Before he died of cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens spoke for many a modern atheist – and ancient one for that matter – when he declared: ‘We believe with certainty that an ethical life can be lived without religion.’ It has become a common enough view. The recently appointed president of the body of chaplains at Harvard University is an atheist, Greg Epstein, author of a book Good Without God. Harvard University received its name in 1639 from a clergyman, John Harvard, who had donated it a lot of books. By 1692 its motto was ‘Truth for Christ and the Church’. All that now seems a world away. 

Nineteenth century Victorians often followed Alfred Lord Tennyson in thinking in terms of ‘honest doubt’. Hitchens may have had some doubts – honest or otherwise – but he spoke the language of evangelical assurance. He convinced himself that religion was not needed for a person to lead an ethical life; that could be said ‘with certainty’. Epstein is a little milder, and seems to like the word ‘fluid’ when he deals with various religious outlooks.

What is the Christian to say in response? There is the possibility of a response becoming a treatise, but one’s first thought might be that by ourselves we cannot define what is ethical. Everybody agrees with being loving and authentic, but try defining those terms. Is it right to say ‘Love is love’, when this opens the door to whatever one thinks is loving? Is euthanasia to be accepted as ‘mercy killing’? ‘Voluntary assisted dying’ can be dressed up as an act of freedom and dignity, but it is next door to murder. ‘Every child a wanted child’ sounds self-evident until one probes as to what exactly is meant.

The point is that we can pour the most contradictory content into virtually whatever slogan we adopt. In any case, the answer is not simply ‘religion’. The Bible spends much of its time rejecting false religions, such as those in Pharaoh’s Egypt or in the land of Canaan (Josh.24:14-15), as well as false versions of the true religion, such as the soft soap of the prophet Hananiah in Jeremiah’s day (Jer.28). The one who says in his heart that there is no God is simply dismissed as a fool (Ps.14:1). The ethical life requires content, and that content is not provided by any religion but by the God who created us. 

In the second place, Hitchens’ definition of ‘an ethical life’ implies a very optimistic view of human nature. Epstein too has affirmed: ‘We don’t look to a god for answers. We are each other’s answers.’ Such a rosy view of humanity hardly seems warranted by how the human heart works or societies operate. The Bible is not optimistic about human nature. Our hearts are corrupt and wicked, and we cannot understand them (Jer.17:9). Some evil comes from obvious moral perversity, but much comes from our weakness and lack of power to walk in virtuous ways. It is God Himself through the Holy Spirit who supplies believers in Christ with the power to obey God’s statutes (Ezek.36:27). There remains a struggle enough, even with the Spirit’s presence and power (Gal.5:16-18). Left to ourselves, we are enslaved to sin (Rom.6-7). 

One last point concerns forgiveness. Because God is our lawgiver, there exists the possibility of being forgiven. All Hitchens could offer was his definition of an ethical life. But we are sinners. To the criminal being crucified next to the Lord, a little discourse on Plato’s view of the good life would have been useless, even cruel. What he needed is what we all need – words of forgiveness and salvation from a Saviour who can save. Indeed, this is what he received (Luke 23:39-43).

So the person seeking to lead an ethical life apart from Christ is in an unenviable position – with no idea of what the ethical life means; no power to carry it out; and no salvation when he fails. No wonder there was a deep gloom in Plato’s cave.

Peter Barnes