Morality, Empire, and the Obfuscation of the New Atheism


    “No man who is in fear, or sorrow, or turmoil, is free, but whoever is rid of sorrows and fears and turmoils, that man is by the selfsame course rid also of slavery.”
    —Epictetus, Discourses

    “Men invent new ideals because they dare not attempt old ideals. They look forward with enthusiasm, because they are afraid to look back.”
    —G. K. Chesterton, What’s Wrong with the World

The current generation of atheism advocates (apologists does not seem the appropriate term) hold the position that belief in a transcendent divinity is not necessary for the development of a human system of ethics. In this belief is an unspoken rebuttal to those who would argue that morality, as conjured in a space and time beyond transcendence, beggars most, if not all, likely probabilities.  These advocates stress, as a substitute for a divinely inspired source of revelatory morality, the theme of “human solidarity,” the nebulous phenomena produced ex nihilo to promote the survival of the tribe and species. Crucial to this idea, which bases itself on “scientific” analysis of the human condition, is the study of that condition within the landscape of human civilizations.

At the end of a Western civilization class I was teaching, and after many months of examining Hammurabi’s Code, the strategies of Alexander at Gaugamela, and the republican Roman virtues of Marcus Cato the Elder, I assigned a final primary text to be read and discussed: the New Testament’s Sermon on the Mount. The lesson was ostensibly to walk through Jesus’s response to two major historical themes from antiquity. The first was the ancient law of reciprocal justice that was established in Babylonian law as elucidated by Hammurabi. The second was the seemingly inexhaustible lineage of would-be conquerors who, like the Homeric Agamemnon, sought to gain the world regardless of both physical and metaphysical prices paid.

As most readers will probably surmise, Jesus’s admonition toward Pharisaic behavior extends to the Mesopotamian root of such concentration on legality for legality’s sake. If righteousness beyond “that of the scribes and Pharisees” is called upon and necessary for salvation, then one may ask the question, “What is so unrighteous about following and keeping to the law?” Though Hammurabi makes mention of ensuring that “the strong not prey upon the weak,” his legal entity appears more punitive than redemptive. If considered a lawful society, Babylon certainly was not egalitarian in its prohibitions and punishments in that slaves and nobles did not receive equal reciprocal justice for the same offenses. An individual could technically keep to the king’s and the city’s laws all his life, yet at the end of life not be considered righteous.

As C. S. Lewis points out, there is a special infernal quality particular to the Pharisee, or “spoiled saint”—the individual whose lawful adherence degenerates to disdainful pride. In a bitterly ironic sense, if an ancient code of laws (let us say, for the sake of argument, not divinely inspired, but necessitated for tribal survival) arose out of purely human need, its built-in checks to offenses would actually lead to further human estrangement: a society with neither hope nor solidarity.

In sacrificing Iphigenia at Aulis, the Mycenaean high king Agamemnon charted an oft-repeated course in the history of world conquest. Yet, if queried, he would probably defend his actions with the sentiment that the quest for empire is actually for society’s betterment because it spreads a shared civilization throughout worlds known and unknown.

In this vein, Alexander sought to promulgate Hellenism as its champion, only to be later waylaid by this urge. Caesar followed the lead of the ambitious Lucius Catiline, who lusted beyond the balance of Rome’s republic. In order to avoid Catiline’s mistake in warring against his own city, Caesar split its population in two political blocs, winning the urban poor by seeking foreign conquests. The pax romana, wherein Virgil commanded Rome to “rule the nations with thy sway,” may have spread a form of unity through Roman civilization, yet this peace was initially won by sword and fire, hardly to be considered agencies that promote solidarity.

In contrast to the paradigm of Roman strength came the meekness and poverty of spirit spoken of in the Beatitudes, qualities not seeking to overcome, but rather to unlock. In laying down the earthly pride wherein desiring power seeks dominion, true solidarity is forged by acts of mercy, humility, and charity.

But the topic that easily garnered the most attention in the class and generated spirited debate was a seemingly unlikely product of the Beatitudes. Jesus warned his followers that they would be “persecuted for righteousness’ sake”—which is, at the very least, an intriguing notion. If Jesus’s followers began laying down the temptation of Agamemnon and all of those cut of the same imperial brocaded cloth, how could this lead to their being subject to ostracism—an ostracism that is often performed by the atheism advocate du jour?

The students’ responses to this last question were not long in coming. The last tolerated prejudice, the predisposition against Christianity was maintained for a variety of reasons. They pointed to the apparent ubiquity of Christianity’s flawed representatives. From picketers at armed-forces funerals to mega–church millionaires, there has been an abundant surplus of straw men for this line of criticism. Next came the argument regarding the hypocrisy that today’s brand of congenital cynicism automatically assumes in persons of piety. Because those who aspire to the heavenly city are “just people,” their rhetoric and practice of self and worldly denial has become objects of mockery for the flippant humor that is our society’s mark of sophisticated intelligence.

Two points of irony were soon evident in the midst of this Socratic discussion. First, the vigorous explanations, or justifications, as to why Christianity is thus treated in today’s culture only served to prove the two millennia–old Beatitude right. There need not be any rationalization for the ostracism of a societal group if said ostracism is not taking place at all. Second, if Christianity is vilified because of some of its prohibitions as well as because of its aspirations, then one must accept what the British philosopher Roger Scruton said regarding societies whose chief value was tolerance. In such societies, “it is vital to prohibit the prohibitor.” However, this sentiment is not only illogical, but ambiguous enough to descend to the immoral. Agamemnon conquered because, simply, he could. So did the Athenians at Melos. Isolating the Christian ethos betrays a similar paradigm: the absence of a moral framework begets justifications for power. Along Socratic lines, strength prevails in the absence of truth.

There remains the clever obfuscation by today’s advocates of atheism. As the Athenian sophists in mock piety charged Socrates with worshipping gods other than those of the city (even though they in truth worshipped nothing), these advocates claim Christianity is a source of division, but they themselves perpetuate backhanded ostracism. The story of Western civilization tells us that such souls, confused regarding where to search for righteousness and disavowing such an idea and its source, are seldom if ever satisfied.

José Maria J. Yulo is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute. He received his doctoral degree in the philosophy of education from the University of San Francisco and teaches philosophy and western civilization at the Academy of Art University.