When Bill O’Reilly recently tried to pin America’s spree of mass shootings on atheism rather than guns or mental illness, he hoped to tap a specific set of beliefs that are common among Bible believers— that morality derives from religion; that Born Again Christians are a light unto the world while atheists (who lack any basis for ethics or morality) spend their empty lives in pursuit of money and sex; that when Christians get raptured or otherwise lose the upper hand, America will descend into the orgy of sex, violence, and anarchy depicted in the Left Behind books and movie.
This view feeds both righteous superiority and genuine anxiety among conservative Christians. On Facebook, a person named Georgia pasted the following into a comment thread:
Atheists shake with contempt at the thought of love and decency. Their whole lives are dedicated to nothingness, to the gaping void of pain that nihilism defines.
The original source of Georgia’s comment, ironically, is a spoof article. But ordinary believers don’t always recognize the distortion, for good reason. Calvinists and other fundamentalist theologians teach that humanity is “utterly depraved” and that the only hope for our fallen world and fallen individuals is the saving blood of Jesus. In the words of mega-minister Mark Driscoll, “If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are guns to shoot, there are people to shoot, there are parties to be had, there are women to be had.” Fox News contributor, Erick Erickson points to theology to justify dehumanizing atheists, literally. “I’ve largely moved toward the NT Wright view that as people move further and further from God, they [become] less than human.”
Politicians like Sarah Palin play out this logic to keep Conservative Christians involved in politics: “The logical result of atheism, a result we have seen right in front of our eyes in one of the world’s oldest and proudest nations, is severe moral decay.” In this worldview, the growth of secularism means the growth of moral bankruptcy. Modernity is a grim slide into an end-times world where everybody lies, cheats, and takes whatever they can get. And here in America, this dark tide can be held back only by Christians in high places.
But this common wisdom is being challenged by the public behavior of both the godly and the godless—by atheists who publically embrace humanity’s moral core and spiritual quest; and by Christian leaders who keep getting caught, literally or metaphorically, with their pants down. The combination paints a picture that more than anything reveals our shared humanity—that the godless have their share of moral leaders and inspiring spiritual values, and the godly have their share of scoundrels.
Atheists Bare Their Beliefs and Values
Tired of being stigmatized and shunned, some atheists have set out to daylight the moral values they live by, and why. Some are specifically reclaiming words like morality and spirituality, which have long been owned by the religious sector. For example:
- This summer, photographer and filmmaker Chris Johnson began screening A Better Life: Joy and Meaning in a World Without God. The movie follows a related coffee table book in which prominent atheists (and—full disclosure—a few ordinary nonbelievers like me) discuss the values, loves, dreams and projects that give their lives purpose.
- New Atheist author Sam Harris, followed his book, The Moral Landscape with Waking Up, an inquiry into the rich human experience of meditation and transcendence—the universal human experience that we are more than just our individual selves and life is deeper than the hedonism of the moment.
- Small Sunday Assembly congregations around the world are continuing to experiment with building community around a three part motto—Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.
- Blogger, Neil Carter, a theology-trained former teacher, has amassed a following of thousands who read his wry, tender morally-grounded musings as he navigates being Godless in Dixie.
- Humanist chaplaincies like the Harvard Humanist Hub have been springing up on college campuses.
- Even the Satanic Temple (actually an atheist religion that eschews supernaturalism and embraces Satan as a literary rebel against tyranny a la Milton) has stepped into the public eye with a mission and manifesto affirming broadly held humanistic values.
Scandals Expose Hypocrisy, Rock Christianity
Meanwhile, scandals have been hitting conservative Christianity, hard and fast:
After Christian abortion foes launched a blood-and-guts media campaign based on staged entrapment interviews with Planned Parenthood staff, public opinion wavered. Then the campaign crumbled as forensic experts found 42 splices, including in “unedited” videos, rendering them useless as evidence. A seemingly unimpeachable witness, a disgruntled Planned Parenthood employee who claimed she had been forced to sell body parts, was impeached by past statements that contradicted recent testimony, suggesting that she was unreliable and a likely plant. Anti-abortion leaders found the moral high ground crumbling beneath their feet.
Another Christian publicity stunt turned out to be fabricated by—to borrow a phrase from investigative journalist Chris Rodda—Liars for Jesus in the military. Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz has built his campaign around religious opposition to anti-discrimination laws, which some Christians claim violate their religious freedom and cause them to be persecuted. One ad features the story of Air Force Sergeant Phillip Monk who was fired by a lesbian superior for “expressing a traditional view of marriage”—except that he wasn’t. Oops. So much for the Bible’s prohibition against false witness. If Cruz had read some of the anti-Semitic, homo-slurring hate mail sent by military Evangelicals in the name of Jesus he might have been more wary.
