Evangelicals are primarily known for the things they are against: abortion, same-sex marriage, homosexuality, premarital sex, pornography, socialism, atheism, humanism, liberalism, and Barack Hussein Obama. The farther you move to the right, the longer the lists become. Growing up in the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church, I heard countless sermons about this or that “sin.” Years ago, I heard a preacher deliver a sermon based on the text, neither give place to the devil. After reading the text the preacher spent the next 40 or so minutes listing all the things he was against. (Please see An Independent Baptist Hate List) Most of the preachers of my youth believed the following were sins: women wearing pants/shorts, men having long hair, dating couples have physical contact before marriage, listening to rock music or contemporary Christian music, going to the movie theater, using non-King James version translations, cursing. As a teenager, I believed that my pastors were against e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. I am sure the teens of the churches I pastored said the same about me.
One of the first challenges I faced after leaving Christianity was determining a moral/ethical framework by which to govern my life. Let’s face it, having an inspired, inerrant Bible as the moral arbitrator makes life easy. No need to think about or ponder certain behaviors. God said ____________________, end of discussion. Lost on people who think this way is that it is not God speaking. If sermons are anything, they are preachers giving their personal opinions about what this or that Bible verse means. Opinions vary wildly, leading to one group of preachers saying particular behaviors are sinful and other group of preachers saying they aren’t. They fight among themselves, certain that their interpretation of an ancient religious text is infallible.
When I first deconverted, I was blessed to have for a friend a charismatic pastor who had also told Jesus to take a hike. He and I spent countless hours together, talking about Christianity, the Bible, and the ministry. We both laugh at how we acted and reacted back then. My friend got his ear pierced. He also got a tattoo. One day we were out and about and we saw a sign that said Parking Reserved for Pastor. A photograph was taken of middle fingers extended as we stood in front of the sign. I know, quite juvenile. But remember, Evangelicalism robbed us of much of our lives. We came of age in the late 1960s and 70s. While our non-Evangelical peers were enjoying love, peace, and rock and roll, we were in church praising Jesus. So in many ways, we are now living our teenage and young adult years now. We are experiencing things that our contemporaries experienced 40 years ago.
Now that Jesus, the Bible, and the screaming voices of preachers no longer guide us, we are free to do what we want. Several months ago, a Fundamentalist family member asked me why I was growing my hair so long. My response? Because I can. And when they see me again and notice that I am now sporting a bald head again, I am sure they will ask me why I shaved my head. The answer is the same. Because I can. The answer to every behavioral question is the same. Because I can.
Now, lest Evangelical zealots say I am preaching nihilism or licentiousness, I want to be clear: just because I can, doesn’t mean I will. What I am saying is that I don’t need a deity, a religious text, or self-righteous Evangelicals to tell me how to live. Using reason and common sense, I weigh each and every choice and decide accordingly. Well, most of the time, anyway. I can, at times, be impetuous, making decisions without taking time to weigh consequences. Most of the time, I survive my impetuous behavior with nary a scratch. There are those times when making rash decisions have had poor outcomes. When this happens, hopefully I learn from it. If my poor judgment harmed someone else, I do my best to make things right.
I think I will end this post here. Why? Because I can.
Does your Evangelical family and friends “question” some of your post-Jesus decisions? Have you ever said, because I can? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Several months back, I asked readers to submit questions they would like me to answer. If you would like to ask a question, please leave your question here.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on Jesus: who exactly do you think he was? I’ve read back through your archives to see if you covered it before, and found some thoughts, but would love to hear your take on specifically what you think Jesus was about. I sat in church last week and heard the old “JESUS CHRIST WAS EITHER A LIAR, A LUNATIC, OR LORD!!” sermon. Yeah, whatever… I find those options to be extremely limiting and I don’t see what authority anyone has to demand we choose only one of those. I also realize we are confined by getting much of our historicity of Jesus from the scriptures that were written decades after his death, and surely seem to be agenda-driven. But still, would like to hear your thoughts. Thanks for your great work on this blog, Bruce! Always enjoy reading.
Christians answer this question with all sorts of faith claims based on their interpretation of the Bible. As a non-Christian, I look to history, including the history found in the Bible, to determine who Jesus was. The Christian says, you mean who Jesus IS, right? No, that would be a faith claim. I know of no compelling evidence for the belief that Jesus, the son of God, resurrected from the dead and is now in heaven interceding on behalf of his followers. What the evidence does tell us is that a man by the name of Jesus lived in Galilee, was some sort of religious or political figure, and was likely executed. He lived, he died, end of story.
Some atheists think the Bible is a complete work of fiction. Again, I don’t agree with this position. I think within the Bible we can find historical facts. Granted, these facts are mixed in with distortions and fabrications, so I can understand why someone might say the Bible is historically unreliable. That said, I think most of what Christians say about Jesus has no proof outside of the Bible. Believing requires suspending reason and exercising faith. While the Christian is free to do so, I am not willing to accept that Jesus is who Christians claim he is based on the Bible says so.
Outside of the New Testament — a collection of books written by unknown authors 20 to 100 years after the death of Jesus — there is very little historical proof for the existence of Jesus. I can easily understand, if someone rejects the history found in the Bible and relies on secular sources alone, they might conclude that Jesus was a mythical being. Each of us must determine for ourselves if the evidence is sufficient to warrant thinking Jesus was a real person.
