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One of the most notable aspects of the Canadian city of Halifax, Nova Scotia, is its large and protected deep water port.  In April 1912, because the harbor is free of ice in the winter, several vessels were sent out from Halifax to recover bodies of those who had perished in the sinking of the “Titanic,” which occurred roughly seven hundred nautical miles away out in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic.  Altogether, the bodies of roughly 150 of those “Titanic” victims are buried in Halifax, the large majority of them together in one section of the city’s Fairview Lawn Cemetery.

About four and a half years after the “Titanic” disaster and well into the horrors of the First World War, on the morning of 6 December 1917, the Norwegian cargo ship “Imo” was making its way out of the harbor through an area called “The Narrows.”  Norway was a neutral country in the conflict, and “Imo” had been designated as a wartime carrier of relief supplies for the suffering civilians of war-devastated Belgium.  Entering from the opposite direction, arriving from New York City with the intent of joining a protective transatlantic convoy from Canada to Europe, was the French cargo vessel “Mont Blanc.”  Only two or three people in Halifax were aware that the “Mont Blanc” was carrying high-explosive munitions for the war effort.

Owing to a series of still mysterious miscues, the “Imo” and the “Mont Blanc” collided.    Within thirty-five minutes—but not before other boats had pulled up close to help fight the fire that had erupted because of the sparks caused by two colliding metal ships—the “Mont Blanc” exploded.  The blast sent flames into the sky accompanied by a cloud of smoke that very soon extended, according to some informed estimates, approximately three miles above the city.

It was, some say, the largest human-caused explosion prior to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan.  And, in fact, those who created the atomic bomb studied the effects of the “Halifax Explosion,” as it has come to be called, in their preparations for the attack on Japan.  The sound of the blast was heard by people scores of miles away, and the church bells of their towns rang mysteriously.  In Truro, fifty miles distant, windows were shattered.  When the shock wave from the explosion lifted his vessel up above the surrounding sea, at least one ship captain out on the North Atlantic many miles away feared that he had just hit a mine.  Some who survived the blast assumed, at first, that they were under German attack.  Hearing the explosion from fifty miles off shore, the United States naval vessels “Tacoma” and “Von Steuben” immediately headed to Halifax to render assistance.

The temperature at the detonation site may have reached roughly 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit, or 5,000 degrees Centigrade.  (To put this in context, the average temperature at the surface of the Sun is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit.  Steel melts at about 2,200 to 2,500 degrees.)  For a brief instant, the sea floor of the harbor was even exposed to view.  Tsunamis passed through portions of the city repeatedly, then also repeatedly receded, pulling rubble and people with them back into the water.  The entire residential district known as Richmond was obliterated.  Rocks from the seabed were hurled into the air, landing long distances away.  The forward gun of the “Mont Blanc,” its barrel melted, landed near Albro Lake, nearly three and a half miles north of the harbor.  The shank of one of the freighter’s anchors fell, almost intact and weighing half a ton, into a forest approximately two miles to the south of the explosion.  The “Mont Blanc” itself was essentially vaporized.

Noble Driscoll was walking to school with his brother, Gordon.  The explosion blew young Noble nearly two thousand feet through the air, but he survived.  His brother’s body was never found.  Likewise, teenage Barbara Orr, who had been walking with her brother Ian, was carried roughly two thousand feet by the blast.  Her brother was killed, as were her parents, her other two brothers, and her two sisters.

Some of the damage in Halifax (1917)

The official report on the Halifax Explosion puts the death toll at 1,963; the number of wounded at roughly 9,000; and the number of those who survived but were permanently blinded at 199.  However, some students of the event think that the official report grossly underestimates the number of fatalities.  One of the rescuers, for example—a man who went on, decades later, to become the Halifax fire chief—recalled that he was directed in the days following the disaster to provide 3,200 markers for the dead.  And other critics of the report argue that it ignored the untold numbers of victims who perished on the boats and ships that had been in the harbor itself, as well as the residents and visitors who simply vanished without a trace.

The hands on the north clock face in the Halifax City Hall tower are permanently fixed at 9:04:35, the exact moment of the blast aboard the “Mont Blanc” on the morning of 6 December 1917.  The clock face is a replica of the City Hall clock that was stopped by the force of the explosion.

I want to concentrate here, though, on one individual story from the Halifax Explosion:

Chief clerk William Lovett and train dispatcher Vincent Coleman were in their telegraph office at Richmond Station amid the freight yards of the Canadian Government Railway when the “Imo” and the “Mont Blanc” collided.  Within minutes, another man ran past their door, shouting to them that they should run for their lives.  The “Mont Blanc,” he yelled, was loaded with explosives and was certainly about to blow up.  The two jumped up and ran.  But then, as they were crossing the tracks, Coleman, the train dispatcher, stopped.  There were, he explained, trains coming toward Halifax bearing hundreds of people.  He had to go back to stop them from coming.  Hundreds of lives were at stake.