A John Oliver August expose of televangelists exposed so much corruption—from multi-million dollar tax-exempt parsonages, to personal trips on private jets, to manipulative but unfulfilled promises of healing—that if religion wasn’t exempt from truth-in-advertising laws the ministries in question would have their butts sued off. The wide blanket of “religious freedom” may provide legal cover for preachers like Robert Tilton or Joel Olsteen but it can’t cover the up the fact that their ministries stink of moral rot. Oliver launched his own church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, with dollars (and seeds and beef jerky) that flowed in from eager viewers, challenging the IRS to investigate—and not just Oliver.
And then, of course, there’s the ongoing scandal surrounding Ashley Madison, the matchmaking site for would-be adulterers hacked by possible extortionists who released member names to the public. Early controversy focused on the membership of Christian patriarchy leader, Josh Duggar, whose teen pattern of molesting younger girls—and the family’s response—recently cost his parents their multi-million dollar reality show, 19 Kids and Counting. But a 2014 survey conducted by Ashley Madison itself revealed that a quarter of members surveyed identified themselves as Evangelical Christians, while another 23 percent identified as Catholic. At least three of the hacked accounts had Vatican email addresses, and an estimated 400 accounts belong to church leaders including pastors, deacons and staff. “Family values” politicians like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, who flaunt their Christian credentials and loudly lament how gays and feminists are destroying marriage appear to have lost their voices when it comes to adultery, a sin that—in contrast to gay marriage or abortion—the Bible clearly condemns.
Moral Decay or More Transparency?
Have traditional Christianity’s claims of moral superiority always been mere conceit, now visible to all, or has something changed? Certainly the internet has made it harder to live a double life or hide hypocrisies, or to protect the faithful from outside information. I wrote about this in “Religion May Not Survive the Internet.” But there’s also reason to believe that Bible-believing Christianity once worked better than it does today as a guide for individual and community behavior:
- Archaic sex and gender scripts drive hypocrisy. As gender roles and intimate relations become more flexible in modern society, the rigid Iron Age sex script gets harder and harder for Bible-believing Christians to impose—not only on society at large but even on themselves. Trying and failing, young Evangelicals vow abstinence until marriage but instead engage in impulsive, high risk sex (because planning and protection would signal premeditation). Pastors, priests and patriarchal men—who often find the old script equally impossible—pay queer prostitutes, exploit their positions to fondle children and female parishioners, and fill the coffers of internet porn providers—all the while loudly condemning the sexual obsessions of gays, women, and youth.
- Clinging to creationism drives rabbit hole reasoning. As evolutionary theory gets incorporated into computer science and the next wave of engineering and even manufacturing, creationists find themselves backed into a corner, needing to cast aspersions on the whole scientific enterprise (with a peculiar corollary emphasis on undermining climate science). More and more, the only way to preserve and protect a biblical world view is to engage in self-deceptive rabbit hole reasoning—a very bad habit for any individual or group that hopes to be a moral light in the midst of humanity’s darkness.
- The quest for political power drives corruption. The fusion of conservative Christianity and conservative politics into the Religious Right has corroded Christian values and priorities in America and soiled Christianity’s good name. In the words of Sean Illing, “This unholy union of religion and politics has proven disastrous, particularly in the era of PACs, which allow economic libertarians to manipulate conservative Christians for political purposes.” Politics is a notoriously ruthless no-holds-barred affair in which power corrupts—sometimes absolutely. Right wing candidates and politicians who tout their close relationship with God may baptize their own reputations, but they simultaneously foul the Church.
- Bibliolatry drives moral stunting. As culture continues to evolve and moral consciousness deepens, the tribal, racist, sexist worldview of the Bible writers appears ever more cruel and morally stunted. Bible believers, who insist on treating ancient texts as if they were the literally perfect word of God, and their own interpretation of these texts as if it were the only one possible, end up coming across the same way. As their views become less appealing, young people motivated by an honest search for truth and compassion find the Church less and less appealing, leaving those with other priorities to wave the Christian flag.
In sum, conservative Christians are being Left Behind morally and spiritually; and they have responded by looking for love—and answers and power—in all the wrong places. If they find that Americans increasingly turn elsewhere for inspiration and ethical values, maybe they should do a little soul searching instead of pointing the finger at atheists.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.
“Why do we have war?”
I can tell you why we had a war in Iraq – because a little boy wanted to make his Daddy proud of him. Isn’t that right, Dubya?
That might be some of it. But, in my opinion, all wars are about money and power! He certainly hurt the U.S. in so many ways! And now we see nothing was accomplished!
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He also wanted to prove that he was an a good Commander in Chief like his father; however, unlike his father who fought in World War II, this sorry person avoid the Vietnam war at all costs. But when you look at it, both the Senior Bush and Junior Bush, failed in Iraq and in domestic policy when it came to creating good paying jobs.
