San Bernardino. Colorado City. Paris. Not a day seems to pass that we are not confronted with numerous images and stories of violent crimes around the world. They are usually accompanied by pundits offering up a plethora of reasons to explain these occurrences. Their explanations could be valid or could be a smoke screen that hides the true nature of the problems. I suggest we consider more fundamental reasons – the rejection of God and objective truth about the dignity of the human person.
“If there is no God, then everything is permitted” is a quote often attributed to Dostoevsky, though in truth one of his characters in the Brothers Karamazov only said something like it. The sentiment was not original, and was also offered in different terms by men whose destructive ideas were clearly opposed to Dostoevsky’s Christian faith: Sartre and Nietzsche.
Nineteenth-century Europe was the century that witnessed the rise of social, political, scientific, and ideological systems that were implicitly or explicitly atheistic. It was a time of open denial of God’s existence – belief in Him and the practice of religion were considered relics of the past, something no longer needed. In the words of Karl Marx, “Religion is the “opium of the people.” Religious faith represents, on this view, a dependency on supernatural assistance and is a sign of humanity’s immaturity – something from which he must be liberated.
As we now know, Nietzsche and Marx’s ideas were systematized and activated by Lenin and his communist and socialist progeny, leading to the greatest atrocities in all history.
Modernity puts its faith in technology and politics as the means for the perfection of the world. The godless world envisioned by these ideological systems eventually produces an inhuman world where everything is permitted – constraint dependent on the whims of the powerful. Without any sense of a Law that places demands on their behavior and society before politics or the random declarations of judges, people construct their life’s view in personal, individualistic, and private terms. The fruit of a life without God and belief in immortality is a life tragically condemned to isolation, loneliness, and brokenness – a restless soul enslaved by passions, selfishness, and self-consumption.
So while many people who don’t believe in God do certainly act with genuine concern for others, with a sort of an ethical or moral code, this code is based on personal preferences; and thus, in its foundation, this code is arbitrary and easily swayed by the spirit of the age. Too many times in history, as in the present, this spirit is murderous.
I would argue that because our secular culture continues to alienate man and woman from the objective truth concerning their dignity as made in the image and likeness of God, we will continue to descend into greater acts of violence. Why wouldn’t we, if the human person is a product, a commodity, and one to be used or discarded. If our only moral code is purely subjective – responses to inner impulses and desires – why wouldn’t we continue to kill those who are inconvenient, whether in the womb or at the mall?
It obviously does not follow that Christians do not err, as history and present also make perfectly clear. Nor have Christians claimed this. What we do claim is that when we morally fail – in small personal sins or in collaboration with great atrocities – we fail in respect to God’s law, irrespective of how we happen to feel about our actions or what a particular judge says. That is why we believe that the legitimacy of a law is measured by its correlation with God’s law – with His love and justice.
If there is no God, there is no immortality. If there is no immortality, there is no judgment. If there is no judgment, there is no consequence to decisions and actions other than human conventions and laws, which if determined to be in contradiction to one’s self-interest, can be ignored or broken. Without God, ones own will and desire becomes the source of everything.
Pope Benedict XVI makes this point perfectly clear when analyzing Karl Marx’s new world order that rejects Faith and man’s transcendent value:
Marx not only omitted to work out how this new world would be organized—which should, of course, have been unnecessary. His silence on this matter follows logically from his chosen approach. His error lay deeper. He forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man’s freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favorable economic environment. (Spe Salvi, 21)
The worth of a human being is grounded in the will and love of God, who creates each and every human person in His image and likeness. So when faith and the objective truth about man’s immortality fades from society, one of the unavoidable consequences is that respect for every human life is also lost.
Thus, the primary goal of society in its desire for obtaining true peace and justice among its peoples remains the constant search for the common good – as defined by the Church – and the protection of the inalienable dignity of every human being from conception to natural death. These issues are not separate form one another; on the contrary, they are profoundly interconnected.
Love and respect for the transcendent dignity of every human being is the ultimate goal of society seeking authentic peace and social justice. Without God and the objective truth about man’s transcendent value, man destroys himself and his neighbor. We pray for the souls of those who have died, for their killers, for those who mourn, and that justice is done. Condemning such violent attacks, as we condemn abortion and all killing of the innocent, is necessary, but insufficient. Aligning our lives, families, communities and as much as possible our societies with the Law of God, with the Prince of Peace, is the harder and more necessary part.