Whether Christian Ethics Is Anti-Life?

Now we come to the most interesting chapters in Smith’s book. In them he builds up a brutal indictment of Christianity as an “anti-life” religion. Let’s look at some of his claims.

Back in Chapter 1, Smith writes:

Religion has had the disastrous effect of placing vitally important concepts, such as morality, happiness, and love, in a supernatural realm inaccessible to man’s mind and knowledge. …

Atheism, however, is not the destruction of morality; it is the destruction of supernatural morality.

Likewise, atheism is not the destruction of happiness and love; it is the destruction of the idea that happiness and love can be achieved only in another world. (26)

The first claim in this quote is palpably absurd. Pick up any modern book on ethics and you will find no mention of God or the supernatural in it. Now perhaps religion is important in shaping the morality of the common man, but to the extent that it is based on rationally derived morality, that is of no concern.

Further, Christian morality is deified natural morality. Christian virtues are deiform in character; they are enhanced versions of the natural virtues.

For example, prudence deals with the question of what I ought to do to further my own self-interest (which may include the interests of others); atheistic prudence is directed at the happiness possible in this world; Christian prudence regards actions which lead to salvation and glory and eternal bliss and is therefore far more robust. Religion then places this higher morality in a realm inaccessible only to the atheist’s mind and knowledge. Christians can understand its value and follow it, if they want to, with no trouble at all.

Moreover, it is certainly not a Christian doctrine that “happiness and love can be achieved only in another world.” What Christianity says is that the happiness that can be achieved here is imperfect in nature, something I think everyone will acknowledge as obviously true; perfect happiness comes only after entrance into glory after death, and that is true according to faith: “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.”

Smith picks this subject back up in Chapter 12, where he defines “religious morality” as follows:

Basically, [it] defends a universal moral order established by god and existing independently of man.

Man is born into this moral structure, where he finds that his foremost duty is to obey the dictates of his supernatural lawgiver.

Morality, according to this view, serves the purpose of god, not man; and man is required to subordinate himself to the moral code.

Obedience is the major virtue, disobedience the major vice. (297)

This sounds very much like the divine command theory of ethics. It is not worth discussing this straw man. “God made man from the beginning, and left him in the hand of his own counsel.” (Sir 15:14) Natural ethics has nothing whatsoever to do with divine commands. Christianity neither entails this theory logically nor in fact promoted it historically. No serious philosopher, least of all a Christian one, has ever held this theory. It has always been well-understood that God communicates with His creatures not directly via “commands” but via the natural law as the Author of nature.

The divine command theory of ethics is merely a philosophical conundrum, a puzzle to contemplate while falling asleep perhaps. Is the good what the gods will, or must the gods of necessity will only what is good? Fascinating, I guess. I don’t know the answer 100%, but this question is practically irrelevant, if for no other reason that God does not bark orders at or even speak at all with the vast majority of people.

Smith distinguishes between 2 “divine sanctions”: hell and guilt. This is good: St. Thomas, too, separates the evil of fault and the evil of punishment, with the former causing the latter.

As for hell, think of it this way. Good deeds, virtuous behavior “sculpt” the soul into something beautiful and Godlike. They define a person. Evil deeds, hatred, mortal sins, on the contrary, corrupt the soul and make it less human, more undefined. At the end of your life, you will end up as either a tough soul-builder, a warrior who has not given in to evil, or a spiritually sick and twisted weakling. The former will “fit” into heaven and paradise like hand in glove, while the latter may be thrown out into the fire as a worthless, wicked, and hopeless creature. Hence one would be well-advised to fear hell.

Therefore, it’s false that “God is to be obeyed because, in the final analysis, he is bigger and stronger than we are; and in addition, he is incomparably more vicious.” (300)

As for guilt, Smith’s opinion is that the Christian clergy feeds on it. It fosters guilt within the souls of the laity where there is no need for it:

Christianity thrives on guilt. Guilt, not love, is the fundamental emotion that Christianity seeks to induce — and this is symptomatic of a viciousness in Christianity that few people care to acknowledge.

