Stealing from Supernaturalism

Christopher Hitchens, in a fairly typical misreading of the Judeo-Christian tradition, is fond of pointing out that “the Jewish people did not get all the way to Mount Sinai under the impression that murder and theft and perjury were okay.” Oblivious to the Church’s entire tradition of the natural law, he fancies he’s scored a crushing debate point when he informs us that the people with no access to revelation have always known that murder, theft, etc., are wrong, and therefore God is an unnecessary hypothesis. Indeed, Hitchens, like all the New Atheists (who are, in fact, creakily decrepit Old Atheists of a school that nearly died out), is well described by Pope Benedict in Spes Salvi:

The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is — in its origins and aims — a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested.

St. Thomas can find only two good arguments for atheism in the history of human thought, and Hitchens et al. combine them to create the moralism Pope Benedict describes. The arguments can be paraphrase thus:

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1. Bad stuff happens, so there’s no God.
2. Everything works fine by itself, so there’s no God.

Hitchens’s we-don’t-need-God-to-explain-morality is a sample of the second argument. Alloyed with his outrage about evils in the world, he displays precisely the sort of moralism Benedict describes above, becoming not merely an atheist but an “anti-theist.”

A problem, however, remains for Hitchens, which neither he nor the rest of the New Atheists ever really face squarely. If you are an atheist, you have to smuggle in a supernatural worldview to maintain whatever fragments of Ought you want to maintain. Hitchens’s constant repetition that Moses did not discover murder to be wrong only shows that Hitchens has not really thought about the implications of the Church’s teaching on natural law, which freely grants that of course people with no exposure to revelation know certain aspects of the natural law. That’s because they are human, and humans are, whether we realize it or not, in the image and likeness of God. So people recognize something sacred there from the get go. All revelation does is clarify those basic, and fundamentally supernatural, moral intuitions.

Atheism — and particularly the New Atheism — is an acid that inevitably corrodes the natural apprehension of the human person as a supernatural being. A New Atheist bravely steals and desecrates the Eucharist and then declares in his Manifesto justifying the deed:

Nothing must be held sacred. Question everything. God is not great, Jesus is not your lord, you are not disciples of any charismatic prophet. You are all human beings who must make your way through your life by thinking and learning, and you have the job of advancing humanity’s knowledge by winnowing out the errors of past generations and finding deeper understanding of reality. You will not find wisdom in rituals and sacraments and dogma, which build only self-satisfied ignorance, but you can find truth by looking at your world with fresh eyes and a questioning mind.

Nothing Must Be Held Sacred — except the three-pound piece of meat behind the eye of the New Atheist; reason; intellectual liberty; science; their loved ones; human dignity (for humans they happen to like); and countless other things they don’t think about while penning these unthinking dogmas and engaging in these strange sacramental rites of desecration. In short, passionate love of the sacred is what fills the rhetoric of the New Atheists with such fire.

Meanwhile, really truly atheist philosophers like Richard Rorty have the number of the New Atheists and their moral posturing. He writes that there is no universally valid answer to moral questions such as, “Why not be cruel?”

Anybody who thinks that there are well-grounded theoretical answers to this sort of question . . . is still, in his heart, a theologian or a metaphysician. He believes in an order beyond time and change which both determines the point of human existence and establishes a hierarchy of responsibilities.

Rorty’s point is that all this passionate moralism is theft from a covert belief in something that transcends the mere realm of Is. The New Atheists suddenly and irrationally declare that some Ought binds time, space, matter, and energy whirling through their paces when these phenomena happen to take the shape of a human being. That’s why P. Z. Myers tried to provide a fig leaf for his desecration by citing the mistreatment of Jews in the 13th century: Jews ought not be mistreated; intellectual liberty ought to be encouraged.

Rorty basically says that however you slice it, this is rubbish. If you are going to have a world of Is alone, then deal with it and stop trying to have the benefits of a Judeo-Christian world of a Transcendent Ought with none of the obligations. If you are going to say Nothing Must Be Held Sacred, then say it and don’t take it back by sentimentalizing about the piece of matter who happens to be your child, or your brain, or a persecuted Jew, or whatever bit of random matter it is you are trying to privilege.

Appeals to evolutionary programming “making” you care about your child are all well and good. Baboons are evolutionarily programmed to eat each other’s lice, and I’m glad that works for them. But in a universe of Is, ultimately the Strong Man has no barrier to asking, “Why should I care if your pet object of sanctity is in the way of my personal gain and I can get away with it?” 

The New Atheists have given astonishingly little thought to any of this. When you point out that a universe where Nothing Must Be Held Sacred is a universe ripe for mass murder, they simply go on braying, “Oh, that will never happen!” After all, when has an atheist regime ever slaughtered people on an unimaginable scale?

Which brings me to the crowning paradox of the New Atheists. St. Paul tells his fellow Christians that we walk by faith, not by sight, and worship the unseen God. The New Atheists laugh at this and say they demand empirical proof, not faith. Well, the empirical evidence is in for atheism: A modest estimate of 100 million slaughtered is low-balling it. And yet, the New Atheists go blithely on like Bullwinkle, promising that, this time for sure, an atheist world would not be Planet Murder.

That’s faith.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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