April 11, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Tuesday, April 11, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
"Evil" and modernity: Horrors like Syrian chemical attacks force secularists to ponder reality of evil
Scott Simon is one of the most thoughtful commentators on National Public Radio, and in the aftermath of seeing those horrifying images from the chemical nerve agent attack in Syria, Simon offered a meditation on the most important question at NPR. That question: Is there such a fact as evil and if so how do we talk about it? He wrote,
“I watched some of the wrenching, sickening images from the chemical weapons attack in the Idlib province of Syria this week that killed scores of people, many of them children, with our daughters. I’d reached for a remote control to roll past the pictures of innocent people, including so many children — foaming, writhing and gasping to breathe. But then I thought: No, this is our world. They should see some of this. We watched in silence. I’ve covered a lot of wars, but could think of nothing to say to make any sense. Finally one of our daughters asked, ‘Why would anyone do that?’”Show Full Transcript
Then Simon wrote,
“I have always avoided using the word ‘evil’ when covering terrible events, even those in Bosnia and Kosovo that would later be labeled war crimes. I was of a generation educated to believe that “evil” was a cartoonish moral concept, a word we used only when we didn’t know what madness or imagined infraction might drive human beings to commit murder, even on a mass scale.”
Now before we move a further inch in terms of this column, we need to take into full account the words that we just read. Here you have a major columnist for National Public Radio saying that he is of a generation that was educated, and these are his words, “to believe that ‘evil’ was a cartoonish moral concept, a word we used only when we didn’t know what madness or imagined infraction might drive human beings to commit murder, even on a mass scale.”
Now the reason we need to pause is that here Scott Simon is writing so honestly not just about himself but also about the generation, in his words, a generation educated to believe that evil is a cartoonish moral concept.
Now just wait for a minute. How in the world do we make sense of reality without reference to good and evil? But here we need to note that we are inheriting not only this generation but successive generations that find themselves unable to use the word evil without quotation marks, sometimes not able to use it at all. But we can’t make moral sense of the world around us without understanding that if there is good there is also evil, and we cannot understand evil without taking into account the fact that we know what evil is because we are human moral agents. And the distinction between right and wrong, between good and evil points to a distinction that simply cannot be adequately anchored in merely human reason or experience. It points to something that must be transcendent.
Now over and over again I discuss on The Briefing the fact that evil, it turns out, is a theological term. That’s one of the reasons why in this commentary it is put in quotation marks as if it doesn’t belong or isn’t at least natural in terms of secular conversation in this modern age. Why would that be so? The modern age did not begin by denying the distinction between good and evil. To the contrary, modernity was born in an Enlightenment confidence that human beings could, on the basis of reason alone, come to distinguish what was true and what was false, what is good from what is bad, what is righteous from what is evil. As it turned out that was an implausible proposition from the very beginning. It turns out the human rationality is not enough to anchor the distinction between good and evil.
By the time you come to the late 19th century and the early 20th century, you have the emergence of a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche who declared that there was no reality such as good, there was no reality such as evil. Instead, there was the complete implosion of all moral values. No good, no evil, just reality. But the modern age wasn’t born in denying the distinction between good and evil, modern human beings trying to operate what they claimed was reason alone found themselves increasingly incapable of dealing with the distinction between good and evil. And of course by the time you come to the end of the 20th century, the academic movement known as postmodernism absolutely institutionalized and celebrated a moral relativism. By the time we reach 1987, Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago in his bestseller the Closing of the American Mind wrote those words that have often been repeated,
“There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative.”
What made that particular quote so important was that Allan Bloom was writing as a professor at the University of Chicago not about the products, the graduates, of the University of Chicago, but about the freshman class, those who were entering. He said by the time they show up at the University of Chicago they are already believers in moral relativism. They are denying the absolute reality, the objective distinction between good and evil.
In an interesting turn in his own commentary, Scott Simon writes,
“I still avoid saying ‘evil’ as a reporter. But as a parent, I’ve grown to feel it may be important to tell children about evil, as we struggle to explain cruel and incomprehensible behavior they may see not just in history — in whatever they will learn about the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur — but in our own times.”
