Over the last few months, I have been listening and watching a variety of podcasts, shows, and books that have all circled around or connected to the ideas surrounding our shared, or better said, lack of shared societal moral foundation. This has been an intellectual journey that has led me to a concerning place.
In many ways, this current journey began with the reading of Tom Holland’s great book Dominion. Tom Holland is a brilliant British historian who mainly focuses on the ancient Mediterranean world. In this book, Holland gives the history and impact of Christianity on the West and the world. It is breathtaking to see how the life and teachings of Jesus have shaped our society’s moral foundation. For example, if you believe that slavery is wrong, your belief can be traced back to Christ. If you believe that a woman has a right to choose her own husband and that it is wrong for her father to select her husband for her, you can trace that back to Christ. So, many of the ideas that we believe today as a moral given, derive from our shared Christian heritage.
Towards the end of the book, Holland has a brilliant chapter focused on Nietzsche and Tolkien. Obviously, as a Middle Earth fanatic, I loved and relished the portion about Tolkien and how his deep faith and how the experiences of his life shaped his writing. But, it was the portion of that chapter on Nietzsche that caused me to re-listen to that chapter three or four times. In this chapter Holland points out that Nietzsche was really the first one to point out the fact that the Enlightenment had killed God. Enlightenment had caused the European intellectuals to turn to reason and science to explain the world and morality and not God. This is what he meant when he said, “God is Dead”. Nietzsche, according to Holland, was the first to really articulate the impact of a universe and life without the moral constraints of God (Nietzsche and the Confused Neoatheist, YouTube video). Nietzsche’s Ubermensch (a man who has moved past traditional morality and has created his own) could transcend morality because there was none. The only morality was the morality that the Ubermensch created. This turned the Christian moral world on its head. This put the “powerful” man at the center of morality. This killed the idea of the moral duty of caring for the weak, treating others as you would like to be treated and so many other fundamental moral “truths” we take for granted.
Now, modern “enlightened” atheist thinkers like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and others who gleefully support the idea that God is dead will argue that through reason we can reconstruct a moral foundation that we can build our society on. A good example of this is Sam Harris’ Makinig Sense of Foundations of Morality podcast. He and select other atheists argue that we can build a moral foundation even more effectively, than one built on Christ. If we just think clearly enough and investigate the nature of man, we can see that the healthy and right way of living looks a lot like the life as described by Jesus. They will argue that science and reason are all we need to create a moral foundation for society. With this approach to morality, in comes The Rest is History podcast and their episodes on the Rise of the Nazis (episodes 295-298) and the book Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Tim Snyder.
First, the book Bloodlands. Bloodlands is the only book I have ever had to put down half-way through and walk away from for a while because it was too soul crushing. Bloodlands is a brilliant book about life in central and eastern Europe from about 1925-1950 for the people trapped between the Nazis and the Soviets. The brutality of these two regimes is truly beyond our ability to fathom. The millions of people they killed over these decades is beyond the human mind to truly comprehend. Additionally, the fact that this was done by “rational”, “science-driven” men is so difficult to comprehend. Their “rational and scientific” to evil is truly a challenge to the atheist argument of “just follow the science” and you will find morality. Here is where The Rest of History comes in. In episode two on the Rise of the Nazis, they talk about the factors and ideas that gave rise to Nazi thinking. One of the main ideas that gave rise to the racial purity ideas of Nazism was Darwinism (Darwin’s ideas on evolution) turned into Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism, as discussed in Wikipedia is:
Social Darwinism refers to various theories and societal practices that purport to apply biological concepts of natural selection and survival of the fittest to sociology, economics and politics, and which were largely defined by scholars in Western Europe and North America in the 1870s. Wikipedia.
The Rest is History team talk about how the pursuit of science, medicine, and evolution created the dark and evil “scientifically” based idea of cleansing the German race of Jews like cleansing a cancer from a human body. This evil idea was in large part based on the Nietzsche’s Ubermensch’s faith in science and lack of moral restraints. When unmoored from Christian morality the Nazis and the Soviets show how rational “morality” can lead us astray.
Now, some will respond with “yes, these are good examples of the possible evil outcome of science-based ‘morality’, but history is full of examples of evil done in the name of God.” There is some truth in this, but then again it often winds up arguing against itself. Take for example the way that the Conquistadors treated the Native Americans. They were often brutal and savage towards them massacring and pillaging the tribes they came across in their pursuit of gold and silver. This was clearly immoral, but ask yourself why you think this? Most likely, if you were to trace your moral thinking, you would find it tracing back to Jesus. By the moral standards of humanity throughout history, this was often the way that the stronger treated the weaker. The difference from this particular example, is that inside of Spain there was actually a force that fought back against this treatment of the Native Americans and this force came from within the Catholic church. We see this treatment of the Native Americans as evil not because we because our morality is based on science, but because it is based on Christ.
