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Nov 13 2006

Christians’ moral blind spot

Numerous essays have already been written, in the never-ending war of words between Christians and atheists, over the supposed moral supremacy of theism, particularly Christian theism. Without belief in a God, we are admonished time and again, it is impossible for one to develop a sound framework for moral behavior. In this essay I intend to show that the opposite is in fact true: that there is no rational basis from which one can develop a sound basis for morals that is rooted in the worship of the Christian God. (I’ll leave the question of whether or not you can do it based upon the worship of any of the hundreds of thousands of other gods humanity has created over the centuries to someone else. Life’s too short.)

There is one crushing moral dilemma facing Christians who try to argue for their God’s being the source of all that is moral in life: the Doctrine of Hell.

At the core of Christianity is the belief that, in order to ascend to Heaven after death and enjoy a life of eternal bliss and joy, one must be a Christian. No other creed or belief system need apply. One must not only attend a Christian church; one must also answer the altar call, go up before the congregation, profess belief in the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, and eventual (any day now, really) second coming. I remember from my youth, when I attended a Baptist church in Houston, the pressure to perform this little ritual was intense. Failure to do so is punishable by an eternity of hell. Good works are immaterial. Membership in the club matters over all.

It was not until my adulthood that I began to realize something that I never would have even entertained as a wisp of a thought in my churchgoing days: Christianity’s entire sales-pitch involving conversion is immoral to the point of being deeply evil. And you just can’t get morals out of an immoral, much less evil, belief system.

Fundamentally it is an act of terrorism: turn or burn. A demand is being made upon humanity by God. God offers you what Christians call a “choice,” but which is really an ultimatum: worship Me, accept My Son as Savior, or else suffer the torments of hell for all eternity. What Christians can not, will not, face is the fact that such a “choice” is no different whatsoever from the modus operandi of the Mafia, whose “protection rackets” in the days of tommy guns and fedoras—in which gangs of thugs would troop into Chicago bars and offer owners the “choice” between paying the protection money or having their businesses Molotoved—have become a part of American folklore. The Christian God is the school bully who extorts your lunch money as a means of being persuaded not to beat you up at recess. But Christians can not see the connection between these behaviors. As George H. Smith writes in his seminal work Atheism: The Case Against God, “There is nothing the Christian will accept as evidence of his God’s evil.”

How, then, do Christians customarily deal with the Doctrine of Hell and the moral dilemma it introduces? I can only go by my experiences debating Christians in the years I’ve been on The Atheist Experience TV show, but it boils down to this: If Christians don’t want to be faced with a moral dilemma involving their beliefs, they won’t be. Christians have a remarkable capacity for not being bothered by aspects of their belief system they don’t want to be bothered by. This is what I call the Christians’ moral blind spot. And it’s a handy blind spot, in that—unlike that nasty one over your right shoulder they always warn you to check in drivers’ ed—this one can be moved around at will, to shield the Christian from anything unpleasant that they may be forced to face regarding their God and their beliefs.

The blind spot is what allows Christians to demand that the Ten Commandments be mounted in granite in every school and courthouse in the country, and yet, when you bring up the disturbing old divine laws regarding rapists being allowed to purchase their victims from their fathers for fifty shekels, or beating children, they’ll wave their hands and say, “Oh, pshaw—that’s just the Old Testament!”

And the blind spot is what allows Christians not to see that their God’s ultimatum, his “choice,” is no different than any terroristic threat of violence that anyone else might make.

Indeed, Christians’ defense of their God’s behavior in this context will expose you to some of the most perverse twisting of ideas you’re likely to hear. Christians will tell you, with a straight face, that the fact God is willing to offer you this choice, that he doesn’t force you to choose one way or another, that he is in effect offering you a ticket out of hell, proves how loving he is. Furthermore, if you make the choice not to become Christian, then God will respect your freedom to choose, and the fact that you’ve just condemned yourself to an eternity of torture is your fault!

