Another Letter to an Atheist:
I applaud your desire to live and think morally. I also agree with you that, “We just need ones [morals] that are rationally justified.” However, I don’t think that you can do this apart from a belief in a superior, transcendent Being.
For one thing, there is the observation by the skeptical philosopher David Hume that we can’t proceed logically from what “is” (science and observation) to what “should be” (moral laws). They are separated by an impassible gulf. We all see much evil in the world, but this fact doesn’t by itself dictate any moral truths. While some might propose some form of corrective intervention, others will simply conclude, “Well, it’s just the way it should be – the survival of the fittest.” Meanwhile, others will conclude that its all illusion and that we shouldn’t strengthen the illusion by treating it as if it’s real. Science cannot mediate among these conflicting opinions.
Swami Prabhupada wrote a popular commentary on the Bhagavad Gita:
· “The hospital making business is being conducted by the government; it is the duty of a disciple to make hospitals whereby people can actually get rid of their material bodies, not patch them up. But for want of knowing what real spiritual activity is, we take up material activities.” (The King of Knowledge)
Likewise, the Self-Realization Fellowship, started by Swami Yogananda, presents this as one of their core beliefs:
· “Then this cosmic movie, with its horrors of disease and poverty and atomic bombs will appear to us only as real as the anomalies we experience at a movie house. When we have finished seeing the motion picture, we will know that nobody was killed; nobody was suffering.”
Eastern thought is in denial about suffering and concepts of justice. However, modern secularism is the heir to the ideas of the Christian West. Instead, of being one vast illusion that must be transcended, the Bible reveals that God’s creation is “very good,” albeit fallen. It therefore can be enjoyed, valued, and upheld. Consequently, work, family and friendships are valued and upheld, while suffering and loss should elicit compassion.
I think that it’s important and honest for secularists to acknowledge this debt, as some secularists, like John D. Steinrucken, are willing to do:
· Those who doubt the effect of religion on morality should seriously ask the question: Just what are the immutable moral laws of secularism? Be prepared to answer, if you are honest, that such laws simply do not exist! The best answer we can ever hear from secularists to this question is a hodgepodge of strained relativist talk of situational ethics. They can cite no overriding authority other than that of fashion. For the great majority in the West, it is the Judeo/Christian tradition which offers a template assuring a life of inner peace toward the world at large -- a peace which translates to a workable liberal society.
Are you aware that your ideas are very Judeo/Christian:
- I equate what is morally good and bad with what helps and harms conscious living beings, with humans given priority since we are the most sentient of all living things.
However, as you point out, we will differ about “what helps and harms.” Even the fact that you give “humans…priority” is also a Christian idea. The Bible teaches that we are God’s glorious creation – created in His very moral and spiritual image (Gen. 1:26-27).
However, we mustn’t take this ground-zero belief for granted. Even now many secularists are assigning value based upon performance, intelligence and societal contributions.
This change will have serious consequences. There will no longer be any rational justification for “equality” and “equal rights,” simply because there is no such thing as equality in a merely physical world, where all have different abilities and intelligence and make very different kinds of contributions, some negative. And if there are assigned a negative value, shouldn’t that make them expendable?
From this perspective, it should not surprise us that every radical secular experiment has degenerated into barbarism, where the “ends justifies whatever means” is required to stay in power. And there are good reasons for this. Here are some problems that secular pragmatism will encounter if it doesn’t connect itself to the Christian faith:
- It will lack moral absolutes, and these require a higher, transcendent, unchanging moral law. Lenin had been asked, “What is moral under the communist system.” He answered, “Whatever promotes the revolution is moral. Whatever interferes with it is immoral.” Understandably, this philosophy gave rise to the most extensive murder sprees in human history.
Without moral absolutes, we can’t even talk coherently about judgments or laws. We can’t tell our children, “It’s wrong to steal.” Instead, we must tell them, “According to our current social conventions, stealing is wrong.”
- A sound moral or legal system cannot be founded on pragmatism alone. While selfish, pragmatic considerations can lead us to be altruistic, these can’t do so for long. While most of the time we benefit when we help others, there are many occasions when helping others will prove costly and non-pragmatic. Pragmatism can’t provide the rationale to truly sacrifice ourselves for others.
In contrast, when we understand that our reward is in heaven, we Christians are willing to sacrifice our “reward” here, at least, that’s our goal. History is replete of such examples. The Second century theologian Tertullian explained:
- “We Christians have everything in common except our wives. It is our care of the helpless, our practice of lovingkindness that brands us in the eyes of many of our opponents. ‘Look,’ they say, “how much they love one another.’”
Even the pagan Lucian (190 AD) confessed:
- “The earnestness with which people of this religion help one another in their needs is incredible. They spare themselves nothing for this end.”
- People will live the way they believe. If they don’t believe in moral absolutes from above, they will live as if they don’t exist, by changing man-made standards to be manipulated to suit the occasion and need. Besides, if you believe that humanity is the end-all-and-be-all, this will inevitably produce arrogance.
In contrast, as the Christian draws closer to the Light, the Light exposes us for who we are and humbles us. Therefore, we dare not look down on others.
- Fruitful society is based upon shared values. However, if our values are merely pragmatically derived from our relative situations, harmony will be impossible to attain. Reason alone will not restore social order, and where reason fails, power and coercion will fill the gap. Secular humanist Max Hocutt admits that:
- “To me [the non-existence of God] means that there is no absolute morality, that moralities are sets of social conventions devised by humans to satisfy their needs…If there were a morality written up in the sky somewhere but no God to enforce it, I see no good reason why anyone should pay it any heed.”
If people have no sufficient reason to follow the laws, the State has to provide one – fear. This helps to explain while every radical experiment in secular humanism has devolved into a harsh totalitarian state. The secularist Steinrucken acknowledges this:
· Secularism has never offered the people a practical substitute for religion. From the time of the philosophes with their certainties in 1789, the rationally thought-through utopias of those who think themselves the elite of the world, when actually put to the test, have not merely come to naught. Attempts during those two centuries to put into practice utopian visions have caused huge sufferings. But they, the clever ones, never look back. In their conceit, they delude themselves that next time they are sure to get it right. They create justifications for their fantasies by rewriting the histories.
I know that you have a hard time with the Old Testament, but perhaps you might re-visit the New. You might not find its morality so entirely different from the morals you understandably want to promote.