It is ironic, we suppose, that the most memorable and most oft-quoted line “written” by the great Christian apologist and author G.K. Chesterton is a line that he never actually wrote, or that which, at least, cannot be properly sourced to him. “He who does not believe in God,” Chesterton apparently did not write, “will believe in anything.”
Fortunately, where Chesterton is silent, others have been rather effusive. The moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, for example, may not have put it as pithily as the imaginary Chesterton, but he nevertheless did explain, in rather explicit detail, what happens to morality when man has abandoned the belief in God.
In his classic and best known work After Virtue, MacIntyre details the collapse of morality and of a fundamental moral framework in the wake of the Enlightenment. He argues that the Enlightenment mission of destroying the traditional, religiously-based moral scheme and replacing it with one based exclusively on reason was doomed from the start and instead left the very notion of morality shattered.
Without a teleological framework, MacIntyre wrote, “the whole project of morality becomes unintelligible,” and moral philosophy becomes nothing more than an arena for competing notions that have no basis other than “logic,” which is, of course, subjective.
The ultimate end of all of this, MacIntyre insisted, is a civil society in which the traditional moral order has been replaced by nothing of any substance or meaning, which, in turn, breeds moral chaos. Contemporary, liberal society therefore is one in which the meanings of such words as right, wrong, moral, immoral, truth, lie, justice and injustice are entirely capricious and contextual. In such a society, MacIntyre notes, the statement “This is good” comes to mean nothing more than “Hurrah for this!”
Enter Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York.
It would be difficult, we think, to find an example that more clearly illustrates MacIntyre’s point about moral capriciousness than the interview that Bloomberg gave last week to the New York Times, ostensibly in support of his new $50 million campaign to rid the country of the scourge of guns. The paper quotes the former mayor and gun crusader as follows:
Mr. Bloomberg was introspective as he spoke, and seemed both restless and wistful. When he sat down for the interview, it was a few days before his 50th college reunion. His mortality has started dawning on him, at 72. And he admitted he was a bit taken aback by how many of his former classmates had been appearing in the “in memoriam” pages of his school newsletter. But if he senses that he may not have as much time left as he would like, he has little doubt about what would await him at a Judgment Day. Pointing to his work on gun safety, obesity and smoking cessation, he said with a grin: “I am telling you if there is a God, when I get to heaven I’m not stopping to be interviewed. I am heading straight in. I have earned my place in heaven. It’s not even close.”
Given the context, we can assume that Bloomberg was being, at least in part, facetious. Nevertheless, his words, coupled with his very serious actions while mayor, clearly give the sense of a man who has fashioned his own moral reality. He is clearly convinced that his efforts to use the power of government to keep erstwhile free men and women from drinking too much soda, eating margarine, and smoking cigarettes constitutes the apex of moral conduct in contemporary American society.
How does Bloomberg know that his efforts were just and moral or even, for that matter, that they were good? He doesn’t. No one does. In fact, there is no evidence whatsoever that the type of government coercion favored by Bloomberg has any impact on human behavior at all, let alone a positive, life-sustaining impact.
None of that matters to Bloomberg, though, since he knows that what he did was good. He senses it. It is a feeling that he has. Hurrah for me! I saved kids from Crisco!
Unfortunately, Bloomberg is hardly alone in “feeling” his morality. The destruction of both the Aristotelian and the Christian teleologies by the Enlightenment project has, as MacIntyre warned, left Western Civilization with a moral framework that is devoid of any substance or structure and which is constantly changing, based on mere whim and preference.
In short, then, whether Chesterton actually said it or not, he was right: those who do not believe in God will, indeed, believe in anything.
Even the fundamental righteousness of small sodas.