Defeating the Darkness – In Memory of Elie Wiesel

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Today Elie Wiesel died.  A man who was for me, as for many others a phenomenal inspiration.  BBC Report of Elie Wiesel

This chapter from The Dawkins Letters  explains why the great questions raised by Wiesel and the horror of the Holocaust ultimately point to only one solution – Christ.

Letter 8 – The Myth of Godless Morality

Dear Dr Dawkins,

As a young boy I watched with fascination The World at War on our TV screens (the whole series is now available on DVD and is regularly repeated on the History Channel). One scene in particular has stuck in my mind. A group of French Jewish men, women and children were herded into a large barn by Nazi soldiers. The barn was set on fire and the Jews were given a simple choice – they could come out of the barn and be shot or they could stay in and be burnt to death. It horrified me then and it horrifies me now. In fact, it so disturbed me that when I took the opportunity to do Sixth Year Studies at school, I determined to look at Weimar Germany and then went on to study history at the University of Edinburgh in order to try and answer the question ‘why?’ The same question that was displayed on the poster hanging in my bed-sit, superimposed over the soldier being shot in the back and the young naked girl running across a bridge screaming as napalm burned into her flesh. This question of morality is thus of great importance – not only for me but I suspect for most people.

You address this issue of morality in chapter six and in particular the question as to why we are good. As far as I can understand it your case seems to be as follows: you define goodness as altruism and therefore point out that we tend to be altruistic towards those of our own kin because we are genetically programmed to care for those who are most likely to have copies of the same genes that are in us. In addition to this there is reciprocal altruism – the ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ theory. Kinship and reciprocal altruism are the twin pillars on which a Darwinian explanation of morality is based.   To these you add reputation (we want to be seen to be ‘good’) and then the notion that altruistic giving may be seen as a form of superiority – a way of buying self advertising.   You also explain ‘kindness’ or ‘sympathy’ as a blessed Darwinian mistake.   And that’s it. That is the Darwinian explanation of morality.   There are so many problems with this approach.

First, it does not seem much of a morality. It is still primarily focused on the Selfish Gene. It is all about me, me and mine. As a Christian I believe that the bible teaches that human beings are fundamentally selfish and self-centred – however the Bible is not content to leave us there. There is something better.   Christ came to challenge and to deliver us from the self- centeredness which you glorify as the basis of morality.

Second, it is deterministic. There is no concept of free will, choice or responsibility. We are only ‘good’ because we are programmed to be that way. If my will is not free then you cannot blame me if I only do what I am genetically programmed to do. The trouble with such an approach is that it legitimises all kinds of behaviour; from the drunkard claiming it is in his genes, to the rapist saying that he is only doing what he has been programmed to do. On the other hand, if I am free and responsible for what I do, then I cannot be genetically programmed. I do not doubt that there are genetic factors in all aspects of human behaviour but I cannot believe that every human being and their actions are governed by such determinism. A crucial part of being human is having the ability to choose.

Third, your secular morality is not, as you admit, absolute:fortunately however morals do not have to be absolute.’ As you indicate it is changeable according to the whims of society. Indeed, if we are, as your favourite philosopher Bertrand Russell puts it, ‘tiny lumps of impure carbon and water crawling about for a few years, until they are dissolved again into the elements of which they are compounded’, there seems to be no basis for absolute morality.   You recognise this: ‘it is pretty hard to defend absolute morals on grounds other than religious ones.’ Why is this important? Because if there are no absolutes then there is no ultimate standard to judge by. And if there is no ultimate standard then we are left with anything goes, might is right, or the whims of a changing and confused society.

And finally, your absolute Darwinian philosophy cannot logically and consistently argue for morality because, to put it bluntly, there is no good or evil. As you so brilliantly describe it in The Blind Watchmaker:

‘In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe had precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’

That then is the atheist basis of morality – no justice, no rhyme nor reason, no purpose, no evil, no good, just blind pitiless indifference. It is little wonder that atheist philosophers have been desperately hunting round to try and establish some basis for a godless morality. Despite the best efforts of atheistic philosophers such as Peter Singer, Princeton Professor of Bioethics and a leading atheist polemicist, this basis is severely lacking, being little more than a utilitarian ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ without ever defining what ‘good’ is.

I think you recognise that this is the Achilles heel of atheism and so you go on the attack – ridiculing Christian morality. It has to be admitted that there are many things that have been done in the name of religion, including Christianity, which are inexcusable and that the behaviour of many professing Christians leaves a great deal to be desired. However, you should be careful before denouncing the whole of Christianity on the basis of the behaviour of those who are Christians and fail to be perfect, or of those who whilst claiming the label Christian, have no more faith than yourself.

