Fundie 101: We’re all very, very naughty

As I’ve gotten more immersed in atheistic literature and websites, I’ve noticed that some atheists ascribe motivations or beliefs to Christians, particularly evangelicals, that aren’t quite on the mark, or that leave out important ideas. This isn’t to cast stones — it’s hard to get the full picture unless you’ve been in the belly of the beast, so to speak. The Gent has, both as an evangelical fundie (we’re talking born-again, tongue-speaking, almost-went-to-bible-college fundie. Snap!) and an adult convert to Catholicism (little funny to say about that. Wine and crackers anyone?). And so, to add my two cents to my atheist friends’ discussions of the wacky things religious people believe, I’m happy to introduce Fundie 101, a crash course in the basics (and some not-so-basics) of what the deeply religious believe. Today’s lesson: why fundies think atheists are either immoral or amoral.

While recently watching Richard Dawkins’ documentary “Root of All Evil?” (episodes available here and here), I was stricken by an exchange between Dawkins and Christian schoolmaster Adrian Hawkes:

Adrian Hawkes:  If there is no God and there is no lawgiver, what does it matter what I do?  Why is rape wrong?  Why is pedophilia wrong? Why are any of these things wrong if there is no lawgiver?

Richard Dawkins:  You’ve just said a very revealing thing.  Are you telling me that the only reason why you don’t steal and rape and murder is that you’re frightened of God?

Hawkes:  I think that all people, if they think they can get away with something and there is no consequences, we actually tend to do that.  I think that is the reality.  Look at the world in which we live.  That is the reality.

The argument Dawkins employs here is one I’ve heard on several occasions. Sam Harris uses it to great effect, and bloggers and commenters frequently reference it. Heck, I’ve deployed it myself. “If the only reason you behave is because you’re afraid God will punish you, how can you call yourself ‘moral’ and me ‘immoral’ for not believing in God?” Dawkins deployed his question as a kind of “gotcha” — fully expecting his quarry to backtrack and say “well, no, of course God isn’t the only reason I behave morally.” But he didn’t. Instead, he stated (very inarticulately) a belief held by many evangelicals — “Yes, in fact, I probably would be a bawdy heathen if it weren’t for God.”

Makes your head want to explode, right? But to the Christian, this is the ultimate statement of humility.  Matthew chapter 8 tells of a Roman centurion whose servant was paralyzed and suffering.  When Jesus offers to go and heal the man, the centurion replies, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed.”  Astonished at the man’s faith, Jesus sends him on his way and distance-heals the servant.  Catholics will recognize the centurion’s words immediately as those spoken by the congregation before taking Holy Communion: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you.  But only say the word and I shall be healed.” 

Elsewhere, Jesus tells a story in Luke 18 drawing the distinction between wealthy Pharisees who tithed and prayed publicly, reveling in their holiness, and a tax collector who “stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'”  Jesus declares, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”  We are all sinners, the Bible tells us, and will continue to be so unless we accept the dear-lord-baby-jesus into our hearts.  Like the addict who will always be a junkie, no matter how long he stays clean, Christians believe we cannot escape our sinful nature (see previous post on Original Sin), and should humbly admit as such.

That’s the gentler side of the “hell, yeah, I’d probably sin like crazy” response.  This view also emanates, especially among evangelical fundamentalists, from the belief that human nature is, at its root, broken and debased, and that the material world is by and large evil.  External agency is further mixed into the pot with people who believe the Devil and demons are constantly tempting mankind, trying to encourage us to sin.  This is not a metaphorical presence for these folks.   They believe Satan is literally lurking around every corner dangling temptation before them, trying to cause them to fall.  In this worldview, people (including the believer) are weak, lost, and can only avoid doing evil by the grace of God.  This is the side of the argument that frequently expresses itself with an overactive fascination with sex, rock music, drugs, television and movies – in short, all of the temptations that “the world” (meaning the secular world) dangles before believers. 

It is small wonder then that, when faced with an atheist who does not believe in their moral safety net and who does not consider himself or herself a “sinner,” the Christian immediately dubs this individual either immoral outright or lacking in any moral standards.

