Is there a Substitute for God?
It is hard to say where it started. With Guttenberg? Galileo? The industrial revolution? Darwinism? Somewhere along the way, Western man began to lose his belief in God as a personal force, as decider of his fate, as ultimate judge of his actions. The idea that God created man became old-fashioned; we evolved. The notion of Hell was picturesque, but no longer compelling. Life began to be seen as more or less accidental; sin became a relative, sociological matter, and to many a pure fiction. After millenniums of living under gods, man came to regard such belief as archaic and superstitious. Like a son who decides he need not depend upon his father any longer, he set forth to make his own way in the world.
He still believed in right and wrong, and he still knew when he was doing wrong, as he saw it, but he no longer believed he had offended God by it or incurred His punishment. In fact, there was no punishment; he only felt guilty, or resolved not to do wrong again.
The difference between living this way, and trying to live righteously because God commands it is profound. A man could now do anything he wanted, subject only to the laws of the land and his own judgment. Yet this judgment he had formed in part from parents and institutions whose outlook was still religious. So, although he has denied the basis of the morality of his forebears, such a man still acts in its terms. He obeys the Commandments without believing they were commanded; he speaks of right and wrong in the framework of conviction he no longer possesses; he acts according to Judeo-Christian ethic, although he has abjured the belief.
How did he manage to get into such a contradictory position?
The Pollster is the Prophet. Just as some primitive peoples have accepted Christianity by transposing their old gods onto the new religion, so have many moderns transposed their inherited ethic onto another structure: the needs of society. What used to be an offense against God became “anti-social”; a sing became a crime; religious precepts governing conduct became matters of hygiene, efficiency or social value. Stealing was bad because honesty is the best policy. You tried to avoid being unfaithful to your mate because it might harm your relationship. If you attended religious services, it was to respect a tradition. Virtue became its own inexplicable reward, for there was no other.
A societally-based ethic such as this is variable according to time, place and circumstance. There are no absolutes in it and it has no clear, codified system. Opinion becomes the basis of the code, and the pollster the prophet. It is an ethic without appreciable roots in the past to reassure us, and subject to change at any time with some new event or scientific discovery—as Freudianism, for example, changed the moral outlook of so many.
Examine one possible consequence. Suppose a government decided, on the basis of available data, that a new law was required which would impose the death penalty for an offense not previously considered capital—as, for instance, the U.S.S.R. decreed the death penalty for stealing from the government. Once the decree has been granted as justified by the needs of society, can anyone within that society believe it ethically wrong, the executions immoral?
Go a step further. Suppose a government decided on the death penalty for people whose continued existence it found contrary to the welfare of its society, as, say, the Nazi government found six million Jews undesirable. We recoil from that act—but on what basis, short of invoking that obsolete concept, God’s law? If we believe society’s needs to be man’s highest law, what can we say was morally wrong? Every Nazi could maintain, and many did, that since the sovereign government of Germany made the law, his function was to obey it [cf. Hawkins, "The Higher Law in Civilization"]; in fact, that he was morally bound to do so. If we no longer believe that God created man, why is human life sacred?
If the taking of human life cannot be logically condemned, except as law condemns it, what of lesser crimes; fraud, embezzlement, rape, adultery, sexual perversion, abortion? Under our new code, can any act whatever—no matter how gravely offensive—be logically protested or condemned, except by law? And man-made laws vary. In fact, have not parts of the Western world already repealed or suspended their laws against the last three named crimes simply because tastes and attitudes have changed?
The Lame-Duck Parent. And so man left his father’s house to live on his own. But was he mature enough for the adventure? He finds his life-held standards dissolving beneath him. Cynicism plagues him, but he cannot refute it; he rejects pure hedonism as a way of life, but he has no philosophy with which to dispute its claims. And, beyond all this, another trouble bewilders, wounds, frightens and embitters him, in the face of which he is as impotent as toward all the rest: the rebellion of his children against him.
Consider the dilemma of the modern parent in the Western world. If, atypically, he is still in possession of his faith that God knows, watches and punishes, then his child growing up in today’s world is being alienated from him. The situation resembles that of American immigrant families a few generations ago: the parents spoke a foreign language; the children rejected it, and spoke English. The child cannot help seeing what others are doing, in the secular society, and he cannot help but absorb its outlook and values. Parochial school, bar mitzvah, the threat of Hell, personal example—these may delay the secularization, but cannot prevent it.
Meanwhile, the non-religious parent, or one content merely to observe the forms of a faith, has literally no way to influence his child. He recognizes the utter vacuity of no belief at all; yet he can hardly hold up as a model the peculiar lame-duck proposition his own life has become: one foot in materialism and one in old-fashioned morality. How can he teach a child to do right if cannot justify the right?
