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On the drive to work this morning, I listened to a Mars Hill Audio Journal interview with the Orthodox Christian theologian David Bentley Hart , in which Hart discussed his book “Atheist Delusions,” which attacks Ditchkins et alia. In the interview, Hart observed that there is a juvenile naivete at the heart of these New Atheist books, a kind of Enlightenment optimism about human nature and reason that ought to be completely untenable after Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Hart said that the popular audience for the Ditchkins tomes have no interest in dealing with the atheism of Friedrich Nietzsche, who warns his readers quite clearly that once we’ve murdered God, things could turn quite nasty indeed. You can’t make a best-seller out of that kind of pessimistic (but realistic) atheism, Hart said. Nobody wants to hear it.
Hart’s remarks put me in mind of Nick Kristof’s recent columns about the insane cruelty of the war in Congo, and how innocent people are being tortured in unspeakable ways. See here and here. Here’s a bit from that last Kristof column:
It’s easy to wonder how world leaders, journalists, religious figures and ordinary citizens looked the other way while six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. And it’s even easier to assume that we’d do better.
But so far the brutal war here in eastern Congo has not only lasted longer than the Holocaust but also appears to have claimed more lives. A peer- reviewed study put the Congo war’s death toll at 5.4 million as of April 2007 and rising at 45,000 a month. That would leave the total today, after a dozen years, at 6.9 million.
You read on to find out what happened to one 19 year old young Congolese woman, and it stops you dead in your tracks. This is not a religious war, mind you. These savage combatants need no religious justification for their killing, any more than the Nazis did. If religion gives them an excuse to dehumanize their enemies, they’ll take it. If it doesn’t, they’ll find something else.
This is not a matter of religion, or no religion. This is a matter of human nature, and what human beings are capable of absent civilized restraints. If you think people are bad with God, just imagine what they’re capable of without Him. I finished the Kristof column and thought to myself, “How is it that people still believe in the basic goodness of man?”
Yesterday I got an e-mail from a friend who’s a human rights lawyer. He often works on asylum cases, and deals with men and women who are escaping torture. He writes (and I post this with his permission):
Had a case from Africa last year, He was in a secret prison. He was tortured and escaped when a group was taken to the jungle to be executed. (he believes that he was able to make a connection with one of the guards who only pretended to shoot him. He crawled out of this hole, covered in blood.) He made his way to another country, where a kind ship captain allowed him to stow away. The man told him, I don’t normally do this, but I’d always regret not helping you.
He was let off the side of a cargo ship and swam to shore in the port of Houston. We were successful in our asylum claim. While his case was pending his wife went missing and his children are in parts unknown. He sat sobbing in my office when he heard that.
And people say, ‘man is basically good.’
Stories like this reinforce my belief that we cannot sustain goodness without God. I believe individuals can be good without God, and I know atheists of exemplary character. And I believe having God — in the sense of professing belief in Him — is not enough to prevent individuals and sometimes entire societies from turning to evil (I think from time to time of a story I told here about Serbian butchers — Orthodox Christians, presumably — massacring innocent Bosnian Muslims; it was related to me by my friend Rich, who was haunted by the black mold on the wall of the warehouse, feeding on the bodily fluids of the murdered men). But if we are to be good, God must be present, and present in a real way in our hearts, such that His laws are binding on our conduct. Read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Templeton Prize address for more on this. You may also wish to consult the great Philip Rieff’s book “The Triumph of the Therapeutic;” Rieff was an atheist, but he had a very dark view of the future of our post-theistic culture. Have a look at this longer post of mine from the Crunchy Con blog for a discussion of “Triumph of the Therapeutic.”
Finally, take a look at this long essay from an old issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in which the political scientist Glenn Tinder argues that we cannot sustain what we call goodness in our social and political order without God. Excerpt:
It will be my purpose in this essay to try to connect the severed realms of the spiritual and the political. In view of the fervent secularism of many Americans today, some will assume this to be the opening salvo of a fundamentalist attack on “pluralism.” Ironically, as I will argue, many of the undoubted virtues of pluralism–respect for the individual and a belief in the essential equality of all human beings, to cite just two–have strong roots in the union of the spiritual and the political achieved in the vision of Christianity. The question that secularists have to answer is whether these values can survive without these particular roots. In short, can we be good without God? Can we affirm the dignity and equality of individual persons–values we ordinarily regard as secular–without giving them transcendental backing? Today these values are honored more in the breach than in the observance; Manhattan Island alone, with its extremes of sybaritic wealth on the one hand and Calcuttan poverty on the other, is testimony to how little equality really counts for in contemporary America. To renew these indispensable values, I shall argue, we must rediscover their primal spiritual grounds.
My basic take on this question is that of Evelyn Waugh, who, when chastised by a woman for his professed Christianity having so little apparent impact on his behavior, responded by saying something to the effect of, “You have no idea how much nastier I’d be without it.”
And on that cheerful note, it has started snowing outside just now, meaning that Snowmageddon 2: Electric Boogaloo is upon us. See you on the other side.