Comparing the Morality of Christians and Atheists
by John Winsor
My position that atheism is morally superior to Christianity rests on the following points, each of which I'll address in greater detail below:
1. Morality doesn't come from religion.
Regardless of your religion or the degree of your ardor in its practice, you can still commit murder, assault, robbery, incest, and so forth. A church leader can be a rapist or a pedophile and an atheist can be a law-abiding pillar of the community. Regardless of your beliefs, you can be greedy or generous, kind or cruel. The notion that Christians are bastions of morality is based - at least in part - on the false assumption that morality is dictated by their god. In reality, gods are human inventions and religious moral codes are the products of flawed human authors.
Our sense of right and wrong isn't the result of religious instruction. It's part of the natural human condition. That's why certain moral principles are nearly universal. Primitive cultures have moral codes that resemble our own - despite having their own distinct gods and rituals. Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor of psychology, biology and anthropology, and director of Harvard's Cognitive Evolution Lab, observed that "our moral instincts are immune to the explicitly articulated commandments handed down by religions and governments." Regarding data collected via the CEL's online "Moral Sense Test," which solicits public participation, he said:
Morality is shaped by a combination of social interactions and common mental processes like conscience and empathy. Belief systems have little or no impact on morality. However, personal morals do play a role in determining what sort of church someone finds attractive. This explains why there are so many varieties of moral codes espoused by different Christian churches. If you're a bigoted, misogynistic homophobe, you'll probably gravitate toward a "hellfire and brimstone" church whose pastor asserts that God hates the same people you do. If you're tolerant and empathetic, you might prefer a church whose pastor teaches that Jesus and his followers helped the poor, obeyed the golden rule, and took care not to judge others. If you're self-centered and greedy, you might choose a "prosperity preacher." If you're extraordinarily irrational and yearn for something more exotic, you might join a church that practices faith healing, snake handling, and speaking in tongues. All of these variations are supported by selected passages in the Bible because it isn't a single, coherent narrative. It wasn't dictated by a god and transcribed by prophets. Rather, it's an anthology of myths, fictitious history, religious and political tracts, poetry, letters, and so forth. It was written by many different authors over a span of several hundred years. The moral views it contains are as varied as the moral views of its authors.
Churches require parishioners, so the range of moral codes espoused by churches is within the range that can attract sufficient parishioners to survive. That range, of course, is limited to the cross-cultural variation that Marc Hauser described. Our morality is a product of both heredity and environment. Unless seriously impaired, we can all experience love and hate, pleasure and pain, joy and sorrow, generosity and greed. We can all experience anger when injured, betrayed, or insulted and guilt when we cause harm. We can all empathize when we witness someone else's suffering. We can all experience sorrow when we lose friends and loved ones. We can experience these emotional states because we're all members of the species homo sapiens, not because we pray to the same deity.
Toddlers tend to be selfish - sometimes taking toys that belong to their siblings or pushing other children. But this is more a lack of experience than a sign of immorality. Over time, they are victims of similar behavior themselves and, with a bit of introspection and imagination, they come to understand how others feel when they're injured. Parents - regardless of their religious affiliation - admonish their children when they exhibit insensitive behavior. They ask their kids questions like, "How would you feel if somebody did that to you?" By the time we reach adulthood, most of us have a fairly robust sense of justice. We can formulate opinions about right and wrong, good and bad - even in situations that we haven't personally encountered or previously considered.
2. Bible authors were ignorant and superstitious.
Fundamentalist preachers and apologists claim that the Bible is "inerrant" - that it was essentially dictated by God, recorded by prophets, and true in every detail. Actually, it was written over a period of several centuries by many different authors who asserted their own beliefs. Furthermore, we only have error-ridden copies of error-ridden copies of its contents. No original documents exist. The books of the Bible were selected over several centuries after Jesus was crucified. The Bible contains thousands of historical and scientific errors - many of which are so ridiculous that even a typical kindergartner in the developed world would find them quaint. Its authors had an excuse: They were profoundly ignorant. However, modern purveyors of their dogma cannot legitimately claim such ignorance. They practice what I call "willful ignorance" - the intentional refusal to consider new information that contradicts their dogma.
