Excuse Me, But Your Moral Absolutes are Showing

In a 2005 episode of the BBC’s Doctor Who, The Doctor is on a space station that broadcasts nothing but game shows in which the penalty for losing is death. In this world, the “weakest link” gets incinerated in front of millions of people.

In a key scene, The Doctor turns to the manager of the station and says “Your staff executes hundreds of contestants every day.”

“That’s not fair,” the manager replies. “We’re just doing our job.”

“With that response,” growls The Doctor, “you just lost the right to even talk to me.”

The fascinating thing about this scene is that it takes place in a universe in which God does not exist. (At least there’s been no indication that anyone believes in an omnipotent, benevolent creator) Yet in this simple exchange, The Doctor reveals that not only does he believe that there are moral absolutes, but that everyone should intuitively know them and be held responsible for violating them.

In just a few lines of dialogue, the writers of this episode evoke one of the 20th century’s most powerful images—a Nazi standing in a courtroom in Nuremberg in 1945 claiming that he killed hundreds of men, women, and children in the German death camps because he was just following orders. The response of most people, both then and now, is that anyone committing such atrocities should have known better. There is no excuse for ignoring one’s moral intuition.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the book that topped Christianity Today’s 2012 Book Awards in the Apologetics/Evangelism category was David Baggett and Jerry Walls’ Good God: The Theistic Foundations of Morality. Yes, this book happened to be my favorite book of the year (I blogged about it for several weeks then reviewed it on Amazon), but I am also encouraged that more and more people are recognizing the significance of moral apologetics. There is, I think, no stronger evidence for the existence of a morally good God than that most people instinctively know that there are a few things that are always, always wrong. (as well as a few things that are always right)

One of my favorite things to write about is how sci-fi, fantasy, and murder mysteries often reveal this universal moral intuition even (and perhaps, especially) when the official position of the characters is that God does not exist. While these characters exist in a presumably godless universe, they are invariably guided by a moral code that is never questioned. Love and mercy are always good. Hate and cruelty are always wrong. And fighting the good fight is always worth it.

Dr. Who, Buffy Summers, Merlin, Captain Kirk, Sherlock Holmes, and countless other godless heathens will always step up to save us. Not because someone tells them to, but because they know it’s the right things to do. Because they can’t hide their moral absolutes.

Who is your favorite godless heathen with an instinctive moral compass?

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10 Replies to “Excuse Me, But Your Moral Absolutes are Showing”

  1. This was a fun post. Mention Doctor Who and I’ll probably listen. Mention Doctor Who AND religion – I am so there.

    I’m not as convinced that the Doctor lives in a godless universe. His visit to Hell in the new show’s second series actively dismantled that universe’s perception of the devil and hell. But remember that, in passing, the Doctor admitted to taking the last room at an inn in Bethlehem in the first century, thus forcing the Nativity scene. And he mentioned having witnessed the crucifixion of Christ too, but offered no commentary.

    Similarly, Captain Kirk was challenged by Adonis in one of the old episodes. The old Greek god was revealed to be an alien who had visited earth in its early days, inspiring devotion in the world’s simple people. He says something about the earth’s need for himself and the other old gods and Captain Kirk says, “The one we have is enough, thank you.”

    These obvious mentions of Christian events in sci-fi perplex me. I know that Doctor Who has been famously led and written by atheists and that Star Trek was conceived as a picture of humanity post-religion. So why mention Nativity, Crucifixion, Monotheism? Perhaps the story of Christ will continue to persevere in culture – whatever its worldview – in a way similar to how Christian morality (in terms of treatment of the poor, views on violence, etc) pervades our culture now, though our general worldview seems to stray from Christianity.

    1. Mickey,

      That’s a great point. I just finished watching Season 1 of the Dr. Who reboot, so I haven’t gotten to the episodes about hell, but I know what you mean. While I agree that one reason why Christian imagery shows up in these shows is because it’s part of our cultural heritage, I think there must be more going on on a deeper level…something to think about.

  2. Likewise, it is just plain wrong to run the ball on 4th and 23 in the first quarter when you are backed up on your 2 yard line.

    Of course, if there is no god, then nobody can say a coach is wrong to call such a play and he cannot be sacked. Football would then just be a matter of one opinion against another, and nobody could say who is right and who is wrong.

  3. William Lane Craig comments that murder is morally obligatory for Christians if their god commands it, and then it stops being murder, although the same killing would be murder if there were no god.

    Rather, since our moral duties are determined by God’s commands, it is commanding someone to do something which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been murder.

    The act was morally obligatory for the Israeli soldiers in virtue of God’s command, even though, had they undertaken it on their on initiative, it would have been wrong.

    On divine command theory, then, God has the right to command an act, which, in the absence of a divine command, would have been sin, but which is now morally obligatory in virtue of that command.

    1. Stephen,
      Good point. Baggett and Walls go into divine command theory in great detail in their book and make a solid case for the idea that there are some things that we can say with certainty (well, with as much certainty as we can say anything) that God would never command, not because He is under the authority of moral law, but because His character is the source and foundation of what we consider “good” and “evil.” I can’t do the argument justice here, but the book does a great job of interacting with a modified divine command theory. I recommend it if you have the time.

  4. Most of the comic book superheroes are non-believers, or perhaps followers of different theologies altogether (or gods).

    Within the Marvel universe, there is a little bit of mention of some believers as we’d recognize them (Nightcrawler is particularly devout, I believe), but mostly not.

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