When people have different religious beliefs, it’s all but impossible to achieve consensus on how life ought to be lived. (Not that those who share the same religion always fare any better.) Ever since the European wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries, some of the West’s brightest minds have looked to science for a possible solution. If only we could bracket opinions about God to one side, they say, perhaps we could devise a rational moral code to which all human beings could subscribe.
In Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky explain why this venture never works out as planned. Daniel K. Williams, author of the excellent Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade (see CT’s take here), reviews the book in the November issue of CT.
“No scientific or non-theistic account of morality has answered the question of why human beings have intrinsic dignity,” he writes. “Indeed, some of them have explicitly rejected this idea. As modern horrors like eugenics and ethnic cleansing show all too clearly, it is a short distance from calculating the utility of human actions to calculating the utility of people. The doctrine of imago Dei provides a safeguard for human rights that no version of scientific morality can match.”
He concludes, “Scientific morality has not produced the selflessness of a Mother Teresa or the ‘unearned suffering’ of a Martin Luther King Jr. Nor has it inspired the quotidian sacrifices of countless foster parents or those caring for elderly people suffering from Alzheimer’s. Perhaps that is because a Christian moral ethic does not make sense by utilitarian lights. Or perhaps it is because the scientific studies of morality overlook important non-empirical truths, such as human dignity, the eternal value of a human soul, and the transforming power of an incalculable divine grace. Adding God to the equation changes everything.”