In a post that’s sure to get me into trouble with someone, I’d like to explore morality and how it is different for the Christian and the atheist.
Of course, there are others religions out there, but I can’t contrast and compare them all in one little blog post. Since I am a Christian, it is easier for me to compare Christianity with atheism. But if you do have a faith, I suspect you will find yourself agreeing with my comparison, substituting your faith for Christianity.
What I am not saying
I am not saying that a Christian is inherently more moral than an atheist. Nor am I saying that an atheist cannot be moral.
What I am saying
My premise is this: when a Christian acts in a moral manner, he acts in accordance with his stated beliefs. When an atheist acts in a moral manner, he is (in some ways) acting contrary to his beliefs — or at least what he should believe. Likewise, when a Christian acts immorally, he does so against his beliefs. An atheist acts in accordance with what he believes when he acts immorally. (If that last statement angered you, stay with me while I explain.)
I define a Christian as someone who believes the Old and New Testaments of the Bible as inspired by God and has put his trust in Jesus Christ for salvation. He believes that God has created everything we see, and there is a spiritual reality that we cannot see. The Christian believes God has provided humankind with divine laws that should be obeyed, and that God will judge the world based on those laws.
I define atheist as someone who does not believe there is a God. As a result, he believes that everything we see, including human beings, is an accident of time and chance in a random universe. There is no meaning in his universe. Only what we can see and touch is real. In the atheist world, a man uses his reason to determine what is right and wrong. There is no ultimate judge — other than his own conscience.
I am going to choose (not at random) two precepts to which I think we should all be able to agree.
The first is that murder is wrong.
The second is that we should help those less fortunate than ourselves.
Of course, there are many aspects of morality on which we can debate, but I assume that these two precepts are pretty universally followed by both the Christian and the atheist.
When I say that we all believe murder is wrong, this isn’t quite true. There are indeed people who murder. But for most of us, murder is wrong.
Murder can come in many guises. It can come in a moment of anger or hatred in which the murderer kills his victim without premeditation, or it can come from a reasoned calculation. If the murderer believes that killing another human being will get him what he wants, whether it be more money, the girl, or respect, then he kills. Whatever the motive, this is murder.
The Christian believes that all mankind (the ladies too — obviously) are made in the image of God. This image is sacred. God has created us all, and he is the being who decides what is right and wrong for us. He has decreed that murder is wrong. So, for a Christian, murder is breaking God’s law and extinguishing a created being against the creator’s will. When the Christian refrains from murder, he acts in accordance with his beliefs.
The atheist, too, may refrain from murder, but I submit that he has less justification for his doing so. The atheist decides for himself what is moral and what is not as best he can, but he has a problem. From the atheist point of view, we are all accidents. No one created us. We owe nothing to a creator, because that creator doesn’t exist. The atheist may love his parents, but he is not obligated to do so. His parents are just accidents, and he is another accident. His parents desire to propagate and have a child was (in the atheist view) nothing but a biological imperative over which they had no control. The care they gave him was commanded only by their genes, because “love” isn’t really love, it’s how the genes see to it that the young survive instead of being eaten by their parents. The atheist may love them and be thankful for the care that brought him to adulthood, but he has no overriding reason for his thanks. If he is thankless, so what? How could that be wrong? He is just an accident.
That is the atheist conundrum. If we’re all accidents, what is immoral about killing an accident?
An atheist may say, “I think murder is wrong,” and I’m sure he does. But why is it wrong? If I can get what I want by killing another human being, why not? From the atheist point of view, killing another human being should be a kind of survival of the fittest. In fact, that statement coincides more closely with secular thought: survival of the fittest is how we got here. Why stop now? Why shouldn’t the “more fit” kill the “less fit?”
(Again, let me say this: I’m not saying atheists believe this. I’m saying they should believe this. Either we are accidents of survival of the fittest or we’re not.)
The atheist may say that the laws of the state forbid murder, and he doesn’t want to go to jail, but why should the state decide what is moral? Because the state may have been voted into power by the majority? Why should the majority decide what is moral? At one point, not so long ago, the majority considered slavery to be moral, and it was perfectly legal. Did that make it right? And do we refrain from murder only because we’re afraid of getting caught? What if we are clever and certain (rightly or wrongly) that we won’t get caught? And if the state decides in the future that certain people can be killed, will that make it right?