The point of this long-winded exegesis is to say: Christians will always believe atheists are immoral, because we don’t think that we are.  (There’s also our failure to believe, discussed here.)  With that as a background proposition, my personal approach to broaching the subject of morality with believers is as follows: 

I understand that you believe humans are sinful by nature and that freedom from this nature can only be realized through Jesus.  I do not, however, take such a dim view of people.  First, I reject the doctrine of Original Sin and “fallen” human nature, because both require a belief that Adam and Eve existed, that they committed the first sin, and that this sin has been passed to all subsequent generations of humans.  Science has disclosed, to a very high level of certainty, that Adam and Eve never existed.  Accordingly, the doctrine built on their fallibility has no foundation in reality.

Second, we are not born moral or immoral (whatever those terms mean to us both, if anything).  It has been my experience that individuals, whether religious or not, are sometimes capable of heroic sacrifice in the service of others, and sometimes commit wanton cruelty.  Which tendency is expressed has nothing to do with devils or demons, and everything to do with a person’s genetic makeup, upbrining and home environment.

I live my life according to a couple of principles: (1) treat people as you want to be treated; and (2) the course of action that tends to relieve human suffering should be chosen over one that increases it.  In acting on these principles, I live in a way that is, by and large, compatible with the moral principles most people agree upon.  Please recognize this, and do not pretend to judge me immoral on the sole basis on my lack of belief in your or any religion. 

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7 Responses to Fundie 101: We’re all very, very naughty

  1. the scôp says:

    Gent,

    I appreciate your comments. They are learned and demonstrate a true desire not only to discover the truth but to dialogue about it, as well. I appreciate your seeking nature and the knowledge you have gained from your obviously rich personal experience. That said, I think I can add something here in small correction to your treatise.

    I do not believe that when Christians speak to the absence of morality in atheists they mean that they do not act in accordance to a moral system. It is obvious that many do; additionally, I believe that many atheists are more thoughtful regarding their behavior than those who follow a religious ideology (I generalize here and do not mean all in either case).

    What should be the more correct response is that as an atheist without any lawgiver, each moral system is equally acceptable. There exists no final arbiter and as such the atheism as practived by Pol Pot or Stalin is equally as valid as your own espoused morality. In this case as a system atheism cannot in the same sense that a religious system “preach” or demand a certain moral standard from others in reciprocity; within the atheistic system morality can only be judged at the individual level.

    Certainly, the likes of Noam Chomsky hold that this moral system can be sustained at a community level wherein personal enrichment is sacrificed for the good of the community as a whole. Nonetheless, it cannot be judged as either good or bad even if it infringes on another community’s concept of right and wrong; it can only be judged, again, within a system of shared personal beliefs. Or may be, it falls victim to the theory that “Might is Right” (a very Darwinian tautology).

    As a Christian myself, I do not hold that atheists are immoral; they each act out of some level of moral conscience whether or not we can agree with the “rightness” of their actions. Nonetheless, the main difference between someone of faith and someone without is that the one can say consistent with his worldview that “someone’s actions are right or wrong” while the other cannot and remain internally consistent within their systematic view of the world.

    I am certainly open to corrections and further dialogue on this point. Thanks for the voice…

  2. Thank you for the thoughtful comment. I don’t agree, however, that in the absence of a divine lawgiver, all moral viewpoints are equally valid. Atheism does not give rise to a particular worldview; rather, it permits an individual to develop his or her worldview independent of the teachings of religion or the belief in god or an afterlife. By definition, there isn’t an immutable set of beliefs that atheists must accept. So there really isn’t a conflict between being an atheist and developing a worldview within which one can say certain actions are morally right or wrong. I can say without hesitation that Pol Pot and Stalin were both horrid monsters and their actions were deeply immoral, because I have developed a worldview in which it is wrong to hurt other people (which, incidentally, I developed independent of my thoughts on religion). Further, there is plenty of evidence that humans can develop broad universal norms of morality quite apart from religious belief — witness the various Geneva Conventions and international treaties protecting human rights.

    It’s unfortunate that you invoked Pol Pot and Stalin as a rhetorical device. Those madmen did not commit the atrocities they did because they “practiced” a certain type of atheism. Again I repeat, atheism implies no belief system of its own, so there is nothing to “practice” if one declares oneself an atheist. Those regimes were wicked for entirely human reasons, and their immorality is widely recognized by all, regardless of religious belief or lack thereof.

