We are in a culture war. Battle lines are sometimes clear: the left wants higher taxes; the right wants lower taxes. Sometimes, though, lines blur. God blurs everything.
In the past, it was safe to assume that a conservative was also a Christian or a Jew. According to a 2015 Pew poll, the percentage of religiously unaffiliated Americans is increasing, as is the percentage of non-Christian Americans. The percentage of religiously-affiliated Christians is shrinking.
S. E. Cupp, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Anthony Daniels are atheists or near atheists. In 2015, Jamila Bey of American Atheists spoke at CPAC. Her group claims, “Religion is dragging conservatism down … Approximately 50% of non-religious Americans prefer a smaller government … Conservatism is losing out on millions of potential voters because of its close ties to religious fundamentalism.” “The Christian right should be threatened by us,” said David Silverman, president of American Atheists.
Conservatives want to conserve, or keep, things. In the past it was safe to assume that Conservatives knew what they wanted to keep – Judeo-Christian values – and why – because God ordained those values.
Atheism is easier for the left. Religion, after all, as Karl Marx famously said, is the opium of the people. Sixty-nine percent of American atheists identify as Democrats. Progressives want to progress – to move society forward through social engineering. Marxism understands itself as scientific and atheistic. It’s easy for a leftist to dismiss the Bible as “just plain weird” and the Judeo-Christian God as “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully,” as does left-leaning atheist Richard Dawkins. “About a third of atheists say they look primarily to science for guidance on questions of right and wrong,” reports Pew.
What will be the results of looking to science for ethical guidance? How will conservatives handle increasing atheism and de-Christianization?
People assume that the values they have grown up with are like gravity. Suppose current trends continue until we completely jettison the God of the Bible. Can we assume that the day after everyone is an atheist, or a member of a non-Biblical religion, we will still have the values we have today?
I tell my students about my neighbors in Nepal. My Nepali neighbors were warm and respectful, generous and reliable, hardy and musical. They really were the colorfully-garbed Himalayan Hindus you see in any National Geographic photo spread about the “top of the world.” My neighbors were starving the youngest daughter in the family. She would eventually die, as do many youngest daughters. Maybe she contracted a common childhood illness and received no medical attention. Maybe she finally succumbed to kwashiorkor, because, as was obvious from her bloated belly, stick-like arms and legs and straw-like hair, she was fed almost no protein. Her older brother was normally proportioned and he had glossy, jet-black hair. Maybe the family force-fed the girl toxic oleander sap or uncooked rice, thus choking her. My American students are shocked by female infanticide, but utterly discombobulated by my insistence that nice people practice it, and that no authorities intervene.
On October 13, 2011, in Foshan, China, two-year-old Wang Yue was hit by a van. The driver backed up and ran over her again. Eighteen witnesses skirted around Wang Yue as she lay in the street, writhing and crying. A second vehicle ran over Yue. Closed circuit television recorded the horror; it’s on YouTube.
Chinese journalist Lijia Zhang related Yue’s death to Confucian values. “Shaoguanxianshi” means “don’t get involved if it’s not your business.” Those worthy of kindness are “guanxi,” one’s “family and friends and business associates.” Strangers do not merit similar consideration. A Chinese proverb advises, “Each person should sweep the snow from his own doorsteps and should not fret about the frost on his neighbor’s roof.” “Confucianism produces a sort of ethical particularism,” wrote Sam Crane, professor of Chinese politics. One of the passersby who ignored Yue’s death throes said, “That wasn’t my child. Why should I bother?”
In 2007 Peng Yu, a man who helped an old woman, was penalized on suspicion – without evidence – that he had helped only out of some hidden, nefarious motive. The judge who fined Peng declared, “Peng must be at fault. Otherwise why would he want to help?” In aiding a stranger, Peng acted against “common sense.”
The South China Morning Post used the term “Good Samaritan” to discuss proposed laws that might encourage Chinese people to help strangers. A new Chinese law was entitled the “Good Samaritans’ Rights Protection Regulation of the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone.” The phrase “Good Samaritan” comes from a parable told by Jesus and recorded in the Bible. The phrase had to be imported into China to express the idea of helping a stranger. In contrast, Good Samaritan law has a long history in the West.
In 2010, a woman whose Muslim husband tortured and raped her was denied a restraining order by a New Jersey judge on the grounds that the husband was acting in accordance with Islamic values. “This court does not feel that, under the circumstances, this defendant had a criminal desire … The court believes that he was operating under his belief.”
Atheist Richard Dawkins insists that “The Genesis story is just one that happened to have been adopted by one particular tribe of Middle Eastern herders. It has no more special status than the belief of a particular West African tribe that the world was created from the excrement of ants.”
The Genesis story is unique among world creation myths. It is the only known story in which one, sole, uncreated, transcendent and yet personal God, ex nihilo, creates the ancestors of everyone on earth, in God’s own image, in a unique act of creation, a creation God pronounces good and blesses.