The ancients believed that the world was full of unknowable magic and that natural events occurred at the whim of the gods they invented. They came to think of their gods as more or less "parents in the sky." This was an anthropomorphic projection on a grand scale. They realized that parents reward good behavior and punish bad behavior, so they believed that gods were similarly motivated. When crops and hunting were good, the gods were pleased, but fire, flood, famine, and disease were signs that the gods were angry.
The ancients believed that hallucinations were messages from the gods, that diseases were evil spirits, that astronomical phenomena were portents of future events here on earth, that the earth was young, flat, and at the center of everything, that the stars were tiny and affixed to a canopy in the sky. Because they feared nature and had so little understanding of it, they clung desperately to the hope that they could please the gods, who, in turn, would protect them from harm. To that end, they made up rituals and prayers. They sacrificed animals to atone for "sins" and to show their appreciation by sharing their bounty with the gods. Such rituals didn't actually influence natural events, of course, but if, by coincidence, something good followed a particular ritual, they'd be sure to repeat it.
Over time, a collection of superstitious beliefs and rituals could become formalized into a new religion. The religion would have priests or prophets or seers with special magical powers for receiving and interpreting messages from the gods. Of course, their gods were fictitious, so the idea that anybody could divine their intentions and moods is absurd, but there were people who happily claimed the role of prophet - which came with authority and prestige. Such was the case for ancient Hebrew prophets. Unfortunately, they projected their own opinions about right and wrong on their god, Yahweh, so they claimed that Yahweh expected people to behave in ways that aren't considered particularly moral today - mainly because we now have a much clearer understanding of the natural world and our place in it.
3. Modern Christian dogma perpetuates Biblical ignorance and superstition.
In the first century AD, many Jews awaited a messiah - a great king who would free them from the Roman occupation and establish a "Kingdom of Heaven" - in which righteous Jews would live together in peace with Yahweh's protection. Jesus believed that he was to become that king, but when he tried to claim the throne, he was promptly crucified by the Romans. Shortly thereafter, a half-Jewish Roman citizen named Saul of Tarsus ("St. Paul") produced the basic concept of Christianity as a variation on the Messianic Jewish idea (i.e., he invented a new fictitious variation on an older fictitious religion). He claimed that Jesus had come to him in a vision and revealed that he was the "Son of God" and that the souls of people who joined Saul's new cult would gain eternal salvation in heaven. Saul couldn't peddle this nonsense to Messianic Jews - people who actually knew what Jesus stood for. So, instead, Saul proclaimed himself to be the "Apostle to the Gentiles."
Saul's new cult centered on the ancient misconception of the "soul." The ancients believed that bodies were merely inanimate lumps of flesh unless they were occupied by "souls" - that these magical entities were the personalities inhabiting bodies (i.e., they were us). They believed this because they had no knowledge of biology. They had no idea what brains were. We now know that the brain, which is a completely natural physical organ, performs the functions that they attributed to the "soul." This fact alone should give modern Christians pause, but the dogma survives at least in part because the mundane truth (that consciousness ceases with death) is less attractive than the magical delusion (that if they believe certain things and perform certain rituals, they'll be rewarded by eternal bliss in a magical place called "heaven").
4. The inventors of Christianity sought power, not truth.
"Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful."
From its inception, Christianity has been an exercise in apologetics. At first it was a battle not only between Christians and non-Christians, but also among various Christian sects that held widely divergent beliefs. It took roughly three centuries for the Roman sect to solidify the basics of modern Christian dogma and assemble the Bible - which is an anthology of myths, fictitious history, religious tracts, poetry, letters, and so forth. It took that long because there were many competing claims about fundamental issues like whether Jesus was a god, a demigod, or a mortal human. It took three centuries for the "Trinity" solution to emerge. The battle for supremacy in determining Christian dogma and assembling the modern Bible is a matter of historical record. The major participants are known. Yahweh wasn't one of them.
