Peering into the Moral Mirror

Earlier this month I talked about Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche. The German nihilist philosopher is one of the most influential thinkers of the modern era. Even though it is often debated to what extent, he had an influence on men like Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini [1]it is hard to ignore the similarities between Nazism, Fascism and Nietzschean philosophy. [2]Nietzsche wanted the übermensch, that is, the superman who would overcome the [3]herd mentality of Judaeo-Christian ethics and become an autonomous champion like the Greek heroes of old who steered their own course.

What I find particularly fascinating about Nietzsche is his honest, ardent commitment to his worldview. I do not agree with him but like in his parable of the mad man, he clearly enunciates with the deft pen of a master writer, what would happen with a culture that got rid of God. He prophetically said it would bring great upheaval yet he admitted it unabashedly and relished the challenge of humanity becoming the new gods. Again the theme of the Greek hero being apotheosized was present as the ultimate goal for humanity. Another great example of his intellectual honesty was his reaction to the publication of the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. [4]He found the scientific bedrock on which his philosophy could stand yet unlike his contemporaries [5]he did not see it as a sign of inevitable progress. He saw it is as an observation of natural struggle, pain and tragedy. It was a fight against nature where only the strong could survive, reinforcing the need for the übermensch who would claw his way to the top. There was no transcendent, other worldly goal in sight except engineering the ultimate, all-conquering man here and now.

The thing with Nietzsche was that he was not just a philosophical atheist, he was an ethical one as well. He did not just say morals are relative and leave it at that. He took it to the logical conclusion of shunning morality all together, saying people should not be shackled by arbitrary, artificial concepts of good and evil. Morality was for the weak, something the superman should rise above. What mattered was surviving and dominating. When innocent babies are slaughtered or raped, it is not because of evil. It is because they are weak. There is no moral responsibility to be assigned.

I bring up Nietzsche because of the unending debate between Christians and atheists. A favourite accusation of sceptics against Christianity is its moral inconsistencies. For example if Christianity is so good why has it caused so much bloodshed or why are the Christians they know such hypocrites? You know what? They are right to call out believers for not living up to the same standards they espouse. The true test of any ideology is in how it fairs in the real world. A worldview maybe philosophically coherent but may not correspond properly to external reality. Therefore the systemic contradiction may not lie in the internal logic of a philosophy but rather in its ethical application in life and society. Now Nietzsche, as wrong as I think he was, was fully committed to living out his philosophy. Can we say the same of modern atheists and sceptics? I believe the scrutiny should go both ways. Atheists commitment to atheism must be also be carefully examined.

A case in point is a humorous yet very serious exchange between Ravi Zacharias and a young man in an open forum at the University of Pennsylvania. It is one of RZIM’s most watched clips and I ask you take a few minutes to view this very interesting dialogue.

“Do you lock your doors at night?” There are those moments which are not planned to be funny. I genuinely think Ravi did not think it was a joke but honestly, there are very few better ways it could have turned out. From experience, anytime you enter a debate looking for the knock down argument it probably means you have not thought through your opponents view or the issue carefully enough. This is what happened to the man who waltzed to the microphone with swaggering confidence only to get himself thoroughly schooled. Beyond the unscripted entertainment value of that little scene lay serious ethical issues.

The brash sceptic from what I can tell was a humanist. He probably believed people are inherently good because most people are decent to one another. The problem is not all people are like that. It takes one individual to cause untold amounts of suffering. Whether it is the suicide bomber who causes immediate pain or the charismatic leader who leads an entire generation in committing unspeakable horrors or the intellectual who with his pen and rhetoric arms them both. If everything should be decided subjectively, what is wrong with committing what most people would call evil? Nietzsche would have seen moral relativism as the diplomatic façade of moral nihilism.

I had a little back and forth myself with a self-described humanist where we reached this impasse. I asked him what ethic people should live by and it was basically reason and the golden rule. The problem I had with that is what stops someone reasoning it would give him pleasure to hurt another person. He curiously seemed to think I was employing the argument atheists were incapable of being moral. Perhaps, that was the objection he was most familiar with so he dealt with that instead of the one I was presenting. It might be perfectly fine for this sceptical acquaintance of mine who had a genuine concern for the plight of his fellow man but it is certainly not the way for a society to live neither has it been.

I saw a commenter critique the historic examples Ravi Zacharias gave for not being instances of subjective moral reasoning. He claimed the Boxer Rebellion and the Red Guard student uprising, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Hitler and Stalin all acted based on principles. What the commenter clearly failed to recognise was that moral subjectivism does not mean a lack of principles but a freedom to choose which ever ones you want! If it is child molestation you want to do, go ahead. The rest of us may not like it and on that basis try to stop you, but we cannot legitimately call it wrong. What is more subjective than that? Dr Zacharias correctly observed that type of coexistence is totally “unliveable.”

So when we consider the sceptics I have mentioned and countless others, which of them are most faithful to their worldview? [6]In a recent article for The New York Times, pastor and apologist Tim Keller said Nietzsche would have accused them of being “covert Christians.” Of course Christians, and Jews for that matter, did not invent moral values but the global impact of that tradition on moral values is unparalleled. I have posted many articles in the last couple of months highlighting the ethical heritage of the Judaeo-Christian worldview in Western society. Their philosophy might be Greek but their ethics are certainly not. [7]This is something Nietzsche despised and desperately wanted to return to a pre-Christian era. The modern sceptic often fails to recognise, that the source or greatest influencer of their morality is precisely the same thing they condemn.

In the end I simply want to challenge the atheist to look in to the moral mirror they so enthusiastically hold up to Christian faith. To assume without examination that atheism is beyond moral scrutiny is unjustified. To accuse Christians of being inconsistent while smuggling metaphysical contraband from their worldview when it comes to ethics is simply cheating. It is a great irony to judge another person for not consistently living out their beliefs while most atheists are not willing to live out the logical out workings of their atheism or recognize its natural outcome in human history. Now if a case can be made for Christianity being false through the failure of its adherents to live faithfully by it, what about atheists who selectively do not abide by their own atheism and borrow from Judaeo-Christian ethics when it is convenient? At least for Christian ethics, it fully acknowledges that it requires believers to go against their natural instincts and be transformed through practice and the abundant grace of God into a new man. So when Christians fail there is actually a plausible explanation for why that happens. Within their own worldview, can the same be said of the atheist who does not abide by his atheism?


[2] Nietzsche F., Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

[3] Nietzsche F., Beyond Good and Evil, pp. 202.






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