A few years ago there was a joke circulating that I heard from a few different religious people (and saw reposted on facebook quite a bit):
A United States Marine was attending some college courses between assignments. He had completed missions in Iraq and Afghanistan . One of the courses had a professor who was an avowed atheist and a member of the ACLU.
One day the professor shocked the class when he came in. He looked to the ceiling and flatly stated, “God, if you are real, then I want you to knock me off this platform. I’ll give you exactly 15 minutes.” The lecture room fell silent. You could hear a pin drop.
Ten minutes went by and the professor proclaimed, “Here I am God. I’m still waiting.” It got down to the last couple of minutes when the Marine got out of his chair, went up to the professor, and cold-cocked him; knocking him off the platform.
The professor was out cold. The Marine went back to his seat and sat there, silently. The other students were shocked and stunned and sat there looking on in silence. The professor eventually came to, noticeably shaken, looked at the Marine and asked, “What the hell is the matter with you? Why did you do that?”
The Marine calmly replied, “God was too busy today protecting America ’s soldiers who are protecting your right to say stupid stuff and act like an a$$. So, He sent me.”
It was posted with no shortage of cheers. To me, it was everything in religion that makes me despise it. Every day in the news (I know, because I write about it) you can read stories about how someone, or a group of people, feels justified in harming others because their faith encourages it. The response is always that other people’s faiths encourage them to be nice. That’s fine and dandy, but you’re almost always justified being nice regardless of what you think god said. But punching someone (or otherwise infringing on their happiness) is hardly ever justified, but religion can convince people that doing so is a person’s moral responsibility.
So now I see a story of an atheist who physically assaulted a pastor. I want to be among the first to condemn this man. What he did was wrong and he should be punished for it (though, it should be pointed out that even this man doesn’t deserve an infinity of maximum agony that is hell).
This story is being shared around by Christians to disparage atheism (by people who gloss over every instance of a Christian murdering or committing violence expressly in the name of god). There’s quite a bit to say about this.
1. As Matt Dillahunty said, there’s nothing in the idea of atheism that would encourage this, and humanism would outright condemn this type of behavior. There is no holy book in atheism instructing people to behave in particular ways the way the bible instructs violence against particular people. So when a Christian cites scripture to show that god has favored violence against those who insult him in the past, or when he commands the death of homosexuals, it’s clear that they are being inspired by their religion. The response “but their religion isn’t my religion” does the Christian no good in these cases, since it almost always comes from people who think obeying god is the best thing a person can do – and that is exactly what the violent believer is doing. You could argue that the violent believer has god’s commands wrong, but it’s hard for another Christian to fault another Christian for obeying what they believe god’s commands to be (at least with any amount of consistency).
2. The degree to which Christians are pouncing on this suggests the event’s rarity. That’s why this is such hot news, because it so seldom happens.
3. Atheists are not the ones saying that atheism augments morality. It is Christians who say that Christianity alone will make a person more moral, so when a Christian commits an atrocity it flies in the face of the Christian’s claim. However, while many atheists (myself included) claim that morality is a function of compassion and reason, it would be foolish to say that atheists are all compassionate and/or reasonable by virtue of being atheists. Nobody, to my knowledge, has claimed that, and if they did they’d be wrong.
While moral rules (about what maximizes societal and personal well-being), like the rules of algebra or chemistry, originate in the minds of human beings, like algebra or chemistry atheists can get them wrong. When that happens, good people will condemn the person – not because they have a different religion than us – but because they are cruel or unthinking. Those are legit crimes, and while atheists can be cruel or unthinking, there is nothing in atheism (just the mere belief that god does not exist) that could promote those qualities. This is not true of religions like Christianity, which endorses a book prescribing violence and other immoralities as well as the ultimate gateway to lazy thinking: faith.
This is why saying that atheism drove this man (and other atheists, as is being implied by many of the believers sharing this article) to violence is simply false. He was an atheist who was dumb and a jerk, but there is no prescription for this behavior contained in the notion that god doesn’t exist. Religion, on the other hand, frequently tells people how they must behave, and the behavior commanded is often violent and in non-ambiguous terms.
Consider Exodus 35:2:
For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death.
If your message is that people should rest one day out of the week, but that it’s ok if people choose to go into their Wal-Mart shift on Sunday afternoon, this is about the worst possible way it could be worded. Surely any fair-minded person (even the ones who love Jesus) can imagine how a person could get the idea that violence was cosmically justified from this passage, even if you think it means something other than what it obviously says.
But there is nothing in atheism like this. To be an atheist is to only not believe in god, and that’s it. From there an atheist determines their own morality and their own authorities, and atheists are just as human as the next person. They can have bad ideas, but those ideas are the result of the atheist’s own lack of compassion or clear-thinking, not of a religion claiming the authority to dictate their lives. That’s why, in the case of the atheist beating the pastor, I fault the atheist. It’s also why when two parents neglect the child they love to death because they really think that prayer can cure sickness, I fault both the parents and their religion.
This atheist was a dick. I denounce him. He should go straight to fucking jail and sit there for a while. But if you’re trying to put atheism on trial along with him, you have no case.
How I put this to my dad when Christians started flooding my inbox with it:
HOLY SHIT! YOU FINALLY GOT A REAL STORY WHERE AN ATHEIST COMMITTED VIOLENCE AGAINST A RELIGIOUS PERSON!
Please send it to me as evidence for how all atheists are eagerly violent against Christians.