by Micael Grenholm
I’ve been a peace and justice activist now for eight years; campaigning, advocating and debating for things like disarmament, pacifism, economic equality, poverty reduction, sustainability, environmental protection, gender equality, open borders and religious freedom. My motives are Christian: I believe this is what Jesus wants me to do and that it makes the earth represent God’s goodness and love better. Still, I’ve stood side by side with atheists, agnostics, Muslims, New Agers, Buddhists and others in a common fight for a better world for all.
I’ve found that activism for peace and justice can serve the role of a common denominator and a platform for cooperation between different worldviews and beliefs. That’s why it plays such a prevalent role in different ecumenical and interreligious councils – we might not agree on who God is, but we all agree that no child should starve to death. It’s why many people who aren’t Christians will still agree with Christians on one thing concerning Jesus: that he was a good moral teacher.
Hence, morality can be viewed as one of the least exclusive claim of any religion. In fact, it can be viewed as one of the least religious! I’ve had several friends who, when they doubt their Christian faith, becomes activists for a while and emphasises Jesus’ ethical teaching, before leaving the faith altogether and becoming atheists or agnostics.
So for a long time, I viewed certain activist dogmas such as human rights, equal human value and compassion as self-evident truths that nobody seriously can question. I thought that basically everybody, except a few bewildered neo-Nazis perhaps, viewed them as objectively true.
But then I encountered some who didn’t. They were all atheists.
In apologetics, there’s an argument for God’s existence called the moral argument. I won’t go into detail, but it basically says that if atheism is true, moral values can’t be objectively true – they can’t be “facts” – but are the result of sociobiological evolution. In other words, they’re dependent on human minds rather than being true no matter what people think.
Now if there indeed are objective moral facts, such as rape and racism being wrong and evil while peace and compassion are good and right, atheism has a problem. Why are these facts true even if nobody would believe them? If “genocide is wrong” is an objective fact even if a genocidal dictatorship would gain world domination and convince everyone that genocide was right, what’s the explanation for that on atheism?
Atheists typically reply to this in two different ways. Either they’ll say that objective moral facts simply exist without any explanation, they’re just out there so to speak. This is problematic in itself, but especially if you think about why homo sapiens would somehow “connect” to these facts and have a moral duty to follow them. That’s seems to require some kind of supernatural causation, which of course goes against Western atheism.
Alternatively, atheists will simply deny that objective moral facts exist. These atheists will often say that there’s no evidence for objective moral values, and that morality is purely subjective: whatever the individual thinks is good is actually good, there is no external point of reference. Laws and the court system are just social constructs that have practical value, but they don’t correspond to any actual Law of good and evil.
Now, this is incompatible with being an activist, or wanting to change the morality and actions of other people altogether. Activists want societies to change, we want the world to be a better place – which suggests that “good” really exists – and we think harming other people is wring – which suggests that wrongdoing exists. If we thought that moral facts were just an illusion of the mind and that all morality was subjective, we would have no reason to want to change anyone else’s behaviour.
It’s not always that activists get this. Unfortunately, postmodernist thought has made it possible among students to claim that “all truth is relative” or that “everything is subjective”. Those statements are self-refuting – if everything is relative or subjective, that would include the very claims of everything being relative and subjective. And seriously, no activist really believes this concerning the things we campaign about, be it women’s rights, #blacklivesmatter or eradicating hunger.
Since atheism can’t provide any metaphysical grounding for objective moral facts and duties, religiously motivated activism is much more consistent and easier to defend. Again, this is not to say that I don’t appreciate to work together with fellow activists who don’t believe in God, neither am I suggesting that they are immoral (oftentimes they can put Christians to shame). What I’m saying is that far from being obsolete or strange, viewing God as the foundation for our activism is perfectly rational.
Micael Grenholm is editor for Pax Pneuma. Having studied theology as well as peace and development studies in Uppsala, Sweden, Micael Grenholm’s passion is to combine charismatic spirituality with activism for peace and justice. Apart from editing the Pax Pneuma website he vlogs for the YouTube channel Holy Spirit Activism and is active with evangelism and apologetics both locally and online.