This parent is in an even worse situation trying to answer the first question that religion used to answer: What is the meaning of man’s existence? If a parent must tell a youngster that his life has no meaning, how can he tell him that he should not take drugs? In fact, how can he convince him that he should not commit suicide outright? If the youth does stay alive, it is because he wants to for reasons solely within himself.
“Give Me a Reason.” Pursue a discussion with any rebellious youth as to why he commits acts that the older generation regards as depraved, self-destructive or irresponsible, and again and again you will hear the reply, “Why not?” Try to answer “Why not?” If you are a transitional creature living in a halfway house, one who has given up faith while continuing (in order to hold your life together) to act as if you still had it, you have no answer. True, you still—by and large—live by certain moral principles, but you cannot say why. Therein lies the basis of the curious guilt so often felt by parents in the face of insufferable behavior by their young, and their consequent indulgence of children who reject them.
The young rebel’s “Why Not?” has at least two meanings: not only “What’s to stop me?” but simultaneously “Give me a reason I can accept.” For the young person wants, needs, is in fact desperate to believe in something. He is in constant search of it—in “mind-bending" drugs, in Zen Buddhism, in love, astrology, the Peace Corps, a new society, radicalism, hedonism, nihilism—anything but his parent’s ism, which he regards as dishonest and cowardly.
The young rebel has not found his belief yet. The experience of learning that an entire civilization is founded on nothing solid morally; that it is shot through and through with what he regards as hypocrisy; that he finds nothing in it to give his life meaning—this has been so overwhelming a shock that it has left him largely mute, inarticulate, confused, unable to cope. He can literally be sure of nothing. And if there is one word that most aptly describes the emotional reaction of the young to finding society without a usable moral basis, it is disgust.
There are still other consequences of man’s portentous leap into materialism. In freeing himself of the terror of Hell, he gave up his hope of Heaven; you live, you die, that’s the end of it. Your grandfather had the tremendous expectation of a life everlasting. You, typically ambivalent, still hope that somehow it may turn out to be true after all; but your children are, in the most direct sense, hopeless, except for what they can get out of life materialistically.
Further: if man is his own moral judge, and governments derive their powers “from the consent of the governed,” then there exists no effective authority. Behind you and me there is only the government we have created; behind the government only the nightstick and the gun. Children are born to parents not as part of a divine plan, but by biological accident. Does that accident confer any authority on the parents? The teacher knows more facts than the pupil—does that make him an authority? The police, far from personifying authority, are called pigs. The young sneer at Presidents, manhandle deans, burn the nation’s flag and display that of its enemy. Why not if there is no authority?
Profound Questions. The idea that man is morally responsible only to himself has been behind the creation of whole new societies: communist, fascist, socialist and shades between—while the older societies are being shaken, changing in nature even as they retain the old names and forms. In the new societies, a kind of morality has been built around protection of the state in what seem like perpetual emergency conditions. But that cannot last; already hippies are plaguing the authorities in Leningrad, Moscow, and Prague, and from behind the various curtains we hear protests against the meaninglessness of life.
Meanwhile, Western man finds it increasingly difficult to create for himself a spiritually satisfying life. The traditional religious institutions offer little. Houses of worship have become basketball courts and bingo parlors and places in which to serve a wedding dinner. Already the churchmen, startled by their immense distance from the realities of today’s life, have begun to mount the barricades of social protest: you ordain a preceptor of right and wrong, and you get a jazz impresario or a street demonstrator.
Perhaps inevitably, when man no longer needs to beg God for enough food and protection from the elements, he stops begging God. As their material needs become satisfied, all people seem headed for the stage in which Western society now finds itself.
And yet the questions remain. Anyone who can contemplate the eye of a housefly, the mechanics of human finger movement, the camouflage of a moth, or the building of every kind of matter from variations in arrangement of proton and electron, and then maintain that all this design happened without a designer, happened by sheer, blind accident—such a person believes in a miracle far more astounding than any in the Bible. To regard man, with his arts and aspirations, his awareness of himself and of his universe, his emotions and his morals, his very ability to conceive an idea so grand as that of God, to regard this creature as merely a form of life somewhat higher on the evolutionary ladder than the others, is to create questions more profound than those answered.
Is there no more use for the astonishingly complex human brain than to assure continued existence of the species? Can we not see in the capabilities of the brain some function greater than mere self-preservation? If all species seek to preserve themselves, what mindless chemistry created that prodigious urge? If the universe is finite, what exists beyond it? What existed before it began? If it is eternal and limitless, is it not thereby beyond our power ever to know, leaving key questions forever unanswered?
Schoolboy questions, granted; but they will not [go away]. Our materialism is itself so shallow, based on blatant assumptions that are hardly more than guesswork; impalatable and unsatisfying; demeaning; flagrantly incomplete and yet arrogant in its premises. The idea of God deserves a better substitute.
David Raphael Klein
The Reader’s Digest
March 1970, pp. 51-55