In his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II talks about how necessary the new evangelization is in a modern society with an eclipsed sense of the sacred and a darkened understanding of God. As a result, there is a corresponding darkening of our moral senses. And in order to truly evangelize, we must address that moral confusion.
Every year, I give my high-school sophomores a sheet of paper with twenty statements, and I say, “Tell me if these are facts or if they’re opinions.” Some of these are statements like “Mount Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa,” “The Empire State Building is 1,250 feet tall,” and “Water boils at 200 degrees centigrade”; others are statements like “Goodnight Moon is the best children’s book ever” or “Michael Jordan’s feet are too big.”
Among the twenty statements are three moral statements:
- It was unjust for the Nazis to persecute the Jews.
- Sexual exploitation of minor children is immoral.
- Religious liberty does not grant the right to carry out human sacrifice.
Every year without fail, an overwhelming majority of 16-year-olds tell me these three statements are opinions. And why do they believe that? “Well,” they say, “the Nazis thought one thing, and the Jews thought another.” Or, “Our society opposes human sacrifice, but who are we to judge other cultures like the Aztecs?” In other words, these statements are opinions because there is disagreement about them.
The first thing I point out to them is that even in science, secular society’s arbiter of what is true, there is disagreement. Some people think there is global warming; others disagree. Even among global warming believers, some say it’s anthropogenic—caused by human beings—and others say it’s related to solar activity. Even something simple, like the weather: is it going to be sunny this week, or is it going to rain? “You can have disagreements,” I say. “But we don’t think that means there isn’t a fact involved.”
Of course, their response is, “But there’s a standard. You can experiment; you can test. There’s nothing in morality like that. There are just disagreements, with no way to figure out who’s right and who’s wrong. Everybody has equal standing. ”
Loss of natural religion
Let me explain what I think is at stake here and the problem it creates for the Faith. These are young people who, by and large, have grown up in Christian homes. Most of them are Catholic; a good number of them are Lutheran or Evangelical. Our school draws from middle-class to upper-class families, generally, that have some kind of religious background. And yet, for these kids, morality is opinion.
If you try to teach the Faith on the bedrock of “Morality is opinion,” where can you go, exactly? In The Grammar of Assent, Bl. John Henry Newman says that the beginning of religious assent is an understanding of God through conscience. Throughout history, philosophers have come up with arguments about God being a first mover or a first efficient cause—a necessary being. But for most of human history, people understand that the concept of right and wrong isn’t something humans invented, it’s something they received. It is, to quote St. Paul, “written on the heart.”
But note what has happened to our students. They have lost the basis for natural religion. Natural religion starts with the notion that a divine being has given a law to you to follow, and you are not following it. Therefore, you are at odds with this divine being, and you need to be reconciled.
Our students, however, do not see this need to be reconciled. God loves them, he will always love them, and although they may be wounded or broken, they’re not sinners, because the very notion implies that they’re guilty of some sort of crime.
So that’s what is at stake. Even those who have grown up in the Faith have lost the basis of why we believe in atonement. They have lost an understanding of why Christ had to sacrifice himself and why that sacrifice is a bloody one. They no longer comprehend the necessity that’s behind the very notion of salvation. In other words, in losing the moral law we lose our ability to receive the Faith in the way that we should—In the way that we must.
Let’s describe this state a little bit more. Why does it look this way? How did we get here?
“Do no harm” isn’t enough
In his book The Righteous Mind, NYU research psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes a project he carried out as a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. He queried other students on various scenarios for things that could be considered morally wrong. And almost always, these students responded that if there is some kind of physical harm involved, it’s wrong. But if there was no physical harm—no matter how taboo or obscene the action he was proposing—then, no, it’s not wrong.
Then Haidt went two miles west to inner-city Philadelphia, parked himself in a McDonald’s, and started talking to local people about these same scenarios. They too thought that hurting people was bad; but when he asked them about some of the more taboo things, these inner-city folks just looked at him: “What’s the matter with you? You don’t know something is wrong with that? What’s the matter with you?”
These people were not simply acting from a principle of “do no harm”; they were acting from principles of good and evil. In explaining the data, Haidt (relying on the work of psychologists from the University of British Columbia) came to the conclusion that Westerners, especially Americans, think differently about many things—including morality—than the rest of the world.
The psychologists came up with a technical term for this: They said Americans are weird. No, I’m serious. That’s their technical term. WEIRD is an acronym: Western, educated, industrial, rich, democratic. You add those factors into the mix, and the result is people who are morally confused in ways that members of less industrialized, less wealthy, less democratic societies are not.
