The agenda of the New Atheists was never simply to promote science and materialism over and against religious belief and super-naturalism (though that was core); it was also the promotion of a new morality: an attempt to show that religion was not only untrue but bad and that atheistic humanism can produce a superior morality to replace the obsolete and perverse religious version. Dawkins has been at pains to expose the corrupting influence of religion (especially on children) while pointing out that unbelievers can be perfectly moral and good people. A. C. Grayling went so far as to produce a Humanist Bible (2011) complete with chapters, verses and 10 commandments. This is completely different to post-modernism rejection of all moral categories. The true post-modernist relativist could not bring himself to say that Hitler’s ‘Final Solution’ was a bad thing. There is no position from which to make a value judgment on anything. In contrast the New Atheists are very happy to use moral categories as they declare: God is not great: How religion poisons everything (Christopher Hitchens, 2007).
It seems that the spectacular demonstration of evil on 11 September 2001 jolted western societies out of a ‘live and let live’ non-judgmental permissiveness. Now, we were powerfully reminded, some things are simply wrong, unacceptable, evil, to be judged, condemned and defeated. Perhaps no-one really believed the post-modern relativism (which was practically unliveable) but there does seem to have been a shift in the last decade to a much more moralistic society. Some of the argumentation undergirding this is recycled modern-Enlightenment humanism but we have not so much returned to the morals of the modern era as created a new set of morals. Here are four examples of the new moral virtues:
- Environmentalism. A.C. Grayling’s sixth commandment is ‘Respect Nature.’ The modern environmental movement may be traced back at least to the 1960s. However, as a post-modern movement it was just one activist grouping among many others (anti-nuclear, anti-war, civil rights, feminist, gay) in a fragmented political scene. To the majority of the baby boomer generation it was seen as a side issue, for fanatics and children. But in the twenty first century it has gone mainstream. A climate change denier is seen in the same way as a holocaust denier. This fits with the resurgence of hard truth, science and evolution. At the political level, at least in Europe, there is huge momentum behind ‘going green.’ At the local level the very same baby boomers who laughed about climate change are now installing solar panels and buying electric cars. For many middle class middle Englanders, as Christendom has ended, environmentalism has become an alternative religion with rituals (putting out the recycling box), a system for accumulating righteousness points (watching your carbon footprint, eating locally grown produce), prophets (Al Gore and the ICCC) and eschatology (terrifying scenarios of global flooding, drought, Armageddon and extinction). I don’t wish to argue that this is wrong. What is worthy of note however is the recent disproportionate emphasis on this virtue. I saw a school party visiting a London park a few months ago – the children were using incredibly abusive language towards one another and to their adult helpers without any sanction, but when one boy was spotted dropping a piece of litter on the ground he was rebuked by his teacher with tremendous ferocity. In Kenya the fine for driving over 50 MPH in a 30 MPH zone is 250 USD; the fine for driving a PSV when you are unqualified to do so is 70 USD; the fine for possession of a plastic bag is 40,000 USD.
- Sexual freedom. Again this is something that rose as a political and social force in 1960s Europe and North America but in the post-modern era it was a matter of permissiveness not virtue. From the 60s through the 90s it was legal to be active in homosexuality but it was not widely seen as a positive thing (even as late as 2008 the majority of Americans viewed homosexuality negatively and were not in favour of same sex marriage). The shift in the post-post-modern era has been from a position of toleration to the position that ‘gay is good.’ In the last four or five years, across the Western world, the opinion polls and referenda have turned around firmly behind same sex marriage. The annual Gay Pride events in the UK have turned into a national celebration with businesses falling over each other to link themselves to the movement, political endorsement at the highest level (in 2017 the Houses of Westminster lit with the LGBT rainbow) and families lining the streets of the Pride march. No longer mere toleration but mainstream celebration of a virtue, a cornerstone virtue for society. The reasons behind this shift are complex (Al Mohler’s, We cannot be silent is a good analysis) but it is worth noting that a strong theme in New Atheist polemic has always been the critique (or rather ridiculing) of conservative religious sexual ethics. This has often been the killer argument – “Look what this religion says about sex.” But by whatever route, sexual freedom has become a great virtue which cannot be challenged.