Rabbis interpret the Genesis story as supporting equality under God and the importance of each individual human life. Adam was created singly “so that there would be peace among men, no man being able to say to another, ‘My father is greater than yours.'” When God “creates men in the stamp of Adam, each comes out looking different. Therefore, every single person is required to say, ‘The world was created for me.'” It’s easy to see how universal human rights and a valuing of the individual would spring from such a myth – “If you save one life, it is as if you saved the entire world.”
Compare Genesis with a creation story found in the Rig-Veda. Purusha, a primal man, is divided up. His mouth becomes the Brahmins. His arms become the warriors. His legs become merchants and farmers. His feet become servants. Untouchables did not come from Purusha. This creation story sanctifies the human rights abuses inherent in the caste system.
Barbara C. Sproul, director of the program in religion at Hunter College, wrote, “Declared unbelievers … still cherish the consequence of the claim” of Genesis. Even atheists “affirm that people have inalienable rights as if they were created by God … to the extent they reflect these attitudes in their daily behavior,” even atheists “are still deeply Judeo-Christian.”
Richard Weikart’s 2016 Regnery Faith book The Death of Humanity and the Case for Life charts how influential atheist thinkers have approached ethical questions. The book’s greatest strength is its many brief summaries of the thought processes of influential authors, scientists, philosophers, and lawyers who have rejected Judeo-Christian ethics and created their own ethics. Weikart spares the reader a massive amount of reading and cuts to key quotes. Thinkers covered in the book include Marquis de Sade, Denis Diderot, William Godwin, Claude Adrien Helvetius, Karl Marx, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Clarence Darrow, Francis Galton, Count Gobineau, Frederik Nietzsche, Ayn Rand, Konrad Lorenz, Joseph Stalin, Michel Foucault, Derek Humphry, H. G. Wells, Ernst Haeckel, Bertrand Russell, Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, E. O. Wilson, and Stephen Pinker. One might suspect that such a vast array of names would require Weikart either to write a shallow book or one so dense as to be unreadable. Neither suspicion is correct. Weikart has plunged through a vast amount of material and risen to the surface with the pearls.
A pattern rapidly emerges. Thinkers decide that there is no God, reject the Judeo-Christian ethic, and devise their own system. Strength, health, and pleasure are typically chosen as virtues. Weakness, infirmity, suffering, old age, failure, or simply being a member of the opposite team are typically chosen as flaws. Some decide that they themselves are close to God. Social engineering runs amok into eugenics and weird experimentation. As B. F. Skinner wrote, “What is being abolished is autonomous man … the man defended by the literatures of freedom and dignity … To man qua man we readily say good riddance … We not only can control human behavior, we must. I deny that freedom exists at all.” Democracy “is based on a scientifically invalid conception of man … man is determined by the state,” and “I like to play God!” Science is often chosen to replace God. “Science in general, and natural selection in particular, should become the basis on which we are to build the new culture,” wrote Francis Crick. In short, Dostoyevsky was right. Without God, everything is permitted.
Those Weikart quotes often admit that their rejection of God lead them to depression. Indeed, atheists have higher suicide rates than religiously affiliated persons. “My depression, caused by my awareness that my existence was totally absurd, made me realize that I, we, are doomed to nauseating insignificance,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre.
Perhaps the most influential contemporary exemplar of atheist ethics is Peter Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. For Singer, Darwin “undermined the foundations of the entire Western way of thinking on the place of our species in the universe.” Darwin “gave what ought to have been the final blow” to the “human-centered view of the universe.” Humanity is the result of “a chance combination of gasses … random mutation and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen to any overall purpose.” Singer’s 2002 book is titled Unsanctifying Human Life. “All we are doing is catching up with Darwin. He showed in the nineteenth century that we are simply animals … Darwin’s theory undermined the foundations of that entire Western way of thinking about the place of our species in the universe.” Singer acknowledges that atheists “must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning.” “If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby does not either, and the life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee is to the non-human animal.”
Biologist Richard Dawkins has appealed for the creation of a living Australopithecine in order to provide “positive ethical benefits” to demolish the “double standard” of speciesism, that is, valuing human life above animal life. “Any fetus is less human than an adult pig,” says Dawkins. He has also said that it would be immoral not to abort a fetus known to have Down’s syndrome. Dawkins wants to “change everything” by destroying the “deeply un-evolutionary” idea that human life is sacred. To do so, we can and must create a hybrid of humans and chimps. In his book The Blind Watchmaker Dawkins insists that the universe has “at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”
Dawkins rejects free will. Humans are no more than balls ricocheting around a pool table according to the angle at which they were struck. We should not show anger to “a murderer, say, or a rapist;” they could not help themselves. We should “heartily” “laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal … Isn’t the murderer or rapist just a machine with a defective component … defective genes?” After all, Dawkins pointed out, “We are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes … genes exert ultimate power over behavior.” Motherhood is mechanical. “I am treating a mother as a machine programmed to do everything in its power to propagate copies of the genes which ride inside it.” Defective offspring “should die gracefully and willingly.” The one dying should “preferably let himself be eaten by his litter-mates or his parents.” Dawkins asks, “What’s to prevent us from saying Hitler wasn’t right? I mean, that is a genuinely difficult question.”
