Heather Mac Donald opens up one of the most important arguments necessary for this nation to face soon, that is, What is the relation of atheism to Jewish-Christian belief? Her immediate wish is that there were more respect for atheists within the Republican party, or at least a diminishment of her feeling of being an “outsider,” which she now often feels when there is—if I may put it this way—“Christian talk” in the air. She is “bewildered” during times in which President Bush speaks of God in a personal way. Again, she doesn’t understand how Christians can thank God for the recovery of an unharmed kidnapped child but not blame God for those times when a kidnapped child is not recovered, but horribly abused and viciously killed. No matter what God does, he is clung to either way. This is, she said, a “double standard” worthy of the worst aspects of affirmative action.
She also regards speech about “natural law” as a kind of mysticism. At the same time, she writes in a later blog that the main point she wished to make in her earlier article is that atheists like her don’t need belief in the biblical God in order to maintain certain ethical principles by reason alone, in the light of experience, and thus in a “conservative” manner. But this is exactly what many of us mean by “natural law”—the law discovered by reason alone, without revelation.
The Ten Commandments, for example, long Jewish and Christian intellectual traditions hold, are discoverable by reason alone, but as a short cut also by revelation. That short cut is very helpful to those who are neither philosophers nor abstract reasoners. The short cut seems to them like common sense, perfectly reasonable in the light of common experience. (Tocqueville even adds that the short cut by way of revelation is also convenient because it tells people what to do now, without waiting to sort out all the arguments of competing philosophers, whose arguments sometimes seem never to end.)
I very much like Heather’s main point, about the common strait in which believers and unbelievers often find themselves. She even points out that from the outside—if she never told you she was an atheist—you might easily think that she held values very much like those of other Christians that you know. (“What do they lack but churches, these atheists of our generation, to distinguish them from being Christians?”—if I may again paraphrase Albert Camus, as in an earlier blog a few days back. As if anticipating an objection, Miss Mac Donald brushes aside the old argument that atheists are simply living off the spiritual capital of a distinctive Jewish and Christian civilization.
“Miss Mac Donald,” rather than “Heather,” that is no doubt the way I ought to have been addressing her since the top of this piece. After all, we have met only glancingly in a large meeting, and it would seem I have no right to use her first name. Yet I have so long been in internal conversation with her writings, and so frequently admired her steadfast realism and intellectual bravery, that the formal address seems untrue to the conversations my mind has had with her. After reading an especially sharp point made by her, I mentally exclaim to her: “You go, girl!” And friends are likely to ask, “Did you read Heather today!” A blog is a kind of conversation, a conversation of minds, and that is why so often in them first names replace formal address.
A roundabout way of saying that the rest of what I write here is intended to be personal—not secret, but still one-to-one. The question Heather has raised is the most important one humans can address in each other’s presence. For the difference between Jewish or Christian belief and atheism is so profound that it utterly shifts the axis of one’s personal life. Conversion stories tell us that—in both directions, from belief to atheism, and from atheism to belief. And thus to address these matters openly requires a personal and somewhat mutually trusting circle.
I would hope that my earlier blogs—read here, here, and here—have made clear the kinship I feel with serious atheists. I am certain (from experience) that we walk very much in the same night. On the other hand, what it means to walk “in the presence of God” is so all-embracing a presence, so weighty, that it places one’s life on a wholly new axis, which is difficult to clarify. Let me begin by trying to place myself in Heather’s shoes, if I can at all do that.
If the words of George Bush bewilder her, as when he says that his foreign policy is much affected by his Christian faith, it seems to me that she must often have had to bracket, as well, the words of Washington, Lincoln, virtually all our presidents and Congresses, and even the language of many of our founding documents. Is she bewildered by “endowed by their Creator” and the Declaration’s other words about “Nature’s God,” “Supreme Judge of the world,” and our nation’s “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence”?
I think that atheists must often feel like outsiders with regard to a certain dimension of our national experience. That does not make them any the less true and good citizens. But it must cause a twinge of pain now and again, as obviously President Bush’s occasional religious language does, and perhaps the even heavier use of religious language by President Clinton. (The two presidents seem to have had a different personal relation to their own religious words, however—or is that only my errant imagining? It is in any case possible that a different personal relation to particular words results in two different reactions by the public.)
