But now? For most people, even earnest believers, our most potent moral figure is Adolf Hitler. Once upon a time Jesus taught us what was good. Now Hitler teaches us what is evil. Godwin’s Law — the rule that all arguments eventually end with someone calling someone else a Nazi — is not an accident. It is, quite literally, the ultimate insult. Our modern morality was summed up by that great philosopher Indiana Jones: “Nazis! I hate these guys.”
Many people still believe that Jesus is good, but not with the same fervor and conviction that we believe Nazism is evil. Notice how crosses and crucifixes have lost most of their power in our culture: you can play with them, even joke about them, and get away with it. They pack nothing like the visceral punch of a swastika.
Fair enough, perhaps. If you’re going to pick one human being to represent absolute evil, I challenge you to find a better candidate. But the swap has consequences. Our moral lodestar used to be a religious figure; now he’s a secular one. And he used to be a positive example; now he’s a negative one. How did it happen? And what are the consequences?
This shift gives us a new perspective on how our society has become so unprecedently secular. It’s not about scientific or philosophical critiques of religion. Most of those arguments are pretty hackneyed — reheated 18th-century polemics, mostly — and anyway, people aren’t usually persuaded into either faith or atheism by intellectual arguments. We have hunches and make intuitive leaps, and then we throw rationalizations together to justify whatever it is we’ve decided we want to believe — or disbelieve.
Not to say that either belief, or unbelief, are irrational, but that human beings are irrational. Or, rather, we’re not calculating machines. Our beliefs reflect what we intuitively value, not what some sequence of logical arguments claims. In which case, the story of how the once-Christian world lost its faith isn’t a story of science and philosophy, but a deeper history, an emotional history of anger and of anxiety.
Anger with meddling, grasping Churches and their claims to regulate our lives, which inevitably became anger with the God whose authority they invoked to justify themselves. That had been simmering for long centuries, but it was emboldened after the Reformation, when Protestants and Catholics deliberately whipped up that same anger against each other. As the age of religious wars steeped everyone in blood, anger at the Churches acquired a righteous edge. What would Jesus do? Not this.
Anxiety was as old as the hills too. How can you truly be sure your faith is rock-solid, especially in the face of sickness or death? People might “know” those worries were irrational, but that didn’t make them go away. I know airplanes are safe, but that doesn’t stop my heart pounding when we hit a patch of turbulence. And then, again during the Reformation age, the explosion of new religious possibilities made it almost impossible to deal with anxiety just by suppressing it. Instead, a few people began to ask: These doctrines we are struggling to hold on to — the immortality of the soul, transubstantiation, the inspiration of the Bible — were they really what Jesus taught at all?
So the angry and the anxious alike started using Jesus against the churches. They began to suspect that their house of faith was built on sand. In which case, it was their Christian duty to knock it down, to clear away the rubble, and to dig down until they struck bedrock on which they could build afresh, no matter how much of the landscape of the old faith they tore up in the process.
So when Montaigne said that his own religion, Catholicism, was more barbaric than cannibalism; when Spinoza argued that to believe in miracles was to claim that God was a bungler, unable to manage his creation; when Tom Paine called the Bible blasphemous for presenting God as a monster; when Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov rejected Christian theology as a moral outrage — none of this was scoffing skepticism. Their scandalized contemporaries called them “atheists,” but it was not true. They were straining toward a truer, purer faith. And that was what made them so dangerous.
Because they — we — reached a point where the core feature of Christianity, the one essential service everyone agreed it provided, was to define our ethics. That was how, a century ago, even the most nominal believers in America and Europe could still claim a Christian identity. Christian doctrines were negotiable. Christian values were not.
Maybe that line could have held indefinitely, maybe not. But as things happened, it was broken by the modern era’s most intense moral test: World War II. It was a test that Christianity failed. Not only in the sense that many Churches and Christians were complicit with Nazism and fascism. But in the deeper sense that Christian moral priorities were challenged. It now seemed plain that cruelty, discrimination, and murder were evil in a way that fornication, blasphemy, and impiety were not. Christianity did not look like the answer to the war’s moral challenges. Nor, even, did Jesus.
As the postwar generations digested those challenges, World War II became the greatest story ever told: our Trojan War, our Paradise Lost, endlessly rehearsed and reinvented. It was transposed into timeless form in every modern myth from Middle-earth through Star Wars to Harry Potter. It is the story we cannot stop telling, the comparison for which we instinctively reach, the lesson in which we immerse ourselves and our children.
