“Nazis. I hate these guys.”
– Indiana Jones
Since the neo-nazi movement is in the news right now thanks to the debacle in Charlottesville, I thought I would use this unseemly moment to make a point about the nature of morality. Most everyone shares the sentiments of Indiana Jones about the Nazis. Nazi ideology is the epitome of evil.
But this sentiment assumes a couple of things. First, it assumes that something called “evil” actually exists. And second, it assumes that when evil exists, the appropriate response is condemnation and opposition.
As a Christian, I happen to share these assumptions. I believe there is an objective moral order that is revealed in nature and in Scripture, and that this revelation is ultimately grounded in God. Consequently I do not believe in moral relativism, the notion that right and wrong are nothing but a subjective feature of human experience that differs from culture to culture. No, I believe some things are always wrong, transcendently wrong, whether in 1930s Germany or 2017 America.
Many of my atheist and agnostic friends have also expressed outrage at these Nazi sympathizers. I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity with which my non-believing friends hold these views. But I do have a serious question as to how they justify this outrage.
On what basis can an unbeliever say that Nazi ideology is objectively immoral? Some atheists are willing to accept the implications of their own worldview and deny that objective moral values exist. One such philosopher, Alex Rosenberg, flatly acknowledges that nihilism (the belief that meaning, purpose, and morality do not exist) “can’t condemn Hitler, Stalin…Nihilism seems to cut that ground out from under us” (The Atheist Guide to Reality p. 98). The best he can offer is the observation that what really made the Nazis so terrible is that they accepted many false beliefs. It wasn’t really a moral issue so much as a cognitive one. This sounds good, until you realize that according to Rosenberg, all of our beliefs are ultimately the product of evolution, and that
There is lots of evidence that natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs…There are lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for. Racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes. (p. 110-111)
If this is the case, then is it even possible to fault the Nazi’s for incorrect beliefs? Or for adapting in keeping with them? Let’s say you have two cavemen, Og and Gog. Both see a stream of water. Og believes that this water comes from the runoff of melting snow. Gog believes this comes from the Water Fairy, and that the Water Fairy will only accept one worshipper. Og’s belief is correct, Gog’s is incorrect, but when Gog murders Og to take sole control of the stream, what sort of survival advantage will Og’s correct deduction have given him? And if both cavemen’s “thoughts” were nothing more than neurochemical reactions produced by the laws of physics, how could we even condemn Gog, much less hold him personally accountable? If it makes no sense to hold one cell accountable for its moral conduct, it doesn’t make much sense to hold a cluster of cells (i.e. the brain) responsible, either.
Lest you think this sort of brazen nihilism is limited to philosophy professors, let me share a comment made to me by a friend on Facebook last year. I asked my unbelieving friends to explain why (in the tragic case of Harambe the gorilla) they would justify choosing a human life over a gorilla’s life. My friend offered this response:
Why you ask? It all goes back to Olduvai Gorge. As old as the human story itself. You defend your tribe, and sapiens sapiens we be…The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.
In other words, morality is ultimately tribal, not universal.
Another friend said:
Brotherhood of man is social construct — ahem, much like religion, forgive me — that unites the tribe, the society, and provides for stability and growth. It’s a force for good, or can be, should be. But it seems to me that the value of human life, any life, any thing, comes from that social stability and security, the social norm. To assign value to one life over another – the original question, right? – is relative to each situation and society.
The “brotherhood of man” is nothing but a social construct, and the value of human life is “relative to each situation and society.”
This sounds great, until the Nazis show up!
I have not seen a single unbelieving friend say, “Well, I can’t really condemn neo-nazis because all moral values are simply social constructs.” Nor has anyone argued, “Well, our tribe differs from the neo-nazi tribe, but I can’t say they are wrong for pursuing the interests of their tribe.” No, everybody has sounded like a moral absolutist – Nazi ideology is wrong, always and everywhere.
But by what standard is this judgment made? It does no good to argue some sort of vague form of charitable humanism, since that would assume that human beings possess inherent dignity as opposed to other species – the very sort of tribalism that is the basis of Nazi ideology in the first place. Nor does it help to argue on utilitarian grounds that Nazism just doesn’t work. With just a few different decisions in history, it very well could have.
And if the Nazis had won, then according to the logic of those who say morality is purely a social construct, then whatever society the Nazis would have built would have been the measure of morality. Shows like The Man in the High Castle give us a glimpse of this moral vision, a world in which killing the infirm and brutally subjugating inferior races is not merely acceptable – it is morally obligatory.
I want to conclude by acknowledging that many atheists and agnostics have displayed brotherly love with far more clarity and consistency than lots of professed Christians. It infuriates and saddens me to confess that many people who claim the name of Christ have done evil against others merely because of their racial or ethnic identity. But here’s the point – I can justify this statement since I believe in an objective moral reality. And it is this issue – justification of one’s beliefs – that is the problem for atheism if morality is purely relative.
Since I began with an Indiana Jones quote, it seems appropriate to conclude with the words of the esteemed Jake and Elwood Blues.
“I hate Illinois Nazis.”