This is an interesting correspondence that I really didn’t have time to pursue during the Lenten and the Holy Days. I tried to answer briefly, but the atheist who wrote me was very unsatisfied with my answer. Here is the correspondence, though a little abbreviated.
Is there any ethical behavior toward one's fellow human beings (and other fellow creatures) that Christians can do, but deists or atheists cannot do? If so, what are they? And, what do I gain (in terms of ethical behavior) from believing that ethical action derives from a benign celestial dictatorship rather than our common humanity? (I only use the word dictatorship for lack of a better word, since it does seem that Christian ethics are issued by authoritarian mandate.)
(An anonymous atheist)
Here is my initial response:
An atheist or deist should not do unto others. He can only attempt the negative formulation of the golden rule, "What you hate do to no one." The Christian who claims to know the mind of God, to the degree that he knows the mind of God, can do the good. If I don't know the greatest good, how I can I do what's best for you? How do I know what's good. My morality cannot be absolute, so I cannot even begin to know what is good for you. If however, there is a God and there is good that He reveals then I can do the best for my neighbor, and not merely avoid harm. The most the deist or atheist can do is to leave the other alone. A deist should not even save a life, for who knows if it is better to live than to die?
The Rev. Know it all
Here is the atheist’s response (in part) to my response:
I want to start off by noting just how vague you are in your response. Is there not one specific ethical behavior you can think of, which a Christian can do but the skeptic cannot? You say that the atheist or deist can only live by the negative formulation of the golden rule. You contend that if I am not a Christian, I can not know the greatest good. Therefore I cannot do the greatest good. It is immediately clear to me that this is not the case at all, since, in my own experience, I have been able to live by the positive formulation of the golden rule first as a Christian, then as a deist, and finally as an atheist........You are correct in saying that my morality, as an atheist or deist cannot be absolute. It then becomes relative to our shared biological, ecological, and cultural inheritance. This is, however, just as good as saying it is absolute because it is something we all share, rather than something merely shared by one or another ancient tribe of humans in our largely illiterate and ignorant past. In other words, we may say that insofar as we are absolutely human, any morality derived from a basic respect and empathy for this shared humanity is absolutely moral........Your last statement is blatantly ridiculous: “A deist should not even save a life because who knows if it is better to live or to die?” My first question is, What theoretical planet are you on? Have you actually participated in life, or have you merely been observing it? Being human beings ourselves, we intuit very well when it is better to live and when it is better to die. We have fashioned international law on these shared ethical intuitions. If we have any sort of emotional connection with our fellow men, we will feel sympathy for them. If we do not feel this emotional connection to those around us, we all recognize that something is amiss with this individual in the greater context of our supertribe. The psychological sciences are particularly aimed at rectifying these situations.
(Again an anonymous atheist)
I don’t know about you, but I find this just fascinating. You ask me what planet I have been living on. I have been living on this planet for quite a few years. I have lived among the rich. I have lived among and served the poor. In fascination for the diversity of human experience and diversify, I have studied ten languages and traveled widely. I have devoted myself to the study of history. I have worked in factories, grocery stores, hospitals and orphanages where I drove a bus, among other responsibilities. I suppose I have been everything from the old professor to Ralph Kramden I have been the pastor of two parishes and have served in four more. I taught in a university for 25 years. I have lived in family life and cared for relatives young and old, paid bills, lost loved ones, accompanied people in their sorrows and watched them die more often than I care to remember. Because I am a Catholic priest I have drunk more deeply of the wonder of human life than I ever expected to.
My religion, which you may think an illusion, has brought me intimately into the lives of more people than one can imagine. I have laughed with them. I have wept with them. Some have loved me. Some have despised me because I am a Catholic priest, but to imagine that I have hidden from life or that I have merely observed it is the amazing arrogance of a man who assumes that all men are the same. Perhaps this is a specific failure of the moral code of atheism. It cannot empathize with the sorrows of others. When the humanist says that man is the measure of all things, he really means “I am the measure of all things.” You wrote, “You contend that if I am not a Christian, I cannot know the greatest good. Therefore I cannot do the greatest good.” You have misunderstood me. It is not that you cannot know the greatest good, I maintain that if you are correct, there is no greatest good. The only possible good is my own survival, be that in an individual or racial sense. If existence of the self is the greatest good, it is an illusory, a pointless good because it will not happen, if you are right. You will die. Your highest good is a cloud that will one day dissipate. Perhaps science will someday learn to extend the existence of the self for indefinite periods of time. Time will still pass and the existence of the self will end. The sun will explode, the universe may contract or someone will trip on the plug that keeps an artificially sustained consciousness in business. You will end if there is only time and no such thing as eternity. Your good will pass away because it is not highest. It is not even really higher than any other good.
