Other Worldviews

Materialism vs. Christianity on Justice

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 02/07/2012

I came across two very different sources—with two different views of man and two different views of morality—that speak about justice. One views morality as objective and significant, responsibility as inescapable, and justice as desirable. The other sees “good” and “evil” as “mental constructs,” man as a machine, and retributive justice as irrational nonsense. Each position flows inevitably from the most basic part of the view’s foundation: is there a materialistic universe, or is there a God?

The first excerpt is from Richard Dawkins’s answer to the question, “What is your dangerous idea?

Retribution as a moral principle is incompatible with a scientific view of human behaviour. As scientists, we believe that human brains, though they may not work in the same way as man-made computers, are as surely governed by the laws of physics. When a computer malfunctions, we do not punish it. We track down the problem and fix it, usually by replacing a damaged component, either in hardware or software.

Basil Fawlty, British television’s hotelier from hell created by the immortal John Cleese, was at the end of his tether when his car broke down and wouldn’t start. He gave it fair warning, counted to three, gave it one more chance, and then acted. “Right! I warned you. You’ve had this coming to you!” He got out of the car, seized a tree branch and set about thrashing the car within an inch of its life. Of course we laugh at his irrationality. Instead of beating the car, we would investigate the problem. Is the carburetor flooded? Are the sparking plugs or distributor points damp? Has it simply run out of gas? Why do we not react in the same way to a defective man: a murderer, say, or a rapist? Why don’t we laugh at a judge who punishes a criminal, just as heartily as we laugh at Basil Fawlty?... Isn’t the murderer or the rapist just a machine with a defective component?... [D]oesn’t a truly scientific, mechanistic view of the nervous system make nonsense of the very idea of responsibility…?

Why is it that we humans find it almost impossible to accept such conclusions?... Presumably because mental constructs like blame and responsibility, indeed evil and good, are built into our brains by millennia of Darwinian evolution…. My dangerous idea is that we shall eventually grow out of all this and even learn to laugh at it, just as we laugh at Basil Fawlty when he beats his car. But I fear it is unlikely that I shall ever reach that level of enlightenment.

The second is from J.I. Packer’s Knowing God:

[T]he character of God is the guarantee that all wrongs will be righted someday; when “the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5) arrives, retribution will be exact, and no problems of cosmic unfairness will remain to haunt us. God is the Judge, so justice will be done….

Why, then, do we fight shy of the thought of God as a Judge? Why do we feel the thought to be unworthy of him? The truth is that part of God’s moral perfection is his perfection in judgment. Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable Being? Would a God who put no distinction between the beasts of history, the Hitlers and Stalins (if we dare use names), and his own saints, be morally praiseworthy and perfect? Moral indifference would be an imperfection in God, not a perfection. But not to judge the world would be to show moral indifference. The final proof that God is a perfect moral Being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world.

In both the atheist and Christian excerpts, there is a recognition that we human beings are resistant to accepting what the author claims is true. And as they attempt to persuade us, their arguments both depend on a shared point of observable reality: we have an innate understanding of the concepts of good, evil, responsibility, and justice and continually act as if they’re real (even if we’re rationally convinced they’re not). Then comes the difference: Packer argues from our knowledge of these things to the rightness of God acting as Judge, but Dawkins simply dismisses them as illusions and looks forward to the day when we’ll escape the biological programming that traps us into imagining they’re real—though not even he can bring himself to laugh at them as nonsense.

This is awfully convenient for Dawkins. His worldview doesn’t seem to match reality? It’s not because of a mistake in his earlier reasoning; it’s because we’re all living in evolution’s Matrix, forever trapped in the false reality it creates for us. So any aspect of human experience that argues against this worldview can simply be declared part of the Matrix and dismissed. But is this as reasonable as a worldview that takes seriously and accounts for all of the reality we experience?

If you find that not even you can live in the worldview you promote—if much of what seems to be true can only be laughably false in your world—rather than playing the illusion card, why not go back a few steps and consider where you might have gone wrong?