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.
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.