With all of this historical context around our societal moral foundation set, Dan Crenshaw brings us to a modern day moral atrocity with his podcast with “Jason”. Dan Crenshaw is a US congressman representing Texas. Dan Crenshaw recently interviewed a man called “Jason” on his podcast We Hold These Truth. “Jason” was a former American military and CIA operator who had recently returned from the Ukraine and among other things was talking about his operations against the Russians. Though I have not verified his “testimony” I trust that Crenshaw brought “Jason” (not the man’s real name) on because he was credible and had first hand experience. With that said, it was horrifying to hear what the Russian soldiers are doing to the Ukrainian civilians. Sadly, it matched nearly perfectly the horrifying stories as told in Bloodlands. Evil is not just in the past, but it is walking the earth today in the form of Russian operations in the Ukraine. “Jason” spoke of witnessing the outcome of terrible acts of evil by the Russian soldiers. Acts like chaining a Ukrainian daughter to a table and raping her in front of her family until she died from the violence of being raped over and over again (7:15-9:00) . He recalled hearing a recorded conversation between Russian soldiers and their wives in Russia about the soldier bragging that he had raped a Ukrainian woman and the Russian wife telling him that she hoped he had killed the Ukrainian after he had raped her (time 15:44 – 18:00). This was not soldier-indiscipline, but deliberate Russian policy to destroy the Ukrainian population, history, and culture. This was the same kind of evil they practiced in the Second World War as they “liberated” eastern and central Europe. I was horrified as I listened to this podcast, but it also brought me back to the central question of how can I call this evil with the death of God. Clearly the Russian soldiers did not think it was evil. It is also obvious that the Russian soldier’s wife did not think it was evil. So, why do I call this evil? What is the foundation on which I have built my morality that enables me with certainty to call this evil? And what is particularly challenging for me is that I do not believe in God or that Christ was his son? Intellectually, I am much closer to Nietzsche than I am to Jesus’ and his disciples, and here is where the TV series The Chosen comes in.
The Chosen is a brilliant series about the adult life of Jesus and his impact on the people around him. Often, I find myself at one point or another during an episode with tears of joy rolling down my cheeks as Jesus heals the body and soul of one person after another. The values that Jesus exemplifies and teaches in the show are so morally familiar and comforting to me that they feel like something on which I could build a moral foundation. They feel like a moral foundation on which you would want to build a society. It is an excellent example of a moral foundation I feel is solid versus the scientific moral foundation proposed by many today which seems like sand under my feet. It is this moral instability that we find ourselves as a society in today.
With the “death” of God as a society, we are adrift in search of finding shared moral values on which we can maintain our society. With the death of God, the West and America are morally adrift. We cannot agree on the moral foundation upon which we should make decisions. This can clearly be seen as we struggle with issues like abortion, parents versus state rights in raising children and their values regarding gender, the rise of the “baby-daddy” culture, and many other issues. We are finding it harder and harder to find common moral ground to assess, discuss, and solve these challenges. Here is where we as Americans are blessed with our traditionalist political culture.
As Americans, we are blessed to have inherited the traditions of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. These two foundational charter documents are now the primary ideas holding our shared moral societal foundation together. It is no accident that the men who wrote these were deeply steeped in Christian and Enlightenment thinking and morality. Most democracies do not have this blessed tradition. Most Western governments do not have these anchors in Western tradition and often leave it up to the thinking and morality of the day. Well, the thinking of today is more and more often based on political power and not on shared values. Political factions on one side or the other struggle with more and more ferocity against the other with neither side sharing a set of moral values.
The values espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution unite us as Americans. They give us a central anchor to hold us morally together. This has been a critical factor in why as a democracy we have been so successful for multiple centuries where other democracies have failed. Our founding documents have provided us with a set of political morals that have helped keep us united. Now, political morals are down-stream from cultural morals. By this I mean that societies create and share cultural values and then create the political values within that cultural framework. Our Christian heritage provided those cultural morals from our founding in 1776 up until around the counter cultural movement of the 1960s when they started to melt away. More and more with every passing year from the 1960s our cultural morals have been adrift and it has been the political morals of our founding charters and our shared interest that have held us together.
It is this situation of moral foundational ambiguity that now concerns me. The politically based morals of our Founding Charters will not long survive without the support of cultural shared morals. With the death of God starting in the 1700s how are we going to build and maintain our shared moral cultural values? For now, we share a faith in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, but will will happen as this faith fades? How are we going to deal with moral disagreement? How are we going to deal with educating our children which by definition must be values-based? What agreed values do we teach our young? We must find a path ahead where we can create first principles and shared values on which we as a community can agree. Now that God is dead and we have seen the danger of “scientific moral thinking” of the Ubermensch, we must strive together to build a shared societal moral foundation on which we can work together.