Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ethical Implications of a Post-Christian World

"If there is a God of infinite love and goodness, of whom every person is an image, then certain moral conclusions must be drawn; if there is not, those conclusions have no meaning. Many cultures, after all, have thrived quite well without ever adopting our 'humanistic' prejudices; there is no reason we should not come more to resemble them than they us. ... Nietzsche was a prophetic figure precisely because he, almost alone among Christianity's enemies, understood the implications of Christianity's withdrawal from the culture it had haunted for so many centuries. He understood that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat, and that even our cherished 'Enlightenment' virtues may in the end prove to have been only parasitic upon inherited, but fading, cultural predilections, and so prove also to be destined for oblivion."

Thus writes David Bentley Hart in his book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press, 2009 - p. 238).

In offering a rebuttal to core claims about "religion" and Christianity offered by New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris (among others), Hart shows how the gradual spread and acceptance of Christianity in the early centuries of the common era constituted nothing less than a revolution in how we understand what it means to be human and what that understanding entails ethically. It fundamentally altered the moral psychology of humanity, making possible all sorts of things which simply could never have crossed the mental radar of persons living in pre-Christian, pagan society (including, eventually, the abolition of slavery and the grounding of concepts such as universal human rights in liberal democratic institutions and practices). It was, to borrow again from Nietzsche, nothing less than a "transvaluation of all values" from which it became possible to regard every individual human being as a person of infinite worth and dignity.

For Hart, one of the ironies of the New Atheists is that, in caricaturing, attacking, and rejecting this legacy from our Christian past, many of them still seek to retain some of the moral values which this legacy bequeathed to future generations. They want to fashion a more rational and humane world, free from violence and tyranny (which, they wrongly argue, are almost solely caused by religion). But, as the quote from Hart's book at the opening of this post suggests, that project may prove to be a failure. In the end, it might be an "old" atheist like Nietzsche who turns out right.

Instead of placing faith in God, the New Atheists put their faith in the omnicompetence of secular reason and its capacity to make the world a better place than the one birthed and sustained by the Christian moral vision. On this point, Hart is worth quoting at length:

Can one really believe - as the New Atheists seem to do - that secular reason, if finally allowed to move forward, will naturally make society more just, more humane, and more rational than it has been in the past? What evidence supports such an expectation? It is rather difficult, placing everything in the scales, to vest a great deal of hope in modernity, however radiantly enchanting its promises, when one considers how many innocent lives have already been swallowed up in the flames of modern "progress." At the end of the twentieth century - the century when secularization became an explicit political and cultural project throughout the world - the forces of progressive ideology could boast an unprecedentedly vast collection of corpses, but not much in the way of new moral concepts. At least, not any we should be especially proud of. The best ideals to which we moderns continue to cling long antedate modernity; for the most part, all we can claim as truly, distinctively our own are our atrocities. ...

... it is hard not to conclude that the chief inner dynamism of secularization has always been the modern state's great struggle to free itself from those institutional, moral, and sacramental allegiances that still held it even partially in check, so that it could now get on with all those mighty tasks - nationalist wars, colonial empires, universal conscription, mass extermination of civilians, and so on - that would constitute its special contribution to the human experience. In purely arithmetic terms, one cannot dispute the results. The old order could generally reckon its victims only in the thousands. But in the new order, the secular state, with all its hitherto unimagined capacities, could pursue its purely earthly ideals and ambitions only if it enjoyed the liberty to kill by the millions. How else could it spread its wings (pp. 222, 223)?

The shift towards an increasingly post-Christian society is well under way, and the signs that this shift entails an erosion of the "'humanistic' prejudices" articulated and sustained by the Christian moral vision are also in evidence. In particular, Hart cites the fact that "a number of respected philosophers, scientists, medical lecturers, and other 'bioethicists' in the academic world not only continue to argue the case for eugenics, but do so in such robustly merciless terms" (p. 234). Hart cites, for instance, the work of Joseph Fletcher, who "openly complained that modern medicine continues to contaminate our gene pool by preserving inferior genetic types, and advocated using legal coercion - including forced abortions - to improve the quality of the race" (p. 234).

It was necessary, [Fletcher] maintained, to do everything possible to spare society the burden of 'idiots' and 'diseased' specimens, and to discourage or prevent the genetically substandard from reproducing. Indeed, he asserted, reproduction is not a right, and the law should set a minimum standard of health that any child should be required to meet before he or she might be granted entry into the world. He also favored Linus Pauling's proposed policy of segregating genetic inferiors into an immediately recognizable caste by affixing indelible marks to their brows, and suggested society might benefit from genetically engineering a subhuman caste of slave workers to perform dangerous or degrading jobs (p. 234).

I note that, according to the Wikipedia article on Fletcher, he developed the theory of situational ethics and was an ordained Episcopal priest, but "he later identified himself as an atheist."

Hart also cites the work of moral philosopher Peter Singer, who argues in favor of "the right to infanticide for parents of defective babies," as well as James Rachels, who, like Singer, "advocates for more expansive and flexible euthanasia policies, applicable at every stage of life, unencumbered by archaic Christian mystifications about the sanctity of every life" (p. 234).

And then there are the so-called "transhumanists" like Lee Silver, who "look forward to the day when humanity will take responsibility for its own evolution, by throwing off antique moral constraints and allowing ourselves to use genetic engineering in order to transform future generations of our offspring into gods" (p. 235).

For a variety of reasons, Hart doesn't take the "transhumanists" very seriously. But he is deeply troubled by figures like Fletcher, Singer, and Rachels. The science and technology exist to do many of the things they advocate, and, as Hart notes, "a growing number of persons in the academic and medical worlds are sympathetic to their positions" (p. 235).

For perhaps a foretaste of the logic governing the brave new world opened up by liberation from the religious and moral restraints imposed by Christian "superstition," watch the following video in which Richard Dawkins interviews the atheist utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. I note, in particular, Dawkins' rejection of the concept of moral limits in favor of a moral continuum. That's a move which opens a up a whole world of possibilities which might be categorically proscribed if there are limits to what we should or should not do.


Matt Gunter said...

My experience with flesh and blood atheists as well as what I've read of the "New Atheists" is that they usually have much more "faith" than I have ever been able to muster.

I much prefer someone like Albert Camus who exhibited much more humility and personal ambivalence in his atheism. But, then, if the book by Howard Mumma, "Camus and the Minister," is factual, Camus came to doubt his atheism toward the end and was moving toward embracing Christianity.

Bryan Owen said...

Thanks for the comment, Matt. The case of Camus is, indeed, an interesting one. Perhaps, along with folks like Nietzsche, it lends further credence to Hart's statement in his book that, "among Christianity's most fervent detractors, there as been a considerable decline in standards in recent years" (p. 5).

Gari said...

Very interesting. I am digesting the implications of this. Thank you for sharing it.