  3. the scôp says:

    I recently received the following in response to one of my articles:

    Regarding accepting and rejecting God, I think I misspoke. I mean that, when, for example, an atheist rejects God, what is he or she rejecting? Do they have a sense that the world is sacred? If so, does this not point to some sense that God exists, and that their thinking is only limited by their presuppositions about God? Richard Dawkins, for instance, waxes poetic about the universe, but he constantly rails against God and religion. Yet, when he uses phrases like “the cosmos are dancing” he talking about meaning and beauty that goes far beyond the realm of science.

    I’d like to give you the opportunity to respond; In fact I believe it to be more appropriate if you made those comments…

    Should you so desire the link is:
    http://diatribalarts.wordpress.com/2007/10/03/on-the-value-of-myth/#comments

  4. the scôp says:

    …Rather, it permits an individual to develop his or her worldview independent of the teachings of religion or the belief in god or an afterlife. By definition, there isn’t an immutable set of beliefs that atheists must accept.

    Exactly my point. Ergo, an atheist can judge life at the personal level but not from the universal level. Richard Dawkins in his recent debate with John Lennox used the term “common sense” rather than morality. The concept of the “Social Contract” mentioned by Hobbes & Locke and (alluded to in my previous post) Chomsky (though he doesn’t use that terminology). This is the same common sense that brought about the “Geneva Conventions and international treaties protecting human rights.” As Dawkins implied in the debate, these may change as acceptable and necessary.

    …you invoked Pol Pot and Stalin as a rhetorical device…Those madmen did not commit the atrocities they did because they “practiced” a certain type of atheism/blockquote>

    I did not mention these as proof that atheists are evil or bad; I mentioned these because it is impossible for you to judge them outside of a personal common sense or application of the “golden rule”. Dostoevsky writes that without God anything is permissable (even the actions of these individuals or a Hitler or an American policy of Manifest Destiny). Nietzsche too says that in the absence of God their is no moral absolute.

    Dawkins agrees with Hume who says that science cannot be used to discover what is ethical. It is my understanding that science is used to derive much of atheistic thought; Dawkins uses it to assert the possibility that God does not exist; he as a result dismisses God. Dawkins goes further and says in “River of Eden” that…the universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication…[has] no rhyme, no reason nor justice…the universe we observe is what we ought to expect when there is no design, no purpose, no evil and no good…[It has nothing but] blind pitiless indiference…DNA neither knows nor cares it just is and we dance to its music. John Lennox (again in the debate) made mention that in such a case one cannot claim that a rock falling on someone is evil; as we too are natural forces, Pol Pot, Hitler, George W. Bush or Stalin cannot be called evil either. They just are.

    If natural forces cannot be used to substantiate God (even showing something else completely different) and therefore he is dismissed, it follows that one should logically dismiss the moral. This does not prevent you as an atheist from doing good. Certainly, this is not my argument. There simply is no ground to absolutely judge things into the categories of good or evil (moral or immoral) and therefore be universally applied from the atheistic worldview.

  5. the scôp says:

    do you mind fixing my post to show only your statement in the quote block? i made an omission of a “<“…dratz.

  6. I’ll grant your agrument — being an atheist does not, per se, provide me with a moral absolute to which I can refer. But undre your reasoning, religious people are in no better situation in terms of an “absolute” morality. Which morality you consider absolute depends on which religion you follow. Is it the morality of Buddha, Christ, Krisna, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus, or Wotan that is absolute and universal?

    Moreover, why is a moral absolute necessary? To say that morals evolve and change is not to say that anything goes. On the contrary, societies have done well throughout history in imposing rules and regulations on their members. Those rules do change, and so are not eternal and immutable. But that doesn’t make them worthless.

    This has been an interesting thread, but I’m going to close it off now, since we’ve strayed pretty far from the original post.

  7. the scôp says:

    Can’t say that I yield, but I will respect your wishes…always enjoy a good discussion; thanks for humoring me. Again, I respect your thoughtfulness towards life’s complex issues.

    Until next time.

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