Secularists have long claimed that belief in God and the ideals He represents stand in the way of human progress – and they’re way off. But for all the flaws in this argument, there are reasons why it emerged.
- We had projected onto God virtues (such as wisdom, love, and providence for the future) that man must cultivate.
- We had ceded to God control over human destiny, embracing passivity instead of energetic activism.
- We had used a fantasy of divine justice meted out in the next life to assuage the effects of injustice in this life – thus blunting the impulse for change.
- We had allowed human life to be stunted, cramped, and ridden with guilt and fear of an invisible, all-powerful, punitive father-figure.
- We had “alienated” the best that was in man by locating God as the source, summit, and telos of all our earthly efforts, which must seem tainted and futile compared to their imagined unearthly perfections.
For this and the next four articles, we will look for what’s true and false in each assertion.
- We had projected onto God virtues (such as wisdom, love, and providence for the future) that man must cultivate.
This is the core of Ludwig Feurbach’s The Essence of Christianity, and one might say that it stands at the core of what de Lubac calls the “heroic humanist” charge against Christianity. It implies that the package of divine perfections attributed to God by the Western tradition is a mere collection of human attributes such as knowledge, power, goodness, and foresight, all of which are combined and inflated to infinity by a simple logical sleight of hand affirming each of these attributes, then specifying that it is limitless. So God has perfect knowledge, eternal existence, absolute power, pure goodness, et cetera. Even if this were a fair description of how Christian philosophers proceeded, that would not prove that such divine perfections were a myth; it might merely explain how finite, limited minds fumble when they try to express conceptions of the infinite. Few of us can adequately understand or explain quantum physics, but only an anti-intellectual would use that as proof that theory is nonsense.
To make this charge stick, secular thinkers have to assert that positing such a perfect Being, and conceiving Him as separate from ourselves, is inherently demeaning to human beings – that by inventing an impossible criterion of absolute perfection, Western man has debased human dignity and generated a self-reinforcing psychological mechanism that diminishes his best efforts, disparages his noblest accomplishments, and takes away his rightful pride as the apex of the natural order – replacing it with a false and destructive humility before the realm of the unseen. This is indeed what contemporary atheists claim.
But is it true? Does our common experience tell us that holding to ideals that exceed our grasp must lead to despair and cringing self-abasement? Is this true, for example, in athletics, where young people dream of joining professional teams and breaking records? Is it true in romantic love, where young people look to mythic examples of mutual devotion like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet? In political and military life, when we invoke fallen heroes, are we dooming the next generation to despair because they probably cannot equal Nathan Hale or Joan of Arc?
Perhaps the poison lies not in the fact that an ideal is practically unattainable, but in the very essence of ideals that are by definition out of our grasp. While one likely will not outperform Hank Aaron or Abraham Lincoln, in theory it is possible, whereas God’s perfections are not even theoretically within reach. Maybe that is what makes it so degrading to man to believe in God, as Sartre asserted. This argument makes a little more sense, but it fails to explain how perfectionist goals in other areas of life actually function. Physicists seek an ever more perfect knowledge of how the universe works; political idealists try to work for perfect justice; economists seek to maximize wealth and productivity; artists strive for a beauty that they cannot even conceive before creating it. Does the “infinite” horizon toward which all these people strive in fact work to lower their standards, undermine their efforts, and turn them – as atheists argue – into cringing, breast-beating serfs?
Conversely, what results have we seen in social and artistic life as a result of lowering standards, trashing ideals, “defining deviancy down,” and preemptively surrendering our vision of the Good particular to that art or science? Corruption, mediocrity, and despair more often emerge from such cynicism. What is more, there is no evidence that before the rise of Christianity, Western man treasured ideals of higher perfection that were attainable by human means, only to encounter the inflated perfections attributed to God, then respond by throwing out such human efforts and sinking into despair. The late Roman Empire, where Christianity took hold, took for granted and morally yawned at slavery, infanticide, aggressive war, the slaughter of enemy civilians, authoritarian government with no code of individual rights, prostitution and gladiatorial entertainment. It was only the rise of Christianity that encouraged serious moral reflection – outside of Jewish or Stoic elites – on questions like these, and led to efforts at limiting or abolishing such evils. It took a St. Augustine to codify the principles of a “just war”; no philosopher would have dared to raise such questions with Julius Caesar, whose ruthless conquest of Gaul was fueled by personal ambition and national aggrandizement. He returned to Rome triumphant with thousands of hostages whom he marched through the streets, and was not greeted with questions by Greek or Roman moralists. There was never a pagan Ambrose, ready to confront an all-powerful emperor with the fact that he had violated the rights of his subjects. These concepts would have been impossible to convey in pagan terms; they emerged only with Christianity, and we have good reason (thanks to the events of the 20th century) to wonder whether they could really outlive it.
