Augustine suggested that either there is real evil to fear or the fact that we fear what is not really evil, is evil.
Good stories appeal to real evil which, by extension, suggests moral absolutes. You can’t have bad guys without real evil. You can’t have compelling drama without real stakes. Even if a story is simply about survival, the underlying assumption is that life is better than death, that struggling against odds is more noble than simply surrendering to the elements.
Which is the reason why moral absolutism is more viable for authors than, say, a relativistic worldview.
It’s not just because objective, moral absolutes are more intellectually compelling, but because they jibe with reality. Whether or not they import stark moral or biblical language, fictional worlds that involve moral absolutes and real evil are more interesting than those that don’t. Tolkien’s Middle Earth was mired in war. Why? Because Evil existed. And because it existed, the players were on one side or the other. We didn’t root for Frodo because he was cute and had furry feet, but because he was on the right side.
Nevertheless, atheists and moral relativists continue to write good stories. If they are true materialists, humanists, or relativists, how do they do this? The answer is simple — by stealing from God.
Joss Whedon is a good example. While promoting his movie Serenity (2005), writer director Joss Whedon (Atheist & Absurdist) made these comments in a Q&A-session:
I believe the only reality is how we treat each other. The morality comes from the absence of any grander scheme, not from the presence of any grander scheme.
So while “the only reality is how we treat each other,” Whedon believes that “reality” emerged from a vacuum — “from the absence of any grander scheme.” One assumes that Whedon believes we should treat each other with dignity, respect, love and compassion. But how such virtues arise from an amoral vacuum is puzzling. (It could also be asked on what grounds we arbitrate how people SHOULD treat one another.) Unless Whedon is appealing to morals that arise from a “grander scheme,” the morals he appeals to are foundationless. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion is a bit more consistent when he admits that no right and wrong exist, only “blind, pitiless indifference.” How absolute morals arise from a cosmos of “blind, pitiless indifference”is the question facing atheist storytellers. For anything other than purely utilitarian reasons — survival, societal ease, emotional well-being — there is no reason to treat each other morally.
In his speech at Harvard University while receiving the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism at Harvard University, Whedon built upon his thesis:
The enemy of humanism is not faith. The enemy of humanism is hate, is fear, is ignorance, is the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person in the world. That is what we have to fight. Faith is something we have to embrace. Faith in god means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. We are the true believers.
So atheists DO have faith. Only in this case, it’s “faith in humanity.” Which we can extrapolate to really mean “Faith in an advanced primate who arose by blind chance and will disappear into the ‘blind, pitiless, indifferent’ Void.” Perhaps more interesting is Whedon’s reference to “hate,” “fear,” “ignorance,” and “the darker part of man.” By inference, Light is something we must aspire to. Again, what is Whedon’s reference point? If he’s speaking to a yin and yang paradigm (i.e., darkness is just the flip side of light and, ultimately, complimentary), the squelching of my interior “darkness” is rather meaningless — instead, I must embrace it. If the “light” is an arbitrary construct determined by individuals or by societies, then that “light” constantly changes (per individual and society) and has a limited lifespan (the species from which it arose). If however Whedon is appealing to some standard outside of ourselves, some transcendent objective Ideal, then he’s borrowing from a Judeo-Christian worldview.
Apologist Frank Turek, in his book Stealing from God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case, expands on this idea:
Good has to exist for you to know what evil is. If there’s one thing really morally wrong out there, like it’s wrong to torture babies for fun, or it’s wrong to murder six million people in a holocaust, then there has to be a God. Why? Because something can’t be really wrong unless there’s something really right, and something can’t be really right unless there’s a standard of really right, and that’s just not Richard Dawkins’ opinion or Mother Theresa’s opinion. There’s an opinion behind or there’s a standard beyond all of those people. And that standard is God’s nature.
Which is why creatives like Whedon, though proclaiming their atheism, still appeal to moral absolutes to make their stories — and worldview — compelling. “The enemy of humanism is… the darker part of man that is in every humanist, every person in the world.” Amen! However, if there is a “darker part of man,” this assumes there is a “lighter part of man,” a more true, moral, and pure part. But unless Whedon is appealing to an ultimate standard outside himself, who decides what this light in man is SUPPOSED to like? So as Augustine said, either the “darkness” and “fear” that Whedon speaks of is real, or the fact that he fears what is really not evil, IS evil.
It’s true of the Star Wars universe, the Firefly universe, the Dune universe, or the Star Trek universe. Without some higher, more transcendent, more noble Good to which we are aspiring, it’s pretty much just survival of the fittest.