by Philip Vander Elst
When Benjamin Franklin introduced his grandson to Voltaire shortly before the latter’s death in 1778, that great opponent of the Catholic Church laid his thin hands upon the youth’s head and bade him dedicate himself to the cause of “God and Liberty”. Less than a century later, in June 1850, another great French liberal thinker, Frederic Bastiat, made a similar linkage between religion and freedom, declaring that life, liberty and property were a gift from God, and that “these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.”
The difference between these sentiments and the anti-religious mentality of modern politically correct secular liberals is one of the most striking phenomena of our times. To most present day secular liberals, traditional monotheistic religion, especially Christianity, is an irrational and reactionary force, and an enemy of freedom and progress; whereas atheism offers a more liberating philosophy, since its rejection of the existence and authority of God removes an irksome restraint on personal autonomy. As many secular liberals see it, an accidental universe, without any ultimate meaning or purpose, is preferable to a God-centred one, since it seems to allow human beings greater scope for choosing their own values and charting their own course.
That, at any rate, was the view of Aldous Huxley, and it was shared by many other prominent writers of his time and continues to characterise current liberal attitudes. Explaining, on one occasion, what lay behind his atheism and that of so many other 20th century leftist intellectuals, Huxley confessed: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have meaning, consequently assumed it had none…For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was…liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”
By contrast, like Voltaire and Bastiat, nearly all the great philosophers and statesmen of the old Whig/classical liberal tradition took a positive view of the link between God and liberty, repudiating in advance the atheistic and anti-religious mentality so characteristic of modern liberalism. As evidence of this, here are three typical examples drawn from three famous texts.
“Being all equal and independent [in the state of Nature],” declared England’s best known 17th century philosopher, John Locke, in the first of these texts, his influential Two Treatises of Government (1690), “no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property…made to last during His, not one another’s pleasure.”
Our second text, the American Declaration of Independence (1776), perhaps the most celebrated official document in the history of liberty, was as emphatic as Locke in affirming the theistic roots of freedom. To quote its memorable second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Finally, and perhaps most tellingly, consider these words of Lord Acton, the great 19th century historian of liberty, and one of the greatest scholars of his age: “The great question is to discover, not what governments prescribe, but what they ought to prescribe; for no prescription is valid against the conscience of mankind. Before God, there is neither Greek nor barbarian, neither rich nor poor, and the slave is as good as his master, for by birth all men are free; they are citizens of that universal commonwealth which embraces all the world, brethren of one family, and children of God. The true guide of our conduct is no outward authority, but the voice of God, who comes down to dwell in our souls, who knows all our thoughts, to whom are owing all the truth we know, and all the good we do…”
Given these alternative views of the relationship between religion and freedom, which is the truer one? Is belief in God a hindrance to liberty or its necessary foundation? Does freedom depend on a belief in absolute values rooted in God’s nature, or is it best served by a philosophy of moral relativism rooted in atheism?
This is certainly a relevant question in American politics, judging by the views of President Obama. For instance,in his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope Obama stated that “Implicit in [the American Constitution’s] structure, in the very idea of ordered liberty, was a rejection of absolute truth, the infallibility of any idea or ideology or theology or ‘ism,’ any tyrannical consistency that might lock future generations into a single, unalterable course…”
Is this relativist view of Obama’s, so typical of modern liberalism, a correct interpretation of the spirit underlying the American Constitution? Does the “very idea of ordered liberty” really imply “a rejection of absolute truth” and “the infallibility of any idea”? Is the consistency that flows from absolute truth really “tyrannical”?
To anyone familiar with 18th century American political thought, the idea that philosophical scepticism and moral relativism implicitly influenced the authors and supporters of the American Constitution, is, of course, a historical anachronism. Most Americans of that era were either Christians or deists, and therefore, as religious believers, firmly wedded to the notion that truth and moral values are absolute. But even if this historical fact is acknowledged, were they justified in holding this view?
Calling the bluff of moral relativism
I have no doubt that they were correct in this, but to understand why, we need to dig deeper into the assumptions which underlie contemporary moral relativism.
Modern atheistic liberals constantly tell us that moral values and social conventions evolve to fit new circumstances and challenges, and vary between different societies. On that basis, they deny the existence of any universal and eternal moral code. Yet these very same liberals are the first to denounce racism or the oppression of minorities with passionate indignation. So the question we must ask them is a simple one: what do they really believe? Was American slavery, for instance, or the firebombing of black churches by the Ku Klux Klan, an abomination, something that could never be justified in any century or society, or should we refrain from making such moral judgements on the grounds that moral attitudes do not reflect objective truths but change through time?