The depth to which this belief is utterly deranged should be readily apparent to anyone with a shred of respect for reason or human dignity. Using the contorted reasoning this belief employs, one could argue that a gang member who walks up to you, sticks a .45 in your eyeball, and offers you the “choice” of giving him your wallet or getting your brains blown out is doing it because he loves you. And if you choose not to hand over your money, well, it’s just your own fault, isn’t it.

It never occurs to the Christian that God’s “choice” is not a choice at all, but an ultimatum. It never occurs to them that to threaten someone with violence for not complying with an ultimatum is de facto immoral even when God does it. Because if it isn’t wrong when God does it, who’s to say it’s wrong when anyone else—Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler—does it? How can a God dictate moral absolutes to humanity when he himself freely behaves in an immoral manner? Do Christians really think that a “do as I say, not as I do” God constitutes any sort of moral authority? How can I, or anybody, get our morals, our sense of right and wrong, from a God who tortures people who don’t worship him forever? A moral being would not torture anyone for any reason for two seconds, much less eternity. A moral being would not present you with a bogus “choice” between Heaven and Hell in the first place. And a moral being would not demand your worship! How can Christians claim their God is the source of my morals, when every examination of Christian beliefs as regards salvation and the Doctrine of Hell paints the picture of a deeply immoral—indeed, evil—God?

The blind spot. That’s how they can do it. That handy moral blind spot is always there, protecting the Christian from thinking thoughts he should not think, facing facts he doesn’t want to face, being troubled by anything he doesn’t want to be troubled by. The Christian God is the luckiest God anyone ever invented; he rules with absolute authority but not a shred of responsibility, and he threatens his believers with eternal torment if they stray from him, only to be hailed as “loving” for it. Thanks, folks, but I’ve been fortunate enough to have the light of reason shine through my blind spot…and it’s that selfsame reason that I use to determine my morals in life, not the dictates of some jealous, angry, vengeful, immoral—and thankfully, imaginary—God.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Pat Doyle

    Ignoring your cognitive dissonance results in blind spots. Doug Henning taught me that :) ..or was it Deepak?

  2. 2
    Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    Oh dear NO! I too am an ‘evangelical atheist’ and the one thing I have learned is that the one mistake you try desperately to avoid is giving a believer any excuse to say ‘he obviously doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ and dismiss the rest of what you say. And you have done this twice.The most egregious one is the ‘mafia boss’ analogy, which any Christian could knock over the center field fence without swinging hard. Let me play the part. “If I have a friend, and told him not to use methamphetamine, or heroin, or to drive drunk, or to have unprotected sex, and told him the possible — earthly –consequences of doing those things, am I being a mafia boss, threatening him that if he doesn’t obey me, bad things will happen to him? Or am I simply saying that ‘actions HAVE consequences.’ And the consequences of certain actions will condemn you to hell.” Now we might agree that hell doesn’t exist, nor does God, and that the idea of ‘eternal torment’ or even ‘life after death’ is ridiculous, but those are the things to attack. The reasoning from the premises that a Christian does is neither invalid nor the type of ‘protection racket’ you suggest.(I have more to add, but the cats are yelling for breakfast — the twenty pound one is crawling on my lap and grabbing my typing hand as I write — I have the rare chance to watch curling on tv, followed by a brief shopping trip and maybe a nap, so I’ll finish this this evening.)