Your major case against Christian morality is the Bible itself (we will come on to that in your next chapter) but in this one you throw up a couple of red herrings. First, at the beginning of the chapter you cite a number of letters which you have received from people you say are Christians. These contain expletives, threats of violence and grotesque language. Why did you cite these at the beginning of a chapter about morality? Because it is again your favourite ad hominem tactic. Look how stupid/ignorant/violent/immoral these Christians are and therefore Christian morality is the same. There are two easy counters to that. First, by definition these people cannot be Christians, followers of the one who told his disciples to turn the other cheek, not to threaten violence, not to use foul language and to love our enemies.

Second, what would you think if I cited the following from your own website:

XXX David Robertson is a self-righteous narrow minded, up his own XXX thick as pig XXX moronic retard! Watch out David, the sky fairy is late for his second coming and will be angry with you. Why is anyone debateing with this moron? He doesn’t know how to! He has the intellectual capacity of road kill.

 May your XXX come to life an kiss you. I’m impressed that some of the people here bother to debate this Robertson nincompoop. He is clearly out of his mind and beyond reason and logic. If you do debate him, stop respecting his delusions, however eloquent he puts them, and please approach him with the scorn and contempt that he deserves.

Prat. Bigot. Moron.   In fact there are pages and pages of this stuff.   It is quite clear that your website acts as a kind of therapy centre for some people but do you think it would be fair for me to say that therefore all atheists are as rude, ignorant and angry?

The second argument you use is to point out that Christian morality cannot be up to much if it requires the threat of hell or some kind of punishment in order to make people behave.   You cite Einstein: ‘If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.’ Einstein is right in at least one thing. We are a sorry lot.   Here is a simple test for you. Would you like the police to be removed from Oxford? Do you think that students at your University should be threatened with punishment if they cheat? Or should be given higher degrees if they do better than their peers? Surely if your students are only studying and not cheating because they fear punishment or have hope for some reward they are a sorry lot? Of course you see the fallacy of the argument.   The Bible recognizes that human beings are complex and that we need a system of checks and balances to help us – but here is the rub, the Bible’s teaching is not primarily moralistic.   It is much more radical than that. If it were the carrot and stick approach only, then the Bible would just be recognizing the situation for what it is – rather then seeking to change it to a better world.

Let us look then at the Christian case for morality and why, for some people, it is the most important proof for God.

  1. It explains evil.   The question is not ‘why are people good?’ but rather ‘why are people evil?’ Your view of morality seems to stem from your nice middle class English background.       It is a hopelessly optimistic and unfounded view of human nature – that human beings are essentially good and indeed are getting better all the time. Remember the question that I went to University to study – how could a decent civilized nation like the German people allow themselves to get into a position where they eradicated six million Jews plus many homosexuals, gypsies and Christians? It is easy in those circumstances, aided by decades of Hollywood conditioning, to believe that the world is divided into the good guys and the bad guys, and to just simply suggest that the Germans were bad, or Hitler was an insane demon. But my studies lead me to the conclusion that the Germans were human and that Hitler was all too human. Indeed, there was an enormous fuss a couple of years ago when the film Downfall was shown in Germany because it portrayed Hitler as a human being. The Bible tells us what we would already know if only we opened our eyes, that human beings are screwed up. As Freddy Mercury, late of Queen, sang at the first Live Aid, ‘If there’s a God up above, a God of love. Then what must he think, of the mess that we’ve made, of the world that he created?’
  2.  It explains the universe – Have you ever read C S Lewis’s Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of the Universe in his Mere Christianity? He, more than anyone, sums up why the moral law is such a powerful proof for the existence of God. Lewis writes, ‘Human beings all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.       Secondly they know that they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it. These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and the universe we live in.’   Lewis points out that there are two clear evidences for God – the first is the universe he has made. The second is the Moral Law which he argues is a better bit of information because it is ‘inside information.’   One of the major objections that many people will have to the notion that God created the universe is that things seem so cruel and unjust. But as Lewis asks, how do we get the idea of cruel and unjust in the first place? What is there in us that makes us aware of right and wrong
  3. It explains me. In looking at the horror of the Holocaust it was the most humbling and awful experience to realize that not only were the Nazis human but I was too. The same evil that came to such horrendous fruition in the Nazis was also, at least in seed form, present in me. Reading books like Gitta Sereny’s excellent Albert Speer; His Battle with Truth[1] was a sobering experience. As G. K. Chsterton masterfully put it in a letter to The Times: ‘Dear Editor: What’s wrong with the world? I am.       Faithfully yours, G. K. Chesterton.’ 

