Christian societies as a whole are “unnatural,” requiring a host of actions that cannot be based on self-interest, however enlightened, or even on mutual obligation. Meanwhile, the more civilized a society is, the more power is available within it. Power cannot be destroyed, only divided and distributed. It may shatter into an anarchic war of all against all. Or it may solidify into a tyranny. Or it may be resolved into a free society governed by universally acknowledged laws. But on what basis can this be done? What agency can be used to place law above force? A law that does not stand above brute force and have some sort of power that can overcome brute force will not survive for long. How are inconvenient obligations, those of the banker and the messenger and the merchant, to be made binding? How are the young to be made to accept the authority of parents and teachers, once they are physically strong enough to ignore them, but too inexperienced in life to know the value of peace and learning?
The answer, from a very early stage, is that such contracts were made binding by solemn promises sworn in the name of Almighty God…. These oaths called into every contract an external power—one whose awful vengeance no man could escape if he defied it, and which he would be utterly ashamed to break. As Sir Thomas More explains in Robert Bolt’s play A Man for All Seasons, when a man swears an oath, “He’s holding his own self in his own hands. Like water. And if he opens his fingers then—he needn’t hope to find himself again.”
In their utter reverence for oaths, men of More’s era were in my view as superior to us as the builders of shopping malls. Our ancestors’ undisturbed faith gave them a far closer, healthier relation to the truth—and so to beauty—than we have. Without a belief in God and the soul, where is the oath? Without the oath, where is the obligation or the pressure to fulfill it? Where is the law that even kings must obey? Where it the Magna Carta, Habeas Corpus, or the Bill of Rights, all of which arose out of attempts to rule by lawless tyranny? Where is the lifelong fidelity of husband and wife? Where is the safety of the innocent child growing in the womb? Where, in the end, is the safety of any of us from those currently bigger and stronger than we are?
And how striking it is that such oaths were used to make us better, not worse, and that the higher power, the magnetic north of moral truth, found an invariable answer in the urgings of conscience. These things are far higher than the mutuality and “human solidarity” on which atheists must rely for morality—because they specifically deny the existence of any other origin for it.