A fascinating editorial from the Washington Post. Read this first.
This editorial is fascinating on many levels – probably more than I’ll be able to address in my usual haphazard fashion. Not that we won’t give it the old college try, eh?
The authors of this study are the authors of a new book that argues that people can be good without God – that secularism and atheism are valid moral systems in and of themselves without recourse to an external deity or supreme being. It’s an assertion that is being made more frequently and more loudly, notably with the active campaigns
around Christmastime to separate people’s enjoyment of the holiday season from whatever lingering theological influences they might be under.
But this editorial is going farther than that. It’s redefining (or participating in an ongoing redefinition) of reality that bears paying some close attention to. I’ll see if I can do it justice.
First off, there is the assertion that atheism – a system of belief – is somehow to be equated with the idea of minorities that are defined by their being. Blacks are the most obvious example the authors cite. Jews fall into this same category because persecution of Jewish people has traditionally been every bit as much ethnic and genetic-related as it was religious. Plenty of secular Jews perished in the Holocaust, as well as in the purges and pogroms that erupted regularly in the decades and centuries prior. Homosexual orientation (a form of belief, I’m asserting) is desperately attempting to be classified as a matter of being, rather than belief or practice, since that would make the demands for legal representation so much easier and quicker. And now atheists need to be classified as a persecuted minority according to this editorial – and by implication, need to be protected from this perceived persecution.
Note the interesting application the authors make. Because the majority of Americans (and people worldwide, also) are not atheist, and explicitly theistic or religious in some sense, and because people tend to vote for people with similar world views and ideas as themselves, atheists are being subjected to discrimination in the polls. They are unjustly being discriminated against, the authors allege. Am I also unjustly discriminating against Buick because I don’t drive one and have no desire to drive one? Am I also unjustly discriminating against the manufacturers of genetically modified food because I desire to eat in an organic, natural, and sustainable fashion?
The implication here is that for it to really be democracy and equality, our representatives have to be proportioned equally, regardless of whether or not that accurately reflects the constituency in demographics or belief. The fact that it’s a representative democracy, and the fact that for better or worse, atheism does not represent the vast majority of American’s beliefs about the world, is irrelevant. If there is not an appropriate percentage of atheist office-holders, they are being discriminated against. Which would lead me to suspect that there is the idea that this ought to be rectified in some manner, a la affirmative action. What a fascinating spin on representative democracy.
That’s frightening enough. If you vote for who you feel best represents you rather than voting for someone you don’t believe represents you as well, you are discriminating. And once again, we’re talking about alleged discrimination not against someone’s essence, but based on their beliefs. Are the authors suggesting that perhaps people not be allowed to select their spouse based on this same criteria? Are you guilty of discrimination because you married someone who shares your faith rather than someone who doesn’t?
I’m willing to grant that rhetoric on the issue of atheism gets rather inflamed at times. But let’s be clear here – it certainly isn’t a one way street. I’d also like to distinguish between rhetoric aimed at specific atheists, and rhetoric aimed at atheism. I have several good friends who are atheists. I love them dearly. I love them in spite of their atheism, and I love them in the hope and prayer that they will one day soon reject atheism and embrace Jesus Christ and the Christian faith. I have a huge beef with atheism. I don’t as a rule have a huge beef with atheists, unless they are engaged in attempting to force me to change my attitudes about their beliefs. I have every right to argue for my world-view as they do, and that doesn’t make me any more (or less) discriminatory than they.
Then the editorial moves on to discuss the author’s particular approach to this issue – comparative ethics. Are atheists capable of being good people (even better people!) than Christians? The answer to this is both yes and no. And which answer holds true depends on what definition of good you’re using.
If we’re talking about the Biblical definition of good, which is centered exclusively around the nature of our relationship to God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the answer is no – atheists aren’t good. Nor are Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, or any other non-Christian. The Biblical definition of good revolves focuses solely on the nature of our relationship to the Judeo-Christian God. No other definition is valid.
If we’re talking about a worldly definition of good, meaning how does a person comport themselves in this world and in their various relationships, then yes, an atheist can be just as good as a Christian. In fact, they can sometimes be better. Note the test-cases the authors cite. None of these are major traditional aspects of ethical or moral inquiry and study. Rather, the list includes issues that by and large have only come to the forefront of discussion in the past 50 years. Many of the positions that are asserted now to be moral in intellectual and institutional circles are complete overturns of the traditional positions that have held literally for millenia. In other words, the ‘morals’ being cited are not so much moral positions as they are current trends in very specific attitudes in very limited circles. Circles, oddly enough, probably more often than not populated with a higher proportion of nontheists. That’s a handy relationship.
As such, an atheist who decides that homosexuality is a valid lifestyle choice will appear to be a better citizen – by the author’s selected criteria – than the Christian who does not agree with this statement. Regardless of how nice and kind and good that Christian might be to their homosexual friends and neighbors. It isn’t enough to act good, goodness is defined as thinking properly. I agree with this entirely – the Bible kind of sets the standard on this in Matthew 5 – goodness is not simply what we do or don’t do, but a state of heart and mind as well. But this definition is being applied to things that are decidedly unBiblical.
Now the comparison between America the “Christian nation” and more secular nations. Despite the fact that these secular nations have anywhere from 1/3 to 1/15th the population of the United States and are far more homogenous ethnically as well as in beliefs and practices. And
despite very different laws in some cases regulating gun ownership and any number of other personal liberty issues. Nope – we’re ignoring all of that and simply saying that these less-Christian or non-Christians are behaving better than Americans. And yet I’m confused – hasn’t our president and all sorts of major influential people been trying to convince us for the past few years that America isn’t a Christian nation? And yet these authors are asserting we are? How handy to be able to switch definitions and descriptions whenever it suits your argument!
The author cites Scripture in order to mock it. But he only demonstrates his fundamental lack of understanding about what Scripture is saying on this topic. Atheists are certainly capable of being good neighbors and upstanding citizens and valuable contributing members to their community, nation, and the world. But by Biblical standards, this has nothing to do with being either wise or good in the theological sense. Unless someone knows God and aligns his life with how he has been created to live, there can be no Godly wisdom, no Godly goodness. As such, this is not just a negative stereotype, but rather a categorization of what defines goodness and wisdom as a whole. These things find their ultimate and only true expression in God. Every other example of goodness and wisdom is pointless without this ultimate wisdom and goodness.
The author pushes some dangerous ideas in this little editorial. It is unfortunate that most of these are predicated on two completely separate and competing definitions of the term “good”. I’m grateful for my ‘good’ nontheist neighbors and friends. Just as I’m sure they’re grateful that I’m a good, theistic neighbor. Getting along in the world doesn’t at it’s core require similar world views or explanations for everything – though that certainly helps to provide a firmer basis. But I’m not going to pretend that my atheist neighbor or friend is “good” by the only standard of good that matters to me – God’s. And to be honest, I’m sure that I don’t qualify for an atheistic definition of “good”, if that entails the rejection of theism and religion as hocus-pocus and wishful thinking.