Disregarding how “unconditional” the Christian love actually is [ . . . ] the problem is unconditional love is not something that can be monopolized. There is no patent on charity and love or capital barriers to entering the industry…so what happens when atheists make “generic” alternatives to Christian charity? The Christian charity, much like a name brand pill, will have a pretty package and a great price, but the generic pill of nontheistic charity will be cheaper, less ornate, but still have the same chemistry.
I’ll stop here to let everyone ponder about that. What is it that Christianity offers that cannot be “exported” to a generic product?
That’s a question and a half.
I’d argue that what Christianity offers, at root, that is really “unexportable” is a compelling metanarrative which grounds and sustains its ethic. The creation of the world, the fall of humankind, the election of Israel, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, Pentecost, the coming Eschaton (end of days): these theological “events”, you might call them, provide an account of the way things are—an ontology—which gives birth to a vision of the way things should be—an ethic.
An example: the environment. Never mind, for a moment at least, the fact that most of the people still convinced that global warming isn’t happening are probably Christian fundamentalists (that fact, I think, is at bottom a cultural and political, not a theological, issue). Look, rather, at the story the Bible tells: God creates the earth and all of its creatures (never mind, again, the details of how it happened), and deems it “good”. Humans, part of that good creation, are charged with the task of tending the land: the imagery here is of stewardship. Humans fall, and, as a consequence, their relationship with the land is somehow perverted—a loss of shalom, of harmony. Christ comes with a message and a mission, is crucified, buried, and—surprise!—resurrected. The Resurrection represents the breaking in of new life in a world we had thought enslaved to entropy, trapped in an inevitable march towards death; his death and Resurrection are to “reverse the curse”, and it is the Church’s task to finish what He started, so to speak, and usher in His return. Part of that restorative task is working out ways to restore our relationship with the earth. The vision of a restored peace—with each other, with the earth, and with God—in the future guides the way we act in the present.
Another example: feminism. God creates woman and man alike as full and equal bearers of God’s own image, and they live in harmony until the Fall, after which man rules over woman: patriarchy is here a symptom of humankind’s fallen nature, an original sin. Fast forward to Jesus, who comes, again, to restore harmony: redemption. The Church is charged with embodying that redemption in the way its community functions. Has the Church embodied the spirit of egalitarianism in the past, let alone in the present? Certainly not. But the point is, even if the ethics haven’t been worked out yet in every congregation, the script is there, and the actors will, hopefully, figure it out soon enough.
What atheism lacks, I think, is exactly this: an ontology to back up its ethic. The metanarrative that science alone offers us—Big Bang, lots of chaos, lightning strike, evolution, stuff blowing up, Big Crunch—doesn’t give us any reason, really, to be good. Lately the atheists I’ve been reading seem to have adopted a sort of Kantian ethic (which seems a bizzare move to me, for a number of reasons) which states that we should be good, well, because we should be good. Why do atheists have to believe in fairy tales, they ask, in order to be decent human beings?
They don’t. But they do need a compelling worldview if they’re going to gain any converts.
An important part of offering a compelling worldview is offering a coherent worldview, and to have one of those, your ethics and your ontology need to make some kind of logical sense.
Where is the atheist to go? The Darwinian route—arguing that we should be good to one another to perpetuate the human race—is a dead end. Why is it good to perpetuate the human race?
Or, to be more specific, drawing from our previous examples, why should I take care of planet earth if, in 50 million years, the sun’s going to blow the whole thing up anyway? Why should I work for the liberation of women from patriarchy when patriarchy has worked so well to keep our species afloat for the past 10,000 years? Why work for the good of others when, in the end, we’re all dead? Without a future, all of our striving has been and will be an exercise in futility. None of it means anything.
In The God Delusion, Dawkins met this argument with a shrug: “Life may be ultimately meaningless, yes,” he basically said. “But I’m planning on having a good lunch.”
That was it.
Can the ground of an atheist’s ethic be anything more than a shrug of the shoulders?