Imagining a Natural World Full of Good People
Last month I wrote about my faith that all people are created in the image of God which means all persons not only possess inherent worth and value, but also that no one truly is without God in their lives. Certainly, all people are broken, but no one is so broken as to not know the good at least a little bit. When a person moves towards the good, this person, whether they know it or not, is participating in God. In other words, in response to a query as to whether a person can be good without God, one response I would give is that no one is truly without God.
But let’s imagine a cosmos where there is nothing beyond nature. There is no “God” in this cosmos. The Ultimate Reality in such a universe is the natural world which we humans, part of the natural world, are ever more investigating and learning about.
How do we determine what is moral or ethical in such a universe? Philosophers through the modern period (1600s-1800s), such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, sought to build a moral system upon human reason alone. Related to this, another option is that our morals and ethics have evolved to where they are today, so we simply have to discover them in the way we make scientific discoveries in other areas. Evolution naturally selects the most beneficial mutations and modifications, so our sense or morals and ethics today is the one that is the most beneficial (at least up to this point). We, as happy skeptics, may even point to the teachings of many major religions which agree on such things as kindness, generosity and even love towards other humans. Perhaps we can agree, as humans, suffering is bad and thus we seek to alleviate human suffering as much as possible.
Whether you study moral philosophy (such as Chidi in The Good Place, great show!) or just go with the societal flow, it seems, we can imagine a universe where we can be good without God. But let’s imagine further…
The Man in the High Castle: Morality in Alternative History
Back in the Spring, I began watching the television show The Man in the High Castle. This show is set in an alternative universe where the Axis powers won World War II. The show takes place 15 years later, with Germany controlling the Eastern half of the former USA and Japan controlling the West with a neutral zone in the middle. In this alternative history, religion has been banished. The only church services we see celebrate the Nazi power and Hitler himself.
It is certainly not an uplifting show. Yet taking place in an alternative reality, it offers a lot of fodder to think about the issues we are talking about here.
In the first episode, a character, Joe, is traveling into the neutral zone. His vehicle breaks down and soon another driver stops by to help him. Joe notes an odd smell on the air. The man helping him states that the smell comes from nearby, for this is the day they burn the “cripples” and other useless people. This Nazi government has no place for weak or disabled persons.
This theme shows up at other times in the series. One of the main characters, John Smith, was a solder in the pacific during the war and since has risen to the top of the Nazi government in the US. By all accounts, he is committed to all the Nazi principles. His teenage son, Thomas, has grown up in Hitler Youth and is fully committed to what he was taught growing up. Unfortunately, Smith’s son is diagnosed with a degenerative disease for which there is no cure. Smith tries to protect his son from this knowledge. He seems okay with Nazi principles until they affect his own family. Eventually his son learns the truth. In a truly chilling scene, Smith’s son turns himself in to the authorities, knowing it will mean his death as a “useless eater”.
In a world where the ultimate reality is nature, where our morals and ethics are built solely on human reason and scientific exploration, on what basis could we see how the Nazis viewed “useless eaters” as wrong or immoral? It actually might make sense in a purely natural world – why should strong and healthy persons use limited resources to support those who are a drain on society?
When we stroll back from the darkness of The Man in the High Castle to the light of the real world, the questions linger. If our morals and ethics are merely what we have evolved to this point, why do we think we have arrived at any sort of end? Just as we look back on the previous moralities of other societies, deeming them wrong from our perspective, so we must hold our morals loosely with the knowledge people may look back on us. Sure, the Nazis in The Man in the High Castle (and in real life) are abhorrent to us. Yet, is it hard to imagine a time in the future when they are seen as on the right track with their extermination of the weak and destitute? Is it hard to imagine a world where such extermination is seen as beneficial for the most people?
The other day I was chatting with some students about some of these exact topics. We had begun with the question of why church attendance is going down in our country. One student shared that it seems the only churches growing are ones that emphasize positions which educated college students find nonsensical and these churches usually couch their appeal to faith in fear. At the same time, it seems that churches away from the fundamentalist end of the spectrum merely offer advice on how to be good people. And if you are already a good and decent person, then what’s the point?
We even wondered that part of it may be that the church had been too successful. Christian values, for better or worse, have permeated our culture for centuries. Thus, caring for victims and helping those in need are taken for granted by most people. It may appear they are just obvious moral things to do. It can appear that we can walk away from church and give up belief in God while still keeping our same morals.
That is, unless we find ourselves in a culture shifting to a totally different morality.
My point is that it easy to consider yourself moral if you are living in our country and, more or less, going with the flow of what most people think is moral. Sure, we can all quibble on some specific moral points, but in general we observe loads of people being “good without God”. But those living The Man in the High Castle’s alternate history considered themselves moral too, as they went with their own flow.
Insights from Alasdair MacIntyre
After Virtue was first written in 1981, by Alasdair Macintyre, and is considered one of the most important works of moral and political philosophy in the 20th century. When I read it a few years back, it blew my mind. It is one of my top ten favorite books of all time and was greatly influential to another of my favorite writers, Dallas Willard.