Now that’s another very interesting distinction. Here, Scott Simons says there’s a difference between Scott Simon the reporter and Scott Simon the parent. Scott Simon the reporter still avoids using the word evil, but—this is very instructive to us—Scott Simon the parent really can’t avoid using the terms good and evil with his own children in order to help them to understand the world. Now in this very honest assessment, it is Scott Simon the parent who has a great deal more moral wisdom than Scott Simon the reporter dares to reveal.
And speaking of our children in the rising generation, just recently in the New York Times Justin P. McBrayer, a college professor, wrote an article,
“Why Our Children Don’t Think There Are Moral Facts”
He said this,
“As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.”
He went on to say,
“What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from. Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back” to the ancient Greeks.
But he goes on to say that students are showing up as moral relativists before the professors of philosophy ever have a shot at teaching them. The philosophers, he says, aren’t causing moral relativism; they are receiving it. Now my guess is in terms of the way ideas work that this is something of a circular motion because those philosophy professors did indeed shape the culture in terms of its entertainment, its Weltgeist, as the Germans would describe, the spirit of the age, and now they’re receiving the fruit of the very seeds that they have sown. As the Bible warns, if you sow the wind, you will reap the whirlwind. And I think that’s at least part of what’s going on here.
But Justin P. McBrayer points back to a previous reality, and that is the fact that even in elementary school, even in preschool in some cases, children are actually being taught moral relativism in ways their parents almost assuredly do not understand. McBrayer, who teaches philosophy at Fort Lewis College in Colorado, tells us that he tracked “the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to ‘distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.’”
And as McBrayer points out, the Common Core standards also indicate examples of how you are to distinguish between fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment. But as he points out, this is a huge problem, because some opinions turn out also to be facts and some things that are claimed to be facts turn out to be mere opinions. What this does is basically to subvert the idea that anything that is demonstrated as a moral reality has to be taken as such. It is a basic subversion of the idea of the objectivity of truth and of the knowability of that truth.
One of the most important aspects of what’s been going on or culture is that students beginning in very early years are increasingly being taught that there is a distinction between fact and opinion and moral realities are all uniformly merely opinions. That’s a very dangerous presupposition. But it’s one that is also very convenient because that means that moral judgments are not objective realities and furthermore, that every moral judgment a person makes is essentially just another form of a statement of opinion. But this is where we understand once again that evil is inherently, inescapably, a theological category. Because when we speak of evil in terms of the Christian worldview, we’re not talking about intellectual rejection or disgust at a moral judgment. We are talking about what we believe to be a moral reality, an objective moral reality.
How do we speak of this as objective? We mean it isn’t merely dependent upon human judgment. It’s not something that can be subjected to a laboratory experiment as would be the case of many other truth claims. It is instead something that is essentially anchored in our fundamental beliefs about reality. And if we believe that there is no God, then ultimately there is no ultimate distinction between good and evil. If we do believe that there is a God, then we must hope and pray that he reveals to us the real distinction, the objective distinction, between good and evil. That is the very worldview upon which Western civilization has been premised, and it is central to the biblical worldview, the fact that it is not left to human social construction or even human emotivism or rationality to come up with moral judgment, tat moral judgment is not merely a statement of opinion, that there are certain actions that are objectively either good or evil, and it is not merely a matter of opinion to label them such.
We can understand why Scott Simon reached for that remote control as his young daughters were seeing those images coming from Syria, and we even more understand why Scott Simon the parent, as he identifies himself in this article, had to use the term evil because no other term will do. There is a witness there to the objectivity of truth and to the fact that it is grounded in something other than our emotional response or our intellectual opinions. But you’ll notice that Scott Simon the reporter says he still doesn’t use the word evil, and there again we have a very interesting testimony to the fact that the secular worldview actually doesn’t have much of an ability to use the word evil, at least not without quotation marks. That in itself is a very dangerous reality. But make no mistake, it is a reality.
"Christianity is literally dying in Europe": What birth trends tell us about future of global religion
Next, we turn to a global perspective, and once again we are indebted to the Pew Research Center for major research, in this case, the kind of research that really doesn’t come from any other source. On April 5, 2017 the center released its report entitled,
“The Changing Global Religious Landscape”
Here’s the subtitle,
“Babies born to Muslims will begin to outnumber Christian births by 2035; people with no religion face a birth dearth”
Now we had looked at some preliminary research that resulted in this full report, but it’s really interesting now to have the full documentation and to be able to look at the larger picture. First, we come to see that the biggest issue here is birthrate. When it comes over time to revealing patterns amongst and between major religious groups on the world scene, the reproductive rate turns out to be the most important factor, far more important than other factors, including the spread of those religions by other means. The most important means over time by which these religious groups have reproduced themselves or grown has been by birth rate.
