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Alister McGrath on Transcendentalizing Ideals

"Is Religion Evil?" in God Is Great, God Is Good, eds. William Lane Craig and Chad Meister (IVP Books: 2009), pp. 128-9.

When a society rejects the idea of God, it tends to transcendentalize alternatives — such as the ideals of liberty or equality. These now become quasi-divine authorities, which none are permitted to challenge. ¶ Perhaps the most familiar example of this dates from the French Revolution, at a time when traditional notions of God were discarded as obsolete and replaced by transcendentalized human values. In 1792 Madame Rolande was brought to the guillotine to face execution on trumped-up charges. As she prepared to die, she bowed mockingly toward the statue of liberty in the Place de la Révolution and uttered the words for which she is now remembered: “Liberty, what crimes are committed in your name.” Her point is simple, and I believe it to be irrefutable. All ideals — divine, transcendent, human or invented — are capable of being abused. That’s just the way human nature is. And knowing this, rather than lashing out uncritically at religion, we need to work out what to do about it. The problem lies in human nature.