Monday September 20, 2010
Yesterday Pope Benedict arrived in the UK, and almost immediately caused a stir in his speech up in Scotland that seemed to ally Godlessness with Nazism. Here is a section of the transcript:
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a reductive vision of the person and his destiny…
On the one hand, this is clearly an attempt to stake out a claim for the centrality of religion for any possibility of ethics. But more than this, and more controversially, it has been read as an attempt to tar contemporary atheism with the crimes of Nazism. It all depends, of course, on how you read the rhetoric of the speech. There are, however, two things worth pointing out here. The first and most obvious is that to brand Nazism as “atheist” is itself a dubious move, albeit one that is made far too frequently by the champions of religion. For example, here is Hitler speaking in 1933: “Secular schools can never be tolerated because such schools have no religious instruction, and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith.” The ideology of Nazism was a weird, profoundly unwholesome and fervid thing, but to call it atheist is as hopelessly simplistic as calling it Christian or theist. It does absolutely nothing to help our understanding of the roots and causes of this particular kind of madness. And like all weird and profoundly unwholesome ideologies, it is not as if the ideologies of Nazism are unconcerned with ethics: in fact, ethical claims run right through them. Ethics, as I have noted before, is often not just the solution, but also the problem.
Let us come back the Pope for a moment, however. Benedict is here standing in a long tradition as he advances what could be called the Dostoyevskean objection to atheism. This is an idea that is expressed most famously in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, where the Russian writer claims that the absence of God and a life to come, “would mean that now all things are lawful, that one may do anything one likes.” Dostoevsky was, of course, far from being the first to make such an argument. In fact, he is reprising a long Christian tradition of equating atheism with moral decline. If we go back as far as the second century CE, we find the Christian writer Athenagoras writing as follows:
[I]f no judgement whatever were to be passed on the actions of men… a life after the manner of brutes would be the best, virtue would be absurd, the threat of judgement a matter for broad laughter, indulgence in every kind of pleasure the highest good, and the common resolve of all these [materialists] and their one law would be that maxim, so dear to the intemperate and lewd, ‘let us eat and drink for tomorrow we die.’
Many of the early Church Fathers had a enormous amount of fun pinning the worst vices they could imagine – amongst them “swinish gluttony, drunkenness, fornications, adultery, homosexuality, sodomy, incest” – on atheist philosophers such as the Epicureans; and this tendency to treat godlessness with a moral suspicion has continued down to the present.
But the evidence that a belief in transcendent values is necessary for ethics, and that without this belief all things are lawful, is far from conclusive. Indeed there is growing evidence that there is no direct connection between ethical behaviour and belief in such values (See, for example, the work by Pyysiäinen and Hauser, 2010). The sad fact is that there have been a great many atheist reprobates in the history of humankind; but at the same time, as an authority as great as Saint Augustine pointed out long ago, there have also been Godly reprobates aplenty. The dragnet of the church, Augustine wrote, pulls in all kinds of fish – the wholesome and the unwholesome.
Ethics is of concern to us because of the kinds of evolved beings that we are. In this sense, it comes prior to questions of godlessness or godliness. Yet at the same time it is true that for all of us that this evolved tendency to concern ourselves with ethics is expressed in terms of the various cultural frameworks in which we operate (and here I include religious frameworks), which give shape to our ethical intuitions and to the questions about how we are to conduct ourselves in the world: both for better and for worse. And so when we come to think about ethics, we cannot but do so within these frameworks. But just because a particular framework seems vital for me to live well – for example, imagine that I am a Confucian, and my whole understanding of the world and of ethics is wrapped up in my studies of the Confucian classics; or imagine that I am a utilitarian and I rigorously examine my conduct according to the best utilitarian principles that I can formulate – it does not mean that it is essential to all possible forms of the ethical life, or that those things we might call virtues – kindness, compassion, wisdom – are closed to those who do not share this framework.
Ultimately, there is nothing less edifying than the on-going spectacle of the Godly laying the blame for the Pol Pot, Stalin and Nazism at the door of the Ungodly, and the Ungodly laying the blame for the Crusades, the Inquisition and – once again – Nazism at the door of the Godly. Such debates are generally weak on any understanding of history or human motivation, and are intemperate in tone, with either side exhibiting a lamentable tendency towards selecting only the facts that support their position whilst ignoring the underlying complexities. The debate about the relationship between systems of belief and the ethical consequences of these beliefs is often as heated as it is lacking in the kind of careful, empirical enquiry that is needed to explore an issue as complex as this.
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