If the atheist says, “Well, I need to refrain from murder so someone doesn’t murder me,” then haven’t we just entered the precincts of religion? Jesus said, “Do unto others as you want them to do unto you.” Of course, the atheist can decide that this command from Jesus is a good one and commit to live by it, but if another man decides that Jesus was a religious crackpot, how can the atheist argue? If one man decides that murder can get him what he wants, he can shoot you dead in the street and take your money and credit cards. How can an atheist say this is wrong? If it’s wrong for someone to do this, why is it wrong?
Now, the immoral man can ignore the Christian when he says: “This is against the law of God,” but the Christian really has a reason for morality that the atheist does not have. The Christian believes that God will judge the world. The immoral man can scoff at this, but it is at least a reason. What does the atheist say to the immoral man? “I think you are immoral?” Why should he care what the atheist says? Why should a moral atheist be in a position to judge an immoral man?
In 2006, Arthur C. Brooks published a book titled Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. In it, he said that conservatives donate more to charity than liberals, and religious conservatives the most. In fact, as I remember from reading the book, Mr. Brooks stated that religious liberals give more than secular conservatives! His statistics showed charitable giving in this order: religions conservatives, religious liberals, secular conservatives, and (dead last) secular liberals. The dichotomy wasn’t really conservative/liberal, it was religious/secular.
Since Mr. Brooks book came out, the internet has supported a cottage industry from secular and liberal blogs and papers explaining why this isn’t really true. Conservatives tend to be religious, the reasoning goes. They are giving to their churches for building upkeep and the like. They aren’t really being charitable at all!
I’m sure this secular apologetic makes liberals everywhere feel better. However, if you are an atheist reading this, let me commend your hardiness for reading so far. And let me challenge you: during the pandemic, my church has been purchasing food and giving it to those in need who lost their jobs. Do you belong to a group that is doing that?
But it’s not really my point in this blog post to argue if Mr. Brooks is correct or not. Rather, I find it interesting that liberals are stung by his assertion. Why do they consider charitable generosity a virtue? Think about it. Why don’t they believe in survival of the fittest? Remember, an atheist has come to the conclusion that life is an accident, and we’re all accidents. If someone is poor, could it be this poor person is simply less fit? Why don’t secular people just let him die “and decrease the surplus population?” (A quote from Dickens’ fictional Ebenezer Scrooge, of course.) Why should we help the less fortunate? Is it fear that we might be the less fortunate some day? Or is it true compassion?
Actually, I believe compassion does play a part in this for an atheist. We are “all part of the main.” (A quote from John Donne.) We all belong. But the atheist really is acting against secular reasoning when he shows charity. He should let the fit survive and the less fit struggle along as best they can. If he donates to charity to keep the help the more unfortunate, isn’t he helping someone who, at some level, is simply less fit? Why does he do it?
My point is this: when a Christian provides help for the needy, he does based upon his beliefs. From the Old Testament through the New Testament, financial help to the poor has been the norm. (And even more than financial help. In an earlier post, I explained how about 30 members of my church showed up at my daughter’s house one Saturday morning to help her in her need.) For the Christian, every human being carries the stamp of his creator, and that stamp means we must show compassion, mercy, and charity to even the lowest among us.
When an atheist contributes to charity, he is acting apart from his own beliefs. Why not permit survival of the fittest to continue?
What I think is going on
I’m sure I’ve ticked a couple of atheists off at this point (and maybe a couple of liberals at the same time.) That was not my intention. My intention was to have you think about morality. Why are we moral?
This is what I think as a Christian: all morality comes from God. The atheist may deny God exists, but there is still an underlying imprint of the image of God on him, and there are moral laws that come with that image whether the atheist acknowledges its provenance or not. This is the real reason that the Christian and atheist can agree on much of morality. Because for sure, survival of the fittest gives us no reason to be charitable or refrain from murder if murder will get us what we want.
As a Christian, I have known God’s merciful kindness in my life since the age of twelve. He has interrupted my life, sometimes in supernatural ways you would not believe. I believe the fact that we are moral beings is a gift from God even for those who don’t believe in God. Because, truly, there is no reason for morality without God. It is a sign that there is indeed a God.
But there is a morality on which the atheist and Christian will simply not agree. Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God with all your heart and soul and mind. This is the lifeblood of a Christian. The atheist will not be able to love God.
But that is something that any atheist can change by asking the Almighty for forgiveness and mercy through his son, Jesus Christ.
That is a choice we all have.