- Self-definition. This one is similar to the last but slightly different. Sexual freedom is about ‘being who you’ve been born as’ but self-definition is about ‘being whoever you want to be or feel yourself to be today.’ In the 2013 Disney-Pixar film Planes, a crop duster dreams of being a racing plane and ends up winning a prestigious competition, partly through the addition of a new propeller and other upgraded parts. At one point in the film a small car with bolted on wings, who evidently wants to be a flying car, comes over to Dusty and says, “You’re an inspiration to all of us who want to do something more than what we were made for.” It’s an echo of the new virtue of self-definition. Post-modernism laid the ground for this by deconstructing apparently fixed identities and conditions – gender, ethnicity, sexuality, illness, the body itself – these were argued to be socially constructed, fluid, lacking any kind of objective substance. What is different about post-post-modernism is that this is no longer an academic discussion of social discourses but rather it is now a) personal, centred on me; b) practical, prescriptive, taking steps to change reality (e.g. the body) to conform to self-identity; c) positive assertion of a truth claim and virtue claim which demands the assent and approval of others. In post-modernism there was no longer any author (you can read these words however you want to read them, authorial intent and truth claims are irrelevant) but in post-post-modernism we are all authors, writing our own lives, and we demand to be read in a certain way. If I self-identify as a black woman then that is who I am and you must affirm me in that self-definition.
- Intolerance of intolerance. Post-modernism was tolerant of all positions. A genuine post-modernist would not even criticise someone who was an exclusivist (former Archbishop Rowan Williams being a good example of a post-modern willing to listen to and work with conservative evangelicals, believing that their views could somehow be held together with liberal theologies). Post-post-modernism however makes a virtue of not being tolerant of ‘intolerance’ by which is usually meant not only apostate-killing terrorists but also (and more commonly) any fundamentalist who a) claims exclusivist religious truth; b) fails to affirm the new morality. According to the new moralism, to tolerate such intolerant people, to say ‘live and let live’ or defend their right to speak is profoundly dangerous and naïve. The good posture towards such cancerous hatred and bigotry is to be against it, outraged, to campaign against and if possible legislate against it, to say it has ‘no place in our society.’
A few general observations may be made:
- One feature of this new morality is that it is not a left-right political thing in the sense that there is consensus across the political spectrum in the west that these things (environmentalism, sexual freedom, self-definition and intolerance) are high virtues, to be endorsed, extended and legislated, nationally and internationally.
- What also comes out strongly in the new morality is the need for affirmation. Facebook is the classic site for this – like me, affirm me, notice my virtue signalling. The new morality is not a personal code to live by in my private life, it is a social activity. Which is why social media is such a key part of the post-post-modern age. And this social righteousness project is not an optional thing. As I hope to explore in the next post (looking at the new form of state), it is a compulsory thing. You must not be against or even neutral, you must affirm this new morality.
- One shift behind this seems to be the privileging of feelings. In post-post-modernity feelings are king. Thou shalt not hurt my feelings. In fact you may be arrested for hurting my feelings. Love is defined as affirming feelings and boosting self-esteem or at least not denying feelings and deflating self-esteem.
