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Christians Don’t Have the Corner on Selflessness

Here’s a graphic one of my son’s sent me from his Facebook news feed:


As they read this, countless atheists hit their heads on tables and mutter, really, this old canard? Let me kill this thinking in one, swift easy statement: if selflessness is consistent with Evangelical Christianity, why are so many Christians selfish? Bam! Shut the door!

People who post things like this have the IQ of a walnut. Rather than THINK, they post. No thinking Christian would EVER claim that selflessness is the domain of Christianity alone. All the Christian has to do is think about all the selfless non-Christians who have helped them over the years and all the selfish Christians who haven’t.

If the question is can the morality taught in the Bible lead to a life of selflessness? then the answer is yes. But, the same could be said for humanism and other ethical and religious systems of belief. Christianity has no corner on the selflessness market. If anything, American Evangelical behavior often reveals a crass indifference to the plight and suffering of others.

Many Evangelicals wrongly think that atheism is a moral and ethical system of thought. It’s not. Atheism is, and will always remain, the disbelief or lack of belief in the existence of God or gods. That’s it. If I tell someone I am an atheist, that tells them nothing about my morals or ethics. The fact that I think evolution best explains the natural world says nothing about my morality or ethics either. Evolution is a statement of fact. There are Christians who are evolutionists. A conundrum: Christian=selfless Evolutionist=selfishness. Yet, there are “evolutionists” who are selfless worshipers of the Christian deity. Just another two-cent reason why the whole “Christians are selfless” argument is groundless.

As a humanist, I live my life according to the principles of humanism. These principles are succinctly stated in the Humanist Manifesto III:

Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good of humanity.

The lifestance of Humanism—guided by reason, inspired by compassion, and informed by experience—encourages us to live life well and fully. It evolved through the ages and continues to develop through the efforts of thoughtful people who recognize that values and ideals, however carefully wrought, are subject to change as our knowledge and understandings advance.

This document is part of an ongoing effort to manifest in clear and positive terms the conceptual boundaries of Humanism, not what we must believe but a consensus of what we do believe. It is in this sense that we affirm the following:

Knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies. We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence.

Humans are an integral part of nature, the result of unguided evolutionary change. Humanists recognize nature as self-existing. We accept our life as all and enough, distinguishing things as they are from things as we might wish or imagine them to be. We welcome the challenges of the future, and are drawn to and undaunted by the yet to be known.

Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience. Humanists ground values in human welfare shaped by human circumstances, interests, and concerns and extended to the global ecosystem and beyond. We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.

Life’s fulfillment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals. We aim for our fullest possible development and animate our lives with a deep sense of purpose, finding wonder and awe in the joys and beauties of human existence, its challenges and tragedies, and even in the inevitability and finality of death. Humanists rely on the rich heritage of human culture and the lifestance of Humanism to provide comfort in times of want and encouragement in times of plenty.

Humans are social by nature and find meaning in relationships. Humanists long for and strive toward a world of mutual care and concern, free of cruelty and its consequences, where differences are resolved cooperatively without resorting to violence. The joining of individuality with interdependence enriches our lives, encourages us to enrich the lives of others, and inspires hope of attaining peace, justice, and opportunity for all.

Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness. Progressive cultures have worked to free humanity from the brutalities of mere survival and to reduce suffering, improve society, and develop global community. We seek to minimize the inequities of circumstance and ability, and we support a just distribution of nature’s resources and the fruits of human effort so that as many as possible can enjoy a good life.

Humanists are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views. We work to uphold the equal enjoyment of human rights and civil liberties in an open, secular society and maintain it is a civic duty to participate in the democratic process and a planetary duty to protect nature’s integrity, diversity, and beauty in a secure, sustainable manner.

Thus engaged in the flow of life, we aspire to this vision with the informed conviction that humanity has the ability to progress toward its highest ideals. The responsibility for our lives and the kind of world in which we live is ours and ours alone.