Ultimately, the dogma war was a power struggle - not a race to discover the truth. The greatest concern for the heads of differing sects was that they wanted greater power and prestige. The struggle led to some rather embarrassing problems for the Roman sect. For example, the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were widely recognized as the most authoritative biographies of Jesus. So, the Roman sect had to adopt them as part of their Bible in order to establish its authoritative superiority - even though the synoptic gospel narrative clearly indicates that Jesus intended to become an earthly king - not that he was a god or even that he expected to go to heaven.
The authoritarian Roman Catholic hierarchy demanded that everybody practice the same rituals and adopt the same moral code. Violating the sacred rules was heresy. The notion of heresy promotes bigotry by differentiating between Christians - whose beliefs and behaviors please God and heretics - whose beliefs and behaviors displease God and invite his wrath on everybody. So heretics were inferior at best and downright evil at worst. When things went wrong, they were blamed and punished.
Before the Enlightenment, there was no concept of separation of Church and State. The common people paid preachers to tell them what to do - in exchange for assurances that they'd be repaid after death. This increased the Church's wealth and helped it expand its holdings in real estate.
Kings and priests had a symbiotic relationship. Kings funded big projects like cathedrals. In turn, priests publicly endorsed the kings' policies. Priests persuaded people to want to do what the king wanted them to do (however immoral) - which reduced the likelihood of overt resistance. Obedience was a key component of Church doctrine. A crime against Church was a crime against State. Outlawing dissent served to suppress knowledge of flaws in the dogma. Loyalty to "God and King" (later "God and Country") implied falsely that orders from the ruling class were divinely approved. This corrupt relationship between rulers and religious leaders has been used to justify countless atrocities - including genocide against the Jews in Europe, Crusades against middle-eastern Muslims, and massacres of "heathen savages" around the globe. Onward, Christian Soldiers!
Today, there are similar relationships between preachers and politicians. Typically, a political party forms an alliance with a "family values" organization. Their "us" (who please God) versus "them" (who offend God) strategy focuses on backward religious views regarding human sexuality. This relationship provides a "halo effect." It can be used to persuade the "flock" to suspect scientific research in general - not just the research that directly undermines religious dogma. For example, a politician whose campaigns are financed by oil and coal corporations can call global warming a hoax and point to his opponent's "evil" position on abortion as proof that he's not to be trusted.
5. Christian dogma is used to incite bigotry and line the pockets of charlatans.
Enforcing fixed dogma inhibits consideration of new and contradictory information (e.g., facts that the sun is just one of billions of stars, that the universe is billions of years old, that our species is a product of evolution, that bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics but not by exorcism or "laying on of hands," etc.).
The dishonesty of fundamentalist preachers doesn't end with false assertions about creation or evolution or the soul. A preacher can rile up his flock by claiming that a recent natural disaster is God's punishment for the misdeeds of a particular group of sinners. This is emotionally gratifying for his parishioners because somebody else has incurred God's wrath. This strategy is effective because it incites bigotry (contrasting "us" with "them"). It enhances church attendance and increases the preacher's revenue - because he purportedly needs more resources to combat the forces of evil. Wealthy televangelists and "mega-church" pastors are the modern equivalent of the "wolves in sheep's clothing" that Jesus warned his disciples about. He admonished them to give up their worldly goods and to care for the poor and infirm - not to play "Fleece the Flock."
When disaster strikes, it's dishonest to say "God did it." As Christine Todd Whitman noted on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Pat Robertson both said that Hurricane Katrina was a product of God's wrath, but for very different reasons: Nagin attributed it to the war in Iraq whereas Robertson said it was because of gays in New Orleans.