  3. 3
    Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    …To continue…The other mistake that you, and many ex-Christian atheists make is to confuse the brand of Christianity you were brought up with and Christianity as a whole, which, while being equally wrong in its belief in a god, in fact includes a wide spectrum of beliefs and attitudes. Take the whole question of hell first, then we’ll get to the other point where I want to disagree with you.Many ‘liberal’ and ‘mainstream’ Protestant groups either downplay the idea of hell, or even totally reject it as being as mythical as the ‘Seven Days of Creation.’ They do not use it as a threat, or make it the centrality of their ideas, as do the evangelicals and fundamentalists and charismatics. (And then there’s the particularly ugly Calvinist idea that everyone is doomed to hell unless God specifically chooses to save that person. This combination of nastiness and absurdity does pervade much of the right-wing of Protestantism — Rushdoony and North are Calvinists, for example — but outside of the extremes, few Protestants can stomach it.) And as for Roman Catholicism — which happens to be the form of Christianity i was brought up in — it would probably surprise you — and would surprise many Catholics whose religious education ended with Sr. Anthony’s fifth-grade classes — how difficult most Catholic theologians consider it is to commit a ‘mortal’ sin. (That is, a sin that could send you to hell.)For Catholics, the essence of mortal sin involves both deliberate intention and deliberate ‘defiance of God.’ In effect, in committing a mortal sin, you are saying to God “I know you consider this wrong, but f*ck you, God, I’m going to do it anyway.” This is why many Catholic theologians would argue that hell has very few occupants. (And what about ‘outside the Church there is no salvation’? It’s a problem for many Catholics, but most would hold that a person who has not been exposed to Catholic doctrine and who is a good person — Catholics, unlike Protestants DO stress ‘good works’ as being the equivalent of belief — would merit heaven. It is only those who deliberately reject the doctrine having been exposed to it that MIGHT deserve hell, but even that is doubtful, unless they are convinced it is true, and still rejet it. The final opening of the door for me to leave Catholicism was the words of a religion teacher, a Jesuit, in High School. “Look, we are Catholics because we believe Catholicism is true, nothing more. If you don’t believe it is true, you are actually committing a sin by pretending to be a Catholic.” I had already become convinced it wasn’t true, but this made it much easier to leave. — I should insist that there might not have been many priests who would have said the same thing.)As for your statement that “At the core of Christianity is the belief that, in order to ascend to Heaven after death and enjoy a life of eternal bliss and joy, one must be a Christian. No other creed or belief system need apply. One must not only attend a Christian church; one must also answer the altar call, go up before the congregation, profess belief in the divinity of Jesus, his resurrection, and eventual (any day now, really) second coming.”This is true ONLY for the evangelical or charismatic Protestant churches. Nothing of the sort is in Catholicism, Episcopalianism, Methodism, or most of the mainstream Protestant groups. (In fact, this sort of ‘witnessing’ and belief in an imminent ‘second coming’ exists almost exclusively in American Protestantism and would be looked on as absurd by most Europeans, even those who are truly believers.)

  4. 4
    dorkafork

    Or am I simply saying that ‘actions HAVE consequences.’ And the consequences of certain actions will condemn you to hell.The mafia boss could say pretty much the same thing.The thing is, the mafia boss controls the punishment. I could warn a friend about heroin, but I do not control it’s addictive properties. I could warn him about unprotected sex, but I can’t control HIV nor did I create it. God can and did.I realize there is some difference of opinion on salvation between Catholics and Protestants. From what I understand it is a difference between “salvation through grace and maybe works” (Catholic) and “salvation through grace alone” (Protestant). Both require faith, though. So no matter what good works you do in this world, unless you kneel properly to Jesus, it’s an eternity of punishment for you.I wouldn’t mind if more Christians tried to move Christianity towards a “salvation by works” version. Though it may be increasingly popular with the lay people, I haven’t heard any “official” pronouncements by the denominations you listed, nor does it match my own personal experience. (Raised Lutheran.) It would mean mainstream denominations are moving towards Universalism, and also this page would need some updating.(I was raised Lutheran.)