As I try to live by the humanist ideal, I am ever aware of how far from that ideal I am. I would never say to anyone that unless they become a humanist they have no capacity for selflessness. Humans are social creatures who thrive in interdependent relationships. Rare is the person who wants solitude and loneliness. Thousands of people read this blog because they want the sense of community and connections that come from doing so. Facebook is a hit because we desire to connect with like-minded people. We want to belong. As part of a tribe or group, we help those we have a connection with. If I had a serious medical need and required $10,000 to save my life, I know that a mere mention of this by my fellow bloggers and Facebook friends would result in the need being met. Why would people who have never met me face to face selflessly help me? It is our humanness and the bond we have with one another that drives us to help others. Are we always selfless? Of course not. All of us, Christian or not, can be selfish assholes, thinking only of what’s best for ourselves. But, more often than not, atheists, humanists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, pagans, or Buddhists, when called upon, will selflessly help others.

Years ago, I was at Sam’s Club checking out, and in the line next to me was an Asian young man trying to buy some stuff for his mom’s restaurant. The cashier wouldn’t let him make a purchase because he was using his mom’s membership card. The man spoke with broken English and was thoroughly embarrassed by how the cashier was treating him. I left my line and went over to the cashier and gave her a piece of my mind. And then I told her to put his stuff on my card and he could pay me for it. Now she was the one thoroughly embarrassed, having been called out for her ill-treatment of the Asian man. She quickly corrected course and took care of the man’s order. As he left, he looked at me and said “thanks.” I said, “no problem.” Did I do what I did because I was a Christian? Of course not. I have no tolerance for those who berate and belittle others. In other words, I don’t like assholes, and that’s why I came to the man’s defense.

When I come in contact with others, I do my best to be kind and considerate. Several years ago, I had a meltdown at the local Meijer customer service desk. The young woman running the desk didn’t help me as I thought she should in the time I had allotted for her to do so. I told her, forget it, and walked away.  Everything was fine until I swiftly turned around and went back to the desk and shouted, and you don’t give a SHIT, do you? Polly helplessly stood by while I made a public spectacle of myself. She didn’t say a word, but by the time we were halfway home, I realized that I had acted like a first-class asshole. As soon as I got home I called the customer service desk and talked to the young woman who had been the subject of my anger. I apologized for my behavior. Several times she told me, “that’s okay.” I told her, “no it’s not. No one should treat someone like I treated you.” The next time I was at the store she let me know that she appreciated my apology.  She told me that she had never had a customer apologize for treating her like shit.

You see, I am a saint and a sinner. I can act selflessly and I can act selfishly. No one has the selfless market cornered. Take the drowning story in the graphic above.  Does any Christian REALLY believe that an atheist would idly sit by and so nothing while someone drowns? I am a disabled. Anyone who sees me knows I have problems getting around. I have had more than a few people extend kindness and courtesy to me as I try to navigate a store, stadium, or restaurant. Yes, I have met a few selfish people who wouldn’t offer me help if my life depended on it, but they are the exception to the rule. Even when I complain about how people often ignore someone in a wheelchair, I don’t think they are being selfish as much as lacking in instruction about people with disabilities.

The underlying issue is that many Christians, particularly Evangelicals, believe that morality comes from God, and that without God a person cannot act morally and ethically. When challenged with examples of godless people who act morally and ethically, Christians often attack the motive for the godless person’s good behavior. The atheist is acting selflessly because they have an ulterior motive, they say. How can they know this? Can we really know the motives of others? Besides, isn’t the moral and ethical behavior of the Christian predicated on gaining a divine payoff, a mansion in Heaven, and eternal life? Who’s the selfish person now?

As a humanist, I am deeply interested in seeing my progeny thrive. Because I love them and desire their company, I try to protect them from injury and harm. Because I desire to live in peace and harmony, I do my best to be a selfless member of the human race and the community I live in.  I don’t need the threat of Hell and judgment or the promise of heaven and eternal life to motivate me to act according to the humanist ideal. My country, community, tribe, and family are important to me, and because they are I act accordingly. Why is it that so many Evangelicals fail to understand this? Why do they arrogantly think that morality, ethics, and selflessness are the domain of their religion alone? Why are they deliberately blind to overwhelming evidence that suggests that all people have within themselves the power to act morally, ethically, and selflessly?