6. Many fundamentalists don't practice what Jesus preached.
I mentioned earlier that the Bible contains many different views on morality because it was written over several centuries by many different authors. The majority of Americans are Christians, but, like the Bible's authors, they have different moral codes. Nonetheless, many fundamentalist pastors insist that their "born again" followers are the only "true" Christians. Ironically, many fundamentalists rely more on Old Testament text than on what the gospels offer as the words of Jesus himself.
The Old Testament condones slavery and describes women as property. Adultery and masturbation could be punished by death, whereas the "lesser offense" of rape merely required that the rapist buy and marry his victim. Despite modern Christian insistence on "traditional marriage," polygamy was common in the Old Testament. Abandoning Hebrew law, trying to convert someone to another religion, and many other activities were capital offenses. The punishments used by ancient Hebrews included burning, stoning, and mutilation.
In the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), Jesus taught the Golden Rule as a moral principle. He said, "So whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets" (Matthew 7:12). It was a principle of tolerance that had been taught for many centuries before - at least as early as Zoroaster. It actually describes the common and natural human faculty of empathy.
Jesus repeatedly admonished his followers not to judge others, but modern Christian fundamentalists insist upon blaming others when things go wrong. He said, "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:1-3).
Jesus was extremely liberal and tolerant - unlike most modern televangelists. He believed that the Kingdom of Heaven would be established at any moment, so every thought, word, and deed should be directed toward preparation for the event. He opposed public piety, accumulation of wealth, and ostentatious religious gatherings. He insisted that salvation in the coming kingdom required good works. He believed in only two commandments: 1) You must love God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and 2) You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. Jesus also admonished his followers to love their enemies, not just their friends.
7. Christian apologists twist the truth to conceal flaws in their dogma.
Apologists are preachers, theologians, writers, and speakers who attempt to defend Christian dogma - often by twisting facts, fabricating pseudo-scientific rationalizations, diverting attention from errors, or omitting critical information.
Apologists occasionally challenge scientists to debates about the existence of God. The topic itself is a dodge intended to distract from more specific errors in Christian dogma. It's impossible to prove that gods don't exist. This principle applies to anything: It's impossible to disprove the existence of one-eyed-one-horned-flying-purple-people-eaters, but that doesn't mean they're real. The applicable principle is quite clear: The burden of proof rests with the person who asserts that something exists.
Even if gods do exist, they might have nothing in common with Yahweh. They could just as easily be the gods of the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, or Mayans or any of thousands of others people have invented - or they could be utterly unlike any gods yet described. Proof that gods exist would guarantee nothing at all about Jesus, or heaven, or souls. Furthermore, we can prove that people have invented thousands of gods and that Yahweh, the Christian god, is similar to many other gods that people have created.
No apologist can prove that gods exist, of course, but that's not the real objective anyway. The mere fact that an apologist is on the same stage with a scientist burnishes the apologist's credentials as a "noted authority." Before the debate starts, believers are aware that the scientist is a nonbeliever - which sets up a strong bias against anything he says. He's a heretic, so he must be evil. His lack of belief is an affront to God.
As a bonus, when the scientist fails to disprove the existence of gods, believers are relieved of the arduous task of thinking carefully or learning something new. Any unpleasant evidence the scientist presents can be blissfully ignored. For willfully ignorant believers, the more attractive magical "eternal life in heaven" story trumps any alternative, so the scientist's failure to disprove the existence of gods is interpreted as assurance that Yahweh is real - along with all of the other fallacies in Christian dogma.
