Missing the Point on Atheism and Mass Murder


Pat Buchanan

Pat Buchanan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speak...

Former Arkansas Governor, Mike Huckabee, speaking to a gathering at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Atheists have reacted with outrage to Mike Huckabee‘s statements (http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=10151207029493634) as well as Pat Buchanan‘s column (http://buchanan.org/blog/the-dead-soul-of-adam-lanza-5428) on the role that atheism might play in such tragedies as the school murders in Connecticut. Some comments I have read suggest that atheists believe that Mr. Huckabee and Mr. Buchanan are attacking them personally or saying that atheism directly led to the school shooting. A more careful reading of Huckabee and Buchanan, however, reveals that their claims are more nuanced. The point they make, and I think they are right, is that a godless society is more likely to put the primary focus on the self and its desires. Now I am aware of James Q. Wilson‘s work on sociobiology and altruism, but more people are likely to have heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene. Most “lay atheists,” even highly educated or intelligent atheists, may not be aware of either work, but one motive for atheism among some (though not all) atheists is the desire to be free of divine judgment in order to fulfill the desires of the self. Kant was a theist of sorts, at least most of his life, and the remains of Lutheran divine command theory kept his principle of autonomy from degenerating into subjectivism–the identical moral law, Kant believed, was given to each individual by that individual self. With the remains of Christianity removed from autonomy, autonomy becomes the right to do whatever the self desires. Now that often comes with the caveat that one can do what one desires “as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else,” but without a divine judgment it is only internal conscience developed by habituation that prevents evil personal desires from being expressed. Ted Bundy made it clear to one of his victims that without a God to judge him, he believed that he should fulfill his personal desires to murder his victims and sexually violate their dead bodies. Without a sense that one’s actions can have consequences beyond this life, including negative consequences, it is easier for disturbed people such as Adam Lanza to act on their evil desires. Now he may have acted anyway–we cannot know for sure–but the point is that with one less barrier to fulfilling personal desires, it is easier for an evil or severely disturbed person to “go over the top” and act on his twisted desires. This does not imply that all mass murderers are atheists, nor does it deny that many atheists have moral lives that put some Christians to shame. In a way, the atheist who seeks only fulfillment of the self is acting more consistently than the one who affirms a larger social responsibility to the group. I am aware that evolution recognizes the nature of humans as social beings, and that a lack of all concern for others would prevent human genes from being carried on to the next generation. Yet there is no transcendent meaning to life in atheism, and as Bertrand Russell recognized, all human achievements would be lost in the final ruin of the universe. In such a meaningless world, hedonism may seem like the best option, as with Russell, but with less stable people egoism may be the course they take. Thus the point made is a general one: a society that eliminates any deity is more likely to produce more people like Mr. Lanza that one that accepts ethical monotheism.

Suboptimal Design, Evolution, and Anger at God

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C. S. Lewis once said that modern man places “God in the dock.” That is, moderns, instead of humbly submitting to God as the “clay to the potter,” they put God on trial and call Him to account for the evil and suffering in the world. Although Job, the Church Fathers, Augustine, and the other Medievals dealt with the problem of evil and suffering, it was modernity that developed full-fledged theodicies, broad-based explanations of why God created a world in which He permits evil and suffering.

A woman was driving down I-95 near where I live and was in an accident. She was rescued from her burning car. Only a few weeks later she choked to death on a piece of bologna in her home while her small children were asleep. This is one of those stories almost too painful to hear (like the scene in Saving Private Ryan when the soldier holds up his helmet that had been shot through and said something to the effect, “Hey look here! How lucky can that be” before a bullet hits him square between the eyes and kills him).

I have struggled with religious doubt all my life. I have also struggled with anger at God for the suffering of the world, especially (though not exclusively) the suffering of children. When I thought about the woman choking to death I thought of the suboptimal engineering of evolution. We walk upright and have developed the ability to talk, but that makes it anatomically more likely that we will choke to death. A human engineer would be fired for putting the food pipe and the windpipe where food can easily go down the wrong way. The epiglottis does not have a fail safe. I confess that my feelings were fury at God that He would use such as sorry a..ed process such as evolution to produce a suboptimal product that even a human engineer could design more efficiently. Other instances of suboptimal design can be mentioned: our mouth being too small for all our teeth, or our backs suffering pain because originally backs were meant for walking on all fours. There are young people who die suddenly and unexpectedly of a “primary electrical event” in the heart, some defect so small that our autopsy techniques and microscopic studies cannot yet identify it.

I do not know that there is an answer to the mystery of inefficient design this side of heaven. Some people might explain it in terms of a primeval Fall, but it is difficult to place that story in an evolutionary framework (although C. S. Lewis has tried). Given the sometimes violent behavior of our close relatives, the chimpanzees, toward one another, it seems that humans were always “fallen.” If that is the case, isn’t human suffering, pain, and death a part of the suffering, pain, and death that occurs in “nature, red in tooth and claw,” to use Lord Tennyson‘s words?

The Eastern Orthodox Church has the approach that makes the most sense to me–that the ultimate answer to evil and suffering is eschatological, beyond this life. Ivan Karamazov could not live with that answer in the novel The Brothers Karamazov, but like Ivan’s brother Alyosha,  I do not see that there is a choice if one wants to hold onto sanity. If God is evil or does not exist, then the world is absurd. I, at least, cannot live my life believing that. So my anger fades and I trust that God understands and will forgive this “miserable sinner.”