Perhaps it is selfishness that drives their blindness? Imagine what would happen if people realized that living a moral, ethical, and selfless life does not require Christianity. Once the threat of Hell and the promise of Heaven is removed from the equation, people are less likely to join up with Fundamentalist religious sects. Instead of looking for the one road that leads to Heaven, they could choose one of the many roads that lead to a virtuous, well-lived life. Imagine people doing good and acting selflessly because it is the right thing to do, not because they fear God or covetously desire a divine payoff after death.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Trying to test my infinite baseball knowledge? 🙂 Bernie WILLIAMS played for the Yanks. Great player, BTW. Bernie is no relation to Barry Sanders or Colonel Sanders. 🙂

  1. Avatar

    Did it make you feel better to help people when you knew that you served God by doing so? Was it different for you after saying no to God? I have had the opposite happen to me, a great wonder of reward in helping another biped because I was handy at the time and did what I thought I needed to do to help. God was actually in my way before, as any delusional construct would probably be….

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Yeah, I’d say, in some cases, God was an unneeded middle man that often complicated things. I was an “if it is in your power to do so, do it” kind of person. I had little love for people who could help others and wouldn’t because they were praying about it or waiting for God to lead them. I figured it was always right to help others. I didn’t need to pray about helping the homeless I met while preaching on the street. I did learn to not give them money. They would just drink or shoot it up. Hungry? I had them go to a nearby cafe where I had an open account.

      I much prefer how things are today. No need to parse things through the Bible. No wondering if I am doing the will of God. No worry about losing treasures in heaven. I am free to do what I want and not fear that I am disobeying God.

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    This is ‘Atheistic Darwinism’? These people have no idea what they are talking about. I was recently talking to a Fundamentalist colleague at work. He self-published a book, available now on Amazon, that attempts to demonstrate how modern ‘Darwinism’ is just a rehashing of the ancient creation myth of order from chaos. He was complaining that nobody was buying it, and he was concerned that it was too long to attract readership. It is 1100 pages of comparing his incredible misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Evolution with ancient creation myths. I asked him if he had read a single biology textbook, or anything by a biologist when he wrote his book. At least he was honest. He read not a single book on Evolution. Evolution is just a myth like all the others. He wrote an 1100 page refutation of a scientific theory that does not exist, and used nothing but Creationist propaganda as his source of information. And they wonder why we get upset when they claim we will not save a drowning man.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      *sigh* All that writing and he learned nothing. Even when I was a fundamentalist, I didn’t understand this kind of thinking. When I preached on Satanism I studied the Satanic bible. When I preached on cults, I read their books. Unfortunately, a lot of my colleagues thought that all they needed was the Bible. Their logic was truth exposes error, no need to read the oppositions books. Result? Guys preaching sermons against Calvinism without ever reading one word written by John Calvin. If they read books at all, they were texts that reinforced their presuppositions.

      I can’t tell you how many Evangelical commenters on this blog have attacked Bart Ehrman. When I ask what books of his they have read? None. No need. They have the Bible and a book review from their favorite preacher. No need to read anything else.

      I have often said Evangelicals often lack curiosity. Rarely do they look outside the box.

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    On the Evangelical side though, to be fair, there is quite up-to-scruff knowledge about professional sports…. you need not suggest they are complete Philistines! My goodness, I couldn’t even name all the baseball teams in division to save my soul!
    My evangelical brother knows all the baseball, hockey, football and so forth teams and watches all their games and still gets to church on Sunday. Now that is a Christian on the way to glory. For me, it is a sad lack. “What do you think of those Leafs?” somebody asks and I answer something like, “I don’t really follow basketball…” Real men have to turn away from me to maintain their dignity.

