Leopards don’t change their stripes.

Leopards don’t change their stripes. May 13, 2013

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.)

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