But let us return to the atheistic view of morality. I accept fully that you are not a social Darwinianist. You know that that would be wrong. Although I am intrigued as to how you know. But leaving that aside my fear is that once society as a whole accepts your basic presuppositions (that there are no absolutes in morality, that morality changes and that human nature is genetically determined) then it is a downward slippery slope to the kind of atheistic societies that the world has already seen (such as Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China).   I am not arguing that all atheists are immoral any more than I am arguing that all professing Christians are moral. All of us live inconsistently with our creeds. However, in Christianity there are brakes, checks and balances and it does not appear immediately obvious that this is the case with atheism. If there is no absolute right or wrong then how can we state that anything is right or wrong?

Take the case of abortion which you discuss in chapter eight. You point out a fascinating fact that ,strong opponents of abortion are almost all deeply religious.’ This is a fact that has always puzzled me. Surely any scientist would know that there is nothing that the baby has outside the womb which she does not also have inside the womb? Why then is it considered a human right to be allowed to kill a baby in the womb but not outside it? And there is another question in this debate which fascinates me. In India over 500,000 female fetuses are aborted each year because they are female. Naturally women’s groups are objecting to this form of selective abortion. But why? Why would pro-abortionists want to interfere with a woman’s right to choose not to have a girl? Is it not after all the woman’s body? Besides which, in the eyes of pro-abortionists, it’s not a girl but a ‘potential’ girl. The inconsistencies are ironic.

Of course, once we move away from the simplistic and unscientific ‘a woman has a right to choose to kill the baby in her womb but not outside of it’, then we can end up with all kinds of difficulties.   Peter Singer argues that ‘mentally impaired babies have no greater rights than certain animals.’

Bill Hamilton, to whom you owed a great deal in the writing of your book The Selfish Gene and whose writing you stated was passionate, vivid and informed; was an excellent Darwinian biologist whose views were certainly of a different kind of morality. He once said that he had more sympathy for a lone fern than he did for a crying child. He argued that males were largely doomed to compete and that the purpose of sex was to clean out the gene pool by filtering out the useless and the weak. The low status male would be better off dead. Everything in nature according to Hamilton could be explained as the outcome of competition between genes.   He argued for a radical programme of infanticide, eugenics and euthanasia in order to save the world.   He believed that modern medicine was doing harm by allowing the weak to survive and thus preserving their genes. His two concrete examples of these are caesarean sections and the glasses worn by John Maynard Smith!   Spectacles were a symbol of decadence within the gene pool and as for caesarean sections – women should be allowed one and then only to save the mothers life – after that they should be paid not to have any more children.

Hamilton’s view of modern medicine was so eugenically based that he believed that the only acceptable forms of medicine were painkillers and surgery. He declared that genocide was the result of over-breeding and that he would grieve more for the death of one giant panda than he would for a ‘hundred unknown Chinese’.   He also argued that the handicapped should be killed at birth. In arguing for what he termed ‘inclusive happiness’ he stated ‘I have little doubt that if trying to survive on Robinson Crusoe’s island with my wife I would indeed with my own hands kill a defective baby.’ In this, he and Singer would be as one.

It may be that the extreme social and political views of Hamilton are in fact an exception and that it would not be right to tar all biologists with the same brush. That is true. It is not biologists who are the problem but some biologists who also happen to be atheists and who do not accept the notion of an absolute morality. And whilst Hamilton may have been on the extreme there have been plenty others who have worked out the logical conclusion to their atheistic materialism.   Some of the leading evolutionary biologists in the 20th century have been people who, because of their atheistic philosophy and misunderstanding of science, adopted extreme political views. Konrad Lorenz was an enthusiastic Nazi. J.B.S Haldane was a committed Stalinist and RA Fisher used to argue that civilisation was threatened because upper class women (i.e. ‘quality’) did not have enough babies.

At this point, perhaps, someone might point out that I am doing the same thing to you that I accuse you of doing to others – namely picking some extremes and using them to condemn the lot. The difference is this. Whereas you cite people who are on the wacky fringes of Christianity the people I am speaking about are key and central figures. Can you imagine how atheists would have reacted if the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Pope or Billy Graham had come out arguing for infanticide, banning caesarean sections, or encouraging the ‘superior’ classes to breed more than the common people?!   We would never have heard the end of it.

