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Certain Inconsistencies That Chesterton Would have Loved

Friday, April 20, 2012 12:59 AM Comments (35)

My atheist friend, back for more, writes:

Atheists don't crib from "Judeo-Christian morality" but try to follow the Golden Rule, something that existed in human thought and morality long, long before Jesus or even the Hebrews and is taught by all religions and philosophies in one form or another.

My reader is apparently unaware that there is a distinction between the Golden Rule ("Do unto others as you would have them do unto you') and various forms of natural law which prescribe a sort of rough and ready sociableness that can vary widely from culture to culture.  It is simply not the case that all cultures "basically say the same thing" and it is emphatically not the case that the Golden Rule is the same thing as, for instance, "Love your friends and hate your enemies" (which is really what my reader means).

I replied:

Um. No. It wasn’t. And atheists don’t believe the Golden Rule any more than most humans do, since the Golden Rule ultimately means “love your enemy”: a development that absolutely required the Christian revelation to be articulated and which is hard even for most of us Christians to buy, much less live. The notion that the Golden Rule is self-evident is adorably naive. Atheists have a rough and ready awareness of the natural law, as do almost all non-sociopaths. But there are a hundred refinements on the natural law that are deeply and uniquely Christian which ignorant atheists take for grant (as you do) as “taught by all religions and philosophies”. Among them, for instance, are things like “judge not” and “be humble”. Whole religious traditions exist which ignore such details–and which regard love for enemies as utter folly. You are, I repeat, amazingly insular and provincial.

And you are blissfully ignorant of the difference between relying on natural law (which anybody can do) and being able to account for natural law (which ultimately requires a transcendent God). You haven’t even caught up with a real atheist like Richard Rorty.

At this point, an atheist with his wits about him would have tried to insist that examples can be found of non-Christians who have behaved with love (or at least respect) for enemies.  One thinks of Saladin or King David showing mercy to enemies, for instance.  Or Socrates speaking calmly in the face of his unjust execution at the hands of a kangaroo court.  A case could be made that, while nobody besides Christ really formulates "Do unto Others" as including "enemies" in the class of "others", nonetheless there are examples outside the Church of people who live the command as though it is written on their hearts if not in their literature.

But no.  Instead my atheist reader, fresh from telling me that Christianity's ethics are completely cribbed from the Great Pool of Indistinguishable Religious Traditions Who All Have the Same Ethics, now blurts out:

The Golden Rule is "do to others as you want to be done by", taught by all religious teachers, not so much "love your enemy" which always struck me as a ridiculously impossible and self-defeating commandment.

If you want to love Adolf Hitler,  Osama bin Laden, or Dennis Rader (the BTK serial killer) go right ahead, but that strikes me as little more than high-sounding masochism.

And "judge not"? It seems to me Christians do an awful lot of judging, especially in sexual matters.

Once again, I feel despair for the state of atheism.  He claims Christians stole the Golden Rule from All the Religions and Philosophies of the World and there is no difference--and then immediately contradicts himself by saying that there's a huge difference because Jesus understood the Golden Rule to mean "love your enemies" which is crazy and wrong and no other religion says that.  In short, all religions are equally superior to the Christian faith. Or maybe he just means "I will say anything to win an argument, no matter how incoherent".  At any rate, I write:

Enemies are included in the class "others".  You are refuting yourself.  Make up your mind.  Does Christianity say the same thing as everybody else or not?

Try to pay attention.  I'm not claiming Christians aren't judgmental.  I'm saying there's a real difference between a tradition that condemns judgmentalism as a sin and one that commends it as a virtue.  Your moral code, because it steals from Christianity, assumes that judgmentalism is a sin.  But there are whole religious traditions (like the people in that link above) which frankly and openly commend judgmentalism and do not regard it as a sin at all.  Result: when you--in your provincial, insular, suburban, and ignorant assumption that all religions are the same--condemn those people for their judgmentalism it has no effect because they could not care less about your assumption that hubris, pride and judgmentalism are sins.  Why?  Because they do not take for granted the Christian moral code that you are ripping off and presuming to be universal.

After this, my atheist reader then contributes to a discussion about this article by switching gears without benefit of a clutch. Whereas earlier he had condemned the Church for its judgmental violence, now he was suddenly railing the the Church for being pantywaists who are afraid to hate and kill:

It isn't like the Christian solution to these thugs isn't lacking. What are you going to do? Tell them you love them? Im sure that will make them quake in their boots. The most outspoken opponents of radical Islam have been secularists and atheists, and we don't have any guilt about hating our enemies and defeating them.

He then went on by disgorging himself of this considered opinion:

The Soviets were petty damn effectictive at de-Islamizing central asia. Burning burkas and veils public bonfires is more effective than kissing disgusting books like the Koran.

Yes.  You read that right.  He actually appealed to the experience of a mass murdering utopian totalitarian regime which broke itself on the rock of Afghanistan as the model for a truly rational response to Radical Islam. Because, the Soviet Union in the 80s was such a massive success story for atheism vs. that fool John Paul II.  It was, at least, refreshing to see an atheist frankly and openly admit to the worship of violence in his construction of Utopia and not, like Christopher Hitchens, try to pretend that the great atheistic regimes of the Commies were not atheistic.

Still and all, after decrying the "nasty brutish" behavior of Old Testament Jews and medieval Christian crusaders earlier in the week, it was rather comical to hear my atheist reader, full of that Golden Rule of his, solving the Problem of Evil with the simple declaration, "if they’re jihadists that want to bomb skyscrapers putting a bullet in their head or dropping a cluster bomb sounds like the right answer to me. If they’re not violent, deport them to their ancestral craphole before they turn us into a carbon copy of it. A little more effective than praying for them, for sure."  In short, he is quite as willing to resort to violence to deal with a mortal foe as any Crusader or ancient Israelite; he just doesn't want to be bothered with those parts of the Christian tradition which regard violence as a regrettable last resort inflicted on fellow sinners for whom Christ died.  He prefers violence done in frank and open hatred of the enemy without even the restraining factor of a hope of redemption for them.  And this, he believes, is the Golden Rule, not to mention the wave of the secularizing future and not the immemorial room temperature attitude of fallen man since the dawn of time, contradicted by the author of the real Golden Rule, Jesus Christ.  It all reminded me of something Chesterton remarked on a century ago:

It must be understood that I did not conclude hastily that the accusations were false or the accusers fools. I simply deduced that Christianity must be something even weirder and wickeder than they made out. A thing might have these two opposite vices; but it must be a rather queer thing if it did. A man might be too fat in one place and too thin in another; but he would be an odd shape. At this point my thoughts were only of the odd shape of the Christian religion; I did not allege any odd shape in the rationalistic mind.

Here is another case of the same kind. I felt that a strong case against Christianity lay in the charge that there is something timid, monkish, and unmanly about all that is called "Christian," especially in its attitude towards resistance and fighting. The great sceptics of the nineteenth century were largely virile. Bradlaugh in an expansive way, Huxley, in a reticent way, were decidedly men. In comparison, it did seem tenable that there was something weak and over patient about Christian counsels. The Gospel paradox about the other cheek, the fact that priests never fought, a hundred things made plausible the accusation that Christianity was an attempt to make a man too like a sheep. I read it and believed it, and if I had read nothing different, I should have gone on believing it. But I read something very different. I turned the next page in my agnostic manual, and my brain turned up-side down. Now I found that I was to hate Christianity not for fighting too little, but for fighting too much. Christianity, it seemed, was the mother of wars. Christianity had deluged the world with blood. I had got thoroughly angry with the Christian, because he never was angry. And now I was told to be angry with him because his anger had been the most huge and horrible thing in human history; because his anger had soaked the earth and smoked to the sun. The very people who reproached Christianity with the meekness and non-resistance of the monasteries were the very people who reproached it also with the violence and valour of the Crusades. It was the fault of poor old Christianity (somehow or other) both that Edward the Confessor did not fight and that Richard Coeur de Leon did. The Quakers (we were told) were the only characteristic Christians; and yet the massacres of Cromwell and Alva were characteristic Christian crimes. What could it all mean? What was this Christianity which always forbade war and always produced wars? What could be the nature of the thing which one could abuse first because it would not fight, and second because it was always fighting? In what world of riddles was born this monstrous murder and this monstrous meekness? The shape of Christianity grew a queerer shape every instant.
 

This whole contradictory project of trying to say "Nothing about the New Testament is new" coupled with the cry that the New Testament is entirely new and outlandish in its moral demands to love enemies (among numerous other outrageous claims such as "This man is very God and raised from the dead") was already white-whiskered a century ago.  But New Atheists--whose intellects often retain a pristine innocence of such knowledge owing their being worshipped instead of used--tend to say such things while remaining stone blind, not only to the contradictions in their own position, but to the fact that they are the umpteenth person to voice the contradiction.  Chesterton again:

The one real objection to the Christian religion is simply that it is one religion. The world is a big place, full of very different kinds of people. Christianity (it may reasonably be said) is one thing confined to one kind of people; it began in Palestine, it has practically stopped with Europe. I was duly impressed with this argument in my youth, and I was much drawn towards the doctrine often preached in Ethical Societies--I mean the doctrine that there is one great unconscious church of all humanity founded on the omnipresence of the human conscience. Creeds, it was said, divided men; but at least morals united them. The soul might seek the strangest and most remote lands and ages and still find essential ethical common sense. It might find Confucius under Eastern trees, and he would be writing "Thou shalt not steal." It might decipher the darkest hieroglyphic on the most primeval desert, and the meaning when deciphered would be "Little boys should tell the truth." I believed this doctrine of the brotherhood of all men in the possession of a moral sense, and I believe it still-- with other things. And I was thoroughly annoyed with Christianity for suggesting (as I supposed) that whole ages and empires of men had utterly escaped this light of justice and reason. But then I found an astonishing thing. I found that the very people who said that mankind was one church from Plato to Emerson were the very people who said that morality had changed altogether, and that what was right in one age was wrong in another. If I asked, say, for an altar, I was told that we needed none, for men our brothers gave us clear oracles and one creed in their universal customs and ideals. But if I mildly pointed out that one of men's universal customs was to have an altar, then my agnostic teachers turned clean round and told me that men had always been in darkness and the superstitions of savages. I found it was their daily taunt against Christianity that it was the light of one people and had left all others to die in the dark. But I also found that it was their special boast for themselves that science and progress were the discovery of one people, and that all other peoples had died in the dark. Their chief insult to Christianity was actually their chief compliment to themselves, and there seemed to be a strange unfairness about all their relative insistence on the two things. When considering some pagan or agnostic, we were to remember that all men had one religion; when considering some mystic or spiritualist, we were only to consider what absurd religions some men had. We could trust the ethics of Epictetus, because ethics had never changed. We must not trust the ethics of Bossuet, because ethics had changed. They changed in two hundred years, but not in two thousand.

So it goes.

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Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.