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Theological Publications







Sheep in Wolves’ Clothing


It is no mystery why wolves might disguise themselves as sheep, if they thought of it. In that way they might entice sheep into their hungry care. We are told sheep are pretty stupid, so they might well fall for it. It is baffling, however, to contemplate why sheep might masquerade as wolves. Suppose one did, and a real wolf began to catch on. Suppose he penetrated the disguise. He might well go on to eat the hapless sheep. But first one can imagine him questioning the sheep on his suicidal strategy. What could the wolf-clad sheep hope to gain by such a pretense? Espionage? Not likely; the ways of wolves are too well known already. Was there perhaps some sort of envy? Had the sheep come to tire of the dull ways of his woolly clan? Did the roguish life of the wolves attract him? Who can guess? It hardly matters. Sheep never do this. But people do.

Why do professed atheists today, in great numbers, seem to embrace social ethics that mirror in startling ways the stance of Christianity, and even of an extreme form of radical Christianity? I am thinking of the noble-seeming opposition of humanists and atheists to capital punishment, as well as their espousal of pacifism. We must ask how well such beliefs fit into the very different frameworks of atheism and Christianity.

Opposition to capital punishment seems to be based on the theological belief that all lives are automatically ipso facto sacred, and that human beings never have the right to deprive even the foulest criminal of his or her life. On the one hand, there is the belief that all human lives are created in the image of God and thus possess ineradicable human dignity, which is then extended to imply an inviolable right to life. On the other hand, there is an implicitly anarchistic assumption, reflected in the apocryphal tale of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” Only God has the privileged position to presume to judge humans, we are told here. That is the recipe for anarchism, and there have been Christian anarchists.

As I understand it, atheists base their belief in human rights on a Social Compact model. Having no creator, it is up to us to decide what are human rights and responsibilities based on what arrangement will maximize social and individual freedoms. Certain things will work to safeguard a harmonious society, others will not. It is a great game, and one retains rights as long as one observes commensurate responsibilities. Sometimes, as in war, the maintenance of social order necessitates the taking of life (or does it? Yes, but see below).  The murderer (and perhaps other criminals, too) has forfeited his own rights by denying those of others. He has lost the right to life. He is ejected from the game.

As for any mere human having the right to judge, we have over time developed a rational (though admittedly fallible) system that makes administration of justice far more impartial by removing it from the control of interested parties. To escape the dangerous situation of vendetta justice, which degenerates quickly into epidemic violence, justice first passed into the system of scapegoat justice, where blame was transferred to a surrogate victim, eventually an animal. After that, justice was assigned by impartial judges with no relation to anyone in the case. The judge need not be without sin, just without bribe. Atheists certainly do not think justice is impossible because it will likely never be perfect. We have to do the best we can with what (and who) we’ve got, namely us.

It seems to me that the liberal and radical opposition to capital punishment is a blatant case of the moral decadence Nietzsche blamed on Christianity. Why? The spectacle of bleeding heart protesters holding a candle-light vigil for the latest convicted serial-killer shows this perversity in the starkest possible light. Such protesters imagine that there is no moral difference between the unfeeling murderer and the state who executes him, as if “killing” were the only relevant feature defining the situation. That is absurd, like placing Hitler and his victims on the same level. Don’t you see where this irony comes from? For one thing, it stems directly from the herd mentality whereby the cringing slave seeks refuge in a mass of morally equal faceless drones. Let no one be judged on merit! The doctrine of salvation by grace, whereby all are deemed equal in God’s sight, is, as Feuerbach knew, the refuge of the guilty coward. See? If Jeff Dahmer can’t be held responsible, then neither can I, for I will never be guilty of anything remotely so bad!

It is a moral version of the reluctance of teachers unions to accept professional competency testing or merit pay. How much safer to take refuge in the miasma of the collective which no one ever calls to task. Objectors to capital punishment are reducing the killer and the state to what Rene Girard calls “mimetic doubles,” between whom no moral distinction can any more be drawn. And this is to upend the rules of the only game in town, the Social Compact. Why should atheists join the religious in crusading on behalf of their dogma that all human lives are to be protected no matter what?

