Another World Creeps In

I’m an atheist, in part, because I’m a moral person.

When I first read the books that are called holy, what I found were countless passages that are abhorrent to the conscience: God drowning the planet in a global flood, massacring the innocent firstborn of Egypt, ordering Abraham to murder his son as a test of faith (and rewarding him for being willing to do it!), commanding the Israelites to wage genocidal war on other tribes, promising to torture nonbelievers in a burning hell forever, ordering the subjugation of women and the killing of gays, and so on and so forth. I find myself unable to give my allegiance to any text that praises such atrocities as virtues, much less to believe that these books were written by a perfectly good and benevolent being.

Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest. However many layers of allegory you bury these tales under, their brutal, violent message still bleeds through. What’s worse is that millions of theists go to church every week and read from scripture that still includes these stories unaltered. Why not release a new version of the Bible, one edited to reflect our evolving moral understanding, that omits them altogether?

But whatever the flaws of this approach, at least it tacitly concedes that these stories are immoral, their messages unacceptable. Other believers, some of whom I’ve been talking to in the last few days, take a different approach. They say that there’s another life, by comparison with which everything in this life is inconsequential, and any action God takes – up to and including the violent killing of children – is justified if it ushers souls to a better destiny in this other existence. Here’s one shining example from a recent post of mine:

…according to Christianity, death isn’t the end of the story. What if, instead of “God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites”, we read it as “God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony”? Does that change the verdict? Granted, the particular mechanism of teleportation in this case is downright unpleasant, but compared to eternity, it amounts to stubbing your toe while you step onto the transport pad.

The problem with this apologetic is that it has no limits. It can’t be contained to the handful of troubling cases where the apologists want to use it; like a river in flood, it inevitably bursts its banks and starts to rise and sweep away all firmly rooted moral conclusions. After all, what act could not be justified by saying that it creates a greater, invisible good in a world hidden from us? What evil deed could this not excuse? The same reasoning that’s used to defend violence, killing and holy war in religious scripture can just as easily be used to defend violence, killing and holy war in the real world.

Garden Lantern

Image by lapideo.

To a humanist who takes this world as the standard of value, morality generally isn’t difficult or complicated. There are wrenching cases where real and significant interests collide and force us to make painful choices, but for the vast majority of everyday interactions, it’s perfectly obvious what the moral course is. In the light of rational humanism, we can see morality bright and clear, like looking out at a beautiful garden through a glass patio door.

But when you introduce another world, one whose existence must be taken entirely on faith but which is held to far surpass our world in importance, your moral system becomes weirdly distorted. That other world seeps in like smoke, like fog beading on the windowpane, obscuring our view of the garden outside and replacing clear shape and form with strange and twisted mirages. Like a universal acid, it dissolves all notions of right and wrong, and what we’re left with is a kind of nihilism, a moral void where any action can be justified as easily as any other.

This is what Sam Harris means when he says moderates give cover to violent fundamentalism; this is what Christopher Hitchens means when he says religion poisons everything. At one moment, these religious apologists seem like perfectly normal, civic-minded, compassionate people. But ask the right question and they instantly turn into glassy-eyed psychopaths, people who say without a flicker of conscience that yes, sometimes God does command his followers to violently massacre families and exterminate entire cultures, and the only reason they’re not doing this themselves is because God hasn’t yet commanded them to.

These beliefs have wreaked untold havoc on the world. This is the logic of crusade and jihad, of death camps and gas chambers, of suicide bombers detonating themselves on buses, of inquisitors stretching bodies on the rack, of screaming mobs stoning women to death in the town square, of hijacked airplanes crashing into buildings, of cheering crowds turning out to see heretics being burned at the stake. They all rely on the same justifications: God is perfectly in the right working his will through intermediaries; God is not subject to our moral judgments and his ways aren’t to be questioned; God is the creator of life and he can take it away whenever he chooses; and if any of these people were innocent, God will make it up to them anyway. These are the beliefs which ensured that most of human history was a bloodstained chronicle of savagery and darkness.

Only lately, and only through heroic effort, have we begun to rise above this. Only in a few rare instances have people come to the realization that this life matters most. And still we humanists, who see morality as a tangible matter of human flourishing and happiness, must contend with the fanatics who shrug at evil, or actively perpetuate it, in the name of the divine voices they imagine that they’re obeying. They rampage through the world, killing and burning and insisting all the while that they’re doing God’s will. And the crowning absurdity of it all is that they insist not just that their beliefs make them moral, but that they’re the only ones who are moral, and that we, the ones who value and cherish this world, are the nihilists!

