08 Nov 2009

"Do You Acknowledge That Jesus Is Your Savior, and That You Couldn’t Live Without Him?"

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So asked my pastor before dunking someone’s head under the water–today was Baptism day at my church.

That line got me thinking: What does it mean to say, “I couldn’t live without Jesus”?

For me, it would go like this: At this point in my life, if I didn’t believe there was a God who had designed the structure of the universe such that good would eventually triumph over evil, then I would not have the strength to continue. I’m not saying I would take my life–though I did get extremely depressed when I was an atheist and was headed down that path–but I don’t see how I could continue in the struggle for liberty, truth, justice, and the Rothbardian way.

Let me put it this way. For those of you who are staunch libertarians and yet you are atheists and you have hope for the future… I don’t think you fully appreciate the forces we are up against.

In movies like the Lord of the Rings and even less blatantly Christian tales, there is a pattern where the bad guys seem unstoppable, but the good guys just put their heads down and keep slugging away, and then “a miracle” occurs and it all turns out OK.

But if you are a hard-headed, no nonsense atheist, you don’t believe in miracles. And there is ultimately no reason to obey property rights, refrain from initiating aggression, etc. except for personal expediency.

Now it’s true, you might say, “I would just feel bad if I were a thief or if I worked on a CIA death squad.” OK fair enough, and there’s nothing irrational about that. But it’s no more compelling than me saying, “I am a Bills fan because my dad was and that’s how I was raised. I derive pleasure from watching the Bills win a game, just like I’ve been conditioned to derive pleasure from seeing someone help an old lady across the street.”

I am sure this post will aggravate many of my readers; I know it would have aggravated me during my atheist phase. Back then, I was extremely principled. It’s hard to know what you would really do when put to the test, but I’d like to think I would rather die than violate my values.

Yet there’s the rub: As an atheist, my intellectual justification for holding those values was a Misesian one that “if everyone follows these rules unthinkingly, we will all be much better off than if we just obey them when someone’s looking.”

Although that statement is true, it’s like telling someone to cooperate in the Prisoner’s Dilemma. If the person doesn’t do it, you can’t really use reason per se to prove he did something wrong. He can quite correctly tell you your “principle” broke down at that point.

Last point: I think it was Murray Rothbard who said to another economist, “No one’s going to the barricades over transaction costs.” In other words, Rothbard was trying to get people fired up with a love for liberty and the free market because it was just, not because it allowed for a Pareto improvement in resource allocation.

So I’m making a similar argument here: No one’s going to sacrifice life and limb against predatory States over rational egoism.

Now the above musings, even if perfectly correct, don’t prove that God exists and that good is stronger than evil. I’m just pointing out that the most passionate (yet atheist) defenders of liberty act as if good will ultimately win, and they are picturing themselves in the history books struggling on the “right” side. Yet in their own worldviews, “good” and “evil” really are cultural terms. If someone else thinks there’s nothing wrong with drowning babies for fun, you can’t use reason and science to prove him wrong. All you can do is lock him up.

But in the world as it is–without thinking there is a benevolent and omnipotent God waiting to pull off a miracle–we can’t lock up all the bad guys. They are in charge of the prisons, and they’re going to start locking us up.

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