For all the flaws in this argument, there were reasons why it emerged. The notion of a morally perfect, omnipotent God who sits in judgment on our every action does indeed exert a strong psychological pressure. It can produce quite healthy outcomes, such as humility; penitence and amendment; forebearance toward the faults of others; even a rueful, ironic sense of human existence as fundamentally comic (which we find in authors such as Chaucer and Cervantes). Magnificent personalities such as Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Ávila, and John of the Cross emerged from the crucible of painful awareness of personal sin judged against the goodness of God. Other people with different personalities, who embraced distorted theological modes of dealing with sin and forgiveness or followed certain ideas well past their logical conclusions, did indeed emerge from the encounter with human limits and God’s perfection with a crippling sense of guilt that goaded them throughout their lives. Some theological conclusions that have been drawn from Augustine’s analysis of sin and grace have indeed seemed monstrous to most – among them the Calvinist-Jansenist doctrine of double predestination, which explains the persistence of evil in the world and reconciles it with God’s omnipotence by concluding that God has only chosen a tiny number of souls whom he will save, that he saves them without their free will, and that the rest of the human race is irretrievably lost no matter what they do. That version of Christianity, embraced by the American Puritans, proved so repugnant to reason that much of New England by the early 19th century rejected orthodox Christianity altogether for the vague uplift of Unitarianism. It’s hard to blame them.
Another disturbing side-effect that one can trace to this theological tenet is the phenomenon of messianic utopianism, the sort that emerged again and again in Europe during the Middle Ages and Reformation. As Norman Cohn documents in The Pursuit of the Millennium, the praise lavished on the poor throughout the Gospels and the promises of a “New Jerusalem” on earth to be found in Revelation served as highly combustible fuel for radical preachers, disgruntled tradesmen, and displaced intellectuals, who sometimes attracted followings of thousands in violent movements to eradicate every trace of evil and construct the perfect society here and now. From the Flagellants, who began by doing penance to ward off the plague but ended by calling for the destruction of the “corrupt” Catholic Church, to the “People’s Crusades” – which, having been unable to fight the Muslims in the Holy Land, settled for persecuting the Jews at home in Europe – such movements wreaked havoc in dozens of cities and claimed the lives of many thousands. In the annals of historical anti-Semitism, these were the worst events recorded before the Holocaust. Some rulers invoked utopian themes when they promised to root out “evil” in their realms, which for them meant forcibly converting or driving out religious minorities. (The Jews were expelled, at one point, from every major country in Europe except for Poland.) Church leaders, while they regularly and firmly condemned such utopian movements, were sometimes powerless to prevent the actions of mobs led by half-educated or unbalanced self-proclaimed prophets.
The violent events that marked the Reformation – from the brutal, and brutally subjugated Peasants’ Rebellion to the general slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War, wherein whole cities full of “heretics” were burned or put to the sword – surely gave plenty of fodder to worldly thinkers, who wished to find more “realistic,” this-worldly schemes for determining good and evil. Following on the work of precursors such as Marsiglio of Padua and Niccolo Macchiavelli, Thomas Hobbes reacted to the savage English Civil War (fought between Puritans who wished to remake English society and Anglicans who wished to crush out their dissent) by replacing a distant, infinitely demanding God with a concrete, finite, tangible source of order: Leviathan, the secular state invested with absolute power over the lives of individuals, in order to protect them from each other and themselves. John Locke rejected such grandiose claims for the state, and instead focused his energy on “demythologizing” Christianity, fudging its supernatural claims and trying his best to convert it from a faith with stark metaphysical claims and extensive moral teachings into a scheme of interpersonal kindness, which would lubricate the interactions between sovereign individuals who contracted with the state to protect their lives, liberties, and property. These and later “moderate” Enlightenment thinkers came to a tacit agreement: that Christianity made too much of God, made too much of man, and asked too much of man, for man’s own good. Whether or not some perfect, divine goodness existed, it was out of our reach, and we would only deform ourselves and wreck our earthly lives by constantly grasping for it – either the knowledge of it (religious orthodoxy) or the practice of it (the traditional Christian virtues). (To read this explained in detail, get hold of Scott Hahn’s and Benjamin Wiker’s new blockbuster, Politicizing the Bible, which I had the privilege of shepherding into print.)
To spare society the violent clashes that often emerged over dogmas, these early modern thinkers urged on people a more distant, disinterested God, and a less demanding, more practical moral standard. Man would not be the fallen image of a perfect God, but a rational actor negotiating with his fellow men, haggling (mostly) non-violently over the good things to found in this life. The next life could take care of itself.
Jason Jones is a producer in Hollywood. His films include Bella, Eyes to See, and Crescendo. Learn more about his human rights initiatives at www.iamwholelife.com.
John Zmirak is the author of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism and blogs regularly at The Bad Catholics Bingo Hall. This column is from Jones’ and Zmirak’s upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century (Crossroad, 2014).
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