Atheism and the Purely "Human" Ethic

By Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Ignatius Insight

"Some have reached the point of theorizing on the absolute sovereignty of reason and freedom in the context of moral norms: they presume that these norms constitute the context of a purely ‘human’ ethic, in other words, the expression of a law that man makes for himself by himself. The advocates of this ‘secular morality’ say that man as a rational being not only can but must decide freely on the value of his behavior." — Benedict XVI, Address to Biblical Commission, April 27, 2006


C. S. Lewis wrote in Surprised By Joy that "a young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading" (and, later, that "a young Atheist cannot guard his faith too carefully.") It is a great and amusing statement. We are accustomed to being warned about reading enticing materials that, it is said, might corrupt our minds or our morals. It seldom occurs to us that the person who is, as it were, already "corrupted" in either sphere has the same reading problem if he wants to continue on his merry way with a clear conscience. While evil and disorder may be quite alluring, we sometimes forget that what is good is more so – so much so that it often surprises and shocks us into reality, into seeing what is. The fact that we can read at all, in whatever language, we need to be reminded, itself opens us not only to what is disoriented and corrupting, but also to what is noble and elevating. The fact that the world was made in the Word and this same Word became flesh, whether we like it or not, impinges on every sentence we read or speak, on every being we encounter in our daily lives.

Our minds are made to recognize the truth, even if we choose to live in error and make every effort, as we do, to claim that our chosen error is, paradoxically, the truth. Few there are who do not seek to defend in thought and words how they choose to live. This defense is, I suppose, but another way of saying that we have to attempt to justify our lives, no matter how we choose to live them. And once we have presented our presumably reasonable justification for the way we live, we find that this very explication is open to inspection to whoever else has mind and wants to examine what we claim is true. Our word about ourselves is not the final word, even when it is our final word.

It is little consolation to us, I suspect, that no one else in the world can imagine why anyone in his right mind would hold what we do hold. The only and last-ditch defense of our ways, as it turns out, is a kind of multiculturalism in which we agree never to inquire anything of another or let them inquire anything of us. We become, not "social" beings, but "enclosed" beings because we cannot bear to hear how we live as critiqued by someone else. Silently, no doubt, we suspect contradictions in ourselves when we try not to see them because we do not want to change how we live.

Philosophical literature is filled with the notion of "humanism," a word that goes back at least to Cicero. At its best, humanism means man’s intellectual effort to state to himself what he is. We are the beings who not only exist but who must state to themselves why they exist as they do – as men, not toads or angels. We are not complete with our existence alone. We need the effort to illuminate what this existence is as it appears in us. Obviously, this endeavor is self-reflective, but not for that reason necessarily "subjective" in the pejorative sense. That is, as Etienne Gilson once said of "Augustinian metaphysics," it is possible, though not always easy, to be objective even about oneself.

This objectivity indicates our inner awareness that we did not make ourselves to be what we are. We have the raw material and capacity for making this judgment in our very selves. In this sense, we have a "laboratory" within our being that can be illuminated by our own minds as they seek to know what is not themselves alone. Indeed, the first task of the "mind" is to decide in particular whether what we are is already given to us. Only when we make this reflective judgment can we proceed to decide how we ought to act, then how we will act in this light. We are aware, as St. Paul also told us, that we do not always "will" to do what we ought, even while knowing what we "should" do. Paul graphically spoke of two "laws" in our members to illustrate this awareness of what each of us experiences.

We are all faced with common perplexities. How can we be "free" if we must "obey" the "law?" Are there not different kinds of law? In our age, this apparent opposition between law and liberty is particularly confusing. Since Rousseau, many have tried to solve it by defining law in such a way that law only means what we want it to mean. In other words, no such thing as a natural or universal law binds us or is even known to us. This negative approach, of course, eliminates any conflict except on the basis of confrontation with other absolutely free wills defining differently what they choose.

Rousseau solved his problem by proposing a blind spiritual obedience to the majority will. He wanted no conflict between our outer and inner selves. He was haunted with the loss of spiritual communion caused by the individualist presuppositions of previous thinkers since Machavelli and Hobbes. What Rousseau lost in the process of proposing his own solution was precisely the individual human person himself with his own order of soul and nobility that he did not give himself. This latter was what had itself also to judge civil law and custom, even of the majority. Freedom was not contrasted with law but with "force." We are to be "forced" to be free if we cannot accept whatever is willed by the law of the majority that we give to ourselves.

Freedom, obedience, and law, in much modern thought, are thus seen to contrast with – not to compliment – one another. When we do not properly spell out these relations between freedom, obedience, and law, especially if we are Christians, we become less free, even slave-like. If we obey a law, particularly a revealed law, we are said to lose our liberty, whereas, in the best sense, the opposite is the case. We gain it. It is still the truth that makes us free. How this increased freedom stemming from revealed law happens is what we most need to understand.

