Many of you may not know that my original goal was to be a Christian apologist, in the mold of CS Lewis. That dream got me through a BA, an MA, and half of a PhD program in the humanities before I finally determined that God didn’t exist. The biggest misconception others have had regarding my rejection of God has been that I left Christianity because I didn’t examine it closely enough, or because I gave up on it too soon. The opposite is true. I left Christianity through my belief in God, not in spite of it. I believed in God so intensely and so fervently that I tried hard to get to know him, and it was when I was closest to God that I found he didn’t exist.
Let’s use God’s morality as an example.
I know I sound cynical here, but I honestly think that most Christians don’t really think deeply about the adage that God is the center of morality, or that God is the author of “objective” morality. God is there so that they don’t have to think about the complexity of morality. They want morality to be a solved question, and attaching “God” to the question means they don’t have to think about it anymore. Oh, sure, there may be sacrifice for some people — in some parts of Christianity, the rules can seem very burdensome. But to most people, that’s a relatively small price to pay for a God of the gaps that takes away doubt that your moral standard is one that can be questioned or challenged by the discomfort of other people.
I think it’s necessary to spend a bit more time here to explain what I mean. Christians often demonize non-Christians or “weak Christians” as individuals who don’t want to be held accountable by God, which may or may not be true (and which is fairly irrelevant to the existence of God, anyway). But it is also true that when you aren’t held accountable by God, you are still expected to answer for your choices — to your boss, to your friends, to your colleagues, to your clients, to yourself, to your relationship with all living (and even non-living) things. Those choices, and the way you decide to defend them, have very real consequences for you and other people you may care about. Sometimes one choice will hurt one person over another, and you have to figure out how to prioritize consequences when you care about both entities. Dilemmas like these make it very difficult for us to determine which moral choice will bring about the best outcome and, more than that, how to communicate the reasoning behind the choice we choose in a way that will bring about the most desirable consequences.
TL; DR — morality is hard work, with many gaps and sometimes a lack of clearly “right” answers, so many Christians insert a “god of the gaps” into moral thinking so they don’t have to think about it.
Full disclosure: I hate this aspect of Christianity. It can turn people into nearly psychopathic bullies, even people who really care about you, because they have stubborn, unmoving, and unreasoned “just so” moral codes, and their entire belief in God is largely based on a fear of losing the security of that moral code. So if you need them to look outside that moral code to do what’s best for you, someone they love — whether it be to accept your homosexuality, for example, or your atheism, or some other part of you — then they’ll choose the security of their moral code over caring about you. Because if they truly went the next step and embraced a morality that was better for you, they would have to admit that the “just so” standard that they used the god of the gaps to justify was absolutely baseless, and then they’d be forced to deal with the messiness of morality all over again.
Anyways…to get back to the point, Christians who insist that God is necessary for an objective moral standard to exist aren’t saying this, I think, because it makes sense. They’re using “god” to help them forget about the complex angst inherent in constructing morality.
I don’t think the thinking that God is necessary for “objective” morality is about belief in God. I think it’s about fear. Because if they really based their moral standard on a belief in God, I think they’d try to get to know, in more detail, the connection between God and moral standards. Because he’s God. Wouldn’t you want to get to know him better? Wouldn’t you want to clearly see how he is able to uphold an unquestionable moral standard?
Christians often try to get out of analyzing the supposed link between God and morality with the whole “his ways are higher than our ways” line. But still…that’s begging the question. Even if this being existed, why would his ways so much “higher” than mine?
The common answer I get, when I have asked these questions — when I was a Christian and as an atheist — is that “they just are.” As if there is fear in the Christian having their assumptions threatened. God’s ways have to be supreme “just because,” whether the logic makes sense or not. Why? Because Christians are not motivated by their desire to get to know God, by and large, when they discuss morality. They are motivated to escape from a fear of hard things, like figuring out how to construct a beneficial moral system, not just one that cannot be questioned.
I, and other former Christians, were forced out of our bubbles. As I was getting my education, I increasingly found that the answer, “Well, God determines right and wrong, so x is right and y is wrong” was not enough by itself. When I saw that the choices I made would have real consequences on people, and that some of the Bible’s rules did more harm than good, I couldn’t say “that’s just the way it is” to avoid questions on the utility of my morality. I actually had to justify God as being the necessary center of morality as if it were a real, logical concept, not as an escape from fear.
Many apologists, for all their show and long-winded “arguments,” don’t do that. What they do, basically, is say, “Isn’t morality tough to figure out? Aren’t the consequences of certain ill-advised moral systems atrocious? OK, then just use the word ‘god’ so that you don’t have to figure it out anymore.” So much of apologetics seems to be encapsulated in the process of persuading people to get so afraid of the things they don’t know that they’ll accept a nonexistent, illogical placeholder you label “God” so that gap is filled and they don’t have to think about it anymore. And if this didn’t hurt anyone, it wouldn’t matter. But it does hurt relationships, as I’ve just explained above, especially when it comes to human relations interacting with something as influential as morality.
When you are in the business of having to define and justify a moral system that will work for people, it becomes harder and harder to invalidate the concerns of people with those of a nonexistent God. Not without a strong rationale. And so I had to come up with that rationale. I had to step beyond the fear and actually do the truly Christian thing of thinking that if this was true, it was true in the real world and was a concept that could actually be examined and defended.
