Wednesday 15 August 2012

“To remove God is to eliminate the final restraint on human brutality” - Alister McGrath


This quotation from the theologian Alister McGrath is a variant of the Dostoevsky quote translated as "Without God all things are permitted".

McGrath focuses on the effect of atheism on morality or Virtue, Dostoevsky's applicability would embrace the othe transcendental Goods of Beauty and Truth - in the sense that without God then there is no final restraint on either dishonesty (lies, hype, spin, propaganda) or beauty (ugliness, horror, banality).


The evidence that McGrath and Dostoevsky are correct is quite simple:

The Twentieth Century.

The 20th century witnessed several enormous atheist political regimes in The Soviet Union, Germany and China - where the implementations of evil were of a scale and thoroughness and of a duration never before seen in human history.

In other words, the removal of God can be seen to have eliminated the final restraint on human brutality. 

Of course this is not sufficient 'proof' for those who deeply wish to deny the link; but that is the case for all forms of evidence for anything and without any exceptions.  


But to focus exclusively upon ethical aspects of religiously-unrestrained immorality is to miss the fullness of catastrophe which atheism has visited upon humanity - by removal of final restraint because these societies were equally societies of unprecedented institutional dishonesty and ugliness.

In sum, atheism enables the denial of natural law - of all spontaneous ('natural') human acknowledgments of truth, beauty and virtue - and denial implies inversion.

Atheism enables denial of natural law - it does not compel this denial, but it enables the denial to happen when this is expedient. 


Because humans always take sides, always exhibit a prefernce, are unable to be neutral.

So when natural law is denied primacy, it is not merely ignored, but reversed.

So we get societies - such as our own - that celebrate the destruction of good, for its own sake; societies that actively will evil - and this is the particular horror of the twentieth century into the twenty-first.


The particular horror of the twenty-first century is that because we are still atheists (indeed, even more so) we have learned nothing from the twentieth century (or, mislearned irrelevant lessons), and have gone a long way towards replicating its specifically modern evils; 'restrained' from doing so only by what appears to atheist modernity as irrational, unenlightened residual conditioning from the bad-old-days.

So the only things keeping modern societies from un-restrained evil are precisely those things which modernity regards as most dangerously evil; and which it is striving so zealously to eliminate.

And it is clear that elimination of 'restraint' is not the worst of things; the worst is that, without God, restraint inverts into its opposite: coercive advocacy of that which was previously restrained.



Anonymous said...

I don't think it is the absence of God, so much as the presence of the Devil. *Theoretically* you ought to be able to derive a decent society by reasoning from natural law. But Satan fills the void and makes evil seem reasonable.

Bruce Charlton said...

@dl - Yes. The first entails the second - the operations of purposive evil are continuous and (overall) dominant in this world, but vastly worse when unopposed.

JP said...

"The 20th century witnessed several enormous atheist political regimes in The Soviet Union, Germany and China"

The Left commonly insists that the Nazis were "Christian".

dearieme said...

If medieval and reformation Roman Catholicism had had the technology of the Nazis, or the monopoly state power of the commies, it too would have murdered on an industrial scale. At least that would be the way to bet, given some of its atrocities such as the Albigensian Crusade. And there's no particular reason to suppose that bunch of "christians" unique.

BB said...

Great blog! I have a question for you, M. Charlton. What kind of Orthodox Church is your own?

And could you please link to an online Orthodox cathechism or similar source? The Orthodox equivalent of Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion (Anglican)or of the Westminster Confession of Faith?

Thanks in advance and keeu up the good work!

Bruce Charlton said...

@dearime - like I said in the posting - these were not just societies that killed a lot of people over a long time, but (especially the communists) were systematically dishonest and anti-beauty, anti Natural Law.

Communism was something new under the sun (National Socialism was - as the name implies - a partial reaction against communism - thus the nazis were not anti-beauty in the way that communists were).

@BB - I am not a practising Eastern Orthodox - I attend Anglican churches. My feeling is that Orthodoxy is properly a way of life rather than a set of beliefs and church which you attend - and that way of life is not available to English people in England now (short of emigrating or becoming a monk, I suppose).

BB said...

Thanks for the reply!
The problem with Orthodoxy is that you have to pick up a particular national Church. And learn either Russian, Greek or Romanian or any other language in use at a particular national Church in order to attend mass. Is that correct?

You´d think in the US there´d be English-speaking places of worship and possibly in the rest of the Anglosphere as well.

