A surprising number of blogs are grabbing Chuck Colson’s latest column from Townhall.com. Apparently, Christians think he scored some major points with this one, though if you look at what he wrote, and the number of times he contradicted himself, it’s hard to imagine what any of those points might have been.
One of the biggest obstacles facing what’s called the “New Atheism” is the issue of morality. Writers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens have to convince people that morals and values are possible in a society that does not believe in God.
If that’s one of the biggest obstacles faced by the “New Atheism,” no wonder it’s doing so well. Data like the 2005 UN Human Development Report make it easy to demonstrate, as Sam Harris puts it, “that atheism is perfectly compatible with the basic aspirations of a civil society; they also prove, conclusively, that religious faith does nothing to ensure a society’s health.”
Even Colson admits that this is true, though he tries to make it sound like it really isn’t.
It’s important to understand what is not in doubt: whether an individual atheist or agnostic can be a “good” person. Of course they can, just as a professing Christian can do bad things.
The issue is whether the secular worldview can provide a basis for a good society. Can it motivate and inspire people to be virtuous and generous?
You like that? He starts off by admitting that the available real-world data leaves no room for doubt: the secular worldview does produce people like those who live in the highly moral, secular societies at the top of the UN’s list. (The highly religious societies are farther down the list!) So right off the bat, the real world demonstrates that Chuck’s main thesis is so flawed, even he has to admit it. So he does admit it–that way, if anybody brings up these facts again, he can say, “Yes, but I already addressed that.” Clever rhetorical trick.
Then he simply re-phrases the question so it sounds like a new issue. Having admitted that, in practice, the secular worldview does provide a basis for a good society (quite a number of the best societies, according to the UN report), Colson asks, “Can the secular worldview provide a basis for a good society?” Obviously it can, since we see that it does, but Chuck makes it sound like this is the question that “New Atheists” can’t answer. Then he turns around and documents the fact that the New Atheists do indeed have an answer.
Not surprisingly, Richard Dawkins offers a “yes”—grounded in Darwinism. According to him, natural selection has produced a moral sense that is shared by all people. While our genes may be, in his words “selfish,” there are times when cooperation with others is the selfish gene’s best interest. Thus, according to him, natural selection has produced what we call altruism.
Put in slightly different terms, the “bad” things in life are bad because of their negative consequences. Likewise, “good” things are things that have positive consequences (and neutral things have consequences that are neither terribly good nor terribly bad). One of the things that has good consequences is social cooperation, so we label as “good” the things that allow an individual to obtain the most benefit from participating in society, and “bad” those things which either harm the individual directly, or produce indirect harm by harming the society in which he participates.
By the way, this isn’t “altruism,” per se, it’s morality–you remember, the subject that Chuck said was “one of the biggest obstacles” etc, etc? But Chuck has a reason for bringing up the term “altruism.” He wants to boast, yet again, that believers are somehow better than atheists. Since the real world facts don’t support his thesis that atheists can’t have morals, he’s going to pull a quick change of subject to try and argue that believers are more altruistic (i.e. less selfish) than unbelievers.
Except, of course, that it is not altruism at all: It is, at most, enlightened self-interest. It might explain why “survival of the fittest” is not an endless war of all against all, but it offers no reason as to why someone might give up their lives or even their lifestyle for the benefit of others, especially those whom they do not even know.
Heh, I like that: “give up their lives, or even their lifestyle.” Yeah, I’ll sacrifice my life, but please, for God’s sake, don’t make me give up my lifestyle! I know my SUV might contribute to global warming that is going to innundate low-lying coastal areas and dispossess poor people and cause widespread suffering and harm, and I’d gladly become a missionary or even a martyr for my faith in order to save the souls of these poor people–but don’t make me give up my SUV!
By the way, evolution does give an explanation for altruism: all it takes is a gene (or something hereditable) to be fairly widespread through a population, and for that characteristic to promote the success of the population as a whole. Helping other people, even at the risk of our own lives, is an instinct that we all inherit from our ancestors. Heroism, self-sacrifice, and service to others are behaviors that are not limited to Christians (in fact, they’re not even limited to humans), so Chuck is appealing more to ignorance than to the facts when he claims atheists have nothing to motivate altruistic behaviors.
Darwinist accounts of human morality bear such little resemblance to the way real people live their lives that the late philosopher Michael Stove, an atheist himself, called them a “slander against human beings.”
Chuck couldn’t find any factual basis for criticizing secular morality, so he found some quote from some guy that he could use to insult it, instead. Pretty lame.
Being unable to account for human altruism [sic] is not enough for Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation. In a recent debate with Rick Warren, he complained about Christians “contaminating” their altruistic deeds in places like Africa with “religious ideas” like “the divinity of Jesus.” Instead of rejoicing at the alleviation of suffering, he frets over someone hearing the Gospel.
In response, Warren pointed out the inconvenient (for Harris, that is) truth: You won’t find many atheists feeding the hungry and ministering to the sick in places like Africa or Mother Teresa’s Calcutta. It is precisely because people believe in the divinity of Jesus that they are willing to give up their lives (sometimes literally) in service to those whom Jesus calls “His brothers.” And that’s why my colleagues and I spend our lives ministering in prisons.
If some big tobacco company were to head overseas and pass out free food, clothing, and cigarettes to young children, would Chuck find that a lamentably mercenary exploitation of someone else’s poverty, taking advantage of their need in order to instill an addiction that would result in long-term company profits? Or would he side with the tobacco companies, mocking those who “fret over someone smoking a cigarette instead of rejoicing at the alleviation of suffering”? I agree with Sam Harris: if Christians were truly being altruistic, they’d alleviate people’s suffering without demanding payback in the form of “souls.”
Nor is it true that there are no secular charitable organizations like CARE and UNICEF and the Lions and Shriners and on an on. Chuck disparages evolution-based morality as being nothing more than “enlightened self-interest” (as if that were a bad thing), and then gives us supposedly contrasting examples, boasting about the great good works Christians are doing. And look! they’re not selfless at all! The missionaries are exploiting other people’s poverty and hunger in order to promote their own religion. That’s selfish! And what about Mother Teresa? Do you think she did all her hard work expecting to be ignored and unrewarded by God for her efforts? Even Chuck himself is “sacrificing” in order to be an influential political/religious leader, and to be able to boast in public about all the good works he’s doing.
Ministry leaders like Chuck have an even more selfish motivation for their “charitable” ministries. They believe in a God, you see, who supposedly loves them enough to die on their behalf so that He can be with them forever. And yet, He never shows up in the real world–a major contradiction of their preferred religious beliefs. To compensate for God’s failure to behave as though He believed the Gospel, they have to manufacture some kind of earthly validation for their faith, which they do by converting other people to believe in it too.
It takes a certain special kind of selfishness in order to reject real-world truth in favor of your own personal, subjective beliefs, but it’s even more selfish to use other people as mere tools to make you more comfortable in your subjective, unrealistic beliefs. Colson can boast all he wants about how good he and his fellow believers are and how evil and immoral anyone would have to be in order to disagree with him, but the selfishness still shines through. He’s the center of his own universe, and he’ll never understand why the world does not revolve around him and his beliefs.