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    Selflessness…hmm I don’t see a lot of Christians besides Ned Flanders donating their kidneys, yet people can live quite well on just one.
    One thing the misguided meme doesn’t get into is the various degrees of selflessness. In the example cited of saving someone from drowning there are various degrees of risk one could take with their own life. The least risky is throwing out a life preserver all the way up to the riskier diving in to save them.
    Humans are adapted to small groups (and to some degree humans have self-domesticated). One thing we have evolved is very robust facial recognition. Why is this? It is necessary to identify spoilers who would take advantage of the good will of another and not reciprocate. And of course it isn’t limited to humans, a great example is the vampire bat. Vampire bats will sometimes regurgitate blood for another group member who didn’t find a meal that night.
    So evolution explains why the non-religious would help someone in a group. If it wasn’t in our nature to act in selfless and helpful ways to others in the group no doubt the holy books would reflect that reality. (Iif humanity had to wait for Christianity to come into being before we developed altruism, humans would already be extinct.)

    As for social conservatives (political evangelical Christians in many cases) not wanting government programs to help others. In many cases this is because they see the government as a competitor to the social programs of religious organizations.

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    This may sound harsh but I have often thought that maybe people that are attracted to fundamentalism are at a lower level of moral development. Little kids do the “right” thing simply because they fear punishment. We are supposed to grow out of that when we get older. Makes me wonder.

    • Avatar
      Becky Wiren

      You may be right. What you are saying is actually a psychological principle. People who do the right thing because it is right ARE at a higher level of (at least) psychological development. (I don’t have time to look it up since I’m about to go to work.)

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      I think you’re right, Stephanie. Authoritarian followers of all ideologies seem to have an external locus of control, requiring an outside “leader” who will tell them what to do or not do. I just found an article that connects the lack of an internal locus to childhood abuse. Google “Locus of control in maltreated children: the impact of attachment and cumulative trauma” (Roazzi, Attili, Di Pentima and Toni, 2016).

      So it doesn’t surprise me one bit that a religion with an emotionally abusive philosophy (“Accept Jesus or burn forever, you pile of filthy rags, you!”) would generate a lot of people who think that morality has to come from an external authority such as a god.

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    I started reading your blog in 2012 (well, a previous version). I’ve read most of your posts since then. Very, very few evangelicals/fundies are interested in understanding people outside of their group. So they believe atheists are anti-law and don’t care for their fellow man. Funnily enough, atheists don’t obsess that without God, they will have to rape, steal or murder. Pretty chilling to think that all those Christians secretly want to harm others but “God” constrains them. shudder And I’m starting to think that if I was drowning and these types of Christians knew I despise their beliefs and their lust for power (hence, Trump) that they would let me drown.

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    When I worked in the fraud department of a UK mortgage bank, not so many years ago, and just before the financial crash, we had what were referred to as ‘red flags’, clues in the application that it was likely fraudulent. Some were blatantly obvious, such as the person claiming a high income for being a table server and paid in cash, whilst others were more subtle, using a tax code on a fake payslip that related to a different year for example. One that we classed as ‘highly indicative’ took us a little while to realise and it was borne only of experience: any reference to God or to Jesus at any stage in the application. The person who wrote in a letter supporting their application, or perhaps on the form itself, something like ‘God bless you’, or who actually worked for a church, had their application scrutinised at a very detailed level, and almost all were declined for fraud.

    To be fair, people were hanging onto the supposition that somehow religion was so highly regarded that it’d give them a leg up with their application, and this was unfair to the many decent Christians there were in the UK, who actually deplored this. Nonetheless, the public perception here is heavily suspicious of the intent of those who preach Christian morality, and after the revelations of the Catholic Church in Northern Ireland it’s not going to change anytime soon.

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    When a fundy posted online that all morality and selflessness comes from god alone, I responded because I live in a lovely UK village where few go to church but we all look out for one another. I cited the flash flood which stranded a lot of cars en route for the ferry to Ireland on a stormy night. Locals went out and directed them to shelter in the village hall and via FB, we sent down blankets and matresses, food and drink for their overnight stay with us. The fundy replied that we were all being led by god to do this, we just didn’t recognise it and one day, we’d see that fact as we got tipped into the lake of fire cos we didn’t. I’m so fed up with the ‘moral highground’ that fundies take when they have very very little reason to do so….