  5. 5
    Anonymous

    Prup,I think your wrong in trying to correct the original analogy. You said:’”If I have a friend, and told him not to use methamphetamine, or heroin, or to drive drunk, or to have unprotected sex, and told him the possible — earthly –consequences of doing those things, am I being a mafia boss, threatening him that if he doesn’t obey me, bad things will happen to him? Or am I simply saying that ‘actions HAVE consequences.’This doesn’t change the analogy even a little. If one has unprotected sex a secondary individual doesn’t enter the scene and punish you for it. You haven’t defeated the analogy as there really is no ‘choice’ involved in the theology. There is one option and the other is the end of a gun.There is a difference between consequence and punishment. An action may have an undesirable consequence but punishment involves the action of another towards you.If I use drugs I may hurt myself. If I have unprotected sex I may become pregnant or contract a disease. If I have unprotected sex and you come over and beat me for days on end that is on you.’For Catholics, the essence of mortal sin involves both deliberate intention and deliberate ‘defiance of God.’ In effect, in committing a mortal sin, you are saying to God “I know you consider this wrong, but f*ck you, God, I’m going to do it anyway’This is rather silly as all humans have liad, stolen and committed a few errors here and there. According to Catholic doctrine a liar and thief are perhaps less ‘sinful’ than someone who has their marriage collapse and then builds a successful second marriage. The same for pedophile priests who are forgiven.When your concept of what is sin is that messed up you lose all claims to authority.

  6. 6
    Prup (aka Jim Benton)

    I feel a little ridiculous as an athesist continuing this argument, but I’m also a pedantic s.o.b. (And I really do believe that if you use it, you’ll close the ears of people who might hear you.)There is a difference between these two statements:”If you do X, I will make you suffer for it” (the ‘mafia boss’ position)and”If you do X, you will suffer for it” (the Christian position)To make this clearer, I’ll take the statement “If you drive drunk, you will be arrested, lose your license, and go to jail.” In each case someone, but not the speaker (assuming he’s not threatening to inform on the person) will bring about the consequences — a policeman, a judge, the licensing board. Yet the person saying this is not being a mafia boss. No Christian preacher with the slightest amount of sanity claims that he, himself will send you to hell for your ‘transgression,’ he simply says this will be the result. (He does not claim to ‘control the punishment.)To Dorkafork:My statement was that, for many Catholics, faith is not required for salvation. (It’s a tricky point, because deliberately rejecting belief that you ‘know in your heart’ is true can be.) But most Catholics (at least most theologians) would hold that sincere Buddhists, Hindus, or even atheists can be saved, if they act according to their consciences.To Anonymous:I agree that the Catholic concept of what a sin is, particularly in sexual matters, is truly horrible, and I expect to have a piece on this (and hopefully one I’ve been promising Martin, who runs my articles, on ‘abstinence-only’ sex education) for a future CotG, ideally before the end of the year.But the one advantage Catholicism has is the concept of ‘purgatory.’ If you die with a ‘sin on your soul’ in most cases, unless you meet the ‘deliberate definance of God’ condition, you will not go to hell, but to purgatory, a temporary place of punishment that will end — and which your friends can ‘bail you out of’ — and make it to heaven.Furthermore, if you commit a ‘sin,’ which from the Catholic point of view we all do, but truly understand you have done wrong, sincerely attempt to avoid the ‘sin’ in the future and make amends to the extent you are capable if the sin has injured someone else (and, if you are a Catholic, confess your sins — and Protestants frequently don’t realize that the confession is invalid if the earlier conditions aren’t met, it isn’t a magic eraser that lets you keep sinning), you can be forgiven.I entirely agree that what a sin is supposed to be is, in most religions, idiotic — and interestingly, in America, most Catholics, in practise reject many of the supposed Catholic teachings in areas of sex and do practice birth control, do have abortions, do have second marriages, and are gay, without feeling they either have rejected Catholicism or have condemned themselves to hell, or even purgatory. (I’m tempted to go off on a discussion between ‘malum in se’ — things wrong in themselves — and ‘malum prohibitum’ — things wrong because they violate a particular rule, but I’ll spare you.)Anyway, I am not defending Catholicism, since their basic premises of the existence of a God, of heaven and hell, etc. are simply nonsense, just explaining what it is they DO believe.

