Admittedly, this blog title is inflammatory. The idea is not as simple, consistent or universal as implied. But this is a subject I feel needs attention.
I am a Christian. I believe in a divine creator. Jesus was His son who taught that we should be kind to each other. I also believe in the Big Bang (though science can always convince me otherwise) and evolution. I support sex education, higher taxes, the right to choose, universal health care and LGBT rights. I oppose the death penalty, unrestricted gun rights, voting restrictions and attempts to undo social programs like welfare and unemployment. I say this not to proselytize about any of these subjects, but to illustrate that I am not the mainstream image of a believer.
It’s the conservative, largely Republican “Christian” image that drives me to write this blog. This image, a weird Frankenstein’s Monster combination of Jesus and Ayn Rand, holds many beliefs that I feel are contrary to Christianity. As such, I feel that many moral atheists act more Christian (IE are better people) than many Christians. And the two biggest reasons for this are the Bible itself, and forgiveness.
The Bible Justifies All
The Bible is a necessity for Christianity. It’s a combination of law, historical record, parable, allegory and general advice on how to live life in a moral way. The Bible is the backbone of Christianity and preserves the teachings, lessons and history of our faith.
The first problem arises due to the combination of goals. Like any work of literature, scripture has to be looked at in the context of the time it was written. The Bible’s goals, by nature, are affected by the time period. Genesis describes creation in terms the people of that time could understand, rather than opening up with a BCE-era crash course in physics. It wasn’t meant to supplant our human curiosity to find answers (what did let there be light actually mean?) or remain constant through the ages. We don’t stone adulterers or make slaves of people (atrocities notwithstanding), yet we hold sacrosanct other missives scattered throughout the Bible.The Bible doesn’t replace science, explain how the universe operates, or override our God-given curiosity.
Which brings up the second problem. With a book that spans millenia and has so many goals, one can find justification for nearly any belief if one looks hard enough, and find reasons to refute any contrary argument. These beliefs often don’t take morality into consideration and default instead to “the Bible says so.” The Bible has been used to justify genocide, slavery, segregation, sexism and racism, just to name a few evils done with claimed biblical backing. Today it’s used to demonize the poor and refuse rights to other humans who think, act or look differently. The Bible can be used, willingly or not, as moral armor for just about anything. The Bible never says God helps those who help themselves, or that we should shoot first so that He could sort them out for us.
Moral atheists don’t have this problem. Morality is seen and identified by the individual, not through a book or sermon that can be gamed for one’s own interests. If you’re greedy, you can’t just say “God has blessed me.” You can’t bash away at homosexuality and conveniently ignore everything the Bible says about other sins. An atheist has to own his actions without a religious justification. A moral atheist decides if something is right or wrong based on morally, not on what they interpret the Bible to say (which may objectively be anything but moral). And an atheist never sees a conflict between the Bible and science. Belief in God is based on faith, and by definition is unprovable. But belief does not change, replace or trump scientific proof about our universe.
This is perhaps the greatest gift God ever gave humanity. He made us with free will. We have the ability to not even believe in Him, for crying out loud. Knowing we have free will, He also knows we are going to fuck up from time to time. And if we see the error of our actions and ask forgiveness, He will grant it.
Damn, that’s an awesome Creator, IMHO.
But this isn’t meant to be a get out of jail free card. This doesn’t give a Christian license to act as they wish, knowing they can be forgiven later. Intent matters in forgiveness. We can’t be forgiven for actions we have every intention of repeating, or are insincere in our regret.
I don’t think most Christians actively think of forgiveness this way. But I do think it’s present at least subconsciously in our daily lives. And it makes us more flexible morally when confronted with a difficult moral dilemma. But when a moral atheist comes against such a dilemma, he has no escape hatch. He doesn’t believe there’s a Heaven he’s trying to earn or a savior he’s trying to emulate. He only sees what’s morally right or wrong, and he chooses with the belief that he has no do-overs or take-backsies.
Christians also have the promise of Heaven (and, implicitly, the threat of Hell) to keep them on the straight and narrow. I have trouble squaring my perception of Jesus, God and grace with the idea of Hell. It’s clearly referenced in the Bible (and not like the spurious interpretations that give us ideas like the Rapture), so I have no good way to reconcile. But my point is that being good for an eternal reward seems like a less pure justification than being good just to be good. This is another topic way over my pay grade to try to argue in detail (let’s leave that to a later blog), but I’ve decided to be good just to be good, not because it will get me into paradise or avoid an eternity in a lake of fire. That way, I don’t need to understand whatever God has planned. I’ll hopefully have lived a good life because it’s the right thing to do.
So Atheists have it right, then?
To put it simply: No.
I think the mainstream image of the conservative(R) Christian is wrong. I think Jesus wouldn’t like many things they support, and I don’t think they would like Jesus if He were to return tomorrow. But atheists, even moral ones, are missing the biggest, most important piece of existence.
God is Lord. He created everything, and the science and natural laws that run everything are a testament to his greatness. He made physics and biology and evolution in all their beautiful complexity to arrive at the exact beings He planned. (And the other beings I’m sure He planned in that infinite universe around us.) He can’t be proven, and depends on our faith to lead us to Him. The unprovable part is a huge hang-up for many atheists, but hey, that’s what faith is for.
I think God is way smarter than me, or anybody else. (Yes, including that moderately douchey guy on Scorpion.) And I don’t pretend to know what His plans are for moral atheists who, even though they don’t believe in Him, still live lives that are in many ways more moral than those who do believe. But judging people is not my job, thank goodness, or anyone else’s. Our job is to be kind to everybody. And if you’re not doing that, whether Christian or atheist or anything else, then you’re not a good person. EOD.