“Have traditional Christianity’s claims of moral superiority always been mere conceit, now visible to all, or has something changed?”
Medieval European history is full of tales of Bishops and Cardinals who have fathered children via mistresses.
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Your article was very good but I did find the white male “Christian/Atheist” cover art a turn-off. I’m tired of white males being viewed as the “representatives” of the Christian and Atheist worldviews.
BTW, the Internet is not only shedding a light on evangelical hypocrisy. It is shedding a light on atheist hypocrisy. Attests can be as misogynistic and racist as evangelicals. That’s probably why more people are calling themselves “spiritual but not religious”.
“Attests can be as misogynistic and racist as evangelicals.”
Not entirely discounting your statement, but I know a great many atheists, and I know of none who are either racist or misogynistic – not saying they’re not out there, but I would certainly hesitate to say that they were in the majority.
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Yes. The problem with Christianity isn’t that Christians themselves are racist or misogynistic — all of us struggle with racism or sexism to some degree. The problem is that the Bible and derived traditions specifically encourage racism and sexism.
I agree about the white males thing. I just grabbed a picture and didn’t really think about it.
Had you “grabbed” a photo of anyone of any other race, someone would have been sure to scream prejudice.
When you say that “[Atheists] can be as misogynistic and racist as evangelicals”, there’s a big difference: An Atheist can’t justify such behavior in terms of any moral principles; an evangelical need only look to the Bible.
Whoa there pardner! Before you shoot from the hip, please consider that most atheists have reached that determination by using reason and logic as opposed to blindly accepting what their parents or religious instructors have told them. It has been my experience that they are by nature more skeptical, questioning and tend to look at things less emotionally and less judgmentally. Clearly, that is not the profile of a racist. I would suspect the same could be said for their misogynistic tendencies. Evangelicals on the other had accept any kind of tripe because it was in the bible.
So I for one don’t buy your slanderous assertion.
Speaking of Neil Carter you guys might find this post I did at my blog interesting.
There’s also this I wrote on Arian Foster. I am grateful he has come out on Openly Secular as that is a good thing in so many ways. Christians need to have these discussions and debates, yet many are personally afraid to. LOL…I’m probably one of the only Christians who heads to church who from time to time enjoys listening to the Friendly Atheist in my car. LOL I honestly love and respect the atheist community and believe there is much that can be learned from it.
I didn’t hear about Arian Foster. Thank you.
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No question about it.
HI Valerie the good news is — I figured out a way to quickly post essays that have many many links. So you don’t have to do anything – just send me links but… I can’t post your most recent essay — it is more about religion, than bioethics, reproductive rights, etc. I am looking forward to future essays and posting them, as always Hank
A well constructed treatise. This analysis was very thought provoking in terms of digging away at Christianity’s modern dilemmas.
Since the hackers’ original threat was to expose names if the Ashley Madison site wasn’t shut down completely, I’ve suspected that the hack came from right wing “moral reformers”. If that’s true, they certainly got more than they bargained for. :)
They’ve been hacking reproductive care organizations and individuals as well.
Well, isn’t that interesting. :) It appears as though my suspicions were right!
For some reason, the past misdeeds of “God’s people” seem to always be forgotten, and relegated to the dustbin of history. Names that come to mind (quite literally “off the top of my head”) are Oral Roberts, Jim Bakker, Larry Craig, Jim West, Phil Robertson, and Josh Duggar. I would think that such shining examples of “Godly behavior” would provide a definitive response to the ridiculous claim that one cannot be moral without a belief in God.
One might think. The trite excuse, “Christians are forgiven, not perfect” allows believers to dismiss information that might otherwise add up to a paradigm shift.
Numbers are often a “turnoff” for many people. However, here I think that they’re relevant. According to the latest Pew Research study, 3.1% of the population, or 1 in 32, are Atheists, and 4.0%, or 1 in 25 are Agnostics. If one defines these two groups collectively as nonbelievers, then nonbelievers constitute 7.1% of the population, or about 1 in 14. Needless to say, nowhere near 7.1% of all crimes can be attributed to nonbelievers!
Historically, the same is true; the only counterexamples are the present and former Communist countries.
Lest anyone believe the revisionist claim that Hitler was an Atheist, the following quotes should suffice:
“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. … How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.”
“As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice.”
“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.”
“Secular schools can never be tolerated because such a school has no religious instruction and a general moral instruction without a religious foundation is built on air; consequently, all character training and religion must be derived from faith . . . We need believing people.”
“Who says I am not under the special protection of God?”
— Adolph Hitler —
That one is in my collection as well. The four I chose were selected from 27 Hitler quotes that I’ve found.
You doing OK, Lowell?
Of course! I’m my usual crazy self, and don’t need drugs or alcohol to act that way. :)
Me either. Every morning, I check the obituary column, and if I don’t see my own name, it’s a great day!
