East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter 2003, Covering the Former Soviet Union and Central and Eastern Europe

If There Is No God, All Is Permitted

Kent R. Hill

Spiritual as Well as Material Needs
Ironically, at the very moment when so many declare that Marx was wrong--when it comes to what economic system can best meet the needs of the masses--the Marxist understanding of human beings reigns supreme. Marx believed that if only a human being's physical needs could be met--the need for food, shelter, and physical security--happiness would result. He was convinced that religion, like the state, would simply wither away because religion, he believed, was nothing but an escape into wishful thinking about the next world to make up for the poverty and misery of this world. Marx evidently never reflected on why the suicide rate is higher among the wealthy than the poor. Could this statistic perhaps be explained by the fact that the rich often understand better than the poor that having everything money can buy, including power, is not enough to provide meaning? Is it possible that Marx never really understood that we as human beings have spiritual needs as well as material ones, that we long to give ourselves, even sacrifice ourselves, to that which goes beyond our narrow self interest?

The Necessity of a Moral Citizenry
I am haunted by the writings of the early founders of the American democratic experiment. Virtually all of them insisted that the success of the democratic experience would depend on a moral citizenry and most of them felt that morality would most likely be rooted in religion. There was a rejection of the old European notion of an established Christian church or religion, though most assumed that morality was best rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. But my central point here is their assertion that democracy would almost certainly not survive without a moral citizenry. As George Washington, America's first president, put it, "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." Or as John Adams, the brilliant second U.S. president, observed, "it is religion and morality alone that can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. Religion and virtue are the only foundations of all free governments."

Frankly, I think Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov was right in Crime in Punishment when he insisted, much as Friedrich Nietzsche did a few years later, that "if there is no God, all is permitted." The history of the West demonstrates that when belief in God comes into question, when belief in a transcendent source of morality beyond human likes and dislikes is abandoned, it is only a matter of time until a belief in the existence of truth and morality disappears as well.

The most brilliant and prophetic critique of the twentieth century was written late in the nineteenth century by Fyodor Dostoyevsky within the pages of The Brothers Karamazov. The clash between the utopian, secular worldview of the Grand Inquisitor and the figure of Christ in the dock, the defender of human freedom and human dignity, provides wonderful insights into the sources of morality and the competing conceptions of how best to advance the good of humanity. Twentieth-century history, with the mass murders of Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung--all atheists intent on remaking the world according to secular utopian schemes--provides stark and tragic evidence as to what can happen when such purely human schemes are advanced in the name of humanity.

Morality is absolutely necessary if stable, peaceful, and economically prosperous societies are to emerge. I would further note that the often irrational passions, hatred, and bitterness that ignite and fuel conflict in, for example, the Balkans or the Middle East will require the championing of the values of forgiveness and reconciliation--values that force human beings somehow to escape the narrow bondage of material self-interest.

During the winter of 1991-92 my wife and I lived in Moscow. Jan taught English in a Russian elementary school and I taught graduate students at Moscow State University. For many years in the West I had worked on behalf of human rights and religious freedom for those who had suffered under Communism and now it was my privilege to work with these same individuals, many of them former dissidents, who had become members of the Duma and were writing new legislation guaranteeing religious freedom and human rights. Finally, freedom of conscience was to be protected by law--something that ought not to be sacrificed on the altar of the illusory collectivist vision of the future.

Lenin's Imprint Lingering
I remember one elementary school I visited had a mural of Lenin in the main entryway of the school. The decision was made to get a fresh start and paint over the picture of Lenin. At first the image disappeared, but in a few days it reemerged--less pronounced to be sure, but still recognizable. It was necessary to paint it again but, once again, his now fainter image reasserted itself. It took a third coat of white paint to get the desired result.

In many ways, the continuing presence of a materialist worldview in Russia is like that mural of Lenin--a legacy of the Marxist period that remains with us in the post-Communist era. Marxist economics may have been eliminated, but vestiges of central economic control linger. Still, in theory at least, Marxist economics has been repudiated. Marx's view of human nature is still dominant, though perhaps not acknowledged. Here it should be noted that the post-Communist world shares a very strong tie with the West. Though the West often claims to be religious, Christian or Jewish by ancestry, the West more often lives according to the materialist tenets of the Enlightenment which view religion as unimportant or as a superstitious relic of the past deserving only ridicule. As a friend of mine has put it, "We in the West may say we are religious, but, in fact, we are often functional atheists."

We must remind each other that we are far more than material beings. For if we are no more than material beings, capable only of thinking about ourselves and our own narrow self interest, we will never find the internal resources necessary to deal with the problems [facing Russia and the United States]. Edmund Burke, the great eighteenth-century English thinker, once said that "The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing." We often underestimate what courageous individuals can accomplish.

Consider the tireless efforts in the nineteenth century of William Wilberforce who labored for over four decades in the English Parliament to convince his fellow parliamentarians to vote against their own economic self interests to abolish the infamous slave trade. Or consider the singleness of purpose, even obsession, of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, dedicated to the proposition that there must be an historical record of the millions who perished in the Gulag. Behind Solzhenitsyn's work is an indomitable belief that "a single word of truth" is indeed more powerful than an empire built on lies. He believes there is such a thing as truth and we must never forget that together, if we try and are honest, we can at least make progress towards realizing it.

It is time to challenge the narrow and restrictive views of human beings that fail to challenge us to reach beyond ourselves to think about the good of others. It is time that we recognize there is no lasting freedom without responsibility, no lasting economic prosperity that deprives any of participating, no solution for the most painful conflicts of society if we fail to appeal to what is deepest and most beautiful in the human soul.

Kent R. Hill is assistant administrator, Bureau for Europe and Eurasia, United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and former president of Eastern Nazarene College, Quincy, MA.

Edited excerpt published with the author's permission from an address, "Truth and Social Good: The Keys to Peace, Democracy, and Prosperity," given at the Moscow School of Political Studies, 9 December 2002.

Kent R. Hill, "If There Is No God, All Is Permitted," East-West Church & Ministry Report 11 (Winter 2003), 1-2.

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2003 East-West Church and Ministry Report
ISSN 1069-5664

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