One of the other things we need to note in this confusion—a consequence of living in a WEIRD society—is that our language reflects that WEIRD-ness.
Let me give you two examples. When I was a boy, there were no such things as “wetlands.” They were swamps. No one talked about wetlands except for ecologists. Likewise, back then there were no “rain forests.” We all just talked about jungles. But if you are going to try and encourage conservation, how are you going to get people to save a jungle? How are you going to get people to save a swamp? You have to change the language to change the way people think about things.
Rediscovering moral clarity
I’ve sketched the problem, and now I would like to talk about the solution: how do we win the hearts and minds of people who have been formed (or deformed) like this? What approaches can help people pull away from this moral confusion and give them moral clarity?
First, with something I call the “shock to the system.” An important thing to remember is that people may try to be moral relativists, but there is always something that will make them say, “That is wrong”—there’s always a stopping point. You can say, “There are no absolute goods. Everybody has his own values.” But there is going to come a scenario when you say, “No, that’s wrong.”
Over the past couple years, the most effective example I’ve been able to use with my students is that of honor killings. I talk about a famous true-life example dramatized in the movie Death of a Princess, where a Saudi Arabian princess (the granddaughter of one of the Saudi kings) tries to run away with her lover. They are caught at the airport, and she is publicly shot and her lover beheaded. Or I talk about another movie based on a true incident, The Stoning of Soraya M., about an Iranian woman who was framed for adultery and stoned to death.
I tell them about honor killings much closer to home, in Arizona and Minnesota. And I can tell you that when you give these kinds of examples to a room full of 16-year-old girls, their perspective on moral relativism changes. One insightful girl said, “You know, when we were talking about moral relativism and it was . . . like . . . up here, it seemed sort of true. But now that you are giving these examples, I’m not so sure.” People are moral relativists “up here,” and we need to bring them “down here”—down to Earth.
The second approach is to challenge the notion that people are simply slaves to their cultural backgrounds; that we are purely the products of our upbringing.
Rebellion and dissent
If you are troubled by the cultural relativism that has come from an overreliance on anthropology, a wonderful book will ease your pain: Robert Edgerton’s Sick Societies. Edgerton is a retired UCLA professor, and he’s a well-respected anthropologist, not some marginal guy. There are many fascinating aspects to the book, but let me focus on one chapter called “Rebellion and Dissent.”
In it, Edgerton talks about various tribes and peoples that had certain ways of doing things—until certain people within the tribe rebelled. “Let’s take New Guinea,” he writes. “Cannibals that live in the highlands of New Guinea. Their cultural tradition is that you fight the other tribe, beat the tar out of them, take the dead, and eat them. And it’s cultural, right? So isn’t that something they’re just going to accept?”
But after Australians (and, on their heels, anthropologists) moved into New Guinea, these formerly cannibalistic tribes were interviewed. And when they questioned tribe members about cannibalism, the researchers kept hearing people say things like, “You know, I just couldn’t do it. It was just expected that we ate human flesh, but I couldn’t do it. It made me nauseated.” There were people who would eat animal flesh and pretend it was human flesh; or people who would force themselves to eat human flesh and then vomit because they were so disgusted.
So here is a culture that’s been taught and formed and culturally habituated to cannibalism. Aren’t its members going to receive that passively? And the answer is “No!” There is something in them that rebels against the idea of eating human flesh.
Of course, my young people will ask, “Well, if they didn’t like it, why did they keep doing it?” This betrays a certain lack of self-knowledge. They think that if somehow people don’t like things, they feel free to speak out against them. But let’s think through this scenario. You are in a warrior society, a society that lives by blood and spear. And you’re going to say, “Guys, this is stupid! Why don’t we live a life of peace and negotiation?” Do you think other members of your tribe are going to applaud you?
The problem is, you can have a practice that people within a culture recognize as problematic, but at the same time the personal costs of changing or opposing the practice are too great. In other words, because people engage in certain behaviors does not mean that they’re easy in their hearts and minds about it. Because people have certain cultural upbringings and backgrounds and do not publicly resist them, it does not follow that they are slaves to that upbringing or that they agree with it without exception.
In fact, what you find throughout all societies are people who stand up against immoral practices. They have some form of moral information that isn’t from their culture—it’s a moral sense that goes beyond and even against what they’ve been taught. But from where are they getting that? There has to be some something written on their consciences that informs them. And I think helping people see that fact—helping them to see that we are not simply passive to our upbringing and we are not simply passive to our culture—is the second way of evangelizing modern society.