The new ethics this myth teaches us — of human rights, equality, self-determination — are not at odds with the old Christian ones, but the two systems don’t mesh perfectly, and the new ones don’t depend on the old ones. Or at least they don’t feel like they do. So a whole generation weaned on those ethics is now effortlessly doing what centuries of angry anti-Christian polemics could not persuade their forebears to do: shedding their inherited faith like a dead skin.
It is not a universal consensus. Some people — not many — openly reject the new ethics: nationalists and authoritarians, antifeminists and white supremacists. But if they do it by wrapping themselves in religion, then all they do is discredit their religions by offering our modern ethical consensus precisely the sort of opposition it craves. We are now pre-primed to expect our villains to look just like this. If such people want to persuade the rest of us to cut our remaining cultural links to our religious past, they are going the right way about it.
But those dissenters really are a fringe. We should not kid ourselves that our culture wars are some kind of Twitter reenactment of World War II, fought between heroes and villains. Instead, they are a symptom of some deep and persistent problems with this new moral settlement. For one thing, the jump from Jesus to Hitler takes us from a positive to a negative exemplar. We know what evil is, but we’re not so sure what goodness is. We can agree what to demonstrate against, but not what to demonstrate for. We know what we hate, but not what we love. And it is no good to say that what we value is everyone’s right to choose their own values, not when at the same time we are trying to unite in condemning the values we have collectively decided are unacceptable.
It is one of the reasons we have become so susceptible to purity spirals. We are free to explore our own values — that is, until we step over a shifting line, or it steps over us, and suddenly we are not. Condemning what we see as evil is fine, of course. But maybe we should devote more energy to finding something we can see as good. At the same time, our new, Nazi-based concept of evil risks being inadequate. Yes, racism, militarism, patriarchy, authoritarianism, and genocide are evil. But they are not the only evils. Knowing that we are against them will not do much to help us stop the climate crisis, the entrenchment of inequality, or the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sadly, not all villains wear skulls on their uniforms. Many — most? — evils are slyer and subtler than that. They scuttle away to do their damage out of sight. The main place they hide, as old-fashioned religious ethics would have told us, is not in enemies whom we can vilify, but in ourselves. Our new values do not give us much wisdom on how to tackle that.
Worst of all, this modern ethical consensus is not stable. How could it be? It rests on intuition: a gut feeling that racism, cruelty, and genocide are wrong — lessons we originally learned from our religious traditions and from bitter experience. Those truths are not, sadly, self-evident. Lots of human societies down the ages have rejected them. We try to shore up our intuitions by retelling the tales, by trumpeting them ever more stridently, and by pillorying anyone we suspect of questioning them. In the process, we risk simply making them more brittle and more alienating. There is not much reason to believe this will work. Indeed, we risk conjuring the very evils we fear back into life. As authoritarian populists all over the world have learned, there is no better way to get everyone’s attention than to play footsie with fascism. If we spend our moral energy establishing new political taboos, we open up space for anyone who offers welcome permission to think the thing you are being repeatedly told not to think.
It’s not for real, of course. The populists are not offering alternative values. When Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian prime minister, refuses to give sanctuary to refugees in order to protect “Christian civilization,” the word “Christian” is just the name of a tribe. It has almost nothing to do with Jesus, who was quite keen on showing mercy to strangers in need. In fact, it is the final step into the post-Christian world: dispensing with having any real values at all.
That is not how we will recover and reenrich some common values. But it can be done. Human societies do sometimes experience shared renewals of their values. There are two ways ours could. The easy way would be for some catastrophic shared experience to shock us out of our comfortable, entrenched positions and reset our moral compasses, the way World War II did. We can all imagine several such possible experiences. Let’s not hope for any of them.
We would be better off doing it the hard way. If you want to stick with Hitler as your point of reference, fine, but be clear why you’re doing it, remember that you need to be able to recognize good as well as evil, and understand that people whose compasses are set a bit differently are not therefore Nazis. If you don’t want to build your ethics around Nazism, fine, but make sure you’re building them around something — that you have values, not just a tribe.
And if you’re looking for a viable, positive moral exemplar, the long-standing favorite is still among the options available.
Alec Ryrie FBA is professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University (UK).
Featured image: "jesus" by Trevor Hurlbut is licensed under CC BY 2.0.
Banner image: "Bundesarchiv Bild 183-J00282, Berlin, Hitler im Sportpalast" is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.