As textual critics and New Testament history scholars continue to punch holes in the Christian/Jesus narrative, some followers of Jesus are forced to reevaluate their beliefs. Sometimes, this leads to a loss of faith or, as in the case of the Evangelical, a move towards liberal Christianity. Sadly, the majority of American Christians could not defend their beliefs if their life depended on it. They wrongly think that the Bible narrative is true and that whatever their pastor tells them is rooted in historical fact. This is why books by Bart Ehrman and Robert M. Price are so deadly to faith. They confront the Evangelical with evidence their pastor or Sunday school teacher never mentioned. Once confronted, Evangelicals must determine how this evidence changes their view of God, Jesus, and Christianity. Some hold on to faith, others lose their faith or move on to sects that value scholarship over blind faith.
Personally, I consider Jesus’s sermon in Matthew 5-7 to be a powerful indictment of modern culture and much of American Christianity. I find great value in his teachings and the world would be well served if Christian and atheist alike embraced many of his teachings. Not all of them, of course, but I do find value in many of the things Jesus said. I can say the same thing about other moral/ethical writings, secular and religious.
Here’s a graphic one of my son’s sent me from their Facebook news feed:
As they read this, thousands of atheists hit head on table 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. 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 if 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. The Republican clown bus is rapidly filling up with men and women who want to be President in 2016. All of them profess to be a Christian, yet their policies are in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus and the Bible. Only one candidate for President, Bernie Williams, has dared to challenge the American capitalistic system, which is, by design, a heartless, selfish system of economics. Again, I am having a hard time seeing the Christianity selflessness connection.
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. Me telling someone I am an atheist 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. Evolution is a statement of fact. There are Christians who are evolutionists. A conundrum…Christian=selfless Evolutionist=selfishness. 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 the 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 comes from doing do. 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 selflessly help others. Are we always selfless? Of course not. All of us, Christian or not, can be a selfish asshole, thinking only of what’s best for ourselves. But, more often than not, atheist, humanist, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindi, pagan, or Buddhist, 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 the man 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 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 to 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. A year or so 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 half way 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 OK. 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 me apologizing. 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 cripple. Anyone who sees me knows I have problems getting around. I have had uncounted 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? Whose 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 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 every person has 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 road 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.
Imagine for a moment that you find a wallet that someone has accidentally dropped on the ground. In the wallet is the person’s ID, credit cards, and $300. What would you do?
I suspect most of us would attempt to track the person down and return the wallet. Why? Because it is the right thing to do.
The Christian Post reported a story about an anonymous Christian finding a wallet and returning it to its rightful owner. The Christian did the right thing and he should be commended for doing so. If you have ever lost your wallet or ID you know how stressful and gut-wrenching the experience is, especially in this day of identity theft.
The problem I have with the Christian Post story is the motivation the Christian had for returning the wallet. Instead of it being a good, decent, honorable thing to do, the Christian had a “Biblical” reason for returning the wallet.
The Christian attached a Post-it note to the wallet:
Wallet Returned to Owner by a Christian with Note Containing Bible Verses
The Christian who returned the wallet stated that his reason/motivation for returning the wallet was:
And he answering said, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbour as thyself. Luke 10:27
He that is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much. Luke 16:10
That men may know that thou, whose name alone is Jehovah, art the most high over all the earth. Psalm 83:18
In other words, the Christian’s act of decency and kindness was all about God.
From my seat in the atheist pew, it seems to me that religion and the Bible complicate the issue. Would the Christian have returned the wallet if these verses weren’t in the Bible? Would he have returned the wallet if he weren’t a Christian? While these questions might be viewed as trying to turn a good deed into an argument, I think motivations are important.
This story is connected quite closely to the argument over morality and ethics. Many Christians think morality and ethics require religion and a divine text. In their thinking, they do good because of their religion and its teachings. It is God that keeps them from being a bad person.
It is not enough, then, for an act of goodness to be performed just because it is the right thing to do. Instead, it is God who get all the praise and glory because without him, humans would do bad things. In others words, without God, the Christian would have kept the wallet.
If the Christian had left a Post-it note with these two verses:
And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise. Luke 6:31
Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Matthew 22:39
perhaps I would see this story differently.
All of us should treat others as we would want to be treated. Isn’t that a universal moral value?
I commend the Christian for returning the man’s wallet. It was the right things to do, whether the man was a fundamentalist, an Episcopalian, or an atheist. Would an atheist have returned the wallet? I’d like to think so. But, I know among atheists and Christians alike, there are those that would have viewed the lost wallet as an opportunity to steal. As we all well know, religious belief does not inoculate a person from being a bad person. The religious and the godless have the capability and power to do bad things. Why? Because bad people do bad things. Avarice is found too often among the human species. A narcissistic view of the world often motivates people to only think of self. When presented with an opportunity to return the lost wallet, the narcissist is only concerned with what he can gain. In this case, he gains the money that is in the wallet.
We should all strive for a higher ideal regardless of our religious belief. As a humanist, I try to treat others as I would want to be treated. If I lost my wallet, I hope someone would return it and I would gladly offer the finder a reward. Far more important than lost cash is lost ID. And I know if I found a person’s wallet I would return it to the owner. How do I know I would do this? Because that is what I have done in the past. It is the moral/ethical code I live by. I know how panicked I get when I can’t find my wallet in the house and I can only imagine how stressed out I would be if I knew I had lost it at a store or parking lot somewhere.
Here’s the point I want to make — good people do good. Yes, sometimes good people fail and might, at times, do bad things, but the arc of their life is toward good. The same can be said of those who lack moral and ethical character. They may, at times, do good things, but the arc of their life is toward bad. It is not religion that determines goodness or badness, though it certainly can, for some people, play a part. What determines the kind of person we are is our character. People with good character do good things like returning a lost wallet. People with bad character, don’t.