Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Can Atheists be Good?

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Morality with and without God
Christians will sometime claim that atheists have no morals.  Atheists sometimes accuse Christians of making that claim.  The point of this article to combat the claim that atheists have no morals, they do, but I want to go two steps further by showing the weakness of a moral framework that does not include an objective source and to convict Christians who live just like everyone else.   Everybody has selfish desires and everybody acts on them to some extent, not just atheists. The bulk of the article will focus on how believing in God has made me a better person than I would be without God by helping me act in ways that oppose my selfish desires (Galatians 5:16).

Atheists can be, and often are, good1 people.  In fact, I know atheists who are better than some Christians I know; however, this does not mean their moral framework is on equal grounds with Christians’ moral framework.  Atheists have many sources for moral knowledge ranging from evolution, reason, science, social contracts, and feelings, but these sources are not objective and unchanging.  Even if moral laws are agreed upon, there is still no reason for anyone to obey or exceed them in ordinary scenarios, not to mention extreme or unfavorable situations.  It is merely a personal preference, which is the result of DNA, character development, and the situation.

For Christians, a love of God encourages and arguably even compels (not against our will, but in accordance with our will) us to obey and even exceed moral expectations to the point of self-sacrifice.  Christians have an objective source in God and the Bible that tells us there is no greater love than to give your life (John 15:13), to consider others as more important that yourself (Philippians 2:3-4 & Romans 12:10), and to love your enemy (Matt 5:44).  There’s no exception for being in a bad mood, not liking someone, or being in a hurry. The Christian (and most theistic) moral framework sets a higher standard of behavior and because it is absolute and objective (i.e. true), it also have the power to convict people to obey it, making it superior to any morality that can result from atheism.

The rest of the article will focus on how my personal life would be different if I became an atheist.  I was a little hesitant to post this article because it might seem like boasting, so let me be clear, I am far from being a saint.  Additionally, as you read how my life would be different if I was an atheist, you’ll see the exact opposite of boasting or, as Paul says, boasting about things that show my weakness (2 Cor 11:30 & 2 Cor 12:9,).   While this article is meant to show the superiority of Christian morality and challenge the atheist perspective, it might also convict many Christians. Most of the actions listed below are not wrong, but are small actions that are above and beyond normal moral standards, which can impact or potentially impact other people.  Just imagine the difference these seemingly small things would make if over 200 million american adults or a person of influence did the same things.

The truth is that without God, I was and still am just as selfish as anyone else and probably even more than most.  If I became an atheist today, I would still be a good person by normal social standards, but I wouldn’t be merely as good of a person.  I humbly admit that I need God to help me consistently obey and exceed moral laws, especially when nobody else would notice.  I just cannot do it without Him and I wouldn’t even want to try to if it weren’t for God.

If I was an atheist
So, if I became an atheist (when I say this, I am assuming my wife would also be an atheist since we make decisions together regarding many of the following topics and situations), how would my life be the same and different as it pertains to being good or bad?  I would still make a positive contribution to society by working, spending, raising children, and mostly obeying the laws.  I would still be nice and friendly most the time, get along well with others, and occasionally offer to help other people.  However, I would be much more self-serving in the way I spend my time and money, and I would be much less considerate of other people and how my actions affect them.  

If I was an atheist, I would not drive old or beat up vehicles.  Both of my family’s vehicles have over 100,000 miles and were at least four years old when we bought them.  If my wife and I were atheists, we would spend more money to drive new vehicles with the latest features to make our life easier and more comfortable.  We’d probably drive bigger vehicles out of concern for our own safety, ability to see, to feel more important, and to be more comfortable.  We would not be as concerned for other drivers’ ability to see around us nor would we be concerned about how our unnecessarily large vehicle would affect their safety.  We would be willing to spend thousands of dollars more than we do on newer, larger, and more luxurious vehicles that require thousands of dollars of extra gas, are more hazardous or inconvenient to others, and do greater harm to the environment.

In addition to driving different vehicles, we would also drive differently.  As it is now, I do not speed or use my phone when driving because it is dangerous, not just for me, but for others on the road.  If I was an atheist, I would’'t be as concerned for others or the law, so I would speed (just a little, only 5-10 mph over, unless I was really in a hurry), I would drive a little more recklessly by cutting in and out of traffic, being more aggressive at stop lights, and using my phone while driving.  I would save myself time and I’d be able to accomplish other tasks while driving.  I would further rationalize this behavior by saying that everyone does it and that it’s very unlikely that I will get in or cause an accident.  My selfish pursuits would endanger other people, while offering them no benefit in return.

Health and Appearance
As a Christian, I strive to glorify God with my body (1 Cor 6:18), which means I try to live a healthy lifestyle by practicing good eating and fitness habits.  Having a good physical appearance is the result, not the goal.  If my wife and I were atheists, we would spend more time and money on our appearance and likely be willing to achieve it through unhealthy means.  For instance, my wife and I would go to the spa on a regular basis to get massages, manicures, pedicures, facials, and expensive hair care or maintenance (I’d probably just get massages).  On top of that, we wouldn’t be opposed to the occasional cosmetic nip and tuck to make sure we both look our best while practicing unhealthy eating habits by eating out continuously and overindulging in food.  I would still workout since I enjoy it, but it is likely that I would spend a fair amount of money on supplements to achieve artificial results.  Surgery and supplements would be necessary since I wouldn’t be concerned about the quantity of food I ate.  Overeating is a struggle I am currently fighting as a Christian, but if I was an atheist, I wouldn’t even care and would just give in.  