Particularly distressing are your words: “Being human beings ourselves, we intuit very well when it is better to live and when it is better to die. We have fashioned international law on these shared ethical intuitions.” Intuit? How very scientific. We intuit the good. What is the vehicle for that intuition? Bonhomie? Good vibrations. Nazi theory. Hitler certainly knew that it was better for some to live and for others to die. Abortion providers certainly know when it is better for some to live and others to die. The first killed untold millions on the theory that his race was better than theirs. He intuited that he was ridding the world of parasites by eliminating the landless Gypsies and Jews. Abortionist don’t bother with your better intuition. They know it’s better for some to die and others to live by checking their bank accounts. You say that we have fashioned
international law without the help of religion. International law before the advent of the Peace of God in the middle ages was simply “Might makes Right.” The moral heroes of Atheism, like Stalin, Mao, the Castro brothers and Pol Pot made great sacrifices to establish the perfect state. They sacrificed uncountable millions of people other than themselves for the good of the state. How can you possibly accuse me of not living on planet earth. Pray tell, how do I migrate to the planet of atheist brotherhood, where my greatest good is at the heart of government and human conduct?
I stick to my original statement. As an atheist, you shouldn’t do unto others, and certainly I would rather not have you do unto me as you would do unto you because you highest good might be something repugnant or harmful to me. Your highest good might decide that my very existence was not congruent with your highest good as did the above mentioned heroes of Marxist atheist theory. You may want to die for the cause but please leave me out of it. Tyrants who have used the teachings of Jesus as an excuse for the aggregation of power have acted contrary to His will. In slaughtering the millions, the Revolutionists of the 20th century acted in perfect harmony with the teaching of their founders. Don’t blame Jesus of Nazareth for the chaos of the world. The death and misery of the modern era and every era can be placed right at the feet of the brotherhood of man unrestrained by the ethical teaching of the Judeo/Christian moral code. Buddhists seem pretty nice. too. They, you will point out are actually atheist, but the Buddha is as much an ethical dictator as any divinity or pope.
If there is no real absolute truth, mandated by one whom you seem to be calling the great Dictator, then your intuited good may be quite different from what I intuit as good. Particularly amusing is your talk of our shared ecological inheritance. It is my assumption that you live in North America, a place not exactly inherited, more properly stolen by the Darwinian fittest from its original inhabitants. Does your shared ecological intuition demand that if there are too many of us burdening the planet, some of us must go? Will it be you, or I or both of us? We deluded Catholics agree with St. Thomas Aquinas that to love is to seek the highest good of another. Perhaps you may think that destructive relationships, unnatural marriages, drunkenness, assisted suicide, “mercy” killing are all optional choices. The God, whom you say doesn’t exist seems to disagree with you, that is if He exists. Living, even in difficult situations is His general plan, with very few exceptions. If spaceship Earth is just a beginning for something timeless, the greatest good is to get you and me both to heaven. If spaceship earth is all that we have, at least at present, then perhaps we should give this land back to the indigenous inhabitants and volunteer to be ground up for fertilizer in the spirit of our common ecological interest.
You say that I am vague and have not given “one specific ethical behavior which a Christian can do but the skeptic cannot.” Here is the one ethical behavior that a logically consistent atheist cannot do. He cannot love. If love is to seek the highest good, then godless love is not a real possibility. I can enjoy, take pleasure in, desire another. I can strive for our shared well being. I can strive to please another or to make them happy. The Christian believes that the highest good of another may not always be pleasing to that other, just as a vaccination may displease a squirming five-year-old. The ancients admitted many different types of love among which were Eros, the love that desires to posses the beloved, and philia, the love that finds comfort mutuality and pleasure in another. Much rarer was the word Agape, the love that hopes for no return on its investment in the other. Eros and philia come easily to the atheist. Agape may not even be a possibility.
One last thought. I am unclear on the benign celestial dictatorship that you mention. I assume you are referring to the deity. If you were referring to the papal pretensions of the former cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, he doesn’t seem very dictatorial when he kneels before an incarcerated Muslim girl to wash and kiss her feet. I imagine rather that you were referring to the pretensions of the founder of the organization the foot washer pope now heads. That founder too did not seem very divine or dictatorial in His pretensions. He too knelt to wash feet. In fact He knelt before and washed the feet of His own murderer. Perhaps you are imagining a god who does not exist and thus you cannot find the God who does. You seem to think of God as big. We Christians have found the God who is remarkably small and wondrously humble. His eye is on the sparrow, and on the molecule and on the atom, and even on the Higgs Boson particle. We believe that He is through all and in all, though He is more than all. I pray that someday you meet Him.
the Rev. Know-it-all