We find ourselves in something of a dilemma. To really be what we are involves a component of obedience to a law we did not make. One can either look upon this situation as a tyranny or a gift. If we look on it as a tyranny – that is, "who is to tell us what we are?" sort of approach – we will spend our time and effort erecting a theory of our being designed in opposition to the obedience that is based on a normative givenness of what-it-is-to-be-human. We will find, in short, that in some odd sense our freely chosen principles turn out to be the reverse of how we are taught to act in natural law or divine revelation. This situation should at least strike us as odd.

By contrast, if we look upon our being, its very what it is, as something given to us as a gift (which is the case) we will suspect that we are more of what we are – more human – by accepting the gift. We make the effort to see what the gift is. We live by its terms. Indeed, on this latter premise, our intellectual life will be not filled with the frantic efforts to define and justify other criteria about how to live, criteria opposite of the law of our being. Rather it will be able to see that obedience to the given law is itself in every instance the more reasonable thing about us, the more choice-worthy.

We will begin to discover, in the very use of our minds, an uncanny relation between what is law and what is reasonable. We learn that it is not our reason that makes our being. Our reason is already in the being we have. Our reason discovers what we are more easily by observing the law of our nature and of revelation addressed to it. Revelational norms or laws, we begin to suspect, have behind them the same overarching reason that we find in our given nature, though we must often use the most subtle intelligence to see this relationship. The young atheist, in this sense, does need to be very careful about what he reads. He never quite knows what he will find on carefully examining even his favorite vice, which, to be sure, he is free to do.


In his recent address to the Biblical Commission, Pope Benedict XVI noted that the commission was engaged in studying the relation between the "Bible and morals," no doubt an ancient and abiding enterprise. A long and well thought out tradition of precisely "Christian humanism" argued that no necessary opposition exists between humanism and revelation. This tradition did not deny, however, the existence of what Henri de Lubac, S.J., called "atheistic humanism," or "secular humanism." The principled assumptions of these latter two forms of humanism present a philosophical problem for the Christian mind. Once we understand what they hold, we can see why the atheist positions proposed. The Christian intelligence is not impeded from understanding the arguments of atheist – or anyone else, for that matter. As Aristotle remarked, when we see why an error is made, we are more prepared to see why the truth is truth.

Beginning with the Ten Commandments, the Bible is clearly replete with moral injunctions, many of which, we are now told, are backward, or out of date, or dangerous, or silly. Some think that this judgment of modernity is sufficient for us to reject this morality. We need not be concerned with anything else and need not worry about whether the rejection of classical morality is true. And for many, this is true, at least for a while.

One of the reasons for revelation, as St. Thomas told us, was so that ordinary folks could understand what it was they needed to know or do to reach the highest good in view of the fact that they were either too busy, too weak, too sinful, or too slow to see what the more learned might see. Revelation gave us access to truths that the culture often would ridicule or not tell us. But revelation was not intended to put a stop to reason. Quite the opposite, it was intended to provoke it so that it would see on its own terms what was clearly more "reasonable."

We may, for instance, be against abortion or birth control or lying because the Bible in some way or another tells us that these are wrong. But the fact is that careful examination of facts connected with the effects of abortion, birth control, or lying, or other vices, shows that a very convincing case can be made for the biblical injunctions on grounds of data and reason. Very often we would not pay careful attention to such studies if we were not prodded to make them or attend to them by the supposed conflict between revealed law and human law or custom or by the assurances that no one in their right minds held them.

Benedict XVI is always good at stating the exact dimensions of a position contrary to reason or revelation. One might reflect on what it might mean that a pope can do this quite well. Interestingly, Pope Ratzinger remarks that, in this particular issue, the relation of "Bible and morals," we are not concerned exclusively with the "believer," but with "every person as such." I would take this remark to mean that knowledge of what is in the Bible, the truth it contains, is not something for believers alone but, on their own terms, is something addressed to all human persons as such, be they Bible readers or not. The relation of the Bible and morals is also, as the Pope has said in other contexts (reiterating Fides et Ratio), an admonition to Biblical scholars that they too have to be familiar with philosophy. We must note here that the Bible, even in its most difficult terms, remains, at bottom, a teaching addressed to reason on its own terms, something that also involves freedom. Even those things beyond the power of human reason, such as the Trinity and Incarnation, are not presented as against reason but as something completing it.

Benedict next takes up the very first question of Aristotle in his Ethics, namely, "man’s first impulse is his desire for happiness and for fulfilment in life." Pope Ratzinger observes that what is different today, both from Aristotle and the Bible, at least in the West, is the assumption that this happiness "should be achieved absolutely autonomously, without any reference to God or to his law." Whether this same happiness can be reached by observing the Koran or other "laws," the Pope does not mention, though it is becoming evident that he must soon seriously address this issue in a more formal manner, especially as Islam moves into Europe.