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    Ben Berwick

    Non-believers are apparently selfish, and always pushing their selfish beliefs on others (you know, like equality for the LGBT community), yet suggest to an Evangelical or fundamentalist that Jeff Bezos could share his incredible wealth and help a lot of people, whilst remaining incredibly rich… suddenly that’s unreasonable.

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    Brian Vanderlip

    It continues to interest me that Christianity uses a bait and switch of love and selfless giving but then upon trapping their victim into being ‘saved’ (doomed) they then feed them the switch which calls for them to consign others to eternal destruction and so forth. The clever side of this is that while they have admitted their falleness (those worms) and hated themselves enough to be manipulated, they are then offered a fair target to cloak their own self-disgust, those evil atheists who would not help a drowning man AND who routinely drown kittens and eat babies. How can believers be expected to sprout any insight while obsessed in all that war with Atheism, with Satan dominating the world and trying to ruin the Second Coming.

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    ... Zoe ~

    Recently, Biker Dude and I (we each consider ourselves atheists, were confronted with the shout of a man calling for help in the rough waters of Lake Huron. A few others were out for the sunset as well. The winds were high and the surf far too dangerous for a swimmer. We had no idea he was even in the water. It was a terrible situation for us, as we, on this side of the harbour had no way to get over into the other side of the lake for a rescue. We immediately started trying to figure out how we’d get to him. There were no boats, no way to get any sort of floating device to him. He yelled help one more time and I said, we’re not going to get to him on time. There was no way any of us could get to him, atheist, Christian, Muslim and/or conspiracy theorist.

    Then Biker Dude saw people on the other side coming down the beach towards the man. By then the man had found the bottom, thanks to the current pushing him back in to shore. He could barely stand, walking slowly and in shock, back to shore. Biker Dude never took his eye off of him until he was sitting back on shore and the other people checked on him.

    Such immoral people we are.

    I always wonder how many religious people realize an atheist is taking care of them in a hospice &/or palliative care until. They haven’t got a clue.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    Interesting post ! The subject of selflessness from the Christian perspective,as well as atheists’ versions. I do remember hearing different idiot preachers trying to guilt the radio audience into doing things that THEY wouldn’t stoop to do themselves– like ” bring a homeless person to your house for lunch. Take in strangers to live with you.” Of course, you won’t ever see THEM do this stuff !! I used to take risks because they say God expected it, and blessings for both me and my ” project” awaited. Oh, the crap I went through, and my personal empathy for the underdog was exploited in very ” special” ways. Always told you have neither rights nor boundaries. ” Put your defenses down!” yelled the pastor one morning. I just laughed silently- looking at a man who hopped from banquet to banquet, who had no time for anyone with needs. Too busy lunching with this one,that one, fooling with his $2,000 laptop. ” Serve radically!”. Yeah,right ! He had a temper,this beanpole from Kentucky. Looked like a lightbulb,with his balding head,skinny neck and glasses. His wife turned up one day at services with a broken forearm. Looked sheepish and subdued. I wondered if HE did that to her. I was so happy when they moved on, only the pastor they have now is a bigger a-hole than the other guy ! I read a review online of the church, not having been there in years. Well, that’s unfortunate, I thought. Reading this post reminded me of those radio days. Real empathy is a good thing in itself. The preachers would shout that poverty and disability didn’t exempt one from ” radical riesk for service” and ” stepping out in faith.”. This is where selflessness can trip a person up. If you’re not in a position to help someone, you shouldn’t try, look for someone who can actually do something for the one needing help. I sure wish I’d been told THAT instead !! Went where angels fear to tread, where White people fear to tread a few times too ! It is true that those who often have lots of resources refuse to help others, while those who experience deprivation have the empathy to reach out- one of those paradoxes,I guess. We were told only to pray, not to use our heads,not to think. In retrospect, it’s that ” friendship evangelism”, which can screw up a situation and wreck lives. Seen it happen often enough. If I see it on the horizon nowadays, I get out of the way. The opportunity,that is. Just help someone if it won’t harm YOU in some way. I found that out, that these preachers tell people to take risks and do heroic sacrificial efforts they refuse to do ! Buyer beware !

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    Charles S. Oaxpatu

    Christian Fundamentalists and Conservative Evangelicals often claim that atheists and agnostics who show kindness and helps to other people are doing so only because they think they are the god over their own little personal universe, and they see themselves as supplanting the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob by their helpful actions. In other words, their kindness is little more than “playing God.” For example, British singer Annie Lennox is an atheist/agnostic who regularly supports overseas charities and virtuous causes. However, I think she does it simply because she loves people in need and wants to help—-not to play god—–but simply because human hunger or need must be alleviated among hurting people.

    I would just like to say, in my own experience, that in my times of personal need, I have been helped out by both Christians (including fundies) and nonChristians. Regardless of religion, I think there are numerous people in this world who have a spirit for helping other people. Perhaps it is just a generalized human thing that is written on the hearts of many men and women, just as the Old Testament says about the law of Moses being written on Jewish hearts and human hearts generally.

    So sorry to say, in my 68 years of existence, I have run into numerous Christians (particularly Christian Fundamentalists and Conservative Evangelicals) and numerous nonreligious people who actively show themselves to be self-serving and self absorbed assholes who only want to blame and punish those Jesus called …”the least of these.” The so-called Christians (usually fundies) seem to think human neediness flows from laziness and that poverty is God’s punishment heaped upon them as payback for their slothfulness. Therefore, to help them out would be to interfere with the will of God—–or some such bullshit. It is amazing how many excuses people can put forward to “cover” for their indifference to the suffering of their fellow man, woman, and child.

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    Yulya Sevelova

    You’re absolutely correct, Charles. It’s also true that they,the ultraconservative crowd are against both social programs/ safety nets,like one sees in Scandinavian countries,for example , because THEY want to take over such programs and get that funding THEMSELVES. And even proposed a 10% pole tax on all citizens,to support churches administering whatever programs survive in such a regime. David Lane,of Westlake,CA. He’s one of those kinds of Dominionists calling for exactly such a policy. Look that guy up, by all means. Super creepy stuff, makes me wonder about 2024, I’ll tell ya !!😗

    • Avatar

      Yulya and Charles…I realized how selfish these types of Christians were when the Tea Party was a thing. I was paying attention to hungry kids getting more SNAP benefits (used to be called food stamps). I had a very conservative Christian tell me that it was the PARENTS’ responsibility to feed their kids. She didn’t have any heart for hungry kids stuck in a poor home.

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    it is indeed selfishness and greed that drive the stupidity of many Christians in their lies about atheists being unable to be good, humane, etc. They must pretend that they are the only ones, despite complete evidence to the contrary, to keep buying into their cult.

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    Daniel Wilcox

    Bruce, Excellent post! And the funny thing about me saying that is I am saying it from the life-stance of one sort of theist. You’ve made so many powerful points, the strongest being your first one about if unselfishness comes from Christ why do so many Christians not behave unselfish. At this point when 84% of Evangelical Christian whites still support the policies and behavior of the former president, one wonders how they do that and reconcile it with Galatians 5: 22-23 (“love, joy, peace, kindness…”)

    And I am glad you quoted from the Humanist Manifesto 111! As a theist, there is only one ambiguous term, that I may disagree with in the whole article. I especially agree with this: “We are committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity, and to making informed choices in a context of freedom consonant with responsibility.”

    In the last sermons I heard before deconverting officially, famous Christian leaders claimed that in themselves, all humans are “worthless,” and that God has created “some humans” as “toilets and spittoons.” Etc.

    Of course, as you know from previous comments I’ve made a couple of years ago, I am very troubled that many nontheists also claim that all humans have no inherent worth, etc.

    I’ve learned the hard way over 64 years of observing us humans that there are no easy answers to how we humans can be more kind and caring. But believing in abstract religious or nonreligious systems seldom seem to be a major factor. Even years ago, when I was a very dedicated Christian, a Bible teacher, elder, etc., I was baffled by the fact that the individuals who behaved kindly, caringly, unselfishly weren’t actually Christians but belonged to various other life-stances including Bahai, heresies, and agnosticism.

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Bruce Gerencser