Meanwhile, you cite such fringe characters such as Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church and ignore the substantial history and philosophy within the grounds of atheistic secular biology of those who have advocated such extreme social views.   What was most disturbing about Nazism was not whether its main thinkers were ‘nice’ people but rather its philosophical foundation and the basis and justification it gave for cruelty and injustice. That is the same for Social Darwinism where the elimination of the weak and the destruction of the handicapped are the very antithesis of Christianity and the real enemy of humanity.   I repeat again, for the umpteenth time, that this is not to state that all evolutionary atheists are de facto fascists, but it is to say that the logical consequences of evolutionary atheism can easily lead, and has led, to such a position.

The Christian view of morality is not, as most people suppose, that the Bible gives us a set of laws to live by. Real Christians are not moralists – thinking that if only we offer a reward here, a bit of punishment there, then ‘decent’ human beings will behave better and somehow earn their own stairway to heaven. We know that we can neither legislate nor use religion to make us good.   Real Christians realize that the Bible’s teaching is that there is an absolute morality – from which we all fall short.   And no amount of religion, good works or pious acts will ever be able to make us right. That is where grace, salvation, the cross and all the wonderful truths of the acts of God in Christ come into their own.

God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. That is why the Gospel is Good News. Not because it gives us a set of laws to live by, or religious rites to perform but because it deals with the biggest problem in the world – the problem of the human heart. It is for that reason that every year I religiously watch Schindler’s List to remind me of why I am a minister of the Christian Gospel. I don’t just want to explain the Darkness. I want to defeat it.

Yours, etc

David

This is taken from The Dawkins Letters  available from all good bookshops and on Kindle!

 

15 thoughts on “Defeating the Darkness – In Memory of Elie Wiesel

  1. Thank you David.

    Your post about whether Hitler was a christian, to me, has been subsumed by this post and question raised by it. How much did Darwinism and Nietzchism play in the the rise of Hitler and the Holocaust?

    “By their fruit you shall know them.”

    Another holocaust survivor, chemist Primo Levi played some part in my path to Christ. I understand that he could not overcome the guilt he felt because he survived and many others hadn’t.

  2. Haha I still find that moronic retard comment hilarious. Didn’t he also call you a nasty little Presbyterian minister that isn’t even a proper clergyman?

    To some extent, I don’t know why you respond David. Nevertheless, perhaps there is a need for polemical voices such as yours before a dialogue can be achieved with both sides of the argument considering he others rather than doing an adult version of who can be the bigger playground bully and have rule.

    It may help to remember that it is both religious and secular powers that got Jesus killed, at the initiation of the religious elite.

    Unless we have environments where there is a welcoming then it seems, does it not that there is a precedent to be observed with the commandment Jesus gave of shaking the dust off your sandals as an indication that your adversaries are not worthy of your time and presence.

    Someone who mocks, misunderstands and hates because of their own prejudices and unconscious bias inevitably is playing a dangerous game by attacking another’s basic instincts for survival. Eventually their own peers will acknowledge their bullying and cowardly tactics. Then they will be faced with a choice of social suicide by continuing in that manner of change in order to maintain credibility among peers.

    By the way, this applies to Christians as well as atheists / anti-theists.

  3. If clear instances of a moral property cannot be distinguished from clear counter instances of that moral property, then the property in question has no intelligible meaning.

    Clear instances of God’s moral properties cannot be meaningfully distinguished from clear counter instances of these moral properties.

    God’s moral character is unintelligible.

    1. Another attempt to sound clever which just fails on simple logic. Who does the distinguishing?! Your second statement is also demonstrably false. Eg. God is just can be clearly distinguished from God is unjust. God’s moral character is unintelligible only to those who don’t have the intelligence to understand it!

  4. “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants….”

    Is God being just or unjust David? Can you distinguish the answer? How does your “intelligence” enable you to distinguish the murder of infants differently from the rest of us?

    1. Sadly Jon, you can’t join this conversation or even ask the question because you have no concept of absolute justice and so cannot even make the question meaningful. For the Christian, who does believe in an absolute justice, there is a real problem with this. To put together the absolute that God cannot by definition do anything that is unjust with something that appears to us to be unjust. But that is our problem not yours. However I am glad that you are opposed to the indiscriminate murder of infants – which will be of course why are you opposed to abortion?

  5. Here we go again, Jon. Welcome back.

    It’s like the compare and contrast school questions.