For all of its alleged concern for the “poor in spirit,” Christianity does it best to perpetuate spiritual impoverishment. (304)

Hmm. Is Smith condemning guilt as such? If one has done something wrong and bad, is it not an appropriate response of a healthy individual to feel guilty? What is wrong with a criminal repenting of his crime and making amends? I think our author has proved far too much.

Second, guilt can be taken away through confession, and the traditional prayer, fasting, and alms-giving. Thus, Catholicism provides the means to elimination of guilt. No one forces a person to confess his sins or to try to atone for them. It is Christianity that actually helps one to leave his guilt behind. I have even seen atheists absurdly claim that “a believer can even things up with his imaginary friend without addressing the consequences of his actions in the real world.” Yet this charge directly contradicts Smith’s. Which is it, then: Christianity condemns too easily or forgives too easily?

Third, there is no need to feel guilty if one has achieved something or done something praiseworthy. Pride is not a sin when it is within right reason; honor is a good worth striving for; and achieving heavenly glory is the whole purpose of life.

Fourth, Smith has postulated a conspiracy of the Church to dupe the impressionable masses into demanding its services and, presumably, paying for them (through donations). “Christianity,” he says, “has a vested interest in human misery.” (309) Now Smith is a libertarian and Objectivist. Does he believe that in a free market, car repairmen prowl at night surreptitiously breaking cars hoping to cash in on the increased demand for their services? Do drug companies manufacture viruses with the intention of releasing them in midtown Manhattan hoping to profit from selling the cure? All these are logically possible, and the last one was even the plot of a movie, but they don’t happen in reality. So why has the Church allegedly succeeded in its particular conspiracy where no one else has?

Fifth, to say that the focus on guilt is greater than the focus on love is a travesty. God loves more the better things, and to the extent that dealing with the emotions and actions that yield guilt will improve a person, so much the better. Charity, for example, is divided with respect to its strength into beginning, progressing, and perfect. As St. Thomas writes, “Even the perfect make progress in charity: yet this is not their chief care, but their aim is principally directed towards union with God. And though both the beginner and the proficient seek this, yet their solicitude is chiefly about other things, with the beginner, about avoiding sin, with the proficient, about progressing in virtue.” (ST, II-II, 24, 9, reply 3) So guilt and penance are for the beginners; once a person has reached a certain level of spiritual development, guilt all but disappears.

Sixth, how does Christianity perpetuate spiritual impoverishment? Here we have to understand Smith’s take on faith: “acts of faith are united by their submission to an authoritative moral code.” (306) Here by faith he means blind acceptance of the moral rules promulgated by the Church. This acceptance is a recipe for an escape from individual responsibility. “I was obeying God’s will” becomes, Smith says, a universal excuse. Really? If a murderer on trial were to offer that during his defense, he’d be laughed out of the courtroom and into an electric chair or, at best, be encouraged to enter an insanity plea. In any case, the moral laws are not arbitrary and anybody can and should examine them for himself regarding their value and reasonableness.

Then there is this little gem:

Christian virtues — such as humility, self-sacrifice, and a sense of sin — without exception, are geared to the destruction of man’s inner sense of dignity, efficacy, and personal worth.

It is not accidental that Christianity regards pride as a major sin. A man of self-esteem is an unlikely candidate for the master-slave relationship that Christianity offers him. …

Christianity has nothing to offer a happy man living in a natural intelligible universe. (308)

Humility is a virtue rightly understood: “Wherefore a twofold virtue is necessary with regard to the difficult good: one, to temper and restrain the mind, lest it tend to high things immoderately; and this belongs to the virtue of humility: and another to strengthen the mind against despair, and urge it on to the pursuit of great things according to right reason; and this is magnanimity.” (ST, II-II, 161, 1)

Humility results from the self-knowledge of one’s own limitations, from the realization that some goods are too high above oneself and cannot be attained. But one must be both humble and magnanimous, in the sense of aspiring to great things.

For example, on the free market those entrepreneurs are most successful who have created the most value for the consumers. Their greatness is proportional to the quality of their service to the public. And service is a practical corollary of humility. If we praise the captains of industry, we must praise them in part for their humility.

