and love and happiness and life all have no meaning.

I am no prophet of doom. I am not warning us; I am not calling America to turn back to God or face a descent into nihilism. Will society collapse? Will people despair in the recognition that a world without God is meaningless? Probably not. Most would not think things through to their end in daily life. Just as most Christians do not give their all to Christ in the manner of St. Francis of Assisi, most people in a world without God would not, like Ivan Karamazov, see things through to their logical conclusion and out of despair, choose to pass on the cup. Life in a Godless world would be fairly similar to a world with God, or to our current world, a world struggling between being a God-filled or Godless world.

The difference would need to be grasped subtly in a view from the distance. This view can best be observed in a glimpse of literature. The novels of Ian McEwan are deeply moving accounts of the way people live today. But in the end, one is not filled with hope at their conclusion. In his novel Saturday, we meet a neurosurgeon, married to a loving wife, preparing himself for a nice family dinner and the return home of his daughter. The backdrop is a London protest of the Iraq War, and he delights in the return home of his daughter while simultaneously fretting over an incident from the early afternoon. At novel’s end, we are relieved at the happy ending for a just man, but we feel a touch of sadness, since it is obvious, both subtly and overtly, that he is missing that relationship with the supernatural in his own life. Despite his proficient understanding of the workings of the brain, he realizes in that day’s events his helplessness to control his world. This fact is a truism for all; the tragedy is he cannot bring himself to turn to God in his own ‘Job’ moment.

The truly committed Christian gives herself completely over to Christ, like the Little Flower St. Therese and St. Antony of the Desert and St. Francis of Assisi. The truly thoughtful atheist sees things all the way through, like Dostoevsky’s fictional Ivan Karamazov, who “respectfully” returns God “the ticket” and promises to give up drinking from the cup (of life) at age 30. Most Christians (me included) don’t let God get too much in the way, and live a normal, this-world-centered, life. Most atheists don’t let their non-belief play too much into day-to-day life, and live normal this-world-centered lives. It’s at the end of the day, I fear, that the person lacking faith, despite his resolute pride, will, like Ian McEwan’s Saturday neurosurgeon, recognize his helplessness at controlling his world, and miss out on turning to He who gives life meaning.


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