The elusive “ought”

February 23, 2010

I said in my sermon on Sunday that the skeptics who feel morally indignant toward God for tragedies like Haiti  (“How can you believe in a good God when 100,000 die in one fell swoop?”) have the luxury of feeling that way in part because their sense of right and wrong comes to them from God, “without whom justice has no meaning.” That’s obviously true. If there is no transcendent reality beyond the world of time and space, the realm of scientifically observable facts, then there is no foundation for ethics. Evolutionary biology provides no “ought” that is scientifically justifiable. (Pay attention to how often New Atheists like Richard Dawkins engage in wild, unscientific speculation about why we are the way we are socially, culturally, psychologically, religiously, ethically, etc.) Apart from God, there is no “ought” that can’t be refuted with the clever argument, “I disagree.”

Stanley Fish, writing in yesterday’s New York Times, draws attention to a book that makes the same point about our secular and pluralistic culture. We only agree on concepts like “freedom” and “liberty” because we’ve imported them from religion (and Christianity in particular). Strip away the religion and there’s nothing there. The idea that we can set public policy without resorting to the religious realm is ridiculous. The only reason our country has gotten along as well as it has thus far, under the guise of strictly “secular” decision-making, is that the vast majority of its population buys into Christian ethics, whether it has known it was doing so or not.

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