Confused by disagreement
Now the third way. I believe that a great number of people become relativists because they see so much disagreement on moral matters, it becomes difficult for them to recognize that there is a right (and a wrong) reality behind those matters.
I have found it helpful to give my students the eight pages of the “Illustrations of the Tao,” an appendix to C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Lewis categorizes as groups all sorts of moral precepts from the Babylonians, the Hindus, the Chinese, and across 5,000 years of recorded history. And what he shows is that, with regard to precepts like “Honor your parents,“ “Love your country,“ or “Be faithful to your wife,“ you can see that every culture has them.
Obviously, there is moral disagreement. Some cultures believe that you should have only one wife, and others believe you may have four of five. Yet every culture is going to have some form of institutionalized marriage; a man can’t just have any woman he wants. Once you recognize that fact, it helps people see that it isn’t pure disagreement. You can carry out a kind of reductio ad absurdum.
Sometimes a clever opponent will say, “That’s just good for society, not for the individual.” And I think the proper reply is, “Well, if we are naturally social, then, in fact, what’s good for society does relate to what is good for us as individuals.” Human beings are naturally social. You put somebody in solitary confinement for long time, and he’s likely to go bananas. We are meant to live with other people—to love others. And, in fact, the laws that make society possible belong to us and those we love.
The problem of unjust laws
Which brings me to my fourth and (for current purposes) last approach when evangelizing on matters of morality: the problem of unjust laws.
Every year, I have my sophomores read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I show them the historical reality of segregation in the South: “black” and “white” drinking fountains, demonstrations where demonstrators are being knocked off their feet by fire hoses or attacked by police dogs, signs that say things like “No Niggers or Apes Allowed in the Store.” And for most of my students, it’s a shocking revelation.
Many of them would sooner say the F-word than the N-word, I think. And they really do have an internalized sense of that being a “bad” word. But the very fact that the law once allowed (or at least tolerated) separating people by race, that it allowed the bombing of churches without any real threat of investigation, that it looked the other way while American citizens were lynched makes it nearly impossible not to see that those laws and attitudes were profoundly unjust and that profound reform was necessary.
Next, I talk about the Nuremberg Trials, where Nazi leaders were tried after World War II, and about the most striking example: architect of the “Final Solution,” Adolf Eichmann, who hid out in Argentina for almost three decades until the Israeli secret service figured out where he was. They picked him up right off the street in Buenos Aires, put him in a car, took him the airport, and flew him to Jerusalem, where he was tried for crimes against humanity.
Now, the only way a person like Eichmann may be tried is if there really is an innate human understanding that one may not take an innocent life. Hannah Arendt, philosophy professor at the New School for Social Research in New York, famously argued that Eichmann wasn’t a monster or a demon, even though he was in charge of the Final Solution. He merely exemplified what she called “the banality of evil.” He was a government official carrying out his job. “My job is to route these Jews and deliver them to concentration camps. I’m following orders and doing my task well.”
If we are going to look at these things and say, “This is an unjust law,” if we are going to try people for things like “crimes against humanity,” there has got to be some kind of law that is above and beyond the man-made law. As Dr. King points out, everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal. And everything the Hungarian Communists did in Hungary was legal. But the reason we admire the freedom fighters of Hungary and the people who helped the Jews escape the Nazis is because we know those laws were wrong.
A world of moral make-believe
Our moral language, our talk of justice and bravery and generosity, is derived from human nature. But in a WEIRD society—Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic—we can lose our connection with reality and think that these principles are simply made up. We’re “up here,” remember? And what we need to do is bring people down to Earth, back to reality.
I offer these four approaches because, when so many have fallen away from the Faith, it’s easy to want to bring them apologetics right away; to have them read the Gospels right away; to think that if you take them to Church, that experience will help draw them back. But it might be that they need moral clarity before they can start finding their way. They’re in a world of Moral Make-Believe, and unless you are conscious of sin, you’ll never realize you need a savior.
I’ll end by paraphrasing a bit from C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. When the apostles preached to people who understood sin, they understood they were sinners, and they knew they needed salvation. So when we say that God took on human nature and died for us, that’s good news! But if you don’t believe you are a sinner, how can the Good News be good news?
In fact, to tell people they are sinners is decidedly bad news. But there’s no Good News unless there’s first the bad news of where we stand in light of the law that is written on our hearts.