Let’s start with someone who acted consistently on the plain, intended meaning of the Christian worldview, as expressed in the New Testament.
The case of William Wilberforce, an authentic Christian
Consider this article from the Wall Street Journal about the abolitionist William Wilberforce.
In fact, William Wilberforce was driven by a version of Christianity that today would be derided as “fundamentalist.”
…William Wilberforce himself, as a student at Cambridge University in the 1770s and as a young member of Parliament soon after, had no more than a nominal sense of faith. Then, in 1785, he began reading evangelical treatises and underwent what he called “the Great Change,” almost dropping out of politics to study for the ministry until friends persuaded him that he could do more good where he was.
And he did a great deal of good…[h]is relentless campaign eventually led Parliament to ban the slave trade, in 1807, and to pass a law shortly after his death in 1833, making the entire institution of slavery illegal. But it is impossible to understand Wilberforce’s long antislavery campaign without seeing it as part of a larger Christian impulse. The man who prodded Parliament so famously also wrote theological tracts, sponsored missionary and charitable works, and fought for what he called the “reformation of manners,” a campaign against vice.
Even during the 18th century, evangelicals were derided as over-emotional “enthusiasts” by their Enlightenment-influenced contemporaries. By the time of Wilberforce’s “great change,” liberal 18th-century theologians had sought to make Christianity more “reasonable,” de-emphasizing sin, salvation and Christ’s divinity in favor of ethics, morality and a rather distant, deistic God. Relatedly, large numbers of ordinary English people, especially among the working classes, had begun drifting away from the tepid Christianity that seemed to prevail. Evangelicalism sought to counter such trends and to reinvigorate Christian belief.
…Perhaps the leading evangelical force of the day was the Methodism of John Wesley: It focused on preaching, the close study of the Bible, communal hymn-singing and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Central to the Methodist project was the notion that good works and charity were essential components of the Christian life. Methodism spawned a vast network of churches and ramified into the evangelical branches of Anglicanism. Nearly all the social-reform movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries–from temperance and soup kitchens to slum settlement houses and prison reform–owe something to Methodism and its related evangelical strains. The campaign against slavery was the most momentous of such reforms and, over time, the most successful. It is thus fitting that John Wesley happened to write his last letter–sent in February 1791, days before his death–to William Wilberforce. Wesley urged Wilberforce to devote himself unstintingly to his antislavery campaign, a “glorious enterprise” that opposed “that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature.” Wesley also urged him to “go on, in the name of God and in the power of his might, till even American slavery (the vilest that ever saw the sun) shall vanish away before it.”
Wesley had begun preaching against slavery 20 years before and in 1774 published an abolitionist tract, “Thoughts on Slavery.” Wilberforce came into contact with the burgeoning antislavery movement in 1787, when he met Thomas Clarkson, an evangelical Anglican who had devoted his life to the abolitionist cause. Two years later, Wilberforce gave his first speech against the slave trade in Parliament.
…This idea of slaving as sin is key. As sociologist Rodney Stark noted in “For the Glory of God” (2003), the abolition of slavery in the West during the 19th century was a uniquely Christian endeavor. When chattel slavery, long absent from Europe, reappeared in imperial form in the 16th and 17th centuries–mostly in response to the need for cheap labor in the New World–the first calls to end the practice came from pious Christians, notably the Quakers. Evangelicals, not least Methodists, quickly joined the cause, and a movement was born.
William Wilberforce believed that slaves were made in the image of God – that they were embodied souls who could be resurrected to eternal life. Wilberforce believed that the purpose of human life is to freely seek God, and to be reconciled with God through Christ. He wanted all men and women to have the opportunity to investigate and respond to God’s self-revelation to them.
You can read more about Wilberforce’s beliefs here and his public activities here. And you can still see modern-day abolitionists, like Scott Klusendorf, consistently acting out their Christian convictions in the public square. Only today they’re called pro-lifers. By the way, like Wilberforce, I am also a Wesley-inspired Evangelical Protestant Christian. Hooah!
The case of Adolf Hitler, an authentic Darwinist
Now let’s take a look at the opposite of Wilberforce someone who despised and rejected Christianity entirely. Adolf Hitler was strongly influenced by the anti-Christian zealot, Nietzche, but also by Darwin’s evolutionary ideas such as human inequality, moral relativism, the non-existence of human rights, equality of humans with animals, denial of the soul, and survival of the fittest.
