It was in trying to craft a first sentence of this post that I realised all over again how deeply unwise some generalisations are. What do people believe regarding ‘good’ and ‘evil?’ And do they arrive at the positions that they hold on their own terms, or do they merely appropriate the arguments and ideas of other persons who have actually thought through these issues?
I am indebted to fellow-pilgrim-and-fellow-blogger David Wood for the following:
Here’s an excellent written debate between Christopher Hitchens (God Is not Great) and Douglas Wilson (Letter from a Christian Citizen) on the topic “Is Christianity Good for the World?” Both participants are good writers and quite witty. I think Wilson won by a significant margin, as Hitchens failed to make a strong case and never really answered Wilson’s objections. Hitchens briefly mentions the Problem of Evil, though the real value of the debate (for purposes of this blog) is the discussion of objective moral values.
In his opening, Wilson raises the issue:
In your concluding paragraph you make a great deal out of your individualism and your right to be left alone with the “most intimate details of [your] life and mind.” Given your atheism, what account are you able to give that would require us to respect the individual? How does this individualism of yours flow from the premises of atheism? Why should anyone in the outside world respect the details of your thought life any more than they respect the internal churnings of any other given chemical reaction? That’s all our thoughts are, isn’t that right? Or, if there is a distinction, could you show how the premises of your atheism might produce such a distinction?
Wilson repeats his challenge in every imaginable way, yet Hitchens’s most detailed response is this:
Our morality evolved. Just as we have. Natural selection and trial-and-error have given us the vague yet grand conception of human rights and some but not yet all of the means of making these rights coherent and consistent.
Wilson, of course, had already challenged this response:
I have been asking you to provide a warrant for morality, given atheism, and you have mostly responded with assertions that atheists can make what some people call moral choices. But what I have been after is what rational warrant they can give for calling one choice “moral” and another choice “not moral.” You finally appealed to “innate human solidarity,” a phrase that prompted a series of pointed questions from me. In response, you now tell us that we have an innate predisposition to both good and wicked behavior. But we are still stuck. What I want to know (still) is what warrant you have for calling some behaviors “good” and others “wicked.” If both are innate, what distinguishes them? What could be wrong with just flipping a coin?
I’m not sure why, but every time I hear theists bring up this objection, I actually expect atheists to come up with some sort of reasoned answer. My expectation may be put as follows: “Here Hitchens has written a bestseller on why Christianity is bad for the world. Surely he must have carefully thought through these issues. Hence, when asked for an explanation for his moral views, he will be able to give one.” Yet he wasn’t able to give one. Wilson sums up the situation nicely:
You are a gifted writer, and you have a flair for polemical voltage. But strip it all away, and what do you have underneath? You believe yourself to live in a universe where there is no such thing as any fixed ought or ought not. But God has gifted you with a remarkable ability to denounce what ought not to be. And so, because you reject him, you have great sermons but no way of ever coming up with a text. When people start to notice the absence of texts, the absence of warrant, the absence of reasons, you adjust and compensate with rhetorical embellishment and empurpled prose. You are like the minister who wrote in the margin of his notes, “Argument weak. Shout here.”
(Wilson’s assessment here applies not only to Hitchens, but also to Dawkins, Harris, and other atheist fundamentalists.)
Literate, thoughtful atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens are very clear on what they see as the self-evident fact that there is no need for anyone to theorise about the origins of morality in a world in which there is no deity of any sort whatsoever, much less one who serves as the author of morality. Hitchens argued that morality actually evolved. Daniel Dennett continues to argue (by virtue of still being alive) that free will itself has also evolved.
Reading the above-mentioned exchange between Hitchens and theologian Douglas Wilson, I was once again struck with how God works. My father taught me as a teenager that no one would ever enter the Kingdom of God through argument alone. I remember accepting that with one part of my mind, and yet still spending much of the first ¾ years of my adulthood exercising my prerogative for straight hand-to-hand combat of the debate/argument variety. I was (surprise, surprise) not close to the levels of erudition that Christian apologists like Wilson have reached – but I was very earnest. I remember getting to my 23rd birthday and re-thinking all of the ways in which I was currently contending for the faith. Because even then I could see that there are compelling arguments against Christianity too! What was a person to believe? A good argument? Or something beyond mere argument?