Aww man, argumentum ad Hitlerum already? With your Hitler statement, you’re acting like a Christian and cherry-picking the evidence that fits your argument. The historical truth is that nobody knows what Hitler’s real religious beliefs were, since he rarely talked about it. He used Christian messages in his speeches to win public support (so no amount of quotes counts as “evidence”), but in private suggested an admiration for Islam, Shinto and Atheism. The revisionist view in this case is legitimate historical scholarship.
Are you serious?
support of ideas and beliefs that differ from and try to change accepted ideas and beliefs especially in a way that is seen as wrong or dishonest
The quotes that I used are DIRECT QUOTES, attributed to Adolf Hitler. These statements quite plausibly could have been made by Falwell, Robertson, Huckabee, or Cruz. IMO, that SHOULD make people uncomfortable!
Just a followup. According to data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and compiled/published by Hemant Mehta in The Friendly Atheist, of the 191,322 inmates held in Federal prisons, 197, or 0.10% (about 1/1000!) are Atheists. There was no “Agnostic” category, so, for purposes of comparison, one can count only the 3.1% of the population that are Atheists. Given the above data, Atheists are less likely to be incarcerated in a Federal prison by a factor of 31. So much for the claim that religion is a necessary prerequisite to ethical and moral behavior!
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If an atheists does something morally questionable, it’s because he or she is a godless atheist who doesn’t have any sense of morality, thinks we are all just animals, etc.
If a good Christian does something morally questionable, however, it’s because he or she is a poor sinner who fell victim to temptation, but that’s OK because he or she can always pray to Jesus for forgiveness,
Or, to put it another way atheists tend to be held accountable for their sins — regardless of how minor — while Christians get to avoid negative repercussions for their actions — regardless of how major.
The hypocrisy is staggering.
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From experience, I can vouch that the above statement is true.
If Christ die for our sins, then we should not have original sin in the first place when we come into this world.
From what I have heard in the last few years, many Christians have committed immoral acts; however, there is some scripture stating that if people repent, then their sins will be forgiven It kind of makes a mockery of being a good person and stating that it is okay to be a bad/evil person because you will not be held responsible when your life comes to an end. A good example would be a police officer who sends people to jail on contempt of cop charges and manufactured evidence to send an innocent person to jail.and both the judge and district attorney who both conspire to help the cop because they only care about their record of being tough on crime and need the police to help them.
Late to the “conversation” as always. (Elderly body falling apart. Maybe brain too.) Anyway, a comment on “wanderingeagle” ‘s first of two posts. The pain and extended suffering he describes, attending the loss of Christian (or, read: Religious) Faith: It is the “poster child” for the luck of us who avoided entering deeply into it at an early age. Thus, for we who only “flirted” with it, for whatever were our reasons over time, it was far less painful to entertain the “real world” and the Cosmos. That’s not to say that psychic struggle should be easy, as it obviously is not at best. But the pain described is one of the species of “Religion” damage best to be avoided through limited exposure to the source. There’s no intrinsic reason why discovering psychic accommodation with reality, (as best we know it at the moment, through logical and rational Philosophical and Scientific inquire), should be made that much harder. :-)
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What do you mean by “spiritual”?
I would not trust a priest or pastor alone with my child, so why would I trust a religious politician with my country.
Atheists rule … or at least we should. We have more empathy usually, and we care about this life, and will therefore care care better for our planet and our children’s future.
Cheers …. David
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That’s psychotic faithistic narcissistic delusionals for you – agnosognosic about their own insanity and unable to take responsibility for their own psychotic nonsense, or to ascribe it to their equally sick bigoted doctrines. It’s maybe a step in the direction of mental health for them – since at least thaty aren’t blaming their imaginary enemy. Or are atheists really The Devil? smile emoticon Muah ahhahhhhhaaa .
(Oh yes – and I’m also tired of seeing white males used to represent things – not that I’m bigotted against them or anything ;) )
Please note that all donations made to John Oliver’s fake church go to Doctors Without Borders. I donated happily and received a response very much like the ones sent by the real tv snake oil salesmen, except his was funny–and I knew my money would be well-spent.
I donated too. If it helps his campaign against exploitation and/or goes to Doctors without Borders — either way I’m happy.
When I send in my donation, I will asks him if he send some of the money to Reporters without Borders as well.considering the fact that corporate media is not doing its job.
I could not agree more with this article. I think you captured it perfectly.
I think a good deal of Christian talk about atheists and other scapegoats constitutes an absurd kind of pornography. They indulge themselves through their imagination of us.
I put this together in a comment on a friend’s blog, but it would seem to apply here as well:
Well written! This is one of the first really good articles written on this subject that I’ve read. It seems that few people dare to talk about it.