WWJD? Don’t Expect a Consistent Answer

WWJD? atheism atheistWhat Would Jesus Do?

The WWJD acronym became popular in the nineties as a way to imagine Jesus approaching a particular problem or opportunity. Would Jesus smoke that joint? Would he skip his homework? Would he stop to help that person? Many young Christians wore a WWJD bracelet to keep the question in mind.

The problem is that this question delivers contradictory answers. Ask Fred Phelps what Jesus would do, and he would’ve said with confidence that Jesus would be preaching, “God hates fags.” Ask Harold Camping, and he would’ve said that Jesus would be warning people about the coming end. Pro-lifers think that Jesus would be picketing abortion clinics. Televangelists say that Jesus would want you to donate lots of money.

Many conservative Christians think that Jesus would reduce taxes, encourage Creationism in public schools, push laws against same-sex marriage, and deny climate change. Many liberal Christians think that he’d celebrate the scientific consensus, support healthcare provided by society (another word for “government”), encourage sex education to minimize unwanted pregnancies, and helping the neediest people.

Pick any contentious social issue—abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights, euthanasia, our obligations to the needy, and so on—and you’ll have millions of thoughtful Christians taking each of the many contradictory positions.

What good is it?

WWJD is a useless slogan because it’s ambiguous. It’s a synonym for “In your most moral frame of mind, what would you do?” The Jesus of the Bible is a ventriloquist’s dummy who says whatever you want him to say.

BOB: Say Jesus, I was thinking of putting a little extra in the offering plate on Sunday for the food bank.

JESUS (in squeaky voice): Good thinking, Bob! After all, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

BOB: And speaking of church, I thought that Frank from across the street was a decent guy until I found out that he’s a Mormon. I think I should give him the silent treatment from now on.

JESUS: You’re right there, Bob! Remember that “I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother.”

The problem is pretending that Jesus really is feeding you lines. Dropping this pretense may feel like tightrope walking without a net, but “Jesus” in this case is just a synonym for “conscience.”

If “WWJD” were to become a synonym for “use your best judgment to find the most moral solution to society’s problems,” what’s not to like?

Two hands working
can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer.
— Unknown

Photo credit: sonofgodresources.com

About Bob Seidensticker
  • RichardSRussell

    I get better answers if I translate it as “What would Jefferson do?”

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      JFK to a gathering of Nobel winners at the White House:

      I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.

    • josh

      I wouldn’t take his advice on race relations too far.

      • GubbaBumpkin

        I wouldn’t take his advice on race relations too far.

        Jefferson, or Jesus?

        Jesus and the “Canaanite Dogs”

        • josh

          Jefferson at least seems to have agonized over it and promoted its abolition, while not ending his personal involvement. Jesus doesn’t seem to have given a fig.

  • Greg G.

    When I see “WWJD?”, I always think “JWS!” with the S being a dirty, four-letter word.

  • Margaret Whitestone

    “I distrust those people who know so well what God wants them to do, because I notice it always coincides with their own desires.”
    Susan B. Anthony

  • MNb

    What else is to expect? God being created in the image of Homo Sapiens no divine interpretation of Jesus will be any more than ““use your best judgment “.

  • JT Rager

    As per your last paragraph, if they were synonymous I’d be all for it. However, with WWJD, people are able to hide behind Jesus and point to him with what’s really moral. That way they they don’t have to support why it’s moral, because by their definition everything Jesus does is the most moral thing possible. That is how they get by with allowing any or all their actions to be the truly moral ones.

    • trj

      Why Would Jesus Do It? Because he’s Jesus. No further justification or thought is needed.

  • smrnda

    This made me think of the eccentric (to say the least) German actor Klaus Kinski – he did this performance art “Jesus Tour” where he would stand up on stage and proclaim himself the real Jesus. After telling someone in the audience “Verpiß dich!” (similar to “Fuck you” in English) the guy said Jesus would never say that. Kinski said “No, he would bust out a scourge and whip you!”

  • avalon

    “If “WWJD” were to become a synonym for “use your best judgment to find
    the most moral solution to society’s problems,” what’s not to like?”