Furthermore, if I was an atheist, I would take other steps to improve my appearance.  I certainly would’'t wear $20 jeans that are only semi-comfortable.  My wife and I would spend ten times more money on clothes, only buying items that are comfortable and stylish (name brands).  Instead of wearing old clothes or fixing up holes, we would throw clothes away as soon as it showed any signs of wear.  I wouldn’t be concerned with what else I could do with the extra money I spent, having a few less years of life, how my health negatively impacts my work, or how my abuse of my body affects the health care system.  It just wouldn’t matter because individually, those are such minor or distant repercussions that I would rather enjoy the moment.

There are countless other ways in which my wife and I would live differently as atheists that do not fall under one of the previous categories.  I would be less tolerant and forgiving of other people.  My family would live in a bigger, more luxurious house and use the extra space or amenities for our own enjoyment.  We’d have a home theatre, I’d have a man-cave, my kids would each have their own bedrooms and a playroom, we’d have a bar, we’d have bigger, newer and more TVs, and my wife would probably have her own room or office.  We certainly wouldn’t use the extra space in our house to let others live or stay with us (except visiting family) like we currently do.  This means we wouldn’t be foster parents, wouldn’t have let interns stay with us during the past year, and wouldn’t sponsor Air Force Academy cadets.  We would keep up on the latest technology by having smart phones, newer computer equipment, and more tech devices (iPads, iPods, 3D TV, computers, etc.).

We would eat out more often and when doing so, we wouldn’t tip as well (especially when the service isn’t very good), nor would we clean up after ourselves (that’s what busboys are for right? *sarcasm*).  Since we live in Colorado, we would probably go skiing a couple times a month throughout the winter.  We would also go on multiple vacations every year, including international destinations, and stay at expensive resorts.  I would also be more careless about using resources (money, water, electricity, gas, food, paper, etc.) whether in my personal life, or at work, the gym, hotels, restaurants, and any other place (and probably be just plain wasteful when other people are paying for those resources).  We would save much much more money for our retirement (so we could continue to live lavishly in the future), we would save more for our kids’ college, and maybe even put them in expensive private schools.

We could afford all these things because my wife would work instead of staying home with our kids (which is best for them, however, not every situation is the same and not every family has that opportunity), we would stop giving away so much money, and we would be less honest on our taxes.  As a Christian, I go through great pains to do my taxes correctly, often resulting in owing more money.  If I was an atheist, I wouldn’t blatantly cheat on my taxes, but I wouldn’t put in extra effort to make sure I do them right...unless it would get me more money back!  I would be content taking other people’s tax advice (which is often wrong) on what I can claim for deductions or credits, which would save me time and money, and afterall, everyone else does it, right?

None of the things I described above are necessarily bad, nor am I claiming that doing any or all of them makes you a bad person.  The point is that all of the actions I described above would serve virtually nobody else except the individual doing them.  Ultimately, if I was an atheist, I would be completely dedicated to achieving comfort, safety, happiness, and power for myself and my family.  In the atheist worldview, there is no objective power that encourages people to be more virtuous or even obey accepted moral laws.  At best, the atheist worldview can only curb selfish desires by appealing to self- interest and the benefits of conforming to socially accepted moral rules.  It cannot inspire sacrificial love.  At worst, atheism is inept at preventing self-interest when it can be gained at the expense of others and fails to restrain evil acts such as those committed by atheists such as Hitler2, Stalin, and others.

As a Christian, my beliefs drive everything I do in life and encourage me to continue to grow into a more loving, considerate, honest, and generous person.  If I was an atheist, I would still be a good person by social standards, but I would be less fun to be around and less helpful to society.  I would be “good” but not nearly AS good as I am as a Christian.  I suspect the same is true for most other people as well, even atheists who are model citizens.

I leave you with a quote from Douglas Coupland in his book Life After God, which is perhaps a little more extreme than my position, but closely parallels it.  “I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

  1. When I say good, I mean good by normal social standards and usage of the term.  I am not speaking in deeper theological terms.
  2. Hitler was indeed an atheist.  He publicly used religion as a political tool when it would benefit him.  He denounced it privately to his confidants and more publicly when as he gained power.  Moreover, even if we grant that he really viewed himself as a Christian, there is an objective standard, the Bible, which can be used to evaluate whether he really was a Christian.  When comparing his words and actions to the teachings of the Bible, we discover that he was not a Christian.  Although this link, Religious views of Hitler, is from Wikipedia, I am posting it because it is the best article I could find that is the most comprehensive of all of Hitler’s statements and views on religion...and it has almost 300 external links or sources for fact checking!  Even more on the point, if you want to just remove Hitler’s name, you can do that and replace it with other atheist dictators such as Mao Zedong, Pol Pott, Benito Mussolini, Fidel Castro, Kim Jong Il, or others.

Thanks for reading.  If you have a question, comment, or disagreement, please write it in the comments.

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