Christian dogma involves more than mere belief in a god. It asserts the existence of all manner of supernatural critters like angels, demons, cherubim and seraphim. They're all fictitious, of course, but one supernatural entity that simply must exist is the soul. The ancients observed that living people breathe and dead people don't, so they associated breathing with the presence of a magical "spirit" or "soul" that inhabits and animates an otherwise lifeless lump of flesh. In the Bible's second creation myth (and yes, there are two), Yahweh breathed life into a lump of clay to make Adam. In other words, Yahweh gave Adam his "spirit" (his breath). The ancients were utterly unaware of the brain's function.
In ancient times, explaining the nature of the soul wasn't particularly difficult. Bodies were mere vessels. Souls were personalities that inhabited and animated bodies. Now that we know that the brain is the thinking and remembering organ and the source of consciousness, personality and emotion, now that we are aware that thoughts are complex electrochemical processes within physical structures, that memories, ideas, and associations are physically stored for recall, the notion of the soul has been rendered obsolete. Christian dogma requires that believers cling to the notion of the soul - something magical, ethereal, and supernatural, so, of course, apologists make up pseudo-intellectual nonsense to claim that the soul is something beyond the mere functionality of the physical brain - but this is dishonest blather intended to obfuscate the truth and protect their dogma. In other words, they lie.
There's no reason at all to believe in souls anymore. But, for the sake of argument, let's pretend for a moment that they do exist - even though they are utterly undetectable by any instrumentation yet devised and serve no identifiable purpose. If your soul isn't you - if it isn't your conscious mind, your personality, your memories, experiences, emotions, and so forth - all of which are, in fact, natural functions of your physical brain - if, in other words, it's just a thing you have rather than who you are - why would it matter what happens to it when you die?
Christian apologists weigh in on many other topics with false arguments. They dispute the age of the earth and of the universe, the fossil record, the theory of evolution, and so forth - often applying intentionally deceptive language. For example, if they acknowledge that the age of the earth is actually billions of years, they might argue that God's days are longer than ours - although it's quite clear that the Bible's authors really meant that the earth and all life on it were created in a mere week, that the earth was the center of all of creation, that the sun and moon were created after the earth, and that the stars were basically an afterthought.
Apologists sometimes utter ridiculous pronouncements like "Evolution is just a theory" - as though a scientific theory is merely a hypothesis - a personal opinion - a "wild-ass guess." In fact, a hypothesis only becomes a theory after it has undergone rigorous scrutiny in juried journals, hundreds (if not thousands) of disproof attempts by peers, and so forth. Furthermore, the scientific method routinely does something that religion never does: It produces reliable predictions. Meteorology has given us the ability to monitor weather patterns and predict hurricane tracks, rainfall rates, wind speeds, likelihood of tornadoes, and so forth.
Science enables us to do things that would have seemed miraculous to the ancients. In a little more than a century, science has given us electric lights, household appliances, air conditioning, personal computers, radios, televisions, smart phones, GPS systems, jets, rockets and telecommunications satellites. It has enabled us to diagnose, cure, and prevent diseases, to perform remarkably complex surgeries, and much more. Furthermore, as knowledge advances, the rate of discovery and invention is accelerating.
Apologists sometimes rationalize that myths like Noah's Flood and the Tower of Babel are true even though the facts are quite clear. The Chinese and the Australian aborigines and all of the species of flora and fauna across the globe took no notice of Noah's Flood. It is a matter of incontrovertible fact that languages evolve over time and that the Tower of Babel "confounding" of language is nonsense. When apologists argue that there is some truth in such stories - or even that the stories were intended to be metaphors, they are presenting dishonest rationalizations. In other words, they lie.
8. Atheism and Christianity aren't simply different "worldviews."
Philosophy trumps religion, but science trumps philosophy. Here's what I mean: In the ignorant world of the ancients, "prophets" asserted as fact whatever they believed about their gods, what their gods expected of people, the origin and meaning of life, and so forth. They didn't need to offer compelling evidence of how they obtained such knowledge. In response, philosophers took up the discipline of epistemology - applying reason to the question of what we can and can't know. Many philosophers concluded that because we don't directly access objective nature with our minds, we can't really know anything for certain. This can lead to a self-contradictory assertion - "I know that I can't know anything" and to a false conclusion: "Truth with a capital 'T' is unknowable, so all opinions are valid within the contexts of various differing 'worldviews.'"