    From the believer’s point of view there’s two problems with this:
    1. they’d be loosing their invisible, ever-present friend (Jesus)
    2. they’d be giving up divine judgements in exchange for their own human judgements

    As an atheist, the only ‘tool’ you have for making moral judgements is your own conscience. But the Christian has the most awesome friend ever and his judgement is always correct.

    “The problem is pretending that Jesus really is feeding you lines.”

    Indeed! But that’s understating the problem. Better to say, ‘the problem is you don’t want to loose the most special friend you think you ever had and the divine authority he confers on your own conscious decisions’.

  • Pofarmer

    I think the proper answer is “He’d be nice,” Cause, ya know, Jesus was always nice, except when he was talking about slaying people, and whipping the money changers and stuff, but I’m sure it was in a nice way.

    • wtfwjtd

      I’m sure he whipped them money-changers with a smile on his face!

      • jumbybird

        Who wouldn’t want to whip the bank CEOs?

  • Brian P.

    It is oh so not a useless slogan. Consider how it can be used as a Rorschach ink test. Believers may freely say what they think Jesus would do when they might be more circumspect about what they think they’d ought to. Perhaps, here’s the greatest utility–if someone says Jesus would do X and X is outright evil, look out.

  • wtfwjtd

    This post reminds me of a Bill Maher bit from a couple of years ago:

    Imagine Jesus Christ, Republican candidate for president: platform plank #1–He’s for helping the poor.
    Party rank and file response: “What? That sounds suspiciously like welfare!”
    Platform plank #2–Jesus heals the sick, and relieves suffering….
    Party faithful: “Huh? Healing the sick? For FREE? That sounds like…like….Obamacare!”

    WWJD, indeed….

    • Greg G.

      I’ve always assumed your handle was based on WWJD. Am I right?

      • wtfwjtd

        Yes, it’s a slightly modified form, but close enough.

        • Greg G.

          At first I assumed you were JT Eberhart from the What Would JT Do blog. So, you probably had to add the “tf” to differntiate.

        • wtfwjtd

          Well, I had JT in mind when I came up with that handle. That was before I realized he had a blog entitled WWJTD. I just added WTF because, to me, it was a good fit (it was all kind of a spur of the moment thing). I’ve met JT on several occasions, and he was very helpful to me and my wife during our deconversion process. We got to see him live debate a preacher here some months back, it was a very enjoyable experience.

        • Greg G.

          I had hoped to meet him when he lived in Ohio. I met heajthyaddict when she was first becoming an atheist activist.

        • wtfwjtd

          I’ve watched a few of healthyaddict’s videos, we found her when we first converted to Pastafarianism. Ramen!

  • smrnda

    I kind of think WWJD forgets that Jesus had magic powers. It’s like asking what SUPERMAN would do.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      or a wizard.

      • smrnda

        I know. There was this big puddle on the street a few days ago. I did not want to get wet. WWJD? He would *walk on water.*

        Obviously WWJD is not a sensible program.

        • Greg G.

          I locked my keys in my car a few years ago. WWJD? He would manifest himself inside. I had to resort to Plan B.

        • wtfwjtd

          There’s been a few times I wished I could do that manifest thing. Come to think of it, instantaneous transmutation of matter would come in handy now and then too…

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Sathya Sai Baba could be in two places at once. That’d be pretty cool.

        • Greg G.

          What’s so hard about that? My luggage does it when I fly.

  • The Man With The Name Too Long

    I remember a saying from my days of Islamic instruction attributed to Muhammad talking about how looking at your penis makes you forgetful. Well I look at it everyday and I can’t seem to remember things I’ve just heard. Now I’m paranoid.

    ANYWAY…I too have a problem with the WWJD slogan, mostly because I don’t like the feeling of having the way I live my life judged by how closely it compares to someone else. I feel the only thing more annoying than WWJD is when Christians say that we owe our morality to Jesus even though we deny it, and that we would think slavery and all that jazz is acceptable if it weren’t for Jesus.

  • Tubular

    Please drop the “deny climate change” stance in your argument. I am as staunch an atheist as one could hope for. My insistence on hard science has demonstrated to me that insufficient evidence exists for CAGW. I will not be labelled a “denier” as that term is pejorative, and detracts from your argument. I remain unconvinced of CAGW.
    Using the term consensus is a slippery slope for the author. It is a political term not a scientific one, and it is one used to support religious faith of all kinds.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Thanks for the input. I more directly respond to your argument about accepting the consensus here: “Reject the Scientific Consensus? How Do You Justify THAT?” I’d be interested in your thoughts on that.

      I don’t see how “scientific consensus” is a political term. It’s the simple and unambiguous results of a poll.

      • Tubular

        And thank you for responding Bob.
        There is much to say and I have to be brief.
        You mention in the article noted that science is not a democracy, and that is absolutely true. Democracy depends on consensus. Science does not. For a thing to be true it must be observable, testable, and falsifiable. That demands a high degree of scepticism. Richard Feynman said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.
        Understanding CAGW requires a great deal more time, study, and effort than the majority will give it. That majority in most cases has a “sound bite” view of the subject, delivered by listening to the anointed, like Al Gore, and the evening news. I’ve spent more time, and although I am not an expert, I remain unconvinced. Scepticism is healthy. Good science welcomes the sceptic – it is demanded of any theory that it withstand such, and be open to all who would step forward.
        Evolution – got it. That one is as much a fact as anything can be. The Big Bang? The same – I look at the Hubble Ultra Deep Field view.
        I am not interested in the future, or conjecture, as science. By definition it can’t be science. What is interesting is that every alarmist prediction of twenty years ago, the IPCC included, has been found to be seriously flawed, and in the same way. They predicted then that the world would be hotter by now, and by a lot. Now that time has arrived, and the data has shown a slight cooling of the planet for almost 18 years. As Feynman said decades ago, when your hypothesis is not supported by the evidence, you must discard it.
        Thanks again Bob.

        • MNb

          “a thing to be true it must be observable, testable, and falsifiable”
          The hypothesis of climate change totally qualifies.

          “I am not interested in the future, or conjecture, as science. By definition it can’t be science.”
          Good job – then you reject all theories of physics on the Big Bang, because they all tell us something about the future of the Universe:

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ultimate_fate_of_the_universe

          In fact you even reject the Newton’s Law on gravitation. It predicts that you will fall downward and not downward if you jump off a tower – and predictions by definition are about the future.
          Thanks for confirming that you’re a pseudoscientist, climate change denier.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          Democracy depends on consensus. Science does not.

          The relevance of a consensus view within science is that that’s what we laymen know is the best guess of reality at the moment.

          Richard Feynman said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”.

          If you say so. That makes no sense to me. Perhaps I’m missing the context.

          Understanding CAGW requires a great deal more time, study, and effort than the majority will give it.

          Are you a climate scientist? If not, then I wouldn’t think that anyone, including you, is much interested in your lay conclusions.

          That majority in most cases has a “sound bite” view of the subject

          If your concern here is the distortion (inadvertent or deliberate) from the media, yes, that is a problem. Nonetheless, figuring out the consensus isn’t that hard.

          I’ve spent more time, and although I am not an expert, I remain unconvinced.

          Yeah, but who cares? You of all people should know that you’re just an educated amateur.

          There is a consensus on this from climate scientists, right?

          Good science welcomes the sceptic

          Good science doesn’t care about the amateur, skeptical or otherwise. We don’t get a vote; our opinion isn’t consulted.

          every alarmist prediction of twenty years ago, the IPCC included, has been found to be seriously flawed

          Show that that is also the consensus opinion, and I’m on board.

        • Tubular

          This is obviously an emotional subject for both of you, and as the ad hominen responses have begun, I’ll take my leave.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          OK. Do what works for you.

          Though I spoke frankly, I see no ad hominems. If “educated amateur” is indeed a slur, then correct me and I’ll retract it. That seemed to follow from your statements.

        • Greg G.

          Would calling someone an uneducated professional be a slur?

        • Shaun G. Lynch

          Here’s the link for the speech in which Richard Feynman said “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts:”
          http://www.fotuva.org/feynman/what_is_science.html

          It actually made immediate sense to me. In contrast to the Creationist approach, which says that the expert (God) can never be wrong, science is built on the notion that all principles are to be subject to ongoing testing and proof.

