Leopards don’t change their stripes.

One of the things I’ve heard Christians say over and over is that without God, nobody can possibly be “good.” A non-Christian is, they say, immoral, far more likely to commit a crime, and far less trustworthy. The implication is that Christians, by contrast, are in their opinion less likely to commit crimes and are far more moral and trustworthy. When this is disputed by sharing information about Christians who have committed crimes or who are not in the least moral or trustworthy, though, the sharer is likely to be accused of “bashing Christians” or smearing the faith, or that Christian’s accused of not being a TRUE CHRISTIAN™. Can’t win for losing, can we?

It’s easy for me to see, now that I’m years out of the religion, why it’s so important that Christians maintain this fiction. If a Christian genuinely believes that disbelievers are evil and immoral, it’s that much easier to totally dismiss their arguments and experiences, and it’s even more unthinkable for that Christian to consider arguments speaking against the religion. And it’s that much easier to talk trash about people who’ve left the religion. “You just wanted to sin” is such a commonly flung accusation it’s become an in-joke among ex-Christians. But is it true? No, of course not. Christians don’t leave the religion and immediately become cheaters, liars, abusers, or criminals, any more than they secretly still believe, in their heart of hearts, in the Christian deity. To many people who leave the religion, the only moral choice is in fact to deconvert once we’ve seen enough incontrovertible evidence that the Bible couldn’t possibly be the true word of any gods. We are shocked when we hear Christians say things like “If it weren’t for Jesus, what’s to stop us all from running out and murdering and raping everybody in sight?” as if the only thing holding them back is the flimsy house of cards that is religious zealotry (and if any Christians reading my words think this way, let me say here very clearly: Please don’t ever stop to consider the validity of your religion. Society’s safety clearly depends upon your staying zealous.)

It was a huge shock to me, as a teenager in that Texas Southern Baptist megachurch, to discover that people could profess a very strong “conviction” (that’s a Christianese word roughly meaning “certainty that the religion is true”) on Sunday and still be liars, cheaters, and worse during the week. The same kids singing with tears rolling down their cheeks on Sunday were the kids smoking pot, cheating on tests, drinking, and having sex all week. Later, as a Pentecostal, I’d discover that the most zealous people in church watched television, went to movies, wore clothes that contravened the “godly” dress code, cursed, cheated on their spouses, cheated on their taxes, abused their kids, and worse. I’d also discover the markers of a dysfunctional society and see how much worse things are in Christian-heavy states versus more secular states: higher divorce rates for evangelicals (also here), higher rates of teen pregnancy, higher rates of stalking and sexual violence, worst college graduation rates, less hate crime protection, and more. And religion is nicely correlated here with higher rates of property crime, and here with societal dysfunction (as an added bonus, enjoy the statistics about just what religions are most represented by prison populations–spoiler alert: atheists are way down the list). Oh, and one large women’s website found that the 5 worst states for women are all Christian-heavy states. What’s a Christian insisting that morality requires Jesus to do?

At the time, when I saw these things, I didn’t stop to wonder why people who claim to have the real deal grasp on the truest truth ever truthed could possibly act this way. I thought this must mean the church itself was flawed. I really thought that there was a god judging me at the end of my life and that a forever sentence awaited me if I didn’t toe the line, so I was downright frantic to fly right. I couldn’t even imagine why other Christians, who presumably thought the exact same thing, weren’t feeling any sort of pressure to behave themselves. Clearly the problem was with the church I was attending, not the message’s absolutely ludicrous nature. The message could not possibly be untrue, I thought. Jesus transformed people. He washed them clean. He made them new creations. He rebooted the game. He was a new chapter, a new beginning, a new life. Wasn’t he? It would take many years for me to see that a scumbag who converts might act non-scummy for a bit, but the scumbagginess will come back soon enough. A liar will still lie. A cheater will still cheat. An abuser will still lash out. Why, it was almost as if there wasn’t a god involved at all and therefore no supernatural transformation. I was already basically a good person who didn’t like to lie, cheat, steal, or otherwise disobey the law, so, shockingly, I didn’t do those things as a Catholic or after becoming a Southern Baptist or later a Pentecostal, and even more shockingly, I still don’t do those things as a non-Christian today.

If one doesn’t need Jesus to be good, then it seems to me that one who doesn’t believe in Jesus isn’t necessarily evil. I’m sure there are millions of Hindus and Buddhists today who manage the trick just fine, and there were very good people in the world long before the Hebrew God managed to push out all the other deities in his pantheon and take over the Jewish religion. It doesn’t take much at all to find non-believers who are excellent people all through history. The Golden Rule didn’t start with Christianity or Judaism, and it certainly doesn’t require either to exist. There are philosophers and scientists alike out there doing a great job of working with the idea of morality and its source, but as a common-sense ex-Christian, I don’t worry about that. I just know that Christianity clearly has no monopoly on morality and that Christians are not intrinsically more moral than non-Christians–despite the plethora of reasons why they absolutely should be.

