Without belief in a higher truth, people may give way to base impulses.
We're increasingly uncomfortable with religion these days.
As a society, we tolerate pastors, priests, rabbis and other religious folks, so long as they confine their message to a vanilla "God is love" theme and bless babies, brides and caskets.
But when religious leaders speak out on the issues of the day -- especially using morally tinged language -- the elite gatekeepers of public opinion in the media, government and academia warn shrilly that a new Dark Age is upon us.
More and more, we see outright hostility to religion -- particularly to Christianity. Consider the wild popularity of a recent spate of best-sellers by "New Atheist" superstars, including Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens' "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything."
Far from being dispassionate critics of faith, the New Atheists are zealous crusaders for their own creed: materialism. They are passionately committed to the idea that the universe is a random accident, that transcendent truth is a myth, and that man's life has no inherent purpose or meaning.
Why the growing audience for notions like these?
Religion poses a serious challenge to our cherished idea of personal autonomy. Unlike our forebears, we define freedom as the right to live as we choose -- to "be ourselves" -- unconstrained by social norms or a morally grounded sense of guilt or shame.
Judeo-Christianity throws a wrench in this, teaching that universal standards of right and wrong trump our personal desires.
In addition, it raises troubling questions about the vision of scientific "progress," so central to our modern age. The mere fact that we are capable of, say, genetically altering or cloning human beings doesn't give us moral license to do so, it cautions.
It's tempting to embrace the New Atheist gospel -- that man makes himself and has no higher judge. But before we do, we would be wise to consider the potential consequences.
What, for example, is the source of the bedrock American belief in human equality? It has no basis in science or materialism. Some people are brilliant, powerful and assertive, while others can't even tie their shoelaces. If "reason" alone is the standard, the notion of equality appears to be nonsense.
And why should we act with charity toward the poorest and weakest among us? "Reason" -- untempered by compassion -- suggests that autistic children and Alzheimer's sufferers are drags on society. In ancient Rome, disabled babies were left on hilltops to die. Why lavish care and resources on them?
We Americans take the moral principles of equality and compassion for granted. Yet these ideas are deeply counterintuitive. We've largely forgotten that their source is the once-revolutionary Judeo-Christian belief in a loving God, who created human beings in his image and decreed charity to be the first of virtues.
Can we reject belief in such a God and still retain the fruits of faith -- including a belief in the dignity and infinite value of each human being?
The signs aren't promising.
Human beings are prone to selfishness, lust, vindictiveness and cruelty. Once we cease to believe that the moral rules constraining us are rooted in transcendent truth, they become mere preferences -- a matter of personal taste, and so expendable.
Theologian David Bentley Hart, a critic of the New Atheists, puts it this way: "How long can our gentler ethical prejudices ... persist once the faith that gave them their rationale and meaning has withered away?"
The historical record here should give us pause. The French Revolution, Hitler's Germany, Stalin's Soviet Union -- all sought to replace Judeo-Christian ethics with reason, and ended in massive bloodletting.
Nor does science offer moral guidance. That way lies Social Darwinism -- the notion of the survival of the fittest. Unless scientific ambition is constrained by religion, it can come to see humanity as just another form of technology, to be tinkered with and perfected with utility in mind.
Hart dismisses the New Atheists as intellectual lightweights. They push "attitudes masquerading as ideas" and fail to honestly consider the likely consequences of their creed, he writes. But he takes a different view of Christianity's greatest critic -- philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who declared in 1882 that "God is dead."
"Nietzsche was a prophetic figure precisely because he, almost alone among Christianity's enemies, understood the implications of Christianity's withdrawal," Hart has written. "He understood that the effort to cast off Christian faith while retaining the best and most beloved elements of Christian morality was doomed to defeat."
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.