Benedict’s statement of "a purely ‘human’ ethic" proposed as an alternate to classic reason and revelation is precise. We can only, it is said, obey a "law" that we give ourselves. "The advocates of this ‘secular morality’ say that man as a rational being not only can but must decide freely on the value of his behavior." No doubt, this position is the going rationale, taught on most campuses and presupposed by much of the intelligentsia. It is not Chesterton’s remark that, while yet an unbeliever, he had, by reading the heretics’ inconsistencies, almost invented Christianity by himself, only to discover happily that it was already invented. Rather this purely human ethic is a justification of what is held to be against natural and revealed law as itself what is the real human good. This enterprise of denying of natural law is itself "missionary," aggressively so.

But such a view is "erroneous." It is based, Benedict remarks, on a "presumed conflict between human freedom and every form of law." Thus, it is the burden of the Pope to suggest why freedom and law are not in conflict. He begins with a sentence right out of Aquinas: "The Creator, because we are creatures, has inscribed his ‘natural law,’ a reflection of his creative idea, in our hearts, in our very being, as a compass and inner guide for our life." From this background, the Pope concludes that "the vocation and complete fulfilment of the human being are not attained by rejecting God’s law, but by abiding by the new law that consists in the grace of the Holy Spirit." The Pope puts down a certain gauntlet here. He does so on the basis of law and reason, but he does not hesitate to include "the new law" and "grace," as if the happiness of which Aristotle spoke is not to be achieved without them.

Everything Benedict writes these days is seen in the light of his Encyclical, Deus Caritas Est. No contradiction exits between God’s law, human freedom, and God’s love. "God’s law correctly interpreted neither attenuates nor, even less, eliminates man‘s freedom." If the reason we are given freedom in the first place is that we might freely receive the highest things, that we might choose to love them, then it is absurd to say that the law of God might itself be designed to eliminate it. The moral law was found in the Old Testament and no doubt in the philosophers. Its more complete fulfilment is in Christ in the New Testament. This completion is a "synthesis of perfect freedom in total obedience to God’s will." An ethic that listens to revelation "also seeks to be authentically rational." Reason and revelation are not opposed as what is rational to what is not rational, but as what is rational to what is more fully rational.

In this context, we are not given a tract to follow, but the example of Christ’s own life as the embodiment of law, love, faith, obedience, freedom, and finally happiness. Christ carried out His mission in obedience to His Father’s will. Christ in doing so reveals the Father as the origin of all being, including our own. At the same time, Christ reveals "the norms of upright human action." A "divine-human perfection" is possible to us, but not as something we concoct for ourselves. Jesus’ teaching is not an "externally imposed regulation." We are given the grace to "participate" in Christ’s own life and "put it into practice." The apostles, as we ourselves, are "invited" to follow Him. The invitation can be and quite often is evidently refused.

"Christ is the Incarnate Logos who enables us to share in his divine life and sustains us with his grace on the journey toward our fulfilment." John Paul II used to say that Christ "fully reveals to man to himself." Imagine telling us philosophers and humanists this outlandish statement, implying that what we definitely cannot figure out fully by ourselves is the very truth about us. Of course, every philosopher knows that somehow no philosopher has yet comprehended this whole truth by himself and about man and cannot, in his quiet moments, help but wonder why.

Benedict affirms the same thing that John Paul II did: "What man really is, appears definitively in the Logos made man; faith in Christ gives us the fulfilment of anthropology." This affirmation remains, on examination, the most revolutionary philosophic doctrine even in our time. "Anthropology" is the study of man and what he is, whether discovered by examining his historic record or by reflecting on his mind.

Indeed, as Benedict told the scripture scholars, the understanding of man includes what the Bible says of him. The Bible too is addressed to the truly open mind. "The relationship with Christ defines the loftiest realization of man’s moral action. This human action is directly based on obedience to God’s law, on union with Christ and on the indwelling of the Spirit in the believer’s soul. It is not an action dictated by merely exterior norms, but stems from the vital relationship that connects believers to Christ and to God." Obedience, freedom, happiness, law, faith, grace — these are words and realities that belong together. However much in opposition to each other they seem, it is we who make them so. In themselves, they all point in one direction.

The famous French philosopher, Simone Weil, wrote in her posthumous Gravity and Grace, that "by redemptive suffering, God is present in extreme evil. For the absence of God is the mode of divine presence which corresponds to evil — absence which is felt. He who has not God within himself cannot feel this absence." The moral law, after all, is also about "avoiding evil." John Paul II said, in the context of human freedom, that the limit of evil is the divine mercy. The whole point of Christianity is that sins can be forgiven. What cannot be forgiven is what chooses to affirm in thought or in act that nothing needs to be forgiven.

"The absence of God is the mode of divine presence which corresponds to evil." The absence of God is "felt" even by atheists, especially the young ones, when they decide freely what their own values are and, with experience, realize that what they thought was theirs is not really what they wanted according to some "law" of their actual being that keeps their hearts unsettled. This evil is the absence that is felt by all philosophers, young and old, who seek by themselves alone to explain everything that is. Following this method, the first thing they end up with is knowing nothing about themselves.

The immediacy of God is the mode of divine presence that corresponds to what is. This truth is, ultimately, why the young atheist cannot be too careful in what he reads.