(Originally published in Gilbert Magazine)
I was recently talking with a secular friend who mentioned the existence of a book entitled, The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. He thought this worth mentioning because in his experience the arguments all seem to run in the opposite direction. I objected, meekly, that if this is so, it is because it is the almost universal opinion of mankind that it is moral to use fossil fuels, and people rarely make arguments for what everyone already thinks. He didn't believe me.
Yet consider the world he proposes. If people thought fossil fuels immoral, they would be ashamed of using them. Instead of people on business trips cheerfully submitting their receipts for gasoline, they would try to disguise the things as purchases of soda and cigarettes. Men would be as candid about going to gas stations as they are about visiting brothels. And the things wouldn't be called gas stations, they'd be called "adult travel centers".
If people thought fossil fuels immoral, householders would apologize to guests for their house being warm in winter. Less candid people would keep a decorative wood-burning stove sitting over the hot-air registers. Fake solar panels would cover the roofs of those who cannot afford real ones. Imitation wind mills driven by electricity would dot the land and power lines would be below ground, instead of strung on poles for all to see.
My friend's confusion over the moral opinions of the majority and a noisy minority does not bespeak a world which considers nothing immoral. The secular world considers all sorts of things immoral, though chiefly, it must be admitted, when applied to children. It claims to base this distinction on the ability to consent, but at its heart lies the instinctive recognition of the purity of children by a world that knows that it has grown bad. We do not demand that children be able to consent like an adult in order to play on a playground, and according to secular morality the things we protect children from are no more significant than swinging on a swing or sliding down a slide.
No, my friend's confusion does not indicate disbelief in morality. Rather, it shows just how completely secular people lack imagination. I do not mean that they lack the facility, but that it has atrophied from lack of use. And this lack of use has, as it were, two fathers.
The modern world grew up under the idea that religion does not matter. As Chesterton observed, this began in protestant England, who because it could see no practical differences between low church Anglicanism and Methodism, believed that there could be no practical differences between any two religions. Given time, the idea that the most important ideas don't matter led inevitably to the idea that no ideas matter. And if a man does not do anything in consequence of his beliefs, there is no point in asking what his belief would look like in practice.
The other father of this atrophy is the modern fear of suffering. No one, at any time, has enjoyed suffering, but the modern world, and especially the rich modern world, has an almost all-consuming horror of suffering since it does so little of it. Between pain killers and labor saving devices, it is possible for most people, or at least most young people, to feel next to no pain. With all of the avenues of modern entertainment, it is possible to experience next to no boredom. With transportation and the internet, it is possible to spend all of one's time with friends and none with family and neighbors. Men fear what they do not know.
Imagination is dangerous. Imagining other people's lives may lead us into imagining their suffering. And here we come to a point I mistook for a long time. For decades, popular psychologists have tried to replace the idea of morality with the idea of empathy, and I foolishly thought it was because empathy is easier. It's not easier. It may, perhaps, be easier to fool yourself about, merely because you "feel bad" for people, but that is not empathy. Empathy doesn't merely recognize someone's suffering, it gets inside that suffering. Feeling bad for someone stays outside their suffering and just wants it to go away, and is usually happy enough with the someone going away. Psychologists call for empathy not because it's easier than morality, but because they genuinely don't believe in morality, and so empathy is the only thing available that might do the same work. And they call for people to develop it, not because they have it, but because they don't.
You can see this lack of empathy in modern comedies, which would be unendurable otherwise. Only the cold-hearted can laugh at a man who desperately needs guidance because his parents treated him like a science experiment rather than raising him to be a human being.
In both of these fathers of the atrophy of imagination, we can see the same grandfather, which is the abandonment of Christianity. Christ constantly called on people to have faith, which means to believe in their beliefs. Christ also called on us to take up our cross and follow him. He calls us to take seriously our neighbor, and to be willing to suffer with him. In Christ all men are united. In departing from Christ, all men are becoming divorced again.