Have We Become a Nation of Moral Bystanders?

“What’s it going to cost?” is the first thing a smart shopper asks when purchasing an item. Not just in the purchase price, but in the continued operation and maintenance. Everything we do has a cost. This is why Jesus tells us to “count the cost” when we make our plans.

Every person has a foundational set of principles on which his or her worldview is built. While it might take some probing to identify the foundational operating principles, they’re always there. The first line in Carl Sagan’s book Cosmos tells us what his operating assumption was: “The universe is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”1

Similar statements have been made by well know atheist Richard Dawkins. He begins with the operating assumption that there is no God. His worldview unfolds from this premise and has real-world consequences:

“In the universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, and other people are going to get lucky; and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good. Nothing but blind pitiless indifference. DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is, and we dance to its music.”2

Over time, these operating assumptions work their way through our culture. They imbed themselves, often unconsciously, in our thinking patterns. The world we look at is filtered by a new set of interpreting lenses. Like contacts and glasses, we see through these new lenses without noticing that we’re wearing them.

The same is true of worldview glasses. Once we put them on, everything we view is bent, as light is bent, and then refocused on the optic nerve and registered on our brain. Over time, this bent light becomes a grid of interpretive analysis for everything we do.

What might have been shocking to someone born just after the Second World War and into the 1950s is now part of a new way of looking at the world. As species evolve, as atheists tell us, so must worldviews, since there is no fixed standard, an established interpreting starting point, to evaluate old and new information. Everything is reevaluated based on a new set of relative values.

Kay Haugaard began teaching creative writing in 1970. As with most of her classes, students read and discuss Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery.” Jackson’s lottery isn’t about winning millions of dollars by picking the right series of numbers; it’s about human sacrifice that a small town accepts and takes part in with no questions asked. As the years of teaching this story have passed, Haugaard began to see a change in the moral perceptions of her students. Their views on right and wrong had been dulled by the rhetoric of moral neutrality, “the danger of just ‘going along’ with something habitually, without examining its rationale and value.”3 Haugaard’s closing comments are chilling:

No one in the whole class of more than twenty ostensibly intelligent individuals would go out on a limb and take a stand against human sacrifice.

[Here’s how] I wound up the discussion. “Frankly, I feel it’s clear that the author was pointing out the dangers of being totally accepting followers, too cowardly to rebel against obvious cruelties and injustices.” I was shaken, and I thought that the author, whose story had shocked so many [in past years], would have been shaken as well.

The class finally ended. It was a warm night when I walked to my car after class that evening, but I felt shivery, chilled to the bone.4

We’ve become a nation of moral bystanders. Deep down we know certain behaviors are wrong, but we’ve been cajoled into believing that nothing can be said in objection to the new glasses that have been pasted on our face. If we do react, we are labeled “intolerant” and “insensitive” to different “lifestyle choices.”

  1. Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 4. While I can’t be sure, but I think he stole this line from The Berenstain Bears children’s book The Bears’ Nature Guide: A Nature Walk Through Bear Country where this line is found: “Nature is all that IS or WAS or EVER WILL BE.” []
  2. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life (New York: HarperCollins/BasicBooks, 1995), 133. []
  3. Kay Haugaard, “The Lottery Revisited,” Unriddling Our Times: Reflections on the Gathering Cultural Crisis, ed. Os Guinness (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999), 138. []
  4. Haugaard, “The Lottery Revisited,” 141. []