    1 The Nazi death camps were “just.” Demonstrate.

    2 The Nazi death camps were “unjust”. Demonstrate. Compare and contrast .

    3 Science is “just”. Demonstrate.

    4 Science is “unjust.” Demonstrate. Compare and contrast.

    5 Is animal, vegetable and mineral, just or unjust? Demonstrate, compare and contrast.

    Humour me here as I know you don’t believe in the Christian triune God. But is a God who is holy also just when he takes into Himself the justice we deserve, out of love for us? Jesus is so holy that that he had to die for us and is so loving that He was glad to die in our stead, “for the joy that was set before Him.” Is a God who was willing to substitute Himself for you and me, to die the death you and I deserve, and to credit you and me with His perfect life lived, to be joined with Him in union, not only just, but merciful and lovingly lovely. Do you not long to have the love God the Father has for God the Son, and the love the Son has for the Father, and to existentially be brought into that loving relationship, by and through God the Holy Spirit, for that is what is offered by Christ Jesus. As jazz saxophonist John Coltrane recorded a “Love Supreme.”

    No other gods before Him. Nor above Him.

  6. David

    “To put together the absolute that God cannot by definition do anything that is unjust with something that appears to us to be unjust. But that is our problem not yours.”

    Thank you, so my point two is clearly not demonstrably false and the critique still stands. Of course I don’t believe any of this rubbish, but you do so you have to defend it.

    I’m pleased you had to resort to your standard abortion argument as it clearly shows you are unable to address the central problem with God’s unintelligibility. I could believe we should roast infants in pies, but it wouldn’t make a scrap of difference to your non-existent defence of the problem.

    Graham

    What justice did the Amalekite infants receive? What type of “love” is it that seeks the murder of women, children and infants? You are correct, I don’t believe a single word of your theology, but you also have to defend it.

    It may be glibly referred to as a “problem” that then is quietly pushed to one side whilst glorifying God in the highest, but deep down, you know it’s fatal to Christian theology and therefore best ignored!

    1. SOrry Jon…your first point is demonstrably false. And you keep asking questions which have no meaning for you, whilst refusing to answer the ones that do. There is no absolute justice or love for you, so you cannot speak of them. Once you can then the problem can be answered. But until you get the factors in the equation right you won’t come to the answer. Try again..

  7. I don’t understand your definition of demonstrably false! The layman might assume it means that you can demonstrate something to be false, but you can’t. You made the same claim for premise two then immediately showed it to be completely true!

    Why can’t you understand that it doesn’t matter whether I believe a theistic question has any basis in truth? The theist does and therefore the question is valid.

    The “dummies guide to apologetics” that says: Rule 1 – attack your opponents world-view, totally misses the point. The theist is proposing an objective morality based on God’s nature that is unintelligible. My world-view might also be complete nonsense but that doesn’t save theism, it just means there is another in a long list of stupid world-views humanity has held through the ages. Christian theism is just one of them!

    My daughter is a Christian (we avoid religion at the dinner table) but simply refuses to believe the Amalekite massacre happened. She would accept Graham’s view of redemption through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice but how would you answer her if she asked the same question I have?

    I suspect you would probably simply threaten to excommunicate her for the heresy of not accepting scriptural inerrancy!

    1. Poor Jon – you think that you are so clever and smart and yet you keep shooting yourself in the foot. Of course it matters what you mean by a question. If you can’t state that and your basis then it is impossible to answer. The theist is not proposing an objective morality based on God’s nature that is unintelligible. As regards your daughter yes I would answer her – but not in a comment to her atheist father who doesn’t even understand his own questions..!

      1. I showed my daughter our interaction. She said; “if he believes in the Amalekite murder, why doesn’t he just answer your question”.

        Priceless!

      2. Not really—she is very welcome to ask me the question. I can’t answer your question, because it is not a question, but an accusation based on a whole series of false premises. Try again…

  8. You fail to answer anything at all about the meaning of justice, Jon, yet you clearly are upset about the Amalekites. On what basis? But yours is the standard, desperate rejoinder from an atheist schooled in Darwin and Dawkins, when they have painted themselves into a corner,

    If, there is no god then you are left with people killing people, survival of the fittest. Tony Benn has said that the holocaust was a bid problem for atheism.

    It’s also pertinent that you are willing to accept something in the bible as true, but you are extremely selective. There is a lot that could be said about the Amalekites, but this is not the post for it, but it’s tied into the fall, promises, covenants, faithfulness, evil, Holy-justice.

    And you have deliberately ignored the justice within the triune God, the good news of Jesus and the beauty of His Holiness. You appear to be a bit rattled. Wouldn’t you even like it to be true? If not, why not? You have said in another post on here something to the effect that the evangelical picture of God is the most attractive of any god, so why get het-up about it? Why the moral superiority, the self- righteousness?

    You may not be aware of biblical theology, the sweep of the whole Bible from beginning to end, that the whole of the “old testament” or old covenants was all pointing towards the coming of Jesus the Messiah, who said they were all about Him. All scripture is about Christ Jesus, a new birth into Him, a new humanity.

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