Once in awhile a TV writer gets something right. It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. There’s an ER episode called Atonement that’s rather astonishing when it comes to getting some aspects of religion and morality right.1. It’s not a perfect episode, but there’s a gem to be found.
The man in bed is a former prison doctor. Dr. Truman is played by character actor Jonathan Banks. He’s dying of cancer. Giving him the name “Truman” is a nice symbolic touch. He speaks truth for all of us.
He is gripped by guilt over his involvement in the execution of an innocent man framed for murder. Reiko Aylesworth plays Julia Dupree, a chaplain who has adopted the worldview of religious pluralism. She has no faith that anything can be absolute. Sin is not in her vocabulary, and neither is the need for atonement. How can it be? We’re evolved biological machines, at best, who have mud as a mother.
Dr. Truman’s “fury exposes the absurdity and cruelty of relativist platitudes when confronted with” the reality of his mortality. “But what this clip shows . . . is that the spirit of our age simply will not do. We’re no doubt meant to feel acutely sorry for Julia Dupree – but in the end, Truman is surely right.” (see here).
Dr. Truman: I don’t want to go on. Can’t you see? I’m old. I have cancer. I’ve had enough. The only thing that is holding me back is that I am afraid. I am afraid of what comes next.
Julia: What do you think that is?
Dr. Truman: No, you tell me. Is atonement even possible? What does God want from me?
Julia: I think it’s up to each one of us to interpret what God wants.
Dr. Truman: So people can do anything? They can rape, murder, they can steal, all in the name of God, and it’s okay?
Julia: No. That’s not what I’m saying.
Dr. Truman: (voice rising to a shout) Well, what are you saying? Because all I’m hearing is some new age, God is love, one size fits all crap!
Dr. Truman: God tried to stop me from killing an innocent man, and I ignored the sign. How can I even hope for forgiveness?
Julia: I think … sometimes it’s easier to feel guilty than forgiven.2
If there is no just recompense after death, if there is no ultimate Judge, then what Adolf Hitler did this side of the grave is irrelevant and “morally” inconsequential. All he did was eliminate chemical bags of meat and bones, “meat machines” that have no more intrinsic value than the innards of a gutted fish. At death, Hitler and the world’s greatest philanthropist will be nothing more than “dust in the wind.”
Richard Dawkins sums it up nicely: “It is the plain truth that we are cousins of chimpanzees, somewhat more distant cousins of monkeys, more distant cousins still of aardvarks and manatees, yet more distant cousins of bananas and turnips. . . . continue the list as long as desired.”
Does morality evolve? Maybe Hitler was ahead of his time. How do physical particles (our essence) generate moral rules? Didn’t we get here by killing weaker biological units? Given the assumptions of evolution, we most certainly did. Was it wrong when our pre-biotic soup ancestors did it? When did it stop being wrong and why? Why is it wrong today?