The last Morse code message that Vincent Coleman sent read as follows:  “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship afire in harbour making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Good-bye, boys.”  Thankfully, several trains did stop, and hundreds of lives were saved.  Vince Coleman’s body was later found near his office, with a piece of his telegraph key.

“Greater love hath no man than this,” said Jesus, “that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Please keep the story of Vincent Coleman and the Halifax Explosion in mind for a moment while I shift gears just a bit.  I’ll bring them back at the end.

“I’m an atheist,” the late actress Katherine Hepburn once told an interviewer, “and that’s it. I believe there’s nothing we can know except that we should be kind to each other and do what we can for each other.”

Plainly, atheists can be, and often are, good people.  It’s wonderful that Katherine Hepburn knew those things.  I believe that she did know them; I hope that she acted accordingly.  But exactly how did she “know” them?  In a godless world of mindless rocks and tides, of atoms and the void, where do moral principles exist to be “known”?  It’s one thing to believe in moral principles; it’s quite another to be able to justify them, to give an account of their source. And this seems to me a particular problem for atheists.

“Morality,” writes the evolutionary atheist philosopher Michael Ruse, “or more strictly our belief in morality, is merely an adaptation put in place to further our reproductive ends. Hence the basis of ethics does not lie in God’s will—or in the metaphysical roots of evolution or any other part of the framework of the Universe. In an important sense, ethics as we understand it is an illusion fobbed off on us by our genes to get us to cooperate. It is without external grounding. Ethics is produced by evolution but is not justified by it.”

Once I’ve recognized that morality is an illusion, though, why should I feel bound by it — especially when I can safely ignore it?

“We are survival machines,” says the British biologist and vocal “New Atheist” Richard Dawkins, nothing more than “robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

“What natural selection favors,” writes Dawkins, “is rules of thumb, which work in practice to promote the genes that built them. Rules of thumb, by their nature, sometimes misfire. In a bird’s brain, the rule ‘Look after small squawking things in your nest, and drop food into their red gapes,’ typically has the effect of preserving the genes that built the rule, because the squawking, gaping objects in an adult bird’s nest are normally its own offspring. The rule misfires if another baby bird somehow gets into the nest, a circumstance that is positively engineered by cuckoos. Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfiring, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler’s parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo? An even closer analogy is the human urge to adopt a child.”

But does adoption—or contributing to relief for unrelated poor people in distant countries, or risking one’s life to save a stranger—really represent mere evolutionary error?

To his credit, Dawkins himself recoils from the idea. He calls such acts “precious mistakes.”  But why are they “precious”? What does that mean beyond the mere fact that he likes them, as he might like broccoli or the Beach Boys?

“The universe that we observe,” he’s also written, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”

On what objective grounds, if any, can someone holding this view say that failure to help a child or fight Third World hunger is “wrong”? On what basis, even, can such a person condemn murder, rape or child abuse? If somebody else endorses them, on what basis can a Dawkins disagree? The Nazis regarded killing Jews and Gypsies and enslaving Slavs as good things. Are these only matters of opinion?  Of subjective “taste”?

Another way of looking at them involves what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints call “the light of Christ,” something given to every human. It provides both basic moral intuitions and, ultimately, the grounds for holding all of us morally accountable. As the apostle Paul wrote, “Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law … which shew the work of the law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15).

A simple argument can be formulated this way:

  1. If there is no God, objective morality and moral obligations don’t exist.
  2. But objective morality and moral obligations do exist.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

The logic of the argument is valid, and, although they can certainly be challenged, I suspect that most people intuitively believe both of the premises. If they are granted, the conclusion follows.

Yet another way of framing the matter is this:  Most of us, I expect, admire such sacrifices as that made by Vincent Coleman.  He gave his life to save the lives of hundreds of strangers.  But, if morality is merely nature’s trick to get us to disseminate and preserve our genes, how does his sacrifice make sense?  Is it the mere misfiring of a rule?  Why do we admire it?  Shouldn’t we consider him a fool?  After all, he left behind a wife and children.  Shouldn’t he have abandoned the passengers on those incoming trains to their fate?  Our hearts scream “No!”  And, as the great French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal observed, “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. . . .  We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.”

For historical background on the disaster in Nova Scotia, see Janet F. Kitz, “Shattered City: The Halifax Explosion and the Road to Recovery” (Halifax: Nimbus, 1989); David B. Flemming, “Explosion in Halifax Harbour: The Illustrated Account of a Disaster That Shook the World (Halifax: Formac, 2004); Michael J. Bird, “The Town that Died: A Chronicle of the Halifax Explosion” (Halifax NS: Nimbus, 2011).  This column was also influenced by essays by William Lane Craig and Chad Meister in William Lane Craig and Chad Meister, eds., “God is Great, God is Good” (Downers Grove, IL, 2009).