Thursday, October 2, 2008

Christ and Kant: The Categorical Imperative

Christianity is often accused of contributing to strife, violence, and suffering in the world. While it is true that some Christians in some instances in history and the present are responsible for such behavior, it is far from true of all Christians.

It should also be pointed out that there are numerous sources documenting the contributions to strife, violence, and suffering as a result of an atheistic worldview. Under the regimes of Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, for instance, multiple millions were persecuted and summarily executed.

But my task here is not as grand as taking on all the major accusations against Christianity on the basis of alleged contributions to suffering. Instead, I'd like to take a brief look at one form of Immanuel Kant's categorical imperative and apply it to some key principles of Christ and Christianity.

As Kant explained, "I ought never to act except in such a way that I could also will that my maxim should become a universal law" (Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, 1785).

What does this mean? Kant means that our moral behavior based on a specific maxim or maxims should be tested against its results if it were to become universal. In other words, what if everyone behaved this way? Would this result in a positive situation or a negative one?

Christ said we are to love God, love neighbor (Matthew 22:37-38), and, in this context of love, "do to others what you would have them do to you" (Matthew 7:12; Luke 6:31).

Now let us apply these Christian concepts universally. What if everyone loved God, loved their neighbor, and would "do to others what you would have them do to you"? Would this result in a positive or negative situation in the world? Would it contribute to strife, violence, and suffering in the world or would it alleviate it? It would most certainly contribute positively to the world.

Granted, not every Christian in every instance of behavior achieves or expresses the ideal maxims of Christ. Indeed, Christianity grants that we often fail. But the underlying moral principles of Christ and Christianity offer benefits to society, not detriments.

Are there similar universal maxims of atheism that would contribute as positively as those of Christianity? Atheism posits a godless universe that is the result of chance and time. Moreover, there are no transcendent and authoritative moral standards in atheism. Instead, the end result of atheism is logically that of despair in a meaningless universe, secular humanism notwithstanding as it is as vacuous as the consequences of atheism.

In short, atheism can offer no categorical imperative that would justify superiority to the moral maxims of Christianity. In fact, a case can be made that atheism does not on the whole contribute positively to the world.

I grant that this is a brief presentation. I also grant that the categorical imperative test is not the ultimate test of a worldview (for instance, it addresses ethics, but not metaphysics or epistemology per se).

For more on Christianity's numerous benefits to the world see my booklet What Christianity Has Done for the World. For more details see How Christianity Changed the World (Schmidt), What Has Christianity Ever Done for Us? (Hill), and What if Jesus Had Never Been Born? (Kennedy and Newcombe).


Foggy Blogger said...

Thanks for your insightful post on this issue! I am in a deep discussion with a friend about faith and God. His big hang up is theodicy and has just discovered Bart Ehrman! I'd be interested in your thoughts on this topic. (I need all the ammo i can get!)

Thanks again for keeping an interesting blog!

Robert Velarde said...

You're welcome. On Ehrman's views of the New Testament see Misquoting Truth (IVP). I don't know of a book-length response to Ehrman's book God's Problem, but there are numerous books addressing the problem of evil and suffering.

It has been said that the problem of evil is a problem for Christianity, but a disaster for pantheism. This is because pantheism denies the reality of good and evil, instead taking the position of "damned nonsense," as C.S. Lewis would put it, that evil and suffering are illusory.

I'd say that the problem of evil is also a disaster for atheism. This is because, in brief, atheism has no foundation for calling anything good or evil. There is no moral meaning in the atheist worldview. Yet most atheists want to be moral, want to do good, want to overcome suffering. The problem is they have no foundation for their behavior given the underpinnings of their worldview.

Atheists must borrow capital, so to speak, as Schaeffer would say, from a worldview that actually has a foundation for distinguishing between good and evil - Christianity.

I haven't read God's Problem so I can't speak specifically to Ehrman's issues, but I doubt they are original as this is one topic that has been discussed and addressed over and over again throughout history.

However, I do have an interest in theodicy and will no doubt post on the matter now and then.

david said...

It is interesting how atheists commonly cite Hume during discussions about miracles, but ignore his writings on morality and ethics.

That pesky is-ought problem seems to haunt even the most astute atheists when questions on morality and ethics.

david said...

Hi foggy blogger, thought you might be interested to know that Bart Ehrman has a big debate coming up with James White (Christian apologist). The topic of discussion is "Can the New Testament Be Inspired in Light of Textual Variation?" Should be very good.