“So what would you consider immoral?” I asked.
It was a crisp, cold night, on the boundary between late fall and early winter, and the tang of frost and woodsmoke hung in the air. An orange gibbous moon was rising through the tangled leafless fingers of the trees into a clear, dark night sky. The air had a biting chill, but my friend and I were not out in it. We were indoors, in the recently built student coffeehouse of Practical Bible College, a warm and well-lit space paneled in rich earth tones and bright polished wood. It was a late hour, and most of the red wood tables and chairs were empty save for a few students watching sports on a TV above the bar, and the two of us, sitting at a table in a back corner of the room.
I first met John* several weeks earlier, during the beginning of my junior year in college. I was heading down to the student union one night when I noticed two figures standing out in front, handing out literature to anyone who would take it and attempting to engage passing students in conversation. I approached them and soon found out that they were evangelical Christians from Practical Bible College, a small private Christian college in the same town as the university I attended, come to my larger and much more secular campus to proselytize. When I identified myself as an atheist, they were interested, and eager to engage me in conversation. (An atheist’s soul must be a particularly juicy plum for Christian evangelists.)
We sat on a bench in front of the student union, in the freezing cold, and debated for almost an hour that night. Eventually I had to leave, but the three of us agreed that we would meet again. John’s companion seemed less devoted to their cause than he was, and I did not see her again, but I met up with John several more times over the next few weeks. We walked across the campus at night, debating religion and discussing our respective life histories. John told me he had accepted Jesus into his heart and was saved at the age of five, and intended to become a missionary after his graduation and travel the world to spread the gospel. I also learned that, despite being no older than I was at the time, he was engaged to a fellow student from his school. The two of them would end up married before my graduation.
I have had the dubious privilege of meeting quite a few nasty, judgmental and sanctimonious Christians in my life, but John was not one of them. He was always mild and friendly, never rude, angry or hostile with me, and I have no doubt that he sincerely believed in what he was doing and wanted to save people because he genuinely viewed it as a moral imperative. I do not think that sincerity necessarily makes a person’s actions above reproach – indeed, some of the worst crimes and oppressions of history were committed by religious people who believed in what they were doing. But no matter how I disagreed with John’s beliefs, I never once perceived any malice or ill will in him (except, perhaps, for one occasion which I will discuss shortly). For whatever this is worth, coming from an atheist, I did and still do believe that his personal conduct matched up in all respects to the highest Christian moral ideal.
After several discussions on my campus, I agreed to come to his so that we could talk there, and that is how I ended up in the coffeehouse of Practical Bible College that wintry night. It was at the end of the night, nearing the end of our discussion, that I posed him the question at the start of this essay. We had been debating for some time, and as you might have guessed, without either of us altering our positions very much at all. He was well versed in the standard apologetic replies, and no matter how I pressed him, he would always fall back on faith as an answer to every question, a solution to every conundrum. It was out of a sense of frustration that I asked him for his Bible and began flipping through the pages, determined to show him something that would shock him out of his immovable conviction in God’s goodness.
My repeated mentions of the vile cruelty of the doctrine of Hell had not swayed him, so I thought something more concrete might work instead. I showed him Hosea chapter 13, the infamous passage in which God promises that for the crime of disbelief, the city of Samaria’s “infants shall be dashed in pieces, and their women with child shall be ripped up.”
John was placid in his faith. “God only commands us to refrain from taking life. He’s the creator of us all and he owns our lives, so he can decide to do whatever he wants with them.”
“But you don’t think this is an evil thing to do?” I pressed him. “Those babies had nothing to do with the sins of other people in the city. They were innocent. You think God can order them to be violently murdered and we should still consider him good?”
“God is all-good,” he said imperturbably. “We have no right to judge his actions. He knows best and our duty is to praise him whatever he does.”
It was at this point that I gave up on the Bible. It was obvious that he would not go against it no matter how brutal its passages were. But I was determined to find out just how far his faith would go, and what, if anything, it would not excuse.
“You’ve said that it’s perfectly okay for God to command genocide. You’ve said it’s okay for him to condemn people to be tortured for all eternity because they had some sincere doubts about his existence. And now you’re saying it’s perfectly okay for him to order the slaughter of pregnant women and their unborn children! So what would you consider immoral? Is there anything you think he can’t do and still be good? Is there any act – anything at all – that a good god would never command?”
For the first time, a shadow of disgust passed across John’s face. “Yes. A good God would never say that it’s okay for people to be gay. Homosexuality is disgusting and unnatural and God would never permit it.”
Much of what we talked about that night has faded from my memory in the subsequent years, but that part has stayed with me. I have never ceased to be astonished by how completely the moral sense of an otherwise kind and concerned person can be warped and subverted by religion. God ordering genocide so that his chosen people could have all the land they wanted? Fine. The gleeful condemnation of sincere unbelievers to an eternity of unimaginably horrific torture? No problem. (Indeed, John is not alone in this: a Beliefnet survey found that a substantial percentage of believers think that their own family members will end up forever damned.) Butchering children and pregnant women in the most gory and violent manner because other people in the same town offended him? A-OK. John accepted these things as right and just without a single tremor of conscience. His moral sense was numbed to these horrors, and not just accepted them but actively praised them. But when it came to homosexuality, then John’s moral sense rebelled. It was not bloody mass murder or savage torture in a pit of flame that aroused his disgust and indignation, but love and companionship between two consenting adults who happen to be of the same sex.
People such as this have a seriously warped moral compass. They have their priorities precisely backwards, they are obsessed with precisely the wrong things. Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg once said:
Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
This is a harsh assessment, but as stories like this show, there is some truth to it. This is one of the primary reasons I, as an atheist, oppose religion: because it can warp and distort people’s moral priorities, blinding them to true evils while causing them to obsessively focus on things that are not problems at all. In both of these respects, the villain is faith: blind belief in the unseen, the unevidenced, and the irrational. Only when we reject faith as a method of decision-making and instead base our morality on reason can we undo the damage that religion has done.