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.
...then proves his folly by recognizing that you cannot have a coherent moral system without God, but attempting to manufacture one anyway based on his personal whims and desires. All he does is prove the truth of C.S. Lewis prophetic book The Abolition of Man, which warns, “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”
Joel Marks is, to his credit, light years beyond the antique “New Atheists” like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, or Richard Dawkins who subsist on the shreds and patches of morality they have inherited from the Christian tradition and who delude themselves that things like “human equality” or “rights” are “self-evident” and not (as they obviously are) derived purely from Christian mysticism. They have been carried up the ladder of morality by their Christian ancestors and now are in the process of kicking down the ladder and throwing a torch downstairs, confident that the upstairs they inhabit will never be touched by the flames.
Marks has at least figured out that all such atheistic moralism is just sawing off the branch the New Atheist is sitting on. He recognizes clearly that a purely materialistic worldview can only talk about Is and can never derive Ought from it. He sees what other post-modern atheists like Richard Rorty see:
“Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to [the question “Why not be cruel?” ... is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.”
That’s not to rehash the false claim of some theistic polemicists that “Atheists are immoral.” On the contrary, the New Atheists are intensely moralistic, as Benedict XVI noted:
The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is — in its origins and aims — a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested.
No, the problem is not immorality, but the lack of any transcendent grounding for morality. The New Atheist imagines his morals are self-evident. But the post-modern atheist, like Marks, has his number and recognizes, like Rorty, that all atheist claims for a transcendent morality—a morality of Ought—are fantasies if his purely materialist account of the universe is true.
Here’s the deal: Once you have declared everything to be an accident of time, space, matter and energy mindlessly doing whatever they do, you have completely destroyed any claim of transcendence for your preferred “Ought.” All you can really say is “I want this,” not “This is right. That is wrong. This is good. That is bad.” You cannot derive Ought from Is.
But, of course, that is inhuman and evil and Dr. Marks knows that, but does not repent his foolish atheism. Which creates a paradox. For while New Atheists fail to realize their moralism is in hock to the Christian tradition, they at least retain, in their arrogant ignorance, a commitment to things like justice and equality while having no way to account for that commitment beyond saying it is “self-evident.” In contrast, Joel Marks is an even greater fool because he recognizes that New Atheist moralism owes everything to the theistic tradition but, at least so far, prefers to go on being a fool. Rather than consider the possibility that God exists and that human dignity and equality, as well as the goodness of creation, derive from Him who is the Good, Marks staunchly rejects God and all the “I oughts” which are grounded in His existence and pathetically tries to elevate “I want” to some sort of Ultimate.
But, of course, a world in which “I want” is the only truth is still a world of Is, not Ought. It is a pagan world where, as the Greeks put it, “The strong do as they please and the weak endure what they must.” That’s an accurate description of our fallen world. But it is not an accurate description of what our hearts know to be right. “New Atheism” (which is really a rehash of 19th-century atheism) is still a partially severed branch from the tree of Christianity and retains enough sap from the tree to rail at injustice while foolishly forgetting where it derives its notions of injustice from.
Marks’ post-modern atheism has embraced the Void and has thereby come to worship, not nothing, but anything in the desperate search to ground his empty heart’s desire for the Good. Refusing God that place, he absurdly puts Desire there instead. His post-modern atheism is a form of paganism that worships and serves created things and not the Creator: in this case, his Desires. And his worship of Desire ultimately boils down to a worship of power and the rule of the weaker by the stronger. Rather than humble himself before God, he advocates capitulation to that inhuman arrangement and then dresses it up with philosophies and rationales to justify it. His folly is well described by Pope Benedict’s description of the atheistic moralist in Spes Salvi:
Since there is no God to create justice, it seems man himself is now called to establish justice. If in the face of this world’s suffering, protest against God is understandable, the claim that humanity can and must do what no God actually does or is able to do is both presumptuous and intrinsically false. It is no accident that this idea has led to the greatest forms of cruelty and violations of justice; rather, it is grounded in the intrinsic falsity of the claim. A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power — whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts — will cease to dominate the world.
Such reasoning is why pagan civilization was founded on, and never dreamt of getting rid of, slavery. Indeed, humanity has been rooted in slavery for time immemorial. Only one thing ever succeeded in destroying it (and only after a long hard battle): the Christian tradition.
Get rid of the Christian tradition and the mystical insistence that human beings are creatures made in the image and likeness of God for whom Christ died and you will not get a post-modern civilization of free and equal human beings all living in clean human habitat spaces filled with IKEA furniture, humane treatments of dogs, and green, well-planned urban spaces with internet access, recycling, consequence-free sex lives, and Star Trek-style conflict-resolution counselors in leotards. You will get what is still the norm for humanity in every place the Christian tradition has not penetrated: slavery. Make it an atheistic and not merely jolly pagan regime and Stalin’s USSR, Mao’s China, Kim Jong Il’s North Korea, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia will demonstrate well enough what happens when you try to erect a moral system based on letting the most powerful among us root every moral decision in “I want.” And men like Joel Marks will be remembered as the court prophets and intellectual enablers of our return to that degraded state in which a house swept clean and empty, but not filled with the Spirit of God, becomes the haunt of seven demons worse than the spirit of slavery that was driven out.