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How Atheist Authors Steal from God

StealingAugustine 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.

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{ 7 comments… add one }
  • Tony Breeden February 10, 2016, 8:49 AM

    I would actually say that atheists have credulity in humanity, especially since they believe in the inherent goodness of humanity, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    As a point of irony, Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series represents this distilled humanist ideal in fiction. She specifically forbids war, magic and religion in her Pern novels[http://www.islandsofpern.org/rules/AMrules.htm]. Her justification was:

    “As you probably realize, during a terrible war situation people either cling as their last hope to the religion of their choice, or they become agnostic, losing their belief in a Good, Kindly Wise Deity who has allowed such atrocities to happen to innocent people.

    The colonists who went with Admiral Benden and Governor Boll were of the second type, especially from groups who had suffered from atrocities committed BECAUSE of religion: notice what’s happening in Kosovo and Iran. What happened to the Mormons in the USA? So no ORGANIZED religion was brought to Pern and none was set up. There is however, a strong ethical code among the colonists and by this they govern their lives and interactions. Not even thread was allowed to alter these precepts.” [http://pernhome.com/aim/anne-mccaffrey/frequently-asked-questions/]

    Given human nature, 2500 years without war in a world where holds and weyrs jealously guard their resources seems pretty unlikely. It is equally unlikely that ALL of the colonists would have given up their religion (despite the occasional “Jaysus” uttered in oath) or that the strong ethical code lasted as long as McCaffrey suggests, especially since she notes differences in the “Oldtimer” (those who travelled forward in time to save Pern from a threadfall) attitudes and more modern Pernese. Just think of the sheer number of wars and socio-political changes across the globe over the past 200 years and then try to justify McCaffrey’s 2500-year humanist dream! McCaffrey is forced to resort to David and Goliath styled representative battles to resolve conflicts between holds and weyrs.

    Granted, Pern’s humans have a common threat from without (threadfall), but in the intervals, you cannot convince me that someone would not have tried to seize power, being convinced that they had a better handle on the problem than everyone else.

    It’s simply not realistic to conceive of a world colonized by race of beings who are incurably religious and habitually wartorn in which war and religion are completely absence for whole millennia!

    Until we reach The Last Door,
    Tony Breeden

  • christopher clack February 10, 2016, 10:16 AM

    If we could imagine for one moment that we have no God, how would you behave Mike , would you persist to the best you can in what you now believe to be sound moral behaviour, or would you decide that there’s now no point.

    • Mike Duran February 10, 2016, 12:11 PM

      Christopher, there’s no compelling reason to concede one over the other. Good argument can be made that Dawkins’ “pitiless” universe is pointless to live in.

  • Anita Cooper February 10, 2016, 11:27 AM

    Great topic, Mike. I’ve often thought this very thing myself and smiled at the idea.

    @christopher clack – Straw man argument.

    God placed the knowledge of Him as well as right and wrong within each of us.

    Romans 1:18-20

    “18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”

  • Carradee February 17, 2016, 2:23 PM

    Without some higher, more transcendent, more noble Good to which we are aspiring, it’s pretty much just survival of the fittest.

    This could be why things like disabilities are so rare and, when they are addressed, are fixable or give benefits + don’t interfere with the disabled person’s ability to keep up with the able-bodied. (Case in point: River Tam)

    I have chronic health issues. They interfere with my life to the point that I’d probably be among the first dead in a zombie apocalypse—even though I have the proper mindset to enable self-defense and the head-knowledge for how to survive in an emergency. Knowing how to purify water does me little good since I’m literally allergic to grasses and much of the outdoors. Add my food allergies, and then there are even more problems.

    From an evolutionary or atheistic standpoint, I could be considered a resource drain. People like me don’t show up in those atheistic universes. Only stories I can think of with an actually disabled MC (and not one with, say, a bum knee from injury) = 1, an old ideological sci-fi I can’t remember beyond the fact that it featured a Moon native who, due to how the lower gravity affected his development, would never be able to leave; and 2. the Miles Vorkosigan stories by Bujold, but then he has the brains to keep himself valuable.

  • Lyn February 18, 2016, 6:34 AM

    Some good insight here and well articulated. The utilitarian rational for morality seems to be enough for the atheist and agnostic. But it ultimately ends in despair, a pitiless void, once humanity passes from the scene. How this is comforting to the modern humanist, I don’t know; it’s not at all personally satisfying. I think the addition of hope is what makes the difference. We know on a personal level that without hope, people die. I think on an eternal level, hope puts morality into context. Our lives, decisions, actions all matter…because they last forever. The hope is that they are finally redeemed (or judged and overcome) and that humanity finds fulfillment in the eternal presence of God.

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