  7. 7
    Anonymous

    I think your entire argument is simply wrong here prup.’There is a difference between these two statements:”If you do X, I will make you suffer for it” (the ‘mafia boss’ position)and”If you do X, you will suffer for it” (the Christian position)’This is simply semantics. Both are the same. The person making the choice is made to suffer by another. I see what your saying but it doesn’t remove the validity that you really have no choice in either situation. Yet the person saying this is not being a mafia boss. No Christian preacher with the slightest amount of sanity claims that he, himself will send you to hell for your ‘transgression,’ he simply says this will be the result. (He does not claim to ‘control the punishment.)’Your correct that the preacher doesn’t say it about himself but rather about his version of God that will be sending you to hell for not believing in him.I do not find works based theology consistent with either the bible or for that matter a solid theological position. On this I think faith based theology is much stronger.’you will not go to hell, but to purgatory, a temporary place of punishment that will end ‘They are thinking about ‘closing’ purgatory and may have done so already. Which is idiotic enough in and of itself.’ but truly understand you have done wrong, sincerely attempt to avoid the ‘sin’ in the future and make amends to the extent you are capable if the sin has injured someone else ‘How can one truly understand you have done wrong say in the case mentioned previously on divorce? It may be 100% the right thing for all involved. So how can you think you’ve done wrong when you think it was the right decision? I hate to harp on this one but I find Catholics extremely immoral in this area of there theology.

  8. 8
    dorkafork

    Nobody’s saying Christians are mafia bosses, we’re saying God is the mafia boss, and the Christians are making apologies for Him.There is a difference between:”If you do X, you will suffer for it”and”If you do X, you will suffer for it, because the mafia boss will whack you”In one the suffering is because of natural laws, the other is the result of a decision of a conscious agent.The punishment is within God’s control, not the preacher’s. The preacher is not the mob boss, he’s the mob boss’s messenger boy. Tom Hagen probably didn’t deal with the horse’s head personally, nor would he have necessarily been able to stop that decision from being made. Does that absolve him?

  9. 9
    King Aardvark

    The proper choice would bea) choose God and go to heavenb) choose not God and not go anywhere, ie. just to die when your life ends and that’s the end of it.So in that way, we atheists would be getting what we’re deserving. Any other punishments would be piling on.

  10. 10
    King Aardvark

    And even if we all think Prup is wrong, he may still be right. Arguing with fundies all the time, he’s probably living in a pool of fundie illogic; ie. these guys certainly could believe that the protection racket was there because of the mafia boss’s love.The other thing about the brands of Christianity is true, but it’s often unavoidable. It’s like a game of rock-paper-scissors: You smash the scissors with your rock, but then the Christians claim they’re using the paper theology, so you start attacking them with scissors, and they switch to rocks.

  11. 11
    Martin

    Nice to see all the comments in the wake of the COTG inclusion, but I think Prup misunderstands why I think the mafia boss analogy is valid. Prup says the Christian view is similar to this:If I have a friend, and told him not to use methamphetamine, or heroin, or to drive drunk, or to have unprotected sex, and told him the possible — earthly –consequences of doing those things, am I being a mafia boss, threatening him that if he doesn’t obey me, bad things will happen to him? Or am I simply saying that ‘actions HAVE consequences.’ And the consequences of certain actions will condemn you to hell.Where this analogy is wrong vis-a-vis Christianity is that, in the case of some well-meaning person warning you about the consequences of drug abuse, it isn’t as if drug abuse was perfectly healthy and safe until that person came along and declared there to be ghastly consequences for its use. God’s threats of eternal punishment for not accepting Jesus are more similar to the classic mafia protection racket, in that all the damned person has done is simply not accepted the Christian faith. In other words, according to most forms of Christian dogma (I will concede there is much doctrinal hair-splitting between denominations, but that’s all academic, really), a person could be guilty of no crimes in particular, and may well be a perfectly morally upstanding citizen, but unless that person accepts the Christian faith, then his soul is doomed to hell for no reason other than that God says this should be so. This is a very different thing from a person who is genuinely doing something harmful — eg: drug abuse — and is simply being warned of the consequences by a well-meaning person concerned about their health.There is nothing innately bad about not worshiping Jesus, but according to Christians (particularly those who reject the notion of salvation by works), this alone is enough to warrant eternal hellfire. I see clear similarities to the thriving businessman who’s getting along just fine until he’s told to pay “protection money” to someone who is in truth the one he actually needs protection from.Finally, you’re right, different denominations have differing views on what constitutes hell and what have you, but really, my view is that’s their problem. If Christians can’t get their storybook straight it’s just another sign of the silliness of the whole enterprise. I have often found that even people who consider themselves the most devout Christians will downplay, as you describe it, the parts of the Bible that are morally objectionable, such as Hell. But that doesn’t mean John 3:18 and 3:36 aren’t in there as clear as day. So if this book is really the inspired Word of God, how to justify pretending the nasty bits aren’t really there, or don’t really mean what they say they mean? Fundamentalism may be intellectually bankrupt, but at least it’s ideologically consistent.Good job playing devil’s (angel’s?) advocate, Prup, but I hope I’ve shown how the Christian objections you anticipate are fairly weak.