          That said, there is also such a thing as overwhelming scientific consensus. At a certain point, it’s time to accept a concept as settled and move on to further research. In light of current evidence, I’m convinced that the concept of climate modification derived from human activity falls into that category. It’s time to move beyond the question of whether or not it’s happening, and on to the question of what we can do to fix it.

          Both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama have taken that position, and I’m pretty sure that Jesus would take that stance too. 😀

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          The key observation for me is that science is always provisional.

          Now that I think about it, Feynman’s comment is more saying that science is error correcting.

    • MNb

      When you write that insufficient evidence exists for climate change you’re a denier, whether you write you will be labeled as such or not. Moreover I hypothesize that you use the term “hard science” in an ambiguous way. There is harder evidence for climate change than for say dark energy. Do you remain unconvinced of that one too?

    • http://disqus.com/cblargh00 CB

      “My insistence on hard science has demonstrated to me that insufficient evidence exists for CAGW”

      The evidence is that Venus is 300 degrees hotter than Mercury despite being farther from the sun.

      If this isn’t because Venus is being warmed by a thick blanket of CO₂, why should this be?

      If you understand humans emit CO₂ by burning fossil fuels, and you understand CO₂ can warm planets 300 degrees, why wouldn’t you think humans can cause catastrophic global warming by emitting CO₂?

      What other evidence could you possibly need?

      • wtfwjtd

        A recent episode of “Cosmos” explained this phenomenon nicely, Venus has a “runaway greenhouse effect” due almost entirely to CO2.

        • Pofarmer

          Problem is, Venus CO2 is orders of magnitude higher than what we could possibly achieve. I still have to watch that episode.

        • wtfwjtd

          That’s true, but as NDT explains, it takes remarkably little of the stuff to have potentially a drastic effect on our climate. Venus is useful in that it helps illustrate that distance from the sun is only one small factor that determines in-habitability of a planet. I highly recommend that episode, you’ll come away with a better understanding of the topic. I know I did.

        • Greg G.

          Wien’s Law tells us the wavelength a body emits the maximum amount of energy at a given temperature. A molecule absorbs at one wavelength but since molecules move, the Doppler Effect makes them other wavelengths from the stationary perspective.

          The Stefan-Boltzman equation tells us how much energy a gas can absorb at a specific frequency or wavelength in a given distance. This is an exponential decay formula so most of the absorption is done in a short distance.

          Because of planetary mechanics, the planets are arranged so their distances from the sun are in ratios of the inverse of square roots of prime numbers. At other distances, the planet would be interacting with others on a regular basis which would disrupt its orbit enough to eject it. That means that the energy that Venus gets from the sun almost exactly twice as intense as the Earth gets.

          The temperature is a balance of the energy coming in and the energy going out. If more energy is absorbed, the temperature goes up until Wien’s Law has the body emitting higher energy photons to balance it out. Likewise, if it is losing more energy, the temperature falls until it finds a balance.

          http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7c/Atmospheric_Transmission.png

          I hope the image is displayed above. The Earth’s black-body temperature would be in the sub-freezing range if not for the effects of the atmosphere. Water molecules and carbon dioxide block the wavelengths the Earth would be emitting at that temperature while the energy from the sun would come in, causing the temperature to rise. Once the temperature reaches a point where there is a large enough window that the energy can be emitted, the temperature would stabilize there. In summer, the planet receives more energy so the window must be wider to emit an equal amount so it widens and moves to the left to higher temperature ranges. When more CO2 is added, the additional Doppler Effect blocks wavelengths at the edge of the wall, pushing the temperature to the left.

          I think the toxic effects of CO2 would be more directly detrimental to humans than the effect it would have on the temperature. When you burp after drinking a carbonated beverage, the burn in your nose is from a slightly increased level of CO2 that your mucous membranes aren’t adapted to protect you from. I don’t think a CO2 atmosphere could block a wide enough window at the 10.8 um wavelength to push the temperature up to where H2O starts blocking around the 7 um wavelength, which is around 180 degrees F, IIRC. I did the calculations a few years ago.

          However, the indirect effects on humans could be devastating as the rest of the biosphere which we depend upon is not adapted to varying temperature ranges as the human species.

          When I considered Venus as a reality check on this idea, I figured that Venus would have had water like Earth. The black-body radiation temperature for a planet that close to the sun would be just about in the range that water would block emissions. So the planet would continue to increase in temperature. It would find a small window as the H2O was reducing the amount of energy blocked but then the CO2 wall would begin to block wavelengths around 4.3 um. Once the temperature reached a temperature so that the energy was emitting around 4 um, the window would be wide enough to emit as much as was coming in. At that temperature, all the water would be in the atmosphere and unprotected from cosmic rays that can break down water molecules, which is the explanation of why Venus has no water today. However, the planet cannot cool down because of the wall that CO2 absorbs energy. When I visually estimated the wavelength for the window and did a Wien’s Law calculation, I got a figure that was right in the middle of the measured temperatures for Venus.

          I leave the calculations proof to the interested reader. I have to go to work now and don’t feel like plugging in the numbers to refresh my memory.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          OK yeah but science-y stuff aside, Climate Change is still bullshit, right?

          /

        • Greg G.

          Volcanoes… mumblemumble. Al Gore… mumblemumble. Nazis… mumblemumble. Carbon dioxide… mumblemumble. Hockey stick… mumblemumble. Roy Spencer… mumblemumble. Big science… mumblemumble. Carbon dioxide doesn’t cause rising temperatures. No, wait, it’s Friday, so it’s carbon dioxide does cause higher temperature but it’s not because of humans, no, wait, the date is a multiple of 3, so there is no increase in the temperature of the Earth, no, it’s June so it’s caused by solar fluctuations.

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          As opposed to “Well, we had the Little Ice Age!” which is what you say in July.

        • wtfwjtd

          Yeah, who do them smarty-pants scientists think they’re foolin’?

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    The problem with the WWJD formulation is that it freezes the individual at the “authority and social order” level of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (go ahead and Google it; I’ll wait…). Instead of developing an internally-driven sense of moral behaviour, the person chooses to abdicate the decision-making to a higher power.

    Now, I’m a practicing Catholic, but one who is regularly pilloried by his own kind, in particular in forums like these, for being too much of a free thinker. And I’m okay with that, even if the Church isn’t.

    I think it’s more important for a person to know WHY he or she holds the opinions or takes the actions that he or she does, rather than pretending that a higher-order authority is calling the shots.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

      Kohlberg’s stages are here.

      A free-thinking Catholic? I can imagine worse kinds!

      I agree that Christians should critique their beliefs to know if they’re worth retaining.

      • Shaun G. Lynch

        Thanks for the vote of confidence (LOL)!

        Actually, the Church doesn’t seem to have a major problem with me, if by Church one means my parish priest, my episcopal vicar and my bishop. As the bishop’s delegate, I head the lay pastoral team of my parish!

        It’s self-righteous blog commenters who find some of my attitudes not merely incorrect, but signs of my being something other than Catholic.

        I regularly find myself correcting both Catholics and anti-Catholics who make the mistake of thinking that the Church is far more of a monolithic, homogeneous and hidebound entity than it actually is.

        If Hans Kung hasn’t been excommunicated (in fact, he’s still an active Jesuit priest), then I don’t think anyone else who expresses dissent needs to be worried about going to “hell” (whatever that might consist of).

        • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined Bob Seidensticker

          I just listened to an interview with Hans Kung on the Unbelievable podcast. Small world.

  • Robster

    Jesus would do nothing at best, how could a first century dead jew, who’s never been proven to have ever existed “do anything”? Jesus is a nasty fantasy for sooks with too much time on their hands.

  • Shaun G. Lynch

    Serendipitously, the topic of today’s Today I Found Out article is the origin of W.W.J.D.: http://bit.ly/1urxaHc.

    As it happens, the pastor who originally coined the phrase in the late 19th century was a proto-socialist who was also ahead of the social curve with regard to racial tolerance!

  • Greg G.

    One gets better answers with WWJBD? Jimmy Buffett would have a cheeseburger and a Margarita in St. Somewhere.

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