And what too about the philosophical implications of the concept of ‘progress’? Modern liberals are always urging us to adopt ‘progressive’ attitudes, and to adapt our laws and customs to reflect them, but what meaning can we attach to the idea of ‘progress’ in the absence of some fixed and eternal standard of value by which it can be measured? How can we tell whether any society is becoming more or less humane, or more or less enlightened, unless we are comparing it against some objective and unchanging yardstick of wisdom and goodness?
Logical inconsistency is not the only criticism that can be levelled, in this particular context, against politically correct 21st century liberalism. Its apparent commitment to moral relativism also reveals a shallow understanding of history and ethics.
As C.S. Lewis argued in his wartime essay, ‘The Poison of Subjectivism’(1943) apparent variations of moral outlook between different cultures or historical epochs, are not, as modern liberals seem to think, proof of the subjectivity of all moral values. Rather, they reflect changing beliefs about particular facts or about the specific implications of foundational moral principles. The difference, for example, between a 17th century Puritan’s attitude to witchcraft, and that of a 21st century sceptic, is determined by their conflicting views about the reality of the supernatural, not by any necessary disagreement in principle about the need to resist evil. In a similar fashion, changing attitudes towards other nations, the morality of slavery, or the status of women, do not represent the replacement of one subjective code of ethics by another. Rather, they represent an internal development within one pre-existing system of morality.
Take, as an instance of this, our belief in the brotherhood of man and the equality of the sexes. This chiefly arose in the West out of the Judeo-Christian view that since all men and women are made in the image of God, and are therefore the children of the same Heavenly Father, they should be treated with equal love and respect- as Lord Acton argued so eloquentlyin the passage quoted earlier. As this conviction gradually spread, over a long period, throughout Europe and North America, it eventually spelt the doom of slavery and the legal subjection of women. At the same time, it also encouraged a friendlier attitude towards foreigners, and with it, a desire for peace between nations and the development of international law. In other words, moral progress and social reform came about in these areas as a result of a new and clearer understanding of the logical implications of certain foundational biblical principles. It did not represent the triumph of some ‘new’ morality over an older one.
The superficiality of moral relativism not only reveals itself under the microscope of close philosophical inspection. Its claims are also undermined by the powerful historical evidence for the existence of an unchanging and universal Moral Law acknowledged across the centuries by different peoples and cultures. For example, in his justly celebrated book, The Abolition of Man (1943) C.S. Lewis bolsters his philosophical arguments against moral subjectivism by including an appendix entitled “Illustrations of the Tao.” This consists of a list of quotations from a random selection of ancient writings – Egyptian, Babylonian, Greek, Roman, Hindu, and Chinese – showing their essential agreement with the Judeo-Christian ethic. Does all this not suggest that belief in objective truth and absolute moral values is well founded?
It is certainly essential if we claim to believe in liberty and the pursuit of knowledge, or attach any meaning to the concept of human rights. For unless we begin by regarding the sacredness of human life, and the unique value of every individual, as self-evident philosophical first principles, we have no objective reasons for condemning oppression and tyranny. Similarly, unless we begin with a belief in the existence and objectivity of truth, and therefore the possibility in principle of finding it, the pursuit of knowledge becomes meaningless or impossible. And were this to be the case it would be fatal to liberty, since one of the strongest arguments for freedom of conscience and expression is the insight that the pursuit of truth requires maximum scope for the free dissemination and discussion of competing ideas.
In addition to all these considerations, disbelief in the existence of objective (and therefore absolute) truth is, in any case, completely illogical, since the assertion: ‘there is no such thing as absolute truth,’ is itself an absolute truth claim, and is therefore self-contradictory. It is like saying that we ‘know’ that we know nothing, which is clearly absurd. Furthermore, the existence of mathematics, as well as the successes of the natural sciences, clearly demonstrate the capacity of the human mind to engage in objective logical thinking and discover reality. For all these reasons, the radical claims of philosophical scepticism cannot be taken seriously.
But if absolute truth – logical, scientific, and moral – exists and can, at least in principle, be grasped and discovered by our minds, what does this tell us about the existence of God?
Truth and morality point to God
On reflection, a great deal. To begin with, truth has a transcendent non-physical quality which suggests that it is connected with something outside ourselves and the material universe, since it is independent of time, place, or culture. For instance, we know that 2+2=4, ‘love is better than hate,’ and ‘torturing children is wrong,’ whether others acknowledge these truths or not, whether we live or die, and regardless of our particular background or the century or society into which we were born. It is surely equally significant that these particular truths – like all truth – would retain their validity (and in that sense continue to exist) even if our physical universe were to come to an end tomorrow.
Our experience of moral obligation similarly points to God because it too, like truth, has this strangely transcendent and eternal quality.
When, for example, our conscience is most deeply aroused, especially when it comes into conflict with our strongest desires, emotions, or material interests, do we not sense, somehow pressing down on us, the weight of an external claim on our allegiance? From where does that insistent realisation come that we must resist injustice or admit our mistakes, even at the cost of our lives or our reputations? From where do we get the motivation and strength to resist adultery, malicious gossip, or dishonesty in our working lives, in circumstances in which giving in to these temptations is pleasurable, safe from detection, and vital to our popularity and the advancement of our careers? Most significantly of all, what is the ultimate source of that authoritative inner conviction that we must always obey the voice of our conscience rather than the laws and commands of the State, whenever there is a conflict between ‘might and right’? To What or to Whom do we feel that sense of accountability that seems to take precedence over every human authority, however elevated?
If, then, as this analysis suggests, truth and goodness are permanent, unchanging and ultimate categories to which we somehow owe unconditional allegiance, as Plato famously believed, this surely suggests that their eternal, transcendent, and imperative character is in some sense divine. And since our awareness of truth and goodness is inseparably connected with our minds and wills, it seems reasonable to conclude that their apparently divine character and status is also related to an eternal Divine Intelligence. In other words, truth and goodness are rooted in God and express His essential and changeless Nature. Or to put it another way, God is not only our Creator, as Jefferson noted in the Declaration of Independence, but also Goodness, Truth, (and Beauty) personified, and therefore the eternal and objective source of all that is precious and wonderful in human existence. That is why that historic American document was entirely correct in its ringing affirmation that we are endowed by our Creator “with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The true lesson about religious persecution
Unfortunately, despite all the evidence, the strong philosophical link between monotheistic religion and freedom has been hidden from many secular liberals by the terrible history of religious persecution. But what needs to be remembered here, is that in the case of Christianity, intolerance and persecution were always the evil fruit of the coercive union of Church and State, never in any sense a natural outgrowth of its original message or mission.
As anyone can see from reading the New Testament, especially the ‘Sermon on the Mount,’ Jesus and his followers taught us to love our enemies and pray for them, and seek first the Kingdom of God, rather than strive for earthly power or dominion. Far from advocating the compulsory imposition of religious orthodoxy by the State, all the emphasis in the New Testament is on the exact opposite. Its primary focus is not on government or society, but on our individual and voluntary response to the challenge of acknowledging God’s claim on our lives and our own needy spiritual condition. And this, of course, makes perfect moral and philosophical sense, since recognising our faults and loving our Creator necessarily demands the unforced assent and willing commitment of our minds and hearts. We cannot reconnect with God in any meaningful way, or pursue goodness and truth, at the point of a gun.
Modern secular liberals not only fail to see the connection between God and liberty because of their misinterpretation of the history of religious persecution, and the lessons it teaches. They are also misled by their conviction that both our sense of moral obligation, and our highest values, can be adequately explained and justified without any reference to the existence of God.
For instance, one of their most common and fallacious beliefs is that morality is just a by-product of biological evolution, so that ‘goodness’ simply means ‘that which has survival value.’ But the problem with this Darwinian explanation is that it flies in the face of both our personal experience and recorded history. As most of us aware, it is not true that moral integrity is the key to personal success in our damaged and imperfect world. On the contrary: cunning, ruthlessness, lack of principle, and a talent for intrigue, are often the effective means by which many individuals build successful careers, especially in politics and large organisations. If, by contrast, such qualities as kindness, the pursuit of excellence, and love of truth, were really the ones needed for worldly success, why are there (and why have there always been) so many successful criminals and dictators? If goodness is such an effective Darwinian recipe for human survival and for winning the material prizes of life, why has so much of history been a constant and depressing tale of war, tyranny, and slavery?
An alternative and far more convincing secular explanation of morality is that ‘goodness’ simply means those qualities and values which allow human beings to live in harmony with each other in peaceful, prosperous and creative societies. But whilst this is undoubtedly true, it does not provide a complete and adequate explanation of the ultimate source of our moral values and sense of moral obligation. ‘The good of society,’ for instance, may indeed be a worthy moral goal, providing an objective criterion for human action, but only because we value, as foundational first principles, the lives and liberties of the individuals composing it. But if respect for life, liberty and truth is to be regarded as a self-evident moral imperative, how can this foundational philosophical principle be reconciled with atheism? That is the problem facing secular liberalism.
The incompatibles: truth, freedom and atheism
And it is a very big philosophical problem, for if atheism is true, we not only inhabit an accidental and Godless universe devoid of any ultimate meaning or purpose. We ourselves are also part of that physical universe and in no way distinct from it, since there is no supernatural dimension to our existence. But if it is therefore case, as atheists insist, that we have no souls or connection with any Creator, we must then face up to the fact that the logical and psychological implications of this belief are momentous and destructive. It means that as purely fortuitous physical beings, all our thoughts and values, and all our decisions and choices, are merely the accidental by-products of a long chain of random, undesigned and purposeless physical and chemical events. How then can we attach any objective meaning or importance to our thinking processes, let alone our particular thoughts and beliefs? They surely have no more ultimate or eternal significance than the sound of a waterfall, or the crash of a tree in a forest. How, also, can we claim to have free will, or any knowledge of truth, if we are merely biological machines whose choices, reasonings, and convictions are entirely and inevitably determined by random and non-rational physical and chemical processes in our brains?