Here’s another apologist from the same thread I quoted earlier, the one comparing ancient Hebrews impaling Canaanite babies on spears and chopping them up with axes to the slight pain of a stubbed toe:

What is at issue is that atheism per atheism does not really allow for things such as morals at all…

What in the world is so bigoted about stating the incongruity between atheism and morality?

The black-is-white, up-is-down audacity of this claim shows how severely religion can warp a believer’s moral compass, to the point where they’re willing to defend genocide as good and condemn those who don’t share that opinion as evil. I say again: I’m an atheist, in part, because I’m a moral person, and because I value human beings and the world we live in more highly than the dictates of ancient, bloody fairytales. Come what may, I see the garden of human value in the light of reality, and no apologist for genocide and destruction will ever convince me that I should instead look for guidance in the fog.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Darth Cynic

    I really find that attitude puzzling, the one that in part excuses the god sanctioned terror and brutal violence of genocide because it is akin to stubbing ones toe in the grand scheme of things. An eternity of bliss in utopia awaits so the experience of a violent murder is a small price to be paid, practically inconsequential really. Though by some interpretations of Xianity they are probably destined for eternal torture anyway, thus by mass murder they have been doubly insulted.

    Yet if during my tenure on Terra, if during this apparent blip in the infinite ocean of eternity I don’t believe and / or don’t follow the list of rules that usually accompany that belief. I will be condemned to an eternity of suffering and torture, I will be infinitely punished for a decision made on this blip of experience. Is not my decision when placed in this infinite scheme little more than a rash and ill advised move on my part? The mental equivalent of that stubbed toe?

  • http://journal.nearbennett.com Rick

    I find that many of the liberal xians in my circle of acquaintance would wash all of what you’ve said aside with the broad brush of “But Jesus!” Jesus came to deliver a new message to all of humanity, so those old testament stories don’t apply and the OT rules needn’t be followed (never mind contradicting passages where Jesus said to follow the old laws and his new way).

    In short, most of the liberal xians I know simply ignore the “lessons” of the OT.

    What astonishes me about the commenter you quote is that they genuinely don’t seem to understand that doing (or not doing) something ONLY out of fear of punishment or ONLY because an authority told you to, is not moral behavior for an adult. It works for 4-year-olds (sometimes) but is patently ridiculous to think “I’d really like to kill that bastard, but I shouldn’t because gawd might punish me”.

  • Nathaniel

    My question to Dave still stands. Is he willing to defend the Holocaust as part of God’s plan?

  • Doug kirk

    Sometimes I’m just amazed by your prose, Adam. All I can say is “Incredible. Yes, a million times over.”

  • jemand

    @Rick,

    Also what makes me sick about the “But Jesus!” claims, is that these people don’t deny that the OT was applicable *once.* Their focus is myopic and selfish, prioritizing their epoch above all others. They don’t *care* that literally thousands of generations were condemned so suffer in utter misery under these laws as nothing more than an object lesson for them and to show what *they* get to escape in Jesus. They’ll happily accept the idea of sacrificing all of those infants and innocents as the moral necessity to understanding why Jesus is important, and expect me to forgive the idea along with them just because certain *other* people don’t have to follow those rules.

    Unless you believe Jesus is an entirely different god than in the OT, a belief these same believers will instantly label intolerable heresy, the fact that these laws weren’t even *necessary* for humanity because Jesus could have just set up a different system makes the whole package WORSE, not better. It’s an illustration of just how absolutely valueless god views entire generations of humanity, rather than a justification of the system because it’s all “good” now.

    The “But Jesus” response is, in itself, an astonishing example of complete failure of empathy.

  • paradoctor

    You may be overstating religion’s agency. Warlike people have warlike religions. I agree that religion can be a useful excuse for evil, and what’s worse it can inspire evil on its own; still though, it’s people doing the believing and the acting; scriptures are made of ink on paper, they’re passive on their own. The proof of this is the liberal theism you mock for distorting scripture for the sake of human decency; but reverse reading is standard operating procedure in religion.