I don’t want to give the impression that I came to the conclusion that God’s moral system was nonsense overnight. It was a long, agonizing process that took a good ten years for me. But I could feel myself getting closer and closer to God as I was doing it. Many former Christians have told me the same thing happened to them, which is what you would expect with a false concept. It’s not like we set out to prove God didn’t exist. No, that was the last thing on our minds. We were trying to prove that he DID. Unlike many Christians, we had to actually justify his status as the center of morality.
And when I did that, I ran into problems.
For example, a lot of Christians say that God made us, so He would have the moral authority to do as he sees fit. Unfortunately, they tend to take this as a truism, but it’s not — as a cursory look clearly shows.
Let’s pretend for a second that you created a person. If you write on a piece of paper, “Thou shalt not scream” and yet give the person the ability to scream, and then start torturing the person you created — say, skinning it alive and rubbing salt an hot oil on his wounds — and the person screams, are they doing something wrong?
According to a lot of Christian logic, I would have to say “yes.” Because you are the creator, you have the authority to do what you like with the person. The Bible says the pot cannot say to the potter, “Why have you made me this way?” right? So, by the same token, the person you made should not scream. Full stop.
But it’s more complicated than that. The person, even though I made him, is a person in his own right. I gave him the ability to scream. I poked and prodded him to scream. So his screaming is my fault. And even if it wasn’t — there’s something fundamentally wrong with thinking that just because I made him, I can judge his actions as wrong. Might doesn’t seem to make right.
The concept of free will stopped making sense, as well. If God gave us free will, that’s something He gave us. Wouldn’t what we do with what God gave us be God’s fault?
And how does free will work, exactly? If it works randomly, like the rolling of a dice, then isn’t God’s practice of blaming human beings for what the free will he made prompts them to do much like the gambler blaming the dice when he used it to roll a six and he actually rolled a five?
And if it works based on the person, or the person’s environments or desires — didn’t God make all of that, too? Everything that free will (which God made) would make “choices” based on was made completely and fully by God.
And if something was not made by God…then God didn’t make everything. In which case…God isn’t really God, if the rationale for him being God is that he is over all he created.
And if it was all made by God…then we’re basically just extensions of God. God isn’t over us or in charge of us — we’re extensions of him, like a hand is an extension of us. Anything that would possibly separate us from God would be made by God, too — so we’re not separated from him by air (which he made) or any barrier (which, ultimately, he also made). We’re as much a part of God as our brain cells are parts of us. But that can’t be, right? Because “God” is above his creation, not synonymous with it. If everything is “God”…it’s more exact to say that nothing is. Which would make you an atheist.
And yeah, that may seem roundabout and a bit metaphysical for an atheist. But I hope it’s somewhat clear that this arrival at atheism does not come in spite of a belief in God. It comes through it, because one of way to discover a false truth as a lie is to get to know the false truth as closely and sincerely as you can. You’ll start seeing little inconsistencies here and there…until finally, the lie dissipates, and the truth underneath it is discovered.
Some Christians will argue that God, as the creator, knows the best possible way for human beings to work together. So it’s not about might makes right, this group of Christians will claim. It’s about the knowledge of God simply being greater than ours. But in the “real world,” it’s not enough to say that. You have to prove it. And this is very hard to prove. And the more you try to prove it, the more you begin to see that the best way for human beings to work together doesn’t seem to clearly correlate with what God says.
This may seem counterintuitive if you’re a Christian who takes morality for granted, but the truth is that the more you cling to God’s morality as the logically best way for human beings to work together, and the more you try to show this, the more frustrating the process becomes. Proving this hypothesis requires a close look at how well God’s morality works for people, and in many cases God’s morality doesn’t work well. And eventually, you see that if your goal is to promote God as the source of a universal morality that works for all involved — if your goal is to promote a universal morality that works for all involved, God keeps getting in the way of people.
That’s how it was for me. Eventually, my love for the idea that God had a morality that worked best for all human beings eventually forced me to be extremely uncomfortable with the morality in the Bible, which DIDN’T work for all people. God became more and more of a burden to the morality that worked best for all human beings. The two eventually became incompatible. And I saw that if I were interested in identifying and promoting a morality that worked for all people, I couldn’t be bound by the constraints of God — which is something you would expect to find, eventually, if this God was birthed out of fiction and ignorant prejudice and baseless superstition.
But it wasn’t in spite of that idea of God that I left. It was because that idea of a universal morality was such an attractive feature of God that I looked at it…and was actually forced to leave the notion of God’s morality.
Towards the end, I tried to balance the two sides, stating that God is the center of morality because he is the creator AND because he has access to universal morality. Instead of realizing that each side of this viewpoint had a fatal flaw, I tried to claim that there were enough positive merits on each side of the equation for me to add them up and still say God was the center of morality.
But that was intellectually dishonest. Both sides were, as I just explained, fatally flawed, so the more I examined them, the more I began to see that I was combining two improbable theories to create one that was even more improbable than either of them alone.
And so I eventually left the entire thinking that God is the center of morality. Instead, I think that we, as subjective entities, are trying to organize a moral system that each of us are intensely interested in, that has very high stakes — stakes high enough that I prefer to, at least in my perspective, leave a nonexistent God with an outdated and deeply counterproductive moral system out of it.
I wouldn’t have gotten to that point if I hadn’t taken God so seriously at first, as I just explained. If I had taken God less seriously and simply used the concept that God is the center of morality so I wouldn’t have to think about morality, I’d probably still be a Christian. It was only through my stance as a Christian who really thought that morality was God-centered that I became an atheist.
Thank you for reading.
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