- As Carl Trueman has noted, all this amounts to a ‘war against the body.’ Pre-modern cultures put a lot of emphasis on the body. Action is character. Behaviour is all important. What you as an individual think or feel is relatively unimportant (note the lack of psychological description in Genesis 22). In modernity, “I think, therefore I am.” My consciousness is the only thing that is certain. Or in the Romantic reaction to modern rationalism, “I feel, therefore I am.” In post-modernity there was an attempt to deconstruct the modernist mind-body dichotomy as well as to deconstruct body, mind and feeling themselves so we were just left with surface and irony. Post-post-modernism is in some ways a return to the modernist insistence that my personal mind and emotions are the real and important thing. If my feelings and self-definition don’t fit with my physical body then healthy organs and limbs can be amputated to bring a better fit with my psychology (I could even opt for euthanasia). When it comes to marriage, Girgis, Anderson and George have noted a shift from a conjugal understanding of marriage (one flesh, compatible bodies, sexual consummation) to an emotional understanding of marriage (relational intimacy, love, feelings). Even environmentalism can become a war against the body where this virtue is used to promote population control through abortion.
A Christian reaction
In the modern era Christianity was increasingly seen as untrue but it was at least virtuous. In the post-modern era it was suspect because of its exclusivist truth claims. Now, in post-post-modernity it is both mad (untrue) and bad (immoral, against virtue). Where do we go from here?
One approach would be to critique the lack of any grounding for the new morality. If there is no longer any God then, as Nietzsche pointed out a long time ago (and John Gray more recently) it is not possible to hold onto morality, Christian or humanist. As C.S. Lewis showed in The Abolition of Man, you cannot simply move from ‘is’ (materialistic facts) to ‘ought’ (morality). Lewis: “The human mind has no more power of inventing a new value than of imagining a new primary colour, or, indeed, of creating a new sun and a new sky for it to move in.” Morality is the fruit of a tree whose root is the good news of a truly good, speaking, saving Creator. Put a chainsaw through that tree and the fruit may survive for a while but severed from their source it will soon decay and need to be replaced by plastic fruit.
But I doubt that critique will cut much ice. A more powerful argument is love. The new morality does not have a rich understanding of love. Love is often reduced to saying nice things about each other, flattery. When we signal our disgust at a presidential remark on immigration are we really loving the immigrants? Would we be willing to have them live with us? Would we sacrifice our own time, money and reputation in the way that Wilberforce did? When we affirm alternative sexualities are we really loving these people? Would we open our homes and listen and discuss and challenge as we would a close good friend? E.g. the way Pastor Ken Smith and his wife welcomed Rosaria Butterfield into their home, ate together, talked together, swapped books, engaged, explained, prayed, genuinely loved her in an organic way and introduced her to the greatest love story of all time, the bridegroom God who rescues a rebellious prostitute people at unimaginable cost. The new morality has no love for it’s attackers. But there is a God who has spectacularly loved those who attack him.
Which brings me to a final thought, that the new morality is entirely without grace. Whatever the specifics of the new morality and the reasons for its emergence (and I may well be wrong in the analysis above) what is clear is the moralistic and moralising tone of the new ethics. There is a self-righteousness to it (I look down on my neighbour who is less green and less politically correct than me). It is quite grim and joyless. There is a lack of humility and openness to being wrong. At least in the best of the post-modern writing there was a playfulness and humility. Now we the post-post-moderns know what is right and wrong and we are definitely on the side of the right and good. Sadly, we the church, have also often been those grim joyless moralisers. Lord forgive us! Lead us back to that place of the tax collector: “God have mercy on me a sinner!” (Luke 18:13).
And there comes the great good news of forgiveness and the Spirit. The problem with moralism, however right (and it must be accepted that some of the new morality is good: the protection of children, a concern for the oppressed, care of the environment) is that it has no forgiveness and no power in itself to effect good – it is just penance for your past sins and will power for your reformation. In a rather pathetic phrase of A. C. Grayling, coming just after his laying out of his new ten commandments, he calls us to, “at least sincerely try.”
How great then is the good news of Jesus Christ? The One who sees us as we really are and yet truly loves us, not affirming us in our state but rescuing us from God’s wrath, forgiving all our sin, bringing us to an utterly good and joyful God, giving us the Spirit of sonship. Christ who came into the world not for the healthy but for the sick. Christ in whom we die to the bondage of self and find a new identity secure in him who is our life.