Sometimes in the questions raised in Miss Mac Donald’s article, it seems that she is thinking of God as though he were just a larger-than-life human being, or another item in the inventory of the universe. I don’t think she quite feels the overpowering sense of God’s sovereignty over all things, painful or pleasant, virtuous or perverse, in human experience. She must think this way, because her point of view places her in judgment over God.
Thomas Jefferson felt this overwhelming sovereignty of God over all things, because he wrote (in his bill for religious liberty in Virginia) that no sooner did a person become aware of the proper relation between creature and Creator, to whom the creature’s very existence is owed, than the creature becomes aware of a self-evident duty to worship and give thanks to so infinitely superior a Being. On that inviolable duty is based a right, in whose exercise no one whatever—not parent, not friend, not foe, not state, not even civil society—may legitimately interfere.
To grasp this relation of awe, thanksgiving, and worship owed to the Creator is to place ourselves under his judgment, not him under ours.
I feel that I am not making my words here nearly clear enough.
Although neither the atheist nor the believer actually “sees” God, not with the naked eyes nor even with the eyes of the mind, the believer has felt the earth shift under her feet. The axis of her identity is no longer what it was. One cannot see other things in the same light as before. Everything is somehow altered—while in another way, nothing has changed. If the believer did not reveal it in so many words, one might never perceive that the believer is really a believer. (A really good friend who is an atheist may from time to time probe a little: “Do you really believe that…? What do believers really mean by…?”) Unless the atheist had learned from earlier conversations about one’s own faith, and the manner in which to discuss it, he probably would not know for sure, nor care, what we believed. From the outside, we are all just human beings doing our best.
In the twelfth century, when the lost works of Aristotle were finally uncovered in a library in Spain, and especially Nicomachean Ethics, it became evident that Aristotle, the pagan, had described a quite noble and brilliantly thought-out approach to human ethics. That system, as it were, came to be referred to as natural law, in order to distinguish it from the pattern of ethics discernible in the Bible. This was discernible by reason alone, as distinguished from reasoning derived at least in part from revelation. One of the points on which Thomas Aquinas is held in such high repute in Catholic circles is his careful exploration of the stretches of territory that lie between reason and revelation, giving full validity within their own sphere to the discoveries of reason alone.
Can a man be good apart from revelation and the grace of Christ? Thomas answered, as he almost always did, by making a distinction (his method was “distinguish in order to unite”): If you mean, can a man be good within the boundaries of the civitas, make a good citizen, be a good person according to the canons of reason, then the answer is yes. Just look at Aristotle. There’s some of the evidence.
But if you mean, Can a man be saved without the grace of Christ, the answer, alas, is no.
What it means to be “saved” is to be invited into the love and friendship of God, and that capacity is far beyond anything we have in ourselves. We need to be enabled to dwell in that relationship by saying “Yes” to God’s invitation to us, and by welcoming in ourselves the superabundance of living in God’s presence. When we are living in active friendship with our Creator, it is a delight to take up the duties imposed on us by that unimagined, undeserved friendship. These duties do not contradict those we discover by the use of our reason alone (and that we call the natural law). But they go far beyond those duties and invite us to participate in an inner life far beyond our poor powers to conceive.
The fundamental question of our age is this: Can humans really maintain a civilization if a predominant majority live etsi Deus non daretur, as if there is no God? If there is no God, humans are likely to live one way, at least in a few boundary territories, such as life, family, and daily, humble self-sacrifice. If there is a God (the true God, no false gods before him), at least some—and not altogether minor—decisions are likely to be taken in a quite different direction, along a different axis.
The answer to the question “Who am I, under these stars, with the wind upon my face?” is quite different in the two cases. To choose not to believe is to choose for oneself an identity quite different from the identity of one who chooses to believe.
Both choices, springing from the most profound of inner sources, are worthy of infinite respect. From the Christian and Jewish point of view, the Creator himself set before every single individual this inalienable choice and thus gave to every human being a dignity higher than that of any other creature on this earth.
This difference in radical choices is, therefore, the epicenter of human dignity. Each person is created free. This fact demands more than tolerance—more than the mutual agreement, for reasons of peace, merely to put up with (tolerate) each other. It requires, not tolerance, but something higher—mutual respect.
Published in First Things August 16, 2006