You can see the entire case presented by tenured professor of history at the University of California, Dr. Richard Weikart, in a lecture presented at the University of California at Santa Barbara, here:
Here’s the blurb on the lecture from the University of California Television web site:
First Aired: 11/15/2004
In his book, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (2004), Richard Weikart explains the revolutionary impact Darwinism had on ethics and morality. Darwinism played a key role in the rise not only of eugenics (a movement wanting to control human reproduction to improve the human species), but also on euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, and racial extermination. This was especially important in Germany, since Hitler built his view of ethics on Darwinian principles.
But for those who don’t like watching video lectures given by tenured professors, with nice Powerpoint slides, in front of a live audience of students and faculty, at a major university, then here is an article by secular Jew David Berlinksi writing in Human Events to give us the briefest of summaries of Weikart’s argument.
A little bio of David Berlinski:
David Berlinski received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University and was later a postdoctoral fellow in mathematics and molecular biology at Columbia University. He has authored works on systems analysis, differential topology, theoretical biology, analytic philosophy, and the philosophy of mathematics, as well as three novels. He has also taught philosophy, mathematics and English at such universities as Stanford, Rutgers, the City University of New York and the Universite de Paris. In addition, he has held research fellowships at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria and the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques (IHES) in France.
He starts his Human Events piece like this:
Published in 1859, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species said nothing of substance about the origin of species. Or anything else, for that matter. It nonetheless persuaded scientists in England, Germany and the United States that human beings were accidents of creation. Where Darwin had seen species struggling for survival, German physicians, biologists, and professors of hygiene saw races.
They drew the obvious conclusion, the one that Darwin had already drawn. In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals. German scientists took the word expense to mean what it meant: The annihilation of less fit races.
…At Hitler’s death in May of 1945, the point was clear enough to the editorial writers of the New York Times. “Long before he had dreamed of achieving power,” they wrote, [Hitler] had developed the principles that nations were destined to hate, oppose and destroy one another; [and] that the law of history was the struggle for survival between peoples … ”.
Berlinski concludes by analyzing an answer given by Richard Dawkins to Ben Stein in the movie Expelled:
Would he care to live in a society shaped by Darwinian principles? The question was asked of Richard Dawkins.
Not at all, he at once responded.
And why not?
Because the result would be fascism.
In this, Richard Dawkins was entirely correct; and it is entirely to his credit that he said so.
The difference between consistent Christianity and consistent Darwinism is the difference between day and night. There is not now, nor will there ever be, an atheist Wilberforce. Atheists live their lives seeking pleasure and avoiding social disapproval, and they will never be able to consistently and rationally sacrifice their self-interest to oppose the fashions of their culture in obedience to a higher objective moral standard.
Atheists acknowledge no higher moral standard. If there is no God and the universe is an accident, then there is no way humans ought to be. The only thing to do in life is to invent your own arbitrary “morals” and hold to that, or not, (you do whichever gives you pleasure, since there no ultimate accountability one way or the other), while avoiding social disapproval for breaking the arbitrary cultural standard of your time and place. That’s atheist “morality”.
The moral character of a consistent Christian towers above the base animal selfishness of a consistent atheist like a Colossus towers over an ant. Atheists understand morality like a cat in a library, seeing the words, but lacking all understanding of their meaning.
Here is a quote I am stealing from the Anchoress to summarize: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”
Other debates on atheism and morality
My summary of the William Lane Craig (of Biola) vs Shelly Kagan (of Yale) debate at Columbia University on the topic “Is God Necessary for Morality?” is here.
Here are some prior debates on the rationality of morality on atheism.
- From Christianity Today, a written debate: Douglas Wilson vs. Christopher Hitchens
- From the University of Western Ontario, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs. Kai Nielsen
- From Schenectady College, a transcript of a public debate: William Lane Craig vs Richard Taylor
- From Franklin & Marshall College, William Lane Craig vs. Paul Kurtz (audio, video1, video2, video3, video4, video5, video6, video7)
- From the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, William Lane Craig vs. Louise Antony (audio1, audio2, video1, video2)
A good paper by Bill Craig on the problem of rationally-grounding prescriptive morality is here. My previous posts on this blog on this topic are here and here. The first one is about whether atheists can use an ungrounded, arbitrary standard to judge God for his “moral failures”, the second (better) one is on why the concept of morality is literally meaningless on atheism.