Last summer in the aftermath of the tragic shooting of the silverback gorilla Harambe, I asked my agnostic and atheist friends on Facebook if the Cincinnati Zoo was morally justified in shooting a gorilla to save a small child. It was a very interesting Facebook thread.
Most of those friends did believe that a human life is more valuable than a gorilla’s (though not all did – and I told those people not to take offense if I declined a dinner invitation to their house – I prefer to eat with people who see a clear difference between me and what is served for dinner!). But what was interesting to me was the justification these nonbelievers offered for privileging human life over animal life. For most of them, this was simply a matter of choosing the human “tribe” over the gorilla “tribe.” As one friend said:
The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.
This sentiment was shared by many participants on the thread. Another friend concluded:
I don’t think tribes/people truly care about other tribes/people, unless they have some degree of personal ties with them, or will reap some degree of benefit.
Another lamented that for most of us:
First priority is me, or my family or my tribe. Even among those who hold a moral view or a religious view, when the rubber meets the road that’s often the reality in action. Brotherhood of man is social construct — ahem, much like religion, forgive me — that unites the tribe, the society, and provides for stability and growth.
I appreciated the candor of these comments.
From a Christian point of view, the fact that there is one God means that all humans are made in His image and therefore share equal dignity in His eyes. The “brotherhood of man” that one friend referred to is the necessary implication of the Fatherhood of God. As Paul says in Ephesians 4:6, there is “one God and Father of all.” Not everyone desires to be in a relationship with Him, of course – what the Bible calls a “covenant.” But all humanity shares the common ground of creation in God’s image.
For this reason, it is incompatible with the Christian worldview to hate other people simply because they are members of a different tribe, bear a different skin tone, or speak a different language. The fact that many professed Christians have betrayed the gospel and surrendered to the racist impulses of a hateful world is undeniable. But it is also undeniable that the rise of Christianity astonished the early pagans with its commitment to love others across the ethnic, racial, and social divides that roiled the ancient world. As sociologist Rodney Stark has written:
Moreover, the corollary that because God loves humanity, Christians may not please God unless they love one another was something entirely new. Perhaps even more revolutionary was the principle that Christian love and charity must extend beyond the boundaries of family and tribe, that it must extend to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Indeed, love and charity must even extend beyond the Christian community.
So while I freely admit that many Christians have failed in modeling the universal love of God, at the same time I celebrate the fact that Christians challenged the prevailing notions of tribal loyalty that characterized the first century – and increasingly – our own century. And this goes back to Jesus himself, who taught in the Sermon on the Mount:
If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matthew 5:46-48, NIV).
This stands in sharp contrast to the outlook given by some of my friends on Facebook. And the opinions they expressed about the “tribal” nature of morality are hardly unique to my circle of acquaintances. The same view of morality is commonly proffered by atheists. For instance, Duke philosophy professor Alex Rosenberg flatly concedes the same position in his Atheist’s Guide to Reality. He believes that morality – like everything else – is the product of evolution, which in turn is about the preservation of the tribe. He even admits that evolution favors discrimination, that “racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes” (p. 111). But rather than accept the hard truths of pure naturalism, Rosenberg opts for a “nice nihilism,” even while conceding:
There is nothing morally right about being nice, but we are stuck with it for the forseeable future (p. 144).
So by their own admission, my unbelieving friends have embraced a view of reality that relativizes all morality into nothing more than parochial tribalism.
And yet, from what I have seen in social media, most of these same friends are profoundly outraged by racism (or at least by what they perceive as racism). They are often sympathetic to the “Black Lives Movement” and to the abuses of law enforcement against people of color. They are deeply offended by visa and immigration policies that seem to stigmatize those from other countries (or “tribes,” if you will). They speak about these issues as if there is objective moral truth that transcends tribe and race.
Isn’t this intellectually incoherent, given the belief that morality is tribal? To my atheist and agnostic friends, I pose this question: on what basis do you believe that anyone should care about the rights of those from different races, ethnicities, or nationalities? Your own moral philosophy denies any such a thing as right and wrong outside of the needs of your own tribe. I challenge you to make the case for the immorality of racism and xenophobia on the basis of your own beliefs.
And if you can’t – despite your strongly held beliefs that racism and xenophobia are indeed evil – then maybe you should reconsider your view of reality.