  12. 12
    Matt D.

    “There is a difference between these two statements:”If you do X, I will make you suffer for it” (the ‘mafia boss’ position)and”If you do X, you will suffer for it” (the Christian position)”You’re correct, there is a difference. However, labeling the second position as “the Christian position” is, in my opinion, buying in to their rationalization and giving up unearned ground.They’d like us to think that the second position is theirs, but it really isn’t…In keeping with the analogy, they are messengers for and supporters of the “mafia boss”.Sure, the words coming out of their mouth are “if you don’t do this, you’ll suffer” but they are acting as a proxy – delivering the threat on behalf of their mafia boss/god.They’ll claim that they’re just a friendly messenger but this is similar to the other common cop out: “I don’t say atheists are fools…God does!” It’s a rationalization to avoid taking responsibility for the repugnant beliefs they hold.Continuing the analogy, if you have no good reason to believe this mafia boss exists and they can do no more than assert that it’s true – aren’t they (from the point-of-view of the threatened) the ones who are actually responsible for the threat.Doesn’t their belief in the veracity of the threat make them culpable?I’ve heard Christians use arguments like the one you used – I used similar arguments when I was a Christian. They all fail and it’s more important to point out why they fail than toss up our hands and concede that ground to them.One of my favorites was:”You’re in the ocean and I’m yelling at you to swim around to the stern where Jesus is waiting to help you out of the water before you drown or are eaten by sharks.”It sounds so nice – and it fits the second position you mentioned. However, it’s a completely false analogy.In reality, the person in the water sees has no sharks. In fact, no one has ever seen a shark. He doesn’t appear to be in any danger of drowning. In fact, there’s no proof that anyone has ever drowned or that it’s even possible. Drowning and sharks are concepts that had to be explained to the swimmer, by our hero.He has seen no helpful person near the stern and, when he inquires about this Jesus fellow, he’s told by our hero that Jesus is a close personal friend of his. He’s the one who created the sharks, and made it possible to drown – and he tossed you overboard in order to demonstrate all this.I could continue the story a la “Kissing Hanks Ass” by having the swimmer ask additional questions like “Why are you friends with such an sick and twisted guy?” but this post is already long enough. :)Suffice it to say that while I understand your reaction to potential misrepresentations of Christians positions (and you’re right that there are many varieties with many different beliefs) – that’s not our problem. It’s not my job to add 500 qualifiers to every statement about Christianity. They can clarify their own positions.There are Christians that don’t believe in a torturous hell, they simply believe that hell is “away from the presence of God”. Fine, then the mafia boss doesn’t apply to them. But it DOES apply to other Christians – many of them. And, as we’ve said many times on both shows, as long as they’re all going to point at the same holy book as authoritative, they’re part of the problem.

  13. 13
    Anonymous

    Having been raised a Pentacostal (UPC),I have been fighting what was told to me all my life.My father was a preacher so I have found it most difficult to find my inter voice and some peace. The mean and angry God is a hard one to get over.

  14. 14
    AgnosticAtheist

    Check out this site for more “disturbing old divine laws”: http://literalbible.blogspot.comaA

  15. 15
    D-train

    50 shekels! At ~1.25lbs going for ~$17.50 USD at the time of writing, that's only worth $350!

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