Now there’s an interesting fact also here. Pew doesn’t actually refer to children as Muslims, but rather as the children of Muslim parents, similarly for Christians and others. That’s to say there isn’t actually much of a sense in stating that a baby is a Muslim or a Christian or furthermore just about anything else. What is important is to recognize they had been born to Christian or Muslim or those parents of another faith. That in itself is the most likely predictor of where those children will be once they are adults.
From a Christian worldview perspective, the other interesting thing to see here is the differential in birthrates because right now there is no question that Christianity is the largest religion on the world scene in terms of the number of adherence and furthermore, Christianity is made up of people who are reproducing, but the reproduction rate is significantly less than that in the Muslim world. And so even though there are today fewer Muslims in the world than there are Christians, there are more baby Muslims especially as a percentage of the population, and that’s why Pew was indicating that by the year 2035 Islam will be the largest religion on earth in terms of the number of adherents.
But here again you have to look at something really interesting because the Christian worldview reminds us that something as fundamental as a birth rate has to have vast presuppositional implications. In other words, there has to be a worldview, a theological explanation, for why people do or do not have babies. Here we see an indication that one of the challenges faced by Christianity is that so many Christians are in the highly secularized nations of Europe and North America, and here the birthrate has been falling more than in other places of the world. So Christianity is showing the strain of being represented by societies that are increasingly secular, and secular people increasingly do not have babies or have much smaller families. So if you’re looking at this just as a matter of reproductive math, there are going to be more Muslims than Christians by the year 2035.
But there’s something else here that’s really, really interesting, and that is that even as the Pew Research Center itself has been pointing out that the fastest growing religious affiliation in the United States is that which is no affiliation at all, the nones, the increasingly secular people who say they have no religious affiliation whatsoever, it turns out that they are the least likely to have babies. And so Pew actually indicates that the number of secular people—atheists, agnostics, and the nones around the world—is going to fall. There will be a net smaller number of secular people because secular people, in light of their secular worldview, actually don’t feel much responsibility to bring babies into the world. And as it turns out, without babies coming into the world, it’s very hard to reproduce yourself.
Once again the full data here coming from Pew helps to fill out the picture. They wrote,
“While religiously unaffiliated people currently make up 16% of the global population, only an estimated 10% of the world’s newborns between 2010 and 2015 were born to religiously unaffiliated mothers. This dearth of newborns among the unaffiliated helps explain why religious ‘nones’ (including people who identity as atheist or agnostic, as well as those who have no particular religion) are projected to decline as a share of the world’s population in the coming decades.”
The preliminary information we discussed some weeks ago was very interesting. But the assessment based upon the full report is even more interesting. In the coverage of the report published in the Wall Street Journal, Conrad Hackett, the lead researcher, said,
“Christianity is literally dying in Europe.”
That’s the kind of comprehensive statement that helps to clarify the situation, and it comes as a result of this very study. Furthermore, Hackett said,
“The heart of Christianity is moving from Europe to Africa.”
Once again, this has to do a great deal with birthrate. That is, Christians in Europe are having babies at a far lower rate than Christians in Africa. This means that this differential in birthrates, highly tied to a theological worldview, is not only leading to a movement between the major world religions, but also inside of them, having to do with where a religion might be growing and where it might be declining. Christianity in Europe, said Hackett, is virtually disappearing. In Africa, well, there’s where the center of gravity is shifting.
Finally, one note in terms of the actual research data, it turns out that the religion that has been losing the most adherents when people shift from something to nothing is Christianity. And within those identified as Christians, the body that has had the single most switches from that faith to no faith is the Roman Catholic Church. As one observer noted, the Roman Catholic Church has made a greater contribution to the number of nones that have the nones themselves in terms of their birthrate.