I´m a lapsed Roman Catholic looking around for a brand of Christianity that´s not modern or liberal. Like my Church used to be.

Currently, I´m looking into Reformed Churches. As I said, Rome has fallen to the barbarians again. And Lefevre´s followers have returned into the fold.
Perhaps Orthodoxy might be what I´m looking for. Who knows?
I lurk at for enlightenment.
Help would be welcome.

Anonymous said...

The wars of religion, late sixteenth, early seventeenth century, were pretty comparable in the level of democide and repression to the twentieth century crimes, arguably worse.

My analysis is that holy wars tend to be genocidal, and that the crimes of the twentieth century were the holy wars of the post Christian era.

Which brings me back to my original claim that Christianity is dead.

When Christians took over from pagans, they would convert the elite by a mixture of persuasion and coercion, and the elite would superficially retain the old pagan rituals, but when a commoner attended the ritual, he found it had been filled up with Christian content.

Progressives have done the same thing to Christianity as Christians did to pagans.

Some guy takes his family to church on Christmas (itself originally a pagan celebration) and hears that the way to salvation is to vote for higher taxes and more welfare, that he is oppressing his wife, and that his children are better off without their natural father.

If that is not quite what your church is preaching yet, what your church is preaching is nonetheless pretty far left of what churches preached in the 1950s, and in due course will be further left still.

Bruce Charlton said...

@BB and @JAD - I take seriously the prophecies about the End Times as articulated by Fr Seraphim Rose (or rather, as he collated them from earlier Elders).

And I think it very likely that we are in these End Times, and that the real (mystical) Church will be getting small, and will end very small. But it will not disappear, and it will continue to be vital to Man - that upon which all else depends.

Christians need to try and develop the attitude of those who kept their faith through Communism in the Eastern Bloc. My feeling is that no denomination is going to do this for you, yet you must remain engaged with some human institutions - and so work on a much smaller scale.


@JAD - Nothing is ever so obvious and clear cut that it cannot be denied, as you are denying the *qualitative* difference between the 'totalitarian' Twentieth Century atheist dictatorships and what came before during human history. These differences are not a matter of body counts, they are a spiritual thing - they are precisely that matter of progressive transcendental *inversion* being cut off from what is natural and spontaneous.

That lack of constraint when it suddenly seems that anything is possible, anything is permitted, anything can be justified, anything might happen in the future - which is precisely a consequence of their atheism.

The exact *outcome* of such a state of mind is (necessarily) not predictable, precisely because it is un-rooted, and cut-off prom objective reality.

People preserve variable amounts of 'decencies' (unprincipled exceptions) - but for no deeper reason than they (personally) feel (at the moment) that they ought to.

This is a new (post 19th century) situation for humans, especially for humans en masse, especially to have this imposed on humans en masse by vast propaganda and coercion.

Of course, the twentieth century horrors were related to technology (see dearieme comment), but not primarily to the technologies of extermination, but primarily to the technologies of the mass media.

The mass media is the modern mind writ large - it is the modern mind - and it is atheist, nihilist, hedonist.

Matias said...

@JAD: In seventeeth century Europe, one third of the population could die in famine even without a war, so the body counts are not comparable. The 30 Years War resulted in so many deaths because of general starvation. Everybody realized that is was a horrible war and the following war, until the French Revolution, were much more limited. In The Soviet Union, many millions were killed when the country was officially at peace. There was no restraint what the criminals in charge could do.

Jonathan C said...

I've been ruminating about James Donald's post about "The Left Singularity" on his "Jim's Blog" ever since he posted it. This post frames the same disaster from a very different viewpoint. Either way, I think the US has great horrors in store that few can imagine. I am afraid.

@BB: You don't say where you are. For what it's worth, the Holy Virgin Cathedral in San Francisco (once Father Seraphim Rose's church) has an English-language mass the last Sunday of each month, at 7:30 am.

Catherine said...

@BB You could try the interactive map at and then call around to your local churches to see which ones offer services in English.

Failing that, you could look for an Eastern Catholic church - I'm less familiar with those, but when I've gone to services with others they've always been in English.

The church I attend (in California) has all-English services. I don't think that's rare in America. This is the land that hates subtitles, after all :)

BB said...


Thanks for the tip. For the moment, I prefer to read religious literature. I´m checking out Seraphim Rose´s works right now.

James A. Donald:

" what your church is preaching is nonetheless pretty far left of what churches preached in the 1950s, and in due course will be further left still"

Hence my interest in Orthodox churches as they seem to be an exception to this progressive momentum.