One of the things that made that change necessary was a stock-take of my own character, and my recognition of my own desperate need for this gospel message to be true. From around that point in time, I have understood that there is a peace to be found in basic righteous conduct – and yet, there are many atheists and secular persons who adhere to a basic code of morality that in far more cases than would be ideal supersedes that of many Christians. One of the biggest challenges for those in Christian ministry is the phenomenon whereby folk accept the gospel, and then stop thinking.
Way too many Christians in my own sphere of life (and I lead a very multi-denominational existence whilst remaining grounded in conservative, biblical Seventh-Day Adventism) learn how to stop asking ‘why?’ Now, there are many questions that we simply cannot answer, but there are many questions that need to be asked – and answered – for real, biblical faith to actually grow and lead a person to a deeper walk with God.
I have found myself incredibly vexed with Christians who are not interested in asking the hard questions, but this morning, I know that a more charitable approach has never been more necessary. The battle to live a genuinely consistent spiritual life in each and every sphere of human existence has never been fiercer. No sooner has one fought one set of dragons and been victorious than the next set show up, more determined to get you than the last set. This reality is the framework for my current evaluation of debate-style outreach and evangelism – it has its place, and God has called some people to it (Amen!). However, it cannot ever supersede the straight narration of the gospel message in power.
Therefore, for a person to stick around long enough to hear the gospel message, they have to accept that there is something about their lives that they would like to be more than it is. If good and evil are equal forces, then what can a person hope for? Hitchens may not have hoped for anything, but there are many people who are hoping for something more.
How many of us on this earth would actively like to be more evil? More murderous? More cowardly? Less truthful? Less kind? How many of us read about the terrible things that people do to each other on an hourly-basis and aspire to be like those perpetrators? How many people seek to behave in a way that guarantees that someone will hate them because of the pain that they have inflicted on another?
Sure, some will ‘say’ yes to some or all of the above. It’s up to us whether we really believe them or not. I am not attempting to make a statistically-beyond-reproach categorical statement here. I am asking a question. Who wants to be a more evil person than they already are?
The desire to be a better person is not the sole provenance of religious adherents – including and especially Christians, who frequently learn from other Christians how to stop thinking about things and follow a wave of Christianised social behavioural protocols. The desire to BE more is as universal as anything else that really is universal.
And that is part of the reason why I offer the statement that good and evil are not equal.
Satan, the author of sin, and by extension the evil that has followed as a result – is a created being. He does not hold equal status with God. This is a thought that in recent times has offered me much in the way of comfort. God did not create sin, but He did create Lucifer. Sin remains a mystery – but that it did grow in Lucifer’s heart is something that we can either accept or reject.
God had a choice before humankind was formed – to exterminate the human project at the first act of sin, or to put a system of redemption in place. And so we have the mystery of the Incarnation – God the Creator entering His own creation, entering time and space and accepting the limitations of humanity.
This is beyond comprehension. This is beyond reason. This is beyond cognition itself.
But great art is also beyond cognition. It is also beyond the ability of people to ‘explain’ how it came into existence. And for many, great art is not comprehensible. However, these are still human creations – albeit inspired by something (and sometimes Someone?!) from outside humanity. Music is an amazing example of this.
A drugs baron can exercise many ‘admirable’ qualities: perseverance, fortitude, high-level organisational skills, maybe even person-management (although this may well take the form of controlled manipulation…), time management, patience…
Those things do not stop being good just because they can be used in the service of evil. Evil depends on the misappropriation of good in order to succeed in the practical realm. But the reverse is self-evidently not the case. For good to succeed, evil is never a necessity. Sometimes people have attempted to justify the means by which an end is achieved – but by resorting to evil, they have lost their moral compass. Moreover, they will never know if their original noble aims (assuming that those aims really were noble) would still have been achieved had they not tried to “help matters along…”
This is not trying to be an exhaustive exploration of the concepts of good and evil. It is not purporting to be rigorously academic. It is just a blog post, the writing of which has played a part in my devotions this morning. But I mean what I say. Good and evil really are not equal. So, how do we know which side we are on? Just because you say you are a Christian, does that really make you a champion of ‘good?’
As I consider the flaws in my own character, I have never been grateful that there is hope that I can be more – in Jesus Christ. It is all about Romans 7 once again – but especially the last verse…