Secular humanist clergy? The religion-shaped movement for the non-religious
Finally, largely in keeping with the previous story, we turn to an article in the Washington Post published at the end of last month. It takes on new importance. The headline of that article,
“Clergy who don’t believe in organized religion? Humanists think 2017 is their time to grow.”
The reporter was Julie Zauzmer. She writes,
“The name of the gathering almost sounded like an oxymoron: the ‘Humanist Clergy Collaboratory.’A meeting to organize religious leaders — for people who don’t believe in organized religion? ‘Well,’ Amanda Poppei joked, ‘some people would say we’re not that organized.’ But the humanist clergy — spiritual leaders for people who don’t like to talk about God but do like to gather for a moral purpose — are trying to get a lot more organized. The ‘collaboratory,’ which Poppei hosted at Washington Ethical Society, the 73-year-old humanist congregation that she leads in Northwest Washington, brought together about 40 of them for a first-of-its-kind gathering of non-religious clergy.”
Now let’s note something. When it’s identified that an organization, in this case a congregation, is 73 years old, that isn’t exactly breaking news. And nor is this story. This effort to try to create something like a humanist clergy isn’t new. It goes back to the early decades of the 20th century. It goes back to the rise of such groups as Ethical Humanism and the Humanist Society. Ethical Culture was another movement. All of them were efforts to try to create secular churches, or at least the equivalent of churches, sometimes with big massive buildings and, of course, with congregations and meetings. And they were held together by a shared moral purpose, almost always a very liberal purpose, and they were very secular in terms of their worldview.
Most of these have simply passed away. It turns out the secularism not only isn’t very good at reproducing by means of babies, it also hasn’t been very good at reproducing, by continuing to spread such organizations. They tend to be disproportionately in urban places. They tend to be disproportionately near academic institutions. Thus, you’re likely to find this kind of a secular congregation in a place like Boston or New York; you are less likely to find one in Birmingham or for that matter in Wichita.
“Almost all of these clergy hold services, often on Sunday mornings like a church. Members of their congregations sing together, listen to sermons and often celebrate God-free holidays. As an alternative to theism, these groups proffer humanism — a belief in the power of humanity and the human spirit, without supernatural intervention.”
One of the persons identified with the Ethical Society of St. Louis said,
“We need spaces for secular moral stories, to raise up ideals, as a hub for service. We can’t do service as individuals. Congregations help people make sense of terrible events. Congregations do memorials, weddings, baby namings.”
Well they may call themselves congregations, and interestingly they may call their leaders clergy, but if you can have secular clergy, then what in the world does clergy mean? What you have here is something really revealing from a Christian worldview. What we’re noticing here is that once people abandon religion, and in particular in Western societies, Christianity, what follows is not nothing; what follows is something. The religious impulses that once shaped American and Western societies now are transformed in a secular age into other forms of impulses. They are often labeled as ethical impulses, but you’ll note they take on religious connotations. Inevitably, those who deny any theology whatsoever find themselves acting oddly theological.
About this collaborative, Zauzmer explained,
“The clergy discussed ways they could work together on future projects, like serving more humanist patients in hospitals, sharing scripts for faith-free weddings and baby naming ceremonies, and getting involved in social justice movements.”
Now I can just imagine how popular those scripts for faith-free weddings and baby naming ceremonies might have been, but the thing to note here is the need, perceived felt need, for such ceremonies, and for the fact that they even call them services. What you have here is a very straightforward testimony to the fact that a secular age can’t stay secular for long. Sometimes issues can be downright practical. One woman said,
“‘I didn’t know, when I got sick someday, who was going to bring me a casserole,’ the woman told Poppei. Now that she’s in an Ethical Culture society, she knows where that supportive casserole will come from, Poppei said. ‘I think that’s what people are looking for.’”
I’ll simply point out that what she thinks she’s looking for is a casserole. But what this tells us is that she’s actually looking, as the Bible would explain, for much, much more.
Finally on this, Mark Kellner at Get Religion simply points out that the Washington Post is giving this headline news is something that probably isn’t news at all. It turns out that here the Washington Post simply says maybe 2017 is the year, that the time is finally come for humanist clergy. But as Kellner pointed out, that has basically been the argument going all the way back to when this movement began almost a century ago. There’s good reason to believe that is a movement whose time will never come. But in the meantime, that’s not to say we can’t learn something by the very fact that it exists.