In After Virtue, MacIntyre examines the many attempts by philosophers to build moral systems during the modern era. Throughout the Medieval era in the West, authority was vested in religion from the Pope on down. The Protestant Reformation shifted authority to the Bible (sola scriptura) while keeping many of the same hierarchical ideas (with the Bible replacing the Pope at the top of the hierarchy). Yet the Reformation also shook something loose for now people could begin to discover truth for themselves. Eventually, the Bible, like the Church hierarchy, was seen as unreliable and other foundations in reason and science were sought. MacIntyre though, argues all of these projects ultimately fail:
“I take it then that both the utilitarianism of the middle and late nineteenth century and the analytical moral philosophy of the middle and late twentieth century are alike unsuccessful attempts to rescue the autonomous moral agent from the predicament in which the failure of the Enlightenment project of providing him with a secular, rational justification for his moral allegiances has left him. I have already characterized that predicament as one in which the price paid for liberation from what appeared to be the external authority of traditional morality was the loss of any authoritative content from the would-be moral utterances of the newly autonomous agent. Each moral agent now spoke unconstrained by the externalities of divine law, natural theology or hierarchical authority, but why should anyone else now listen to him? It was and is to this question that both utilitarianism and analytical moral philosophy must be understood as attempting to give cogent answers, and if my argument is correct, it is precisely this question which both fail to answer cogently.”
In other words, with God jettisoned, all attempts to create a moral philosophy based on reason ultimately have failed. MacIntyre goes on:
“Nevertheless almost everyone, philosopher and non-philosopher alike, continues to speak and write as if one of these projects had succeeded. And hence derives one of the features of contemporary moral discourse which I noticed at the outset, the gap between the meaning or moral expressions and the ways in which they are put to use. For the meaning is and remains as would have been warranted only if at least one of the philosophical projects had been successful; but the use…is precisely what one would expect if the philosophical projects had failed” (68).
When I talk to students about morals and ethics, it often seems to reaffirm what MacIntyre is saying here. Most conversation goes on as if these moral philosophers had been successful. Step into a philosophy class and examine Mill’s Utilitarianism and Kant’s categorical imperative. The general conclusion seems to be, “Of course you can live a good and moral life without God! Forget the uncomfortable questions that arise in places such as The Man in the High Castle, go give your time and money to help kids with cancer because…well, just because.”
That “just because” may work for a while. But will it last forever? What happens when increasing numbers of people consciously move away from the belief in a Good God who is the Beginning and End of History, the transcendent truth towards which all history is moving?
No Religion or a New Religion?
A couple weeks ago I found an article titled “We are no longer bound together by religion, but by vacuous consumption addictions: The ‘nones’ whose religion is ‘nothing in particular’ are growing” by Joshua Whitfield. Whitfield begins by noting the many studies that show the decline of traditional, Christian religion in America and the coinciding growth of those who claim “no religion”. But he goes on to argue that we ought not take from this that religion itself is declining, for humans are inherently religious. Whitfield refers to medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas to remind us that religion is that which most holds our attention and binds us together. What binds us together is not our Christianity, or other traditional religions. It is something else:
“If religion is that which holds our attention and which binds us together, then it’s not Christianity. Christianity today is mostly just sentimentality, escapist devotion, mere identity politics and mere posture. It’s no longer religion in any genuine sense. Because what holds our attention today, what binds us together, are no longer dogma and precepts, but instead all those decadent diversions, customs and conventions of our rich but interiorly vacuous society. This is our religion today: binge-watching Netflix, consumption addictions to various social media, pornography, and the litanies of endless news, fake or otherwise. This is what we relegit, what we re-read, what holds our attention, not God or the good, the true, or the beautiful.”
There is so much in that article (Bookmark it and read it). One thing it makes me think of, as it relates to what I am writing about here, is that while you can be good without God (if by this we mean people who are not Christians in our culture tend to be decent, moral people), you cannot get away from all the religions and little gods that demand our attention on a daily basis. In other words, our understanding of goodness and morals is generated through our culture. As long as our cultural gods are still connected to the morals transmitted by Christian religion, we will do okay.
But what happens when we stray too far from this. Whitfield ends his article:
“And it’s why the question for me is not how we’ll live in some new non-religious world, but about what piety and devotion looks like in this new emerging religion. But of course, this, I admit, I can’t begin to imagine, tied, as I prefer to be, to my ancient God. I just wonder if it will be a religion of charity, a religion that will either cherish or kill the poor. I wonder if it will restore or ruin the earth, if it’s a religion of equality or elites. These are the questions that haunt me as I wonder what the “nones” with their “nothing in particular” will become. Because they must become something. I’m just frightened by what that may be.”
What will we become? My optimistic skeptical friends assure me that we will be just fine, as we drift from traditional belief, we will keep caring for victims and the poor. Of course, they say, we will not deem certain physically or mentally disabled people as “useless eaters”, that’s crazy! As for me, I am not quite this optimistic. I tend to think MacIntyre, Whitfield and others are on to something. I tend to be a bit more cynical, and I tend to think we may end up in the sort of future portrayed in the Alternate history of The Man in the High Castle. We happy skeptics may think we’ve evolved to the height of morality, but who are we to say our descendants will not look back on us, shaking their heads at our outdated and traditional morality as the smoke rises from the gas chambers for the benefit of all healthy people in society?
Abhorrent? I think so.
Unimaginable? Not really.
What do you think?
Do you think your friends and neighbors think about these questions, or are most content to coast along the cultural wave of what is right and moral?
Before we judge our neighbors, in what ways do we uncritically accept the morals of our culture?
As people of faith, what do we do? Must we wait for culture to further disconnect from Christianity before people notice where their morals come from? Or is there some way to help people see now?
*It is important to note that Christians are not required to reject the scientific theory of evolution as the way the world came to be. Numerous scientists are people of faith who integrate their work with their faith. Personally, I find no problem with believing in the theory of evolution, as it makes sense to me. That said, I make no claim to be a scientist and do not feel the need to make views on how God created a test of faith or friendship. The point here is that evolution is unable to answer questions of meaning or morality.
*If you’re interested in this story, check out Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea or the Hardcore History podcast Prophets of Doom (https://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-48-prophets-of-doom/). If you like podcasts on these topics, check out Hardcore HIstory’s Thor’s Angels (https://www.dancarlin.com/product/hardcore-history-41-thors-angels/)