Our main task in this world is twofold: first, to heal our nature; second, to learn to love others. Humans work in such a way that charity in the heart increases from good deeds performed. A beginner in virtue may indeed initially need to “force” himself to perform works of mercy in order eventually, perhaps after a long battle, to foster charitable feelings. It is in this way that one’s feelings may be “commanded.” Thus, “self-sacrifice” is a pedagogical tool for those without a holy will. Through helping others, perhaps in spite of one’s own initial inclinations, it is hoped that one will come to love the people he helps and the happiness he thereby engenders. So, that way lies the road to perfection. Self-sacrifice is not an end in itself but a means to becoming good.

Smith objects: “Psychological health, to a large extent, consists of being in touch with one’s feelings.” (323) I see. Go on, then, be in touch with your envy, your rage, your vanity, your sloth, our egotism, and so on. But know well: these feelings can destroy you from within, especially if you are “in touch” with them.

Further, and obviously, one cannot sin and have dignity. When one sins, he becomes a slave. And speaking of which, Christianity does not, of course, proffer a master-slave relationship; it welcomes a believer into a Father-child relationship.

Finally, Christianity has everything to offer a naturally happy man. It offers a lifting up above his nature, knowledge of God, assurance that “what we do in life echoes in eternity,” charity and communion of saints, and bliss such as cannot be described.

Ethics of Jesus Is A-Ok

My final post on Smith’s book will clear up some issues regarding the teachings of Jesus.

For example, Smith claims that “Jesus believed that the establishment of God’s kingdom would occur within the lifetime of his followers… the teachings of Jesus must be understood as an ‘interim’ ethic” before that event. But it should be obvious that Jesus’ kingdom (1) was not of this world (Jn 18:36), and (2) came to be immediately upon His resurrection.

Hence it made perfect sense for Jesus to say, “Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come in power.” (Mk 9:1) This was not a prediction of His second coming. Therefore, it is false, as Smith claims, that “Jesus was mistaken concerning the immediacy of God’s kingdom.” (316)

Smith notes that for Jesus, “those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2:17) His simple reward/punishment ethic is precisely what most people even today, let alone 2,000 years ago, need, because it’s the only thing they understand. Jesus did not address himself to philosophers, but to murderers and thieves, such as indeed tax collectors. He wanted to bring heart to the heartless, but the first step to doing so is to lay down the penal code for violent crimes.

Smith interprets Mt 18:3, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven,” to mean that “children, after all, will believe almost anything.” (322) But this is implausible in light of Mt 10:16, “Behold, I am sending you like sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and simple as doves.”

Smith accuses Jesus of “narrow sectarianism; Jesus came not to save the world, but to save only a small part of it — namely, the Jews, the ‘elect,’ God’s ‘chosen people.'” (316) This is contradicted by the parable of the great feast (Lk 14:15-24): “The master then ordered the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedgerows and make people come in that my home may be filled.'” (NABRE comments: it “is a further illustration of the rejection by Israel, God’s chosen people, of Jesus’ invitation to share in the banquet in the kingdom and the extension of the invitation to other Jews whose identification as the poor, crippled, blind, and lame’ classifies them among those who recognize their need for salvation, and to Gentiles.”) And further by “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mt 28:19-20)

It’s true that in the past Christianity often flirted with asceticism, or pain and suffering for their own sakes, but this was inevitable before the development of economic science and industrial revolution, when the human active life correctly seemed pointless and miserable. “Jesus does not prescribe standards of behavior on the basis that they will contribute to man’s happiness and well-being on earth” (317), Smith charges. Of course not. 2,000 years ago there was no such thing as happiness on earth.

Finally, Smith reviles Christianity for aiming to “break man’s spirit”: “if it robs him of emotional strength and intellectual independence, he will indeed become meek and humble.” (324) First, some people, like violent criminals, ought to have their evil spirits broken. Second, for everyone else, a great God can only be worshipped by a great creature. God’s glory is directly increased by human glory; it’s not the case that man must abase himself to make God look better by comparison. Third, Smith proposes that grace destroys nature rather than builds upon it sweetly, and that is false.

It is time to bring this critique to a close. Smith’s book is interesting but fatally flawed. The case against God is weak, indeed.