My colleagues continue to do fine work at What’s Wrong With The World, and I am pleased that my initial effort over there seems to have been generally well-received. Thanks to that post, Mark Shea and Ross have proposed a showdown between me and Christopher Hitchens. Actually, I think Douglas Wilson is doing just fine without any help from me, and makes the crucial point (the one that atheists will contend against until their last breath because they know a large part of argument hinges on it) that if the atheists are right about God then there is no transcendent moral order, no imperatives of justice or requirements of conscience that are any less subjective or arbitrary or more authoritative than the “man-made religions” Hitchens ridicules. Morality is then not only purely conventional and contractual, but inevitably exists only as a function of social control by the few over the many for the benefit of the former. Hitchens has in no way remedied the control of thought and act that he finds so obnoxious in religious societies, but has simply denied the religious legitimisation of this control.
Hitchens’ exquisite moralistic outrage at the crimes of the religious or at least the nominally religious is all very interesting, until you consider the problem that there is nothing authoritative or meaningful or ultimately important about the morality he claims to defend (not that this devotion to this morality stops him from backing wars of aggression and lionising communist murderers, but, hey, nobody’s perfect). Men who do not fear God, because they think He does not exist, will usually have no compunctions against committing the most horrific atrocities, along with a whole range of crimes, if they believe they have sufficient self-interest to do so. If atheists were right, and there is very often no justice here below, the morality that condemns the genocidaire and praises the almsgiver is as ephemeral and ultimately meaningless as the religious rites they regard as absurd. In such a world, one man’s genocidaire becomes another man’s national hero and, if the atheist is right, there is nothing to which men can appeal as an ultimate authority against such depredations (except to the entirely arbitrary conscience of other people, who would feel no sense of moral obligation to help anyway).
Human dignity quickly evaporates when man becomes concerned with survival and naked interest, as men usually will when they have no vision of the eternal before their eyes, whether it is a Dean Barnett talking about “getting our hands dirty” or a Stalin talking about making omelettes. Monistic materialism, which is the inevitable destination of an atheist, cannot invest man with any special dignity; theoretically, he would be no more morally significant than the bacteria we kill off with disinfectant. The paths to a thousand genocides are opened, because men are already prone to such deeds and without some confidence that these things are not only absolutely wrong but the cause of damnation the temptations of power will very often win out over what native goodwill may reside in fallen, unilluminated men. To this the atheist, if he is honest, will happily agree and say, “That’s just the way it is. Get used to it.” But not only does no sane person want to live in such a world, our very natural horror in the face of such things tells us that a world entirely without meaning cannot be the reality.
It is not precisely the purpose of revelation to bring ethics to the world (though the life of virtue is tied together with participation in divine Life), and it was certainly not the main feature of Christ’s life and work to be an ethics instructor, but to bring life to the world, yet without God ordering the cosmos and giving men the just fruits of their works in eternity there is no particular reason to regard one ethos as more desirable than another, except by some arbitrary and equally man-made standard that can be challenged, deconstructed and subverted by means of the reason that built it up. Paradox and mystery stand beyond the ken of reason, and so offer man the hope of meaning that cannot be emptied of content.