You have no doubt heard the famous quote from Dostoevsky, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted” (which, by the way, he never wrote, but which many Christians still seem to believe in). But no one seems to ask the most obvious question, which is: permitted by who? Who’s doing this supposed permitting?
If we look at this from the perspective of authority, the issue is not that “everything is permitted,” since it is the case that in Christianity “everything is permitted” for God. God is the absolute monarch that issues the orders that one must obey. The Christians’ problem is in the notion that “everything is permitted” for human beings, that the peons can somehow rise above their station and have their own moral opinions, a “pride” which they hate with a passion.
A Christian may defend the quote by saying that, without God, the individual permits himself to do anything without any consequences. But this is obviously false: we do not permit ourselves to do “anything,” and we do observe consequences to our actions. These consequences are earthly and very real, not in some make-believe realm of Heaven or Hell. Christians reject such consequences because they consider them irrelevant compared to their make-believe consequences, but this does not actually make them irrelevant. In fact, I consider this refusal of Christians to care about consequences of the earthly realm to be a very evil, very inhuman form of nihilism (which, at the same time, they profess to oppose).
They may then reply that a person may decide that killing is good, and start killing people. Well, it is true that there are killers in this world, no one is denying that. But all of us rational people consider killing people to be ethically unacceptable (or in the case of self-defense, an acceptable disaster). One may ask what would happen if we decided that killing was acceptable, and generalized it to the whole of society. But this is never going to happen. This is a kooky hypothetical which requires humans to be divorced from their own nature.
Keep in mind that the quote is “If God does not exist, everything is permitted,” not “If God does not exist, everything might be permitted, if you accept the premise of my kooky hypothetical.” Can we construct a scenario where moral agents permit themselves to do anything? Yes, of course, just as we can construct a scenario where elephants can fly. Does such a scenario tell us what is? No.
My point here is not that hypotheticals are bad, especially since I use them often. Hypotheticals in and of themselves are a good tool to use. But when people replace reality with a hypothetical, when they discuss what is with what they imagine might be, then we have major logical problems.
Let me give you an example in a different field, that of the abortion debate. Christian bigots argue that abortion is evil and that women shouldn’t have the freedom of their own bodies because a foetus is a “potential human being.” Clearly some foetuses will not become human beings (because they will be naturally aborted, or if you are a Christian, because God will abort them), and some will. Therefore the term “potential human being” is hypothetical: it may or may not be a potential human being, but we can posit that it is. The only thing we know for a fact is that it is not an actual human being (otherwise we wouldn’t need the term “potential” at all- we would simply say “the foetus is a human being”).
So the proposition that abortion is wrong relies on a hypothetical, on a current non-fact. You must be controlled now because in the future this mass of cells might become a human being and thus make your action a crime. This is akin to going to jail for cutting down one’s tree because it might have become someone else’s property in the future. Trying to suppress free actions in the name of a future you imagined is a dictator’s tactic. It is directly antithetical to any concept of truth or justice.
Another example is the “God did it” school of causal explanation. A whole cottage industry has erupted around it in the last decades. Here we’re going far beyond hypotheticals and into the land of pure fantasy. No Christian has the merest inkling of an idea of what “God did it” could possibly mean. It is, for all intents and purposes, the equivalent of pixie dust. And yet this fantasy is used as an actual explanation to be taught in schools.
The common thread between these uses of hypotheticals and fantasy is that they are all manifestations of an authoritarian outlook. A good subject of a totalitarian state does not question the methods of his rulers, or the rules they enforce. In a larger sense, it is a manifestation of the fact that the Christian is trying to justify a pre-existing conclusion by any means possible, whether reasonable or depraved. The Christian generally has no ethical standards and will stop at nothing to convince ignorant people of their points, no matter how fraudulent their “reasoning” is. And their fanaticism, like all other forms of fanaticism, stems entirely from their belief that they hold the absolute truth.