In short, if there is no God whose Being and Nature is the eternal source and ground of our existence, thinking and values, we cannot account either for our knowledge and reasoning ability, or our very real and transcendent experience of moral obligation. We must assume instead that all our mental and moral life is based on an illusion. This in turn leaves us with no objective basis for our moral judgements. Good and evil, under these conditions, become purely arbitrary and subjective categories, governed by whim and emotion, and leaving us with no objective or compelling grounds for criticising the destructive existential choices of nihilists and psychopaths. We may, in a Godless universe, continue to fear and dislike thieves, murderers, and dictators, and choose to resist them, but we can no longer demonstrate the objective ‘wrongness’ of their selfish disregard for the lives and liberties of others. In such circumstances, ‘might’will (sooner or later) inevitably determine ‘right’ rather than serving it, and evil will know no limits or barriers.
The brutal and nihilistic consequences of rejecting God are, of course, hardly a new phenomeneon or simply a subject for abstract ivory tower speculation. They were fully understood, and gleefully and unsparingly spelt out, by the late 19th century German nihilist philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), and subsequently gave birth to all the horrors of modern totalitarianism.
“[Christian morality] granted man an absolute value,” wrote Nietzsche, “as opposed to his smallness and accidental occurrence in the flux of being and passing away…morality guarded the underprivileged by assigning to each an infinite value…[but] Supposing that the faith in this morality would perish, then the underprivileged would no longer have this comfort – and they would perish…nihilism is a symptom that the underprivileged have no comfort left.”
The history of the 20th century has been a terrible vindication of the prophetic accuracy of these words, because atheism, the rejection of traditional morality, and the devaluation of the individual, were central to the development of Fascism and Communism, both as totalitarian ideologies and as murderous totalitarian systems of State power.
Both Hitler and Mussolini, for instance, were ardent disciples and admirers of Nietzsche, embracing his rejection of Christianity and his exaltation of the amoral and triumphant will of the ‘strong man.’ To quote only Mussolini: “If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be bearers of an external objective truth, then there is nothing more relativistic than fascistic attitudes and activity…the fascist State is will to power and government…”
Marx, Engels and Lenin were just as forthright as Mussolini and Hitler about their atheistic and totalitarian contempt for the idea that human beings are accountable to an objective and eternal Moral Law rooted in God. They insisted, on the contrary, that all morality is subjective and subordinate to the class struggle, and that nothing should be allowed to hinder the triumph of the Communist Revolution or the authority of the victorious Communist State. As Engels put it: “We…reject every attempt to impose on us any moral dogma whatever as eternal, ultimate and forever immutable moral law…” and Lenin agreed with him. “We say that morality is entirely subordinated to the interests of the class struggle of the proletariat…” he wrote, adding: “We do not believe in an eternal morality.”
It is hardly surprising, given their totalitarian atheist mentality, that all 20th century Communist regimes slaughtered tens of millions of their own citizens and transformed their countries into gigantic concentration camps, of which the worst and still living example is North Korea. What else could one have expected from rulers who acknowledged no moral boundaries to their exercise of power? But if any doubt still remains in anyone’s mind about the link between atheism, moral relativism, and man’s inhumanity to man, meditate on these words of Mao Zedong’s, the happily defunct tyrannical founder and architect of Chinese Communism.
“Some of our comrades have too much mercy, not enough brutality, which means that they are not so Marxist. On this matter, we indeed have no conscience! Marxism is that brutal…We are prepared to sacrifice 300 million Chinese for the victory of the world revolution.”
So, in conclusion, to return to our central question, what, again, does the evidence suggest? Is belief in God essential to liberty or an obstacle to freedom?
The prophetic wisdom of Jefferson and Voltaire
Let the last word on this subject be spoken again (ironically) by two figures in secular liberalism’s Hall of Fame: Thomas Jefferson, America’s third President and author of the Declaration of Independence, and that great figure of the 18th century French Enlightenment whom I quoted at the beginning of this essay: Voltaire.
“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure,” asked Jefferson, “when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?
Voltaire clearly didn’t think so. “I have always been convinced,” he wrote, “that atheism cannot do any good, and may do very great harm. I have pointed to the infinite difference between the sages who have written against superstition and the madmen who have written against God. There is neither philosophy nor morality in any system of atheism.”