Ten years ago I had a debate in Colorado Springs with Methodist minister, the Rev. Trigg. Nice man and a stimulating debate. The topic was “Theism vs. Secular Humanism as a basis for ethics.” I wrote up a set of answers to anticipated audience objections, which I do not think I have ever posted anywhere. I think they might be of interest here:
Objection: God is the only possible foundation for ethics. Because God’s nature is absolutely and essentially holy, all value must ultimately flow from God. Nothing in the merely human realm would require us to be other than totally selfish. Only the sacredness of God can make values objective and not just the arbitrary products of human desire or choice. Further, only an encounter with the sacredness of God can give us the motivation to be good.
Answer: The quick and dirty answer is that the God of the Bible is a homicidal ogre who could not possibly figure into any acceptable system of ethics. While such an answer is decisive against fundamentalism, it leaves the philosophical argument untouched–namely that without a transcendent ground, ethics cannot have an objective basis. However, there is something very odd in saying that all value must flow from or be supremely manifested in a supernatural being. Holiness is where you find it, and it can be found everywhere, as the ancient pagans realized. Pagans found more sanctity in the whispering of wind in the trees than in chanted litanies, and more awe in the waxing and waning of the moon than in sacraments. The greatest sin of Christianity is one I did not mention in my opening address. Christianity did its greatest harm to humanity by reifying the sacred, identifying it with a remote, transcendent being, and so removing it from the world. This effectively put the sacred under lock and key, making it accessible only through priests, creeds, and sacraments. In the pagan view, the sacred is not a distant heavenly being, it is something “far more deeply interfused” as Wordsworth put it–a sacredness that pervades all things and is available to all persons at all times. I have some sympathy with the view that values can arise from an encounter with sacredness, but I find sanctity in nature, art, and, most eminently, in loving human relationships.
Objection: Though many sins have been committed in the name of Christ, there can be no doubt that Christianity has done far more good than harm. Can you name any other institution or organization that has done as much good as the Christian Church?
Answer: Can you name any other institution that has done as much harm as the Christian Church? Well, maybe the Nazi Party in Germany from 1933-45. After all, the Second World War, and its concomitant holocausts, resulted in the deaths of over sixty million human beings. The Christian Church, despite all its inquisitions, massacres, crusades, witch-hunts, etc., probably never reached that number. Remember though, that as Carroