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By Richard Weikart


Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea

How we became hedonists.

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Why should it be controversial to claim that in the past couple of centuries materialism and other naturalistic philosophies—including naturalistic versions of Darwinism—have eroded Christian moral standards that dominated Western culture for centuries?  Is there not biblical sanction for the view that atheism and agnosticism—indeed any denial of God's participation in human affairs—leads to moral depravity?  Paul asserts in Romans 1 that those who reject the knowledge of God will become ensnared in "vile passions," and because of their "debased mind" will be "filled with all unrighteousness," including sexual perversion.  Wrong ideas about metaphysics do indeed have consequences for morality (see also Ps. 14:1).

Yes, but … when we compare the moral character of theists with materialists and agnostics, we face an obvious conundrum.  Many theists' behavior is deplorable, as atheists and agnostics regularly remind us, invoking the Crusades and Inquisition to dismiss Christianity.  Any churchgoer can add contemporary examples (not to mention the outcome of a little self-examination). On the other hand, some materialists seem exemplary in their conduct, at least in their treatment of other people.  So in what sense, then, do naturalistic philosophies undermine morality?

Many leading materialist thinkers in the past two centuries have acknowledged that their philosophy destroys the foundation for Christian ethics, and quite a few have forthrightly attacked Christian morality as outmoded.  The philosopher Daniel Dennett, for example, describes Darwinism as a universal acid, dissolving all our traditional concepts, such as religion and morality (but somehow Dennett's materialist metaphysics is impervious to the "universal" acid). E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, claims that morality and religion are entirely the product of material processes in the brain.  Therefore he dismisses any fixed ethical precepts, including Christian morality.

Dennett and Wilson are far from alone in using naturalistic, allegedly scientific, explanations to dismiss Christian morality. Since leading proponents of naturalistic Darwinian philosophy so brazenly admit the morally subversive character of their world view, often even reveling in it, isn't it sufficient simply to cite their own words against them?

Yes—and no, not if we hope to understand how their ideas gained credibility, and how deeply they have penetrated our culture. Hence the timeliness of Benjamin Wiker's provocative book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press). Wiker breaks new ground by exploring the historical connections between metaphysics—particularly materialism—and morality, raising questions of the utmost importance for historians, philosophers, and theologians, as well as social analysts.

Wiker unflinchingly diagnoses the moral malaise of the modern world, tracing its intellectual roots all the way from ancient Greece to modern America via the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution.  Specifically, he claims to expose the underlying intellectual currents undermining Christian morality in the past several centuries, leading to the moral landslide of the 20th century and producing the Sexual Revolution and mass abortion.

Moral Darwinism is a misleading title, since Wiker sees Darwinism not as the root cause but rather as the culmination of intellectual developments producing modern hedonism.  Darwinism does not even make its appearance (except briefly in the introduction) until the penultimate chapter.  The primary theme, then, is not Darwinism, but what Wiker calls Epicurean materialism.

Philosophers may not be satisfied by Wiker's use of the term materialism, since he includes in his definition far more than strict philosophical materialism, i.e., the view that nothing exists except matter and energy. He states that "Epicurean materialism allows the gods to exist, as long as they are unable to interfere in human affairs." Thus, Epicurean materialism includes pure materialism, but also encompasses positivism, deism, and some forms of pantheism.

Wiker opens the book with an illuminating discussion of Epicurus's philosophy in ancient Greece.  Epicurus constructed his philosophy to eliminate the widespread human fears of divine intervention and punishment in the afterlife, which, he believed, caused unnecessary disturbance in people's psyches.  Though he did not deny the existence of deities, he claimed that they did not interfere with human affairs in any way.  Without any influence from gods or an afterlife, morality could only have reference to this life.

Epicurus reduced morality to the pleasure-pain principle, which states that whatever maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain is morally good.  Epicurus and many of his ancient Greek followers emphasized moderation (bordering on asceticism) rather than indulgence, because they believed that the avoidance of pain was more important than the pursuit of pleasure.  Modern Epicureans would invert this formula, jettisoning asceticism in pursuit of carnal pleasure.

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