The So-Called Immorality of Christianity – Jeffrey Burton Russell

August 28, 2012

Giovanni BELLINI, Sacred Allegory, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The cover of the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic, asked, “Did Christianity cause the crash?” In fact, a tide of anti-Christian propaganda is holding that “Christianity caused  —————“(fill in anything you don’t like). The only good thing about it is that Christians can learn how Jews have felt for centuries. Antitheists believe that Christians who do good are either not really Christians or else do good despite their Christianity: Christians cannot do good on the basis of their beliefs, because their beliefs are bad. [Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007), pp. 173-9)]

They also think Christianity is immoral: it supports war, denies rights to minorities, pits itself against science and blocks progress. The antitheists attack all religions but focus on the three most prominent Judaism, Christianity and Islam — and their prime target is Christianity. They fail to note that in Europe and America Christians originated hospitals, orphanages, schools and universities. Humanists fail to recognize that their humane values come from Judeo-Christian religion. And one may ask what Christian oppression actually exists in contemporary America: the one that controls universities? The one that controls business and finance? The one that controls the media? The one that dominates the public schools? The one that runs the government? The one that conducts foreign policy? Where is all this hateful oppression anyway?

Immorality is sometimes distinguished from amorality (the lack of any kind of morals), but a more important distinction is between immorality and illegality. Many things are illegal without being immoral — double parking, for example — and many things are immoral without being illegal — for example, paying yourself hundreds of times more than your employees. Sometimes, as in Nazi or Soviet society, it is even illegal not to be immoral: you are obliged by law to inform on your neighbor. Illegality depends on whoever is in control of the state. Immorality is quite different: it means violating a fundamental code of behavior.

Morality and religion don’t necessarily go together. In many other cultures, religion has to do with offending or placating gods who are themselves morally ambivalent. The first religion to tie morality inextricably to divine law was Israelite monotheism. An old question asks whether rape and murder are wrong because God says so or whether God condemns rape and murder because they are wrong. Judeo-Christian morality dissolves the difference: some actions are good and some evil by both natural and divine law. Even Christianity is not primarily about morality but about God’s love for humanity expressed in Jesus. A recent study of the sense of fairness in societies showed that fairness correlates significantly with participation in religion. ["Fair Play," The Economist, March 20, 2010]

To be moral or immoral requires a free choice. Bacteria, ants, pelicans and robots can be neither moral nor immoral, because they are programmed to act exactly the way they do. Most atheists think that humans, like pelicans or robots, are programmed by genetics and circumstances to do exactly what they do. Having no freedom of choice, we are incapable of either morality or immorality. Now, if there is no such thing as immorality, Christianity can’t be “immoral.” What antitheists really mean by saying that Christianity is immoral is that they believe Christianity is opposed to certain values that they think are good.

Christians believe that morality is living in harmony with the divine law found in the “two books”: the Bible and nature. In the Bible the truth is revealed in words; in nature it is revealed through mathematics and research into the universe. [Josef Zycinski makes the point that "the mind of God" in modern physics is mathematical rather than Platonic; he traces the change back to the seventeenth century: God and Evolution: Fundamental Questions of Christian Evolutionism (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2006)] A principle is a basic truth from which consistent ideas and behavior proceed, and Christians believe that their primary principle is the truth of the two revelations.

In contrast, atheist and humanist morality can have no principle [The latest effort to establish atheist morality is Sam Harris, Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).] Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov notes that if God does not exist, everything is permitted. If a humanist wants to do good, how does he or she know what is good? If the response is that human nature is basically good, the evidence of both biology and history is counter to the claim. Further, to assert that “man is good” requires some Good by which to measure good. If there is no perfect Good, secularists have no principle on which to base their ideas of what is good. Humanists imagine that the world, once purged of religion, would adopt their own vague, liberal morality, but why would it? Why assume that such a world would embrace compassion, equality, or freedom? [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions] Those ideas come from Christianity.

Secularists have been trying to establish secular moral codes without the principle of the Good and have repeatedly failed. Without this basis, ethics become relative, and “a simple `I disagree’ or `I refuse’ [or `I am offended'] is enough to exhaust the persuasive resources of any purely worldly ethics.” [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions] I once heard a witness in a child-rape trial say, “Who’s to say what’s right or wrong in this round world?” The effort of secularism to create a principle in the welter of relativism is like pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.

The very point of relativism is that it doesn’t have a principle: everybody chooses his or her own values. Relativism therefore means that morals become a matter of fashion or else are imposed by a self-appointed authority. The atheist Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict XVI agreed in a debate that “there had to be some value system.” [97Micklethwait and Wooldridge, God Is Back] But any value system man creates will be dissolved by man. What evidence is there of moral progress, unless by “moral progress” one means that certain things one personally admires have recently become more common? Relativism and materialism are antithetical to one another, but the two converge in denying a principle of morality based on anything other than personal or cultural preference.

