Believers and secularists can go around in circles when it comes to moral debates. Mark Tapscott highlights the response of Christian speaker Ravi Zacharias when an audience member asks him why Christians are “so afraid of subjective moral reasoning,” and Zacharias’s response is excellent but, I think, vulnerable to the ideological roundabout.
He points to the genocides of the U.S.S.R. and China, but his questioner had already asserted that there were Christian Nazis and atheist Nazis. Put aside the legitimacy of that assertion and simply note that he believes it and would likely move farther down that path had the argument continued.
The key point for advancing this debate is, in my view, that comments like “why are you so afraid” ignore that we live within a cultural framework. Even now, we’re living within the moral momentum of Christianity. Until very recently, children were still raised, in significant degree, to think that those things that were traditionally immoral are… immoral. Telling a person when he or she becomes a teen that there is no ontological foundation for his or traditions doesn’t make them suddenly feel incorrect. The transition takes time and an opposing catalyst.
In other words, something has to happen to change the feeling of right and wrong, and that something can be manipulation by an ideological movement, like the Nazis or the Chinese Communists or even the lower-scale bigotry that gives some superficially plausible reason why it’s OK to hurt a particular type of person (like a teenage supporter of the president).
Honestly evaluated life experience will suggest that the urge to break free of traditional moral restrictions is always lingering just below the surface, at least for a sufficiently large portion of the population to be dangerous. It really doesn’t take much at all to break it free.
The Old Man in the Mountain looked out over New Hampshire for centuries, watching as horses lost ground to cars below and planes began flying overhead. But time did him in. Drops of water, freezing and thawing, worked their way through the crevices, and gutters and chains could ultimately not keep him attached to his foundation. After that, there was no putting him back.
Culturally, we can resist the gravity of our nature for long eras, but a culture needs tradition to carry it forward. Otherwise we’re pebbles on the edge of a cliff waiting while an evil ideology works its way into the fissures below.