Evidently, even atheists themselves believe that atheism makes a man less moral (for heart-felt protestations see the comments section in this post). I’ll admit I’m predisposed to accept the findings of that study.
After all, ever since Nietzsche put forth the idea that morality was basically contingent, his view has either had traction with – or has at least been used as a rhetorical weapon by – the secular Western intelligentsia.
And as William Butler Yeats said some time ago, “the center cannot hold”. Dostoyevsky uttered another classic line most of us are probably familiar with: “If God does not exist, then everything is permitted”.
And yet, in spite of our generation’s rank unbelief and sheer arrogance, God continues to work in history, even if believers themselves do not understand the particularities subsumed in the wider narrative. This, of course, is a narrative that includes Him working even now for our forgiveness, life and salvation – en route to His “coming again to judge the living and the dead” (and this, of course, does not preclude God’s always “working for good” in the world – with and without His people – sending things like rain and joy to all on earth [see Matt 5 and Acts 14])
We can contrast this with the cheery viewpoint of the 20th c. Bertrand Russell, who, in evident harmony with Nietzsche, said of “the world which science presents for our belief”:
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins…. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” (Mysticism and Logic, 1957, p. 45)
And not only is this the view held by many moderns today, but it is also held without much of a full understanding of its implications – particularly of what it is rejecting. See David Bentley Hart’s recent lament on the utter incapacity of even our best secular elites to recognize anything remotely resembling classical wisdom (a sentence: “What I find so dismal about Gopnik’s article is the thought that it represents not the worst of popular secularist thinking, but the best”).
The late Wheaton college philosopher Arthur Holmes wrote in his Fact, Value, and God:
“We must distinguish epistemological subjectivity and objectivity (i.e., to what extent knowledge is perspectival or not) from metaphysical subjectivity and objectivity (i.e., whether things exist and are what they are independently of our knowing them). Nietzsche may be in measure correct about the epistemological subjectivity of the human situation, but it does not follow that no objective truth or goodness exists, only that we may not fully know it as it is in itself. Knowledge is indeed perspectival, and we owe thanks to Nietzsche for making us suspicious of foundationalist and other objectivist claims; but that does not deny the independent reality of the objects we think we know. Anti-realist that he is, he tends to equate our difficulty in knowing exactly what an object is in itself with a denial of the metaphysical fact that it exists – regardless of our knowledge of it, and regardless of our perspective of psychological history.
If Nietzsche’s suspicions are overgeneralized half-truths and his genealogy of morals an interesting but overdrawn hypothesis*, then it does not follow that truth and goodness are just illusions that we create. Even on Nietzsche’s terms, there are at least two different kinds of metaphysical hypotheses: traditional ones like Judeo-Christian theism that ground objective morality, and his own kind of evolutionary naturalism. A Nietzschean hermeneutic of suspicion could apply to both. And if the choice were reduced, as he says, to a question of pragmatic consequences, we would do well to recall Russell’s warning about human hopes and aspirations being doomed to extinction in a naturalistic universe. The alternative perspective – belief in a Logos-ordered cosmos – grounds objective truth and goodness, gives purpose to life and viability to reason, and offers the hope of an eventually moral world.” (pp. 171-172, 1997 ed.)
Pretty good reasoning, I think. Not that I expect it to convince anyone though (even as the Holy Spirit may use such modern Christian arguments as He pleases – I suggest we might often try going in this direction).
To explore more about how all of this plays out on the ground in real life – namely the “common good” consequences of Christian belief (as opposed to the more individualistic ideas about “how Christianity works”) – you can listen to this recent Issues ETC show with Professor Korey Maas.
all images from Wikipedia
*As theologian Matthew Becker points out “even Nietzsche and post-structuralist historians involve themselves in ‘totalizing’ discourse and the formation of meta-narratives…” (p. 292, “Hofmann as Ich-theologe? The Object of Theology in Johannes von Hofmann’s Werke,” Concordia Journal 29 (July 2003), 265-293)