Now, to war.  Not all or even most Christians oppose it. Strictly, total pacifism is the heritage of the Radical Reformation (Amish, Mennonites, Church of the Brethren, Dunkers) and groups following in their footsteps (some Baptists, Quakers). What is the thinking here? They believe that Jesus forbade warfare when he urged people not to respond in kind when slapped or abused. Whether one can extrapolate from this to national defense is a complex hermeneutical question, but that is the extrapolation pacifists make. It is important to see how pacifism is rooted not just historically but logically in the ethic of Christianity. The very idea presupposes the Christian hope of salvation. The radical Christian will gladly suffer martyrdom for his refusal to shed his enemy’s blood, if it comes to that (and it would very quickly once a hypothetical nation of pacifists were invaded by Nazis). In this he is proud to follow in the footsteps of his Jewish predecessors who were willing to die under torture rather than eat the forbidden pork. Why did courageous Jew and Christian consider these trades fair ones? Because they believed it would gain them the martyr’s crown in heaven. If one does not harbor such an expectation, the trade may not seem so reasonable.

Of course, many atheists are patriots and would gladly give their lives for their country and its way of life. Sometimes one can do no other. The rule is not to save one’s skin at any cost. But the problem with atheist pacifism is that by beating one’s sword into a harmless ploughshare, one is sacrificing one’s only chance to fend off terrible evil. There will be no better heaven than this. We had better do what is needful to secure it, for our children if not for ourselves. And this means the willingness both to give and to take life.

I once believed in pacifism--until I heard an eloquent defense of it. We were at Princeton Theological Seminary. I was talking to a man who had given up ministerial training to take up the law. He wanted to serve the urban poor who could not afford high-priced lawyers. A radical Christian, to be sure, and, sure enough, a pacifist. Someone asked the inevitable question: if he was so opposed to using force to repel aggression, what would he do should he discover some intruder making ready to rape his wife? His answer? He would not use violence because that would show a lack of faith both in his wife’s ingenuity to extricate herself from the situation, and in God who might be planning some miraculous deliverance at the last possible moment. I had heard enough.

But I hadn’t heard it all. Not by a long shot. Because now I have heard of pacifist atheists. I must conclude that they have caught the Christian disease of undiscriminating moral decadence: they equate the victim and the victimizer, and they are just plain soft on crooks because they lack the guts to do anything about it. Fear masquerades as compassion.

Sometimes one hears atheists absolutely ruling out war because of the supposed rationalism on which they like to congratulate themselves. War is always a failure of diplomacy. True enough. But sometimes, as Neville Chamberlain discovered, diplomacy is a game one cannot win. Someone is cheating. Someone is taking advantage of the professed refusal of one side ever to resort to force. They are playing the pacifists for the fools they are, to get as far as they can before they have to start shooting, knowing we may well be intimidated into giving up the store before they have to rob it! This, too, is Christian decadence in disguise. It shows a stance of pure and unsupported faith which facts cannot penetrate until it is much too late. The liberal atheist, like his fideistic Christian model, simply refuses to accept certain harsh realities. As Freud said of the religious believer, the invulnerable liberal is remaking the real world into a wish-world by projecting his own values upon it. And the real world is one that contains aggressive people who want to take what you have and do not believe, as liberals do, that there are always two sides to every dispute. You can be sure that fanatics like Osama bin Laden do not think for a second that there is a rational “solution” to a “problem” that would avert war. Any more than Hitler did. Look at facts, empiricist! Nietzsche said “Faith is not wanting to know the truth.” Does your politics allow you to know it? As Hornbeck said to Drummond in Inherit the Wind, “Well, we’re growing an odd crop of agnostics this year!”


 By Robert M. Price


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