Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Goblins, Chupacabras, Moral Atheists and Immoral Christians
In a recent spewing, Phil Robertson opined on an imaginary violent encounter with an atheist in which the atheist's wife and daughter were raped and murdered, followed by the castration of the atheist. Throughout this foul reflection, Robertson follows the old motif that the atheist cannot oppose such activity because he, being an atheist, has no basis for any moral judgment. The perpetrators of the evil against the atheist say in the midst of their attack, "But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun."
I realize Robertson is not necessarily advocating for such treatment, but he is propagating a horrible myth that thinks horrible things of some of our neigbors, not to mention horrible theology. Of course, Robertson was preaching to the choir. He was speaking before a gathering of Christians in Florida. Given his general theological proclivities, there were likely few in the crowd who disagreed with him. It is a popular tale that all atheists are immoral. A few years ago there was a story of a ministry in South Carolina that refused to allow atheists to participate because of similar thinking. In this theological thought experiment gone awry, Robertson points out that if there is no fear of judgment, no one can be moral, as if it is only the threat of punishment that keeps people on the straight and narrow.
First off, he's wrong. There are atheists who have a moral compass and can speak of right and wrong very profoundly. I say this because I know some. Second, he's wrong. If Christians follow Jesus because they are seeking to avoid punishment, this is a deformation of faith and love. It is in this case fear that motivates.
Let us begin in reverse order. There is far too much Christian preaching that lays the entire moment of salvation upon the decision the person makes toward their eternal fate, "How will you spend eternity? Smoking or non-smoking?" as the old highway billboard asks. The portrayal of our eternal fate hanging upon this one moment can be very effective in getting people to sign up and commit. After all when asked if you died tonight, would you be seeing your dear departed grandmother at the pearly gates or would you be banished from her presence forever, subjected instead to the eternal punishment of hell, who would not rather have the eternal wonderfulness of your grandmother... ok, maybe not your grandmother, but certainly mine... pick your own departed loved one.
Fear is a potent motivation. Fear can get us to go along with any number of things, like inordinate amounts of paperwork on mortgage loans or carrying only three ounce bottles of liquid in our carry-on luggage because... terrorists. Fear can be cultivated in communities so that we can just go along with stuff because we at least feel safer. When it comes to religion, I get it. Much of the fear language stems from American theology and the likes of Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners In The Hand of an Angry God." This time in America was a direct correction to the seemingly over-theologized religion, which used too much head and not enough heart. People sought some direct experience that they could point to as the moment they were saved rather than some forgotten moment as an infant that they could not remember. And fear brought about great reactions. Judgment and fear were utilized immensely and they made sense. And soon everyone got into the act because why not? It became expected because people really responded.
Atheists on the other hand refuse the two options entirely, believing in neither eternal seating section. Yet they can live out incredibly moral lives and perform acts of mercy right alongside Christians. They can feed the hungry and clothe the naked and give water to the thirsty. Why because they are human beings who have compassion for others. Some will argue that their entering into these acts are truer than Christians who fear divine judgment. If I am compelled to do something, do I get any credit for the act? If I do something for someone because I think I will get some other reward for the act, am I really being selfless? Atheists act on behalf of others neither for fear of punishment or hope of reward. They simply act.
Atheists can also see right and wrong. Right and wrong is not just a gift granted to Christians. All humanity can engage in the debate for the common good. That is how much God loves humanity. Among the three uses of the law, the first use of the law is for civil order. God creates a world where morality can be comprehended by all, not just some chosen people. Especially since those chosen people actually screw it up themselves far too often. In the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Romans points out that all, both atheist and godly, have some natural sense of what is right. More importantly, the second chapter points out that the godly also get things wrong and will not avoid judgment. Nonetheless, to say that an atheist has no sense that it would be wrong to break into another's house, rape and murder the women in the house and then castrate the husband, is simply ludicrous. Of course, since many men who call themselves Christian continue to engage in violence against women, believing it in some way to be the natural order of things, maybe it is understandable to see Robertson's confusion.
In all, Robertson fails to understand that the transformation of one's life is not brought about by fear but by grace and God's good news. The good news is not rooted in the hope that we will go to heaven when we die but that God is about redeeming this world from the power of sin. Sin is what divides us from God and one another. And no one, not even Christians are untouched by the power of sin. We fail to understand the good that should be done and fly to the wrong like so many moths to a flame. Nonetheless there is hope, not hope based on what we decide but on the decision Jesus makes to go to the cross for all of humanity. That act is for all. Christ pours himself out for every single person. And I lack the wisdom and knowledge to say who will be excluded. I will leave it to God's mercy, which is far wider than mine. I will simply proclaim that God acts in Christ Jesus to redeem the world, gathering a people together through the waters of baptism. This promise is not based on fear.
And now I know that moral atheists are not mythical. And immoral Christians, well, those I know all too well, most clearly when I look in the mirror... and if those are real, I will be checking under the bed at night and whistling in the dark in case those others are real as well.