This degrades the “very notion of freedom, its reduction in the cultural imagination to a fairly banal kind of liberty,” and the result is both triviality and monstrosities like eugenics. [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions] Our own will, based on nothing but itself, feels any limitation on its choices to be intolerable. Any reasonable system of belief, any principles, must be avoided because they interfere with our illusion of absolute freedom, an illusion that ironically leaves us open to infinite manipulation. “The inviolable liberty of personal volition” cannot permit any “standard of the good that has the power (or the right) to order our desires toward a higher end…. Choice [seems] to exercise an almost mystical supremacy over all other concerns.” [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]  The result is “an abyss, over which presides the empty power of our isolated wills…. The original nothingness of the will gives itself shape by the use it makes of the nothingness of the world — and thus we are free.” [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]

Atheists argue that a coherent morality can be created out of evolutionary principles. They argue that overall the process of evolution rewards altruistic behavior over selfish behavior, breeding more and more altruism into the species. However, there seems to be more evidence against this idea than for it. Allowing it for the purpose of argument, the most it can do is account for the inclination that people have to protect their children, not the moral duty to do so. If we don’t abandon our child, fine; if we just don’t feel like protecting her, we have no moral duty to keep her. If a Nazi shoves a Jew into a gas chamber, we can say, “That makes me feel bad,” or “I find that inappropriate behavior,” or “I’m offended,” or even “That is unhelpful to evolutionary development,” but we have no basis for saying, “That behavior is immoral.” We can argue all day with the Nazi or call him all sorts of names, but we can offer no principle on which to dispute his choice.

Sade argued, consistently with his atheism, that without basic moral principles behavior is simply a matter of choice. If you prefer dining to raping, okay, so long as you don’t prevent him from raping. [Jeffrey Burton Russell, Mephistopheles: The Devil in the Modern World (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986)] If you don’t like killing Jews, fine, but on what basis do you interfere with the preference of others to do so? The rights of the victim? Without a moral principle there is no basis for assigning rights to the victim — or anyone else. The idea that evolution, when defined as being without purpose and goal, can produce a basis for moral action is illogical, unfounded and frankly impossible. Under some circumstances, violent xenophobic behavior fits with evolutionary development better than altruistic behavior. The horrors of post-Christian behavior are no longer speculation but already being realized. [David BentleyHart, Atheist Delusions]

If there is no absolute standard of morality, then there is no standard by which individual and social moralities can be judged. No standard at all. And this means, for deconstructionists and radicals, that the dominant morality will be determined by domination, power and force. The only real alternative to absolute morality is imposition of a manmade morality on a public intimidated by power and deluded into thinking that their choices are their own. The arrival, persistence and success of new elites who operate by repression and intimidation will continue.

Humanists and other secularists affirm that causing others unnecessary suffering is bad, but they cannot explain on what basis it should be considered bad. If one insists that there is no principle on which to base morality other than human preferences, then one has destroyed the possibility of moral truth and abandoned morality to either personal preference or to the dictates of power groups. Ian Markham calls this a “cozy atheism” that bases its morality on Judeo-Christian values while claiming not to. Values without principle are simply products of whoever is in power. If God goes, morality goes. Although the antitheists “are good at deciding to affirm basic moral values, it is difficult to see how the discourse is justified.” [Markham, Against Atheism] Since both Christians and atheists can be immoral, is there any distinction in their behavior? Often not, but “as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society.” [David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions]

In historical fact, the gentle values promoted by humanists and other secularists today are themselves based in Christianity. [Berlinski, Devil's Delusion] Where did the idea of liberty, equality and fraternity come from? Not from the Greeks or Romans. Christianity was a giant rebellion against the pure power assertions of the ancient Not from the Aztecs or the Mongols, either, but from the Enlightenment. And the Enlightenment came from what preceded it: Christianity.

Christianity is the first philosophy to have enunciated and promoted these values. Christianity invented the idea of human rights. [Berlinski, Devil's Delusion]  There were no human rights in antiquity — in Egypt or Babylonia, Greece or Rome, China or India or Mesoamerica. There was only power. Christianity speaks truth to power, and it does so on the basis that there are rights inherent in every human being that are inalienable because they derive from the God who is both human and divine. Those who deny that there is truth can’t use it to speak to power. If there is no God, there are no inherent rights — only temporary artificial “rights” imposed by pressure groups. [Mark D. Linville, "The Moral Poverty of Evolutionary Naturalism," in Contending With Christianity's Critics: Answering New Atheists and Other Objectors, ed. Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B & H Publishing, 2009)]

This is not a question of belief but of reality. As William Lane Craig put it, belief in God is not required for morality, since many atheists behave morally. It’s much simpler: the actual Being of God is necessary for morality. [William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2010)] God the Creator is the basis of moral behavior.

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  1. Excellent work! The ending is just it – simple, but absolutely necessary (in fact, the onlh necessary…). Thanks.

  2. Some of the more thoughtful atheists try to attach their moral compass to the near-past cultural average, and then tweak it toward the present sense of progressive enlightenment. In that way, I think, they demonstrate their foundational belief that evolution (taken for granted, of course) has a moral component: humanity is advancing toward ever-higher levels of morality.

    All this crumbles into dust, of course, when “the beginning” of it all must be pure accident, having no meaningful direction or destiny. They cannot allow the presence of the Natural Moral Law.

    I find a helpful and readable context in The Last Superstition – A Refutation of the New Atheism (Edward Feser). I hope he can get it reprinted and republished – it is now going for absurd “scalping” prices.

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