Dostoyevsky has one of his characters utter the following proposition, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” This makes sense. For if God is the name we give to the metaphysical foundation of moral obligation, then if God doesn’t exist, it follows that we have no moral duties; we are free to do anything we like. What Russian atheists liked to do was to shoot people. What American atheists like to do is to engage, or encourage others to engage, in sexual sin and perversion.
What is often not noticed is that this famous quotation works the other way around too. This proposition is equally true: “If everything is permitted, God does not exist.”
Of the two propositions, it is the latter that is more influential today in the United States. Not many people begin with atheism and then proceed to unlimited moral freedom. But tremendous numbers begin with great moral freedom and then proceed either to outright atheism or to something very close to atheism.
The champions of moral freedom (let us call them moral liberals) will remind me that they are not champions of total freedom; not everything is permitted. Everything is permitted other than violence, force, and “hatred.” Moral liberals believe that certain “phobias,” though real phobias are usually medical conditions, are morally wrong, e.g., homophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia – for these, they believe, are forms of “hatred.”
And so is racism wrong, since racism is a kind of hatred. And sexism is wrong for the same reason. And so is heterosexism. And cis-genderism. And white supremacy.
These sins of “phobias” and “isms” are sins of thought and feeling, which means that, in themselves, they don’t exist outside the hearts and minds of sinners. But as Catholic confessors and moral theologians have always recognized, sins of thought and feeling can quite easily lead to sins of conduct that directly injure innocent victims.
When we look around America today, asks the moral liberal, what do we see? We see a nation drenched in hatred – hatred of gays and lesbians and bisexuals; hatred of transgender persons; hatred of non-binary people; hatred of drag queens; hatred of black and brown people; hatred of East Asian people; hatred of Jews; hatred of Arabs; hatred of Muslims; hatred of an infinite variety of queer people; in sum, hatred of anybody who happens to be “other.”
In their heart of hearts these haters, moral liberals believe, would like to return America to what they imagine was an American Golden Age – the narrow-minded, narrow-hearted America of the 1950s; an age of racism and McCarthyism and rabbit-eared TV sets; an age in which nobody dared think for himself or herself; an age before the Pill or the seatbelt; an age in which churches were filled on Sundays and unmarried girls were all virgins; an age in which nobody but jazz musicians smoked dope. An imaginary paradise lost.
The preceding paragraph presents a caricature of the mind of the moral conservative – even the conservative mind that has been tinted, as my own has been, by too much communication with the Catholic Middle Ages. All the same, it is a caricature that pleases those of our fellow Americans who believe in maximizing personal liberty and in minimizing God.
For the caricature (or myth) persuades them that they are the only thing standing in the way, like brave Horatio at the bridge, of a return to the horrors of Ozzie and Harriet – or worse still, a return to the Spanish Inquisition and burnings at the stake.
But do our atheistic and semi-atheistic freedom fighters live up to their own rather demanding moral standard of no-hate, no-force, no-violence?
Can anybody believe that they are hate-free? You have to have been absent from America, and perhaps even from the planet Earth, for a long time not to have noticed that many moral liberals either hate Donald Trump with a passion or give an awfully good imitation of what Trump hatred would look like. More recently they seem to be suffering passions of hatred directed at a TV personality, Tucker Carlson, whom they regard as worse TV fare than even Ozzie and Harriet.
And if they don’t precisely hate rank-and-file Trump supporters, they do nothing to disguise their utter contempt for these supporters, whom they see as either knuckleheads or fascists or both. And who can say where the thin line is drawn that separates contempt from hatred?
Our leading moral liberals are, generally speaking, well-educated and relatively affluent individuals who live in upper-middle-class residential enclaves, and so they are in little danger of being victimized by lower-class thugs, who reside (the Universe be thanked) miles away. When, however, this rare thing does happen, and when the thug in question happens to be a black man, can we be sure that an anti-black sentiment doesn’t, if only for a week or two, disturb the victim’s lily-white bosom?
I will be reminded that, even if such damnable thoughts and feelings sometimes enter the normally racism-free souls of moral liberals, such sentiments almost never lead to anti-black conduct. We never hear of a white liberal shooting a black man.
Well, let’s scan that. Moral liberals are, as a group, very influential – economically, socially, and politically influential. If they take the trouble to look upon low-income blacks living in urban ghettos, what will they see? They will see millions of boys and girls growing up without fathers; boys joining violent gangs and girls becoming pregnant while unmarried and too young; lots of drug abuse and drug dealing; kids attending public schools where they learn almost nothing; and so on.
Why don’t our very influential moral liberals do something to help?
“But we do help,” comes the response. “We give them public housing. We give them food stamps. We express our outrage when one of these kids gets shot by a cop.”
You probably don’t have to have feelings of hatred or contempt to give such a stupid answer. But it helps.
*Image: Two Satyrs by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1617-19 [Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Germany]
You may also enjoy:
Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s Understanding Mortal Sin
Fr. Thomas G. Weinandy’s Learning from Romeo and Juliet