Atheism and Moral Selflessness

Shantung Compound

The Shantung Compound by Langdon Gilkey recounts his experience while living in a Japanese internment compound in China during World War II.  At the outbreak of the war Gilkey was working as a English teacher in China; and when the Japanese invaded China, Gilkey and 2000 others, who were noncombatants in the war, were sent to an internment camp in Shantung province in China.

The significance of this book is highlighted by the author’s own personal transition from a died in the wool illiberal progressive having been educated in the world’s premier liberal institutions: University of Chicago and Harvard from where he graduated magna cum laude in Philosophy in 1939.

The compound itself was about the size of two city blocks and had about 2500 prisoners.  Each person had a space of 9’ feet by 54” within which they lived.  It was similar construction to POW facilities in that it had four corner armed guard towers; but aside from that the Japanese left the administration of the facility to the people being contained.

The essence of this story revolves around two themes: first, the transition of Gilkey’s ultra-liberal mindset from a basic atheistic secular framework to an understanding of the importance of a belief in God as a premise for surviving the normal trials and tribulations of life, let alone the environment of an internment camp.  

Gilkey was very proud of his upper-class secular education and as well was totally committed to his faith in human ingenuity to deal with human problems and was confident that metaphysical issues like religion and philosophy were irrelevant.

His almost two year stint in the compound would seriously challenge his beliefs and faith in human nature.

Fights would break out for food.  It seemed that no one had any empathy for anyone else, and it was fast looking like everyone had to look out for themselves.

And in one very instructive event it was learned that in one small room there were only nine men, and the next room had eleven.  So the room with eleven approached Gilkey, who was the housing person, with a proposal that one of their eleven men be shifted to the room with only nine men, thus making both rooms the same in terms of number of men.  And while this seemed an open and shut, slam dunk situation, it turned out that the room with only nine would not accept a person from the room with eleven.  As well, the room with nine men told Gilkey that they would not accept another person and if he came back they would throw him out.  Gilkey soon realized that rationality and reason were not enough to motivate humans to voluntarily accept social good.  Over time Gilkey learned that no matter whether the person was religious or not, the Shantung Compound showed that true virtue is extremely costly and goes deeply against human nature.  Gilkey learned that rationality alone was not enough to motivate people to reasonableness.  Rational behavior in communal situations  where there was a need for give and take was not possible because there was something else that is required besides intellectual achievement.  Gilkey came to realize that moral selflessness is a prerequisite for the life of reason.  He ultimately realized that to live rationally we needed new hearts.

And the other significant lesson from life in Shantung came from another inmate named Eric Liddell who was a Presbyterian missionary.  In the campground he became focused on the wellbeing of the teenagers.  He cooked for them, supervised recreation for them and poured himself out for them.  Many of us have seen the movie “ Chariots of Fire” which memorialized Liddell.  Gilkey began to understand from Liddell and his actions in the camp that it was not just religion but moral selflessness and, to his utter shock, it was God’s unconditional love that was manifested through undeserved grace, and manifested by Liddell.

Gilkey’s account in his book, reveals how thoroughly his “secularity” was dismantled through his up-close two-year confrontation with basic human nature.  Not only did people begin to steal coal and food, and it didn’t matter whether they were religiously inclined or were even shamed because of their aberrant behaviors.  Gilkey began to realize that the moral breakdowns he experienced were actually threatening their micro community with total breakdown.  In a direct quote from Gilkey’s book: “I began to see that without moral health, a community is as helpless and lost as it is without material supplies.”

The Shantung compound had stripped away the “masks” of politeness.  Gilkey had been taught in Chicago and at Harvard that when the chips were down that humans would be good to each other.  He now saw that this was not true; and that if social order was to improve or even to survive, that people had to be capable of virtue.  Gilkey was beginning to see that basic rationality could not give people a basis for moral obligation.

In his book he explains that his secularity and his experience at Shantung was leading to a significant shift in his thought processes:

It was a very rare person indeed in our camp whose mind could rise beyond that involvement of the self

To quote Reinhold Niebuhr:

“Religion is not the place where the problem of man’s egotism is automatically solved.  Rather, it is there that the ultimate battle between human pride and God’s grace takes place.  Insofar as human pride may win the battle, religion can and does become one of the instruments of human sin.  But insofar as there the self does meet God and so can surrender to something beyond its own self-interest, religion may provide the one possibility for a much needed and very rare release from our common self-concern.”

So, when push comes to shove in normal life, or in an internment camp, as Liddell, a missionary demonstrated, its more than just religion, but rather it is about how religion affects who you are, and what you do.  Moral selflessness becomes is a normal life action.