Science has provided something that mere philosophy can't: technology. We can now build instruments that measure aspects of nature previously unknown to us. The instruments we build aren't conscious. They don't imagine the world or reason about it. They just measure things - real things - and, to paraphrase Shakespeare, there are more things in the universe than are dreamt of by philosophers. We can now observe, measure, and photograph things that are extraordinarily large and extraordinarily small across spectra that are far beyond human perception. We can determine specific physical characteristics of things that we didn't even know existed (but still no "gods" and no "heaven"). Most importantly: We can use science to build things, predict things, and improve our lives. The scientific method works because the information it provides is true. It's not just another "worldview." In the past few hundred years, science has helped us accomplish more in advancing knowledge and improving living conditions than we accomplished during the preceding tens of thousands of years. Science provides a real, though as-yet incomplete, understanding of the natural world. Ultimately, science will supersede both religion and philosophy. Preachers will continue to make stuff up and philosophers will continue to ruminate about what we can know, but scientists will just keep successfully measuring the real world.
The truth cannot contradict facts. Period. Christian dogma includes ancient misconceptions that were debunked long ago by empirical evidence. It only survives because of careful intergenerational indoctrination. Nobody would independently "discover" the dogma now because it has no basis in reality. Christians are taught not to question it - that doubt is a weakness and "faith" (a euphemism for "gullibility") is a virtue. This, of course, is to suppress embarrassing questions that expose errors in the dogma.
As science advances our knowledge, the absurdities in religious dogma become more and more apparent. To remain faithful, Christians face an ever-increasing level of cognitive dissonance. Many regard the requisite obstinacy as a badge of honor (i.e., it takes real personal conviction to ignore so many inconvenient facts). Atheists, on the other hand, simply notice the growing multitude of contradictions between dogma and reality. We assimilate new knowledge and modify our understanding of the world. We aren't indoctrinated into an "Atheist dogma." We needn't consult with one another to develop a common "worldview." Atheism is just the natural state of an open and inquisitive mind. Nonetheless, there are a few things we do have in common: Believers are carefully taught to attend church, fill the offering plates, and leave the thinking to their preachers, but atheists think independently. We base our opinions on empirical evidence. We actually study issues. Atheists tend to study religion more closely than "true believers" - as evidenced by the results of a 2010 Pew study:
"God did it" is an assertion entirely lacking in intellectual integrity. Meteorologists can explain in considerable detail how hurricanes form. God doesn't stir the air with a giant spatula. Geologists can explain the relationship between plate tectonics and earthquakes. God doesn't reach down through the clouds and beat on the ground with a giant hammer.
Denial of scientific evidence has moral consequences. If "moral" behavior is behavior that improves health, happiness, peace, and prosperity, reduces violence, misery, and poverty, advances our knowledge, and enhances the sustainability of life on our planet, then scientific inquiry beats Christian dogma hands-down. There are many issues that place scientific facts in a far better moral light than the relevant Christian fundamentalist superstitions.
During the Dark Ages, when Christianity was at the height of its power, the Church's brutality was on a par with that of modern-day Taliban. There's no reason to believe that a return to Christian "moral values" would make the world a better place. Indeed, the opposite is clearly true. Clinging to old dogma in the face of new information is fundamentally dishonest and it leads to flawed public policy decisions.
As Martin Luther King, Jr. correctly observed, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice - but the cause for advances isn't religion. It's enlightenment. It's science. It's the rise of secular democracy. It's freedom from the oppression of authoritarian rulers and religions. It's abandonment of old prejudices in the face of new knowledge. It's greater reliance on our natural faculties of conscience and empathy without the impediment of backward religious dogma.