Atheists like Singer and Dawkins exhibit a pattern of injecting traditional Judeo-Christian morality into their pronouncements and pretending that that morality is inherent in their atheist worldview. Weikart calls this “smuggling.” They know that amorality and meaninglessness are unpalatable to many, and perhaps they recognize that funding sources will dry up, or followers will be less worshipful, if they don’t moderate these ideas. So, they “smuggle” compassion and human worth into their publications. As Weikart emphasizes, though, there is no logical reason for any compassion or human worth to be found in a meaningless universe.
The Nazis, of course, were less worried about bad press, and they openly called for, and practiced, elimination of the unfit. Handicapped Germans were the first and last victims of Nazi mass killing. Weikart quotes survivor Viktor Frankl: “The gas chambers of Auschwitz were the ultimate consequence of the theory that man is nothing but the product of heredity and environment” Gas chambers “were ultimately prepared … at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers.”
I strongly recommend this book for its series of snapshots of the mental lives of influential thinkers who took the road from atheism to moral systems many of us would find unattractive. I do have a few objections to the book.
The introduction is the weakest part of the book. It includes a sensational series of soundbites of notorious criminals who attributed their crimes to their atheism and their acceptance of evolution. These include Jeffrey Dahmer, a serial killer and cannibal, and Eric Harris, the Columbine school shooter. I doubt that such disturbed persons’ assessments of their own motivations can be trusted.
Many Christians do believe in evolution, and have not used that belief as an excuse to reject God, meaning, or morality. One such prominent person is NIH director Francis S. Collins, author of The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.
Weikart bundles together genocide, abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and suicide. Surely these are different topics that cannot be equated. He repeatedly uses the phrase “slippery slope.” The book did not convince this reader that abortion or euthanasia, practices that doctors and patients have engaged in legally or illegally for all of human history, inevitably result in total devaluation of human life.
Weikart’s treatment of pain struck me as cavalier. I worked as a nurse’s aide. I was at the bedside of many people dying from cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other terminal illnesses. I witnessed family members, doctors, and nurses deciding together to withhold treatment and to administer dosages of medication that would most likely result in a hastening of death. None of these people can or should be classified with Nazis or with those philosophers Weikart cites who argue that pleasure is the only good.
I wish Weikart had mentioned Madison Grant. Grant cofounded the Bronx Zoo and helped save the redwoods and the bison. In 1916, Grant published The Passing of the Great Race that denounced Christian compassion as counter-evolutionary. Grant wrote that “The laws of nature require the obliteration of the unfit.” The book was well-reviewed. Hitler called Grant’s book his bible. Grant attempted to demonstrate evolution by placing Ota Benga, a Pygmy, in the Bronx Zoo. Christians complained and the New York Times chided them for not accepting evolution: “The idea that men are much alike” – “all men are created equal,” an idea from Genesis – “is now far out of date.” Ota Benga later committed suicide. Grant helped to classify Eastern and Southern European immigrants as racially inferior. He influenced immigration laws that were enforced for forty years, including during World War II, when they were used to keep fleeing Eastern European refugees, Jewish and Christian, out of the US.
For many readers the biggest problem with Weikart’s book will be that most atheists are not the extremists Weikart quotes, and many believing Christians and Jews have betrayed Biblical teachings on the value of human life. Weikart never says that atheism inevitably leads to amorality, but he doesn’t emphasize enough that many atheists are very good people.
Regarding the problem of bad Christians. The Catholic Church was the one international institution that stood against eugenics (see for example Casti Connubii). Catholic author G. K. Chesterton published Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument against the Scientifically Organized Society in 1917. Chesterton could be writing today: “The thing that really is trying to tyrannise through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen, that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics.”
During this same era, many Protestants accepted scientific racism; see, for example, “Evangelical Engagements with Eugenics, 1900-1940.” Author Dennis L. Durst writes, “Evangelicals often accepted eugenics as a part of a progressive, reformist vision.”
Weikart never acknowledges the Catholic Church’s stance against scientific racism. And he makes another error. Yes, Weikart acknowledges, sometimes people who call themselves Christians, but who really aren’t, do bad things. He cites “the Roman Catholic Inquisition” and the Crusades four separate times. I have encountered this same tactic in other books. “Yes, some people who call themselves Christians have done bad things. Those people are Catholics. Forget about them.” That’s not an adequate response to the problem of evil among Christians.
Sincere Christians sometimes do bad things. Unless Christians acknowledge this, they acknowledge nothing. Second, as Rodney Stark and other historians have shown, the Crusades and the Inquisition are not what propaganda makes them out to be. Weikart needs to read Bearing False Witness and God’s Battalions.
Quibbles aside, The Death of Humanity is very much worth reading. The challenge it poses remains for religious conservatives and conservatism. We do not want to impose Jewish or Christian belief on anyone, but we do want to conserve the fruits of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Given the de-churching of society described by Pew, we will have to find a way to found our values in something other than the Bible if we want to reach non-believers. Atheist conservatives face a different challenge. How to justify moral behavior when even saying that Hitler was wrong is hard for the world’s biggest celebrity atheist?