Morality Without God

RAY JENKINS

September 15, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

Back in the days when everyone liked Ike, when 2 percent inflation was alarming, and when, as Archie Bunker so eloquently sang, "goils were goils, and men were men," J. Edgar Hoover never tired of warning against "godless communism." It was as if the words were inseparable, and there was more than a hint that anyone who was a communist was ipso facto "godless" and, anyone who didn't believe in God was probably a communist.

So much has changed since J. Edgar Hoover's day that it came as a bit of a surprise when a questioner, a priest, on ABC-TV's televised "town meeting" last week asked Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to state their "religious beliefs."

By now accustomed to such intrusive personal questions, Mr. Gorbachev replied resignedly but unhesitatingly, "I am an atheist" -- adding that he respected the beliefs of those who considered themselves religious. Mr. Yeltsin, now skilled at playing to American audiences, mumbled something about going to church occasionally and ended up by saying, "I'm also superstitious, by the way." At this Mr. Gorbachev smiled with a hint of grudging admiration of Mr. Yeltsin's agile humor.

This exchange was mercifully brief -- a moment of comic relief, in a sense. It's safe to say that whatever their religious differences, Mr. Gorbachev and Mr. Yeltsin both are less concerned with the Russian soul than with the Russian belly as a grim winter of privation looms large.

Mr. Gorbachev's admission that he was an atheist could hardly come as any great surprise, since it is a tenet of Marxist belief that oppressed people are kept pacified by vague, cynical promises of a better life in the hereafter. In the end, however, it was not the traditional God but rather communism itself which became, to use Arthur Koestler's book title, "The God That Failed." It failed, after 70 years, to bring the promised better life here on earth.

Even so, Mr. Gorbachev's admission of unbelief must have warmed the hearts of latter-day J. Edgar Hooverites, conservative ideologues such as the columnists George Will and William F. Buckley Jr. They like to quote a line which goes, "if there is no God, anything is permitted" -- implying that an atheist is not to be trusted, that not believing in God means having no conscience, which means that an atheist will stab you in the back at the first chance.

Frankly I find the belief that one is endowed with moral superiority by his particular god to be arrogance verging on idolatry. Whenever I hear Messrs. Will, Buckley and kindred souls throw out that facile line, I wonder if they really have the foggiest notion of its origin and context, or whether it's just another of their smug aphorisms gleaned by a research assistant from "Bartlett's Familiar Quotations."

To rely on that line alone as a clinching argument is as absurd as to reduce the teachings of Moses or Jesus to one verse. In fact, the line is Russian in origin -- appearing in Dostoevsky's monumental novel "The Brothers Karamazov." The complex idea originates in the fertile, inquisitive mind of Ivan Karamazov, who is constantly musing over the paradoxes of life, and it takes this form: "Destroy a man's belief in immortality and not only will his ability to love wither away within him but . . . nothing would be immoral then, everything would be permitted, even cannibalism."

Ivan makes it clear that he is only raising rhetorical questions, that he doesn't believe for one moment that a lack of belief in God, in and of itself, bespeaks immoral character.

Yet the notion persists. It wasn't many years ago that the testimony of an atheist was not accepted in court in some states because his oath was worthless. Absurd? On the contrary, it's perfect logic -- perfect Jesuitical or rabbinic logic.

As recently as 1961 the state of Maryland by law kept an atheist from being a mere notary public. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held this was an unconstitutional "religious test" for public office.

Even today there is a large body of fundamentalist Christians who believe that the public school system is an insidious atheistic force. Why? Because it teaches "secular humanism," and these people do not believe that it is possible to find moral values in sources other than religion. They never bother to ask, to which religion do we turn to for our moral values? Christianity, Judaism, Islam? Or within Christianity, Protestant or Catholic? Or Mormonism or Christian Science or Jehovah's Witnesses?

The fact is, George Will and William Buckley notwithstanding, the opposite of faith is not atheism; rather, it is doubt. On that score Dostoevsky could say, at the end of a life devoted to skeptical examination of the revealed "truths" by which men and women lived, that his faith was strong because it had been "tested in the furnace of doubt."

How many people who claim to be religious can make that statement?

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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