The cognitive dissonance of seeing these constant reminders of hypocrisy vs. my own certainty of Christianity’s validity made me angry at first, but then I began to wonder: if the Southern Baptists weren’t right, then who was? Surely someone was. While I pondered, I drifted out of that megachurch, gradually stopping attendance entirely, as that chapter closed and another began.

Religious sentiment often becomes a contributo...

Religious sentiment often becomes a contributory factor of crime. 1819 anti-Jewish riots in Frankfurt where rioters attacked Jewish businesses and destroyed property (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(ETA: Yes, I’m perfectly aware that leopards aren’t striped.)

About Captain Cassidy

Cassidy was raised Catholic, converted to Pentecostalism in her mid-teens, married a preacher, and deconverted after college. She blogs about religion, deconversion, video and tabletop gaming, psychology, modern culture, and other such topics at Roll to Disbelieve and contributes to Ex-Communications for Recovering from Religion, both hosted at Patheos.

  • http://be.net/mbrackney Matthew Brackney

    Unfortunately, when confronting christians with these facts the arguments I’ve received are: 1) God blesses all people with grace to do good whether they believe or not (you’ll still go to Hell for no believing though) and 2) The state with higher religiosity have higher crime because they are “under attack” by the devil.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve Captain Cassidy

    I’ve heard those too! Those sorts of rationalizations worked on me, for a little while. But the idea of free will is not Biblical; God overrode people’s will all the time in the Old Testament with his miracles and mind-bending. The idea of him being soooo gracious he just couldn’t possibly intervene is not supported. And frankly, that conception of Satan is not in line with how the Bible portrays him. It doesn’t follow anyway–one could just as easily say that heavily Christian states aren’t as well-equipped to fend off the Devil’s blandishments, considering that not all Christians think evangelicals are TRUE CHRISTIANS™.

    It sounds more like rampant egotism to me–”I’m soooo spiritually significant that the Father of Lies and Lord of the Pit has to come make it hard for me to find a good job!” Even disregarding the higher crime, though the higher rate of general dysfunction can’t be tied to demonic attack–we’re talking about higher disease rates (especially obesity-induced diseases), higher wage gaps between men and women and between the highest and lowest paid workers, and a host of other social ills that aren’t specifically sins, but do indicate a society in deep, deep trouble. What, does Satan tempt Southerners to get fat(ter) with cheap, nutritionally void Little Debbie Snack Cakes? Does Satan make the CEOs of Southern companies pay their employees less and hire fewer women into management? Does Satan make Republicans oppose health-care legislation and slash benefits to the same needy children they strong-armed poor women into having? Does Satan tempt high-schoolers to quit school and not go to college? It reminds me of those conspiracy theorists who see black cars around every corner–this nameless, faceless, ultra-powerful enemy who goes to extraordinary lengths to hurt nobodies, people who were no danger to him anyway, by means that aren’t actually very effective. The very statement that this might happen says more about the person putting forth the theory than the actual state of affairs. But it does let proponents of “the devil made me do it” theory shrug off any responsibility for how their societies are that dysfunctional. We’re going to be talking about demons and why Christians love them so much in a post or so here now that I’ve built up a case for the modern day’s lack of evidence, so I don’t want to go into more detail right now, but this is a topic I’ve spent some time pondering.

    Thanks for pointing these counter-arguments out and letting me preach to the choir a bit. Such lame arguments do prove something all right for the Christians using them, but not what they wanted to prove.

  • http://villainousintent.wordpress.com Psycho Gecko

    None of the sects are true, and don’t call me Shirley.

    There was a saying, but I’m bad at most quotes so all I can do is paraphrase it. Something like “It is easy to get an evil man to do evil. But to make a good man commit evil, for that you need religion” or something or other. Not that it’s the sole cause. I could go into a whole host of reasons why they might do this or that, but at the end of the day more religion=less likely to be a free, egalitarian society. Probably something recognized by the people who didn’t want to mix religion and government, especially after they just got done fighting a monarchy where the king was the head of the church.

    What with people who may think they are better now that they’re saved and that they can treat the godless heathens, who they imagine are most people, like they are worse. After all, they are taught those people are worse morally, so why not treat them bad? Just like Yahweh ordering genocides on heathens, you know?

    But as for converts who just keep up the bad behavior, now assured that their soul is saved no matter what they do, everyone knows a leopard can’t change his shorts.