The dangers of ethics without God: A cautionary tale

In his book Honest Religion for Secular Man, Lesslie Newbigin recounts the story of a German pastor during World War II, who was asked by Hitler to ‘destroy’ epileptics in his care as director of a hospital. The reason given was that they were no longer deemed to be useful to society and were therefore a drain on that society’s resources:

During World War II, Hitler send men to the famous Bethel Hospital to inform Pastor Bodelschwingh, its director, that the State could no longer afford to maintain hundreds of epileptics who were useless to society and only constituted a drain on scarce resources, and that orders had been issued to have them destroyed. Bodelschwingh confronted them in his room at the entrance to the Hospital and fought a spiritual battle which eventually sent them away without having done what they were sent to do. He had no other weapon for that battle than the simple affirmation that these were men and women made in the image of God and that to destroy them was to commit a sin against God which would surely be punished. What other argument could he have used? What are we to say of that most characteristic feature of the “developed” societies – concentration on the young and contempt of the old? It is a logical outcome of a purely functional view of man. It is difficult to see what are the grounds upon which a consistent secularist would refuse to take the final logical step and approve the painless elimination of those who have ceased to perform a significant social function.

from Honest Religion for Secular Man (1969), p.62, SCM Press Ltd.

            This story highlights two important points – firstly the logical consequences of a purely utilitarian ethical system; and secondly, the only thing that can ultimately prevent these consequences unfurling in all their dreadful clinical totality. So long as we see our moral decision making as a purely functional exercise, with no higher court of appeal than what is seen to be useful or beneficial to the wider group at a given time, the horrors of Hitler’s Germany will always be lurking around the corner somewhere. We can tell ourselves that we would never allow that sort of thing to happen in our society, but then surely so did people during the Third Reich. Germany at the time of Hitler’s rise to power was (morally and intellectually) very much the same sort of culture as we have today, and I imagine exactly the same sort of protests against utilitarian and individualist ethics would have been made then.

            Furthermore, we have already sanctioned in practice the killing of millions of unborn children via an easy-access abortion culture, where their murder is rebranded as ‘termination’, much as Hitler’s orders were cloaked under the term of ‘destroying’ the patients. Euthanasia, according to opinion polls, is becoming more and more acceptable to the general populace, and in Belgium laws are now being proposed to extend this to infants. All is said to be done in the name of compassion and reason of course, although in reality this is simply another expression of a purely utilitarian ethics.

            The only response to this is that of Pastor Bodelschwingh, who in the final analysis realised that the only argument he could give Hitler’s messengers was that the epileptic patients in his care were made in the image of God, and therefore were infinitely sacred in his sight – to deliberately take their lives would be a grave sin. Without this affirmation, without this clause that prevents man from being seen as a means to an end or a cog in a machine, the utilitarian claims have nothing to prevent their being worked out to a terrifying finale. As Newbigin says, ‘it is difficult to see the grounds upon which a consistent secularist would refuse to take the final logical step and approve the painless elimination of those who have ceased to perform a significant social function.

            Either we admit that our godless, purely functional ethics ultimately has no foundations for genuine human rights (the equality, dignity and worth of each human life) and try to recapture what our predecessors took for granted, namely that we receive these rights from being creatures of God, or we face the consequences. Sooner or later they will come, and if we do not face up to this problem now, we will have no defences when they do. Already some of the implications of the godless vision of the human person are being felt. Surely recognising God’s existence and His claims on our lives is a small price to pay to avoid the increase of the horrors of abortion, etc; let alone what else the future may hold?


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