  • L.Long

    I’ve read this ….
    What if, instead of “God ordered the Hebrews to kill the Canaanites”, we read it as “God ordered the Hebrews to teleport the Canaanites from the desert to a land of eternal happiness where everyone gets a pony”? Does that change the verdict? …before

    and if we assume that both are true or possible then I still think they and their g0d are psycho. The reason is they did the teleporting WITH OUT THEIR PERMISSION!!! And they are now gone and as you stated we are taking the location on faith, how do we know the teleport wasn’t into the middle of empty space??

    So BOTH statements are MURDER and GENOCIDE for no reason..still psychotic.

  • Dave

    A nice summation! Though it sounds like sooooooomeone is getting a post ready for submission to some sort of blog awards.. :-P

  • jane hay

    Yes, the “New Covenant”ers are extremely annoying. The fundies I commonly argue with are always bringing this up. AND, cherry-picking various “moral” laws (homosexuality is an abomination!) that appeal to them out of the OT as well, while ignoring all the rules of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, as well as the several versions of the Ten Commandments contained therein. Almost all will deny the incontrovertible evidence that Jaysus was an orthodox, Torah-following Jew, along with ALL his disciples and relatives. It was Paul that started all this “you don’t have to be a Jew to be a Christian” nonsense.

    Like talking to a brick wall.

  • LindaJoy

    I like to leave bookmarks in the Gideon bibles in hotel rooms. What they say speaks to a major immorality on the part of “God” that I like to highlight. My bible book review basically points out that this god, who apparently knows all, sees all and controls the creation of the world, didn’t seem to know that there was a snake in his garden who was going to corrupt his pure humans with knowledge (god thinks knowledge is bad for you). So this god essentially allows humans to initiate “sin”. Then this god waits a couple thousand years before he offers a solution to that sin with a new system called “salvation”. Now if this god had any sense of morality, why didn’t he offer Adam and Eve the salvation package right after the sin? Why did it take so long for this god to ride to humanity’s rescue from the very thing he ALLOWED to happen? Hopefully, my little bookmarks have caused some thinking to go on in hotel rooms. You never know….

  • Garnet

    In my opinion, morals are not relevant to atheism. A person is an atheist because he or she does not believe in gods. I am an atheist because I find the evidence for the existence of gods to be unconvincing. Atheists have all kinds of moral views from the benevolent to malignant. But to say, “I’m an atheist because of my moral values,” doesn’t make sense to me. It’s a non sequitur. If a god existed with the tendencies of Hitler and the evidence was overwhelming that said god existed and you believed that said evidence was true, then you wouldn’t be an atheist. You’d be a god-hatin’ theist.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    @ LindaJoy. One idea I’ve had was to get Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason in bulk and every time I stay in a motel or hotel, leave a copy in the drawer next to the Gideon Bible and (increasingly) the book of Mormon.

    @ Adam. It’s not just limited to stories of genocide in the OT. I’ve also encountered one who believed that Jeffrey Dahmer is in heaven if he sincerely repented and became a Christian before he died. But any of his victims who were not Christian at the time of their death, well, they’re just SOL.

  • Mike

    “Kill them all and let god sort it out.” I think that is the old aphorism that applies here.

    I like to remind the ten commandment pushers that there are penalties as well and that only 2 of them are NOT death. Of note, there are 3 ways to not honour your parents (each may merit death): rebuking them, not supporting them in their dotage, and being a drunkard. It is also fun to discover which of the ten they forget.

  • http://politicalgames.posterous.com themann1086

    L.Long,

    That is a very, very good point. Consent is a concept that seems to be alien in many religions…

  • Jeff T.

    This is another brilliant post. I hope you add it to Ebon Musings. You are a great teacher and obviously a caring individual. I am glad that I see the biblical writings for what they are,:ancient texts that worshipped blood lusting tribal war god. Texts that say, ‘Without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sin’ are obviously flawed at the very foundation. The entire christ cult is built upon blood and violence; the crucifixion symbol sickens me. What a much better world we would occupy if that simple philosophy had began, ‘without pleasure and happiness, there can be no forgiveness of sin’.

  • Daryl

    If Jesus was God, then isn’t he the God of the Old Testament who ordered the death of Canaanite babies and a myriad of other atrocities? If he isn’t, then someone like Marcion was absolutely was absolutely right: he looked at the OT and thought ‘this has nothing to do with MY Jesus’, and promptly discarded the whole lot. Perhaps some liberal Christians, who wish nothing more than to disengage Jesus from the Hebrew Bible, are secret Marcionites? Heresy is alive and well in Christendom!

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    You wrote,

    I’m an atheist, in part, because I’m a moral person.

    . . . .

    I find myself unable to give my allegiance to any text that praises such atrocities as virtues, much less to believe that these books were written by a perfectly good and benevolent being.

    Couldn’t agree more with this argument expressly directed at the God of the Bible.

    As bad or worse can be said of the Allah of the Koran.

    Even before Plato the wickedness of the pagan gods of the ancient world was well noted.

    Those of India were no improvement and those of Mexico and Central America were even worse.

    You wrote,

    Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest.

    The dishonesty is in claiming such rejection of what the Bible actually is and says should count as some sort of interpretation.

    Interpretation claims to reveal meaning, not disguise it and not replace it.

    Why not release a new version of the Bible, one edited to reflect our evolving moral understanding, that omits them altogether?

    Several replacements for the Bible have been devised.

    None has ever been adopted by any church still insisting on Christian identity, that I know of.

    You wrote,

    They say that there’s another life, by comparison with which everything in this life is inconsequential, and any action God takes – up to and including the violent killing of children – is justified if it ushers souls to a better destiny in this other existence.

    You then quote the “teleportation” passage, and it does seem this argument is meant to support the idea God would be justified in instant slaughter of us all to get us into Heaven.

    Hmm.

    Isn’t that what the Rapture is all about?

    No, wait.

    Those taken in the Rapture are not supposed to die, I think.

    They are just taken away.

    A related point many comments made was that any evil God visits upon us is a “stubbed toe” in comparison with the good of eternal bliss.

    Aside from the problem that most of us, according to these peoples’ religion, are not getting eternal bliss but eternal torment, the idea that God can buy the right to commit any crime against you by showering you with sufficient gifts – and without bothering to ask permission – is itself, I think, morally warped.

    Even worse, of course, is the idea that God made us and so he owns us and so he can do anything, no matter how horrific, to us.

    Even if we could stomach this obsolete patriarchal idea that God owns us because he fathered us modern notions of ownership of do not encompass people and do not even confer a right to cause unlimited harm, no questions asks, to owned animals.

    The idea was already ancient in the days of the pre-Socratics that the wise lawgiver will insist on a divine origin and sanction for his laws, knowing well that the generality of men ascribe no authority to human judgment and show little deference to merely human power.

    The other side of this coin?

    The cry of terrified man, condemned to be free on his own recognizance, “If God is dead everything is permitted!”

  • http://www.WorldOfPrime.com Yahzi

    One of your most vivid posts ever, Ebon. Thank you.

  • http://blog.oldnewatheist.com/ jim coufal

    Regarding “But Jesus”: If Jesus was before Abraham, if he is one with the Father and Holy ghost, if he came not to change the law but fulfill it, then it appears he is just as responsible for the OT as he is for the NT. And, as a Jesuit priest wrote (to paraphrase), don’t look for evil in the contest of the bible, evil is the context of the bible.

  • Demonhype

    @Daryl:

    Well, there were the Gnostics, who believed that Yahweh created the universe, but that he is an evil god who likes to see things suffer. They didn’t believe Jesus represented Yahweh but some kind of other god or entity in the universe who was sort of a cosmic social worker, and he came not to absolve sins but more to demonstrate that this god Yahweh doesn’t truly have any power over us. And they believed that Judas was actually the apostle who understood Jesus best and that his betrayal of Jesus was at Jesus’ request, so the whole execution ball could get rolling and he could make his little demonstration.

    There’s that National Geographic documentary on the subject of the gnostic Gospel of Judas which was pretty interesting. I found it a year or two ago on Youtube, but I’m not sure if it’s there anymore. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth checking out.

    My main point, I guess, is that there were at one point some Christians who actively denounced the OT in all its evil, not as “well, it was moral for then but not for now” but as absolutely bottom-line evil, and they placed their concept of Jesus in defiance of this monstrous creator-god. If they had survived, perhaps they might be the only Christians with the ability to avoid this criticism! :)

  • questioner

    “Liberal and moderate believers tend to deal with this by mythologizing these stories beyond all recognition, but I find this approach to be fundamentally dishonest. ”

    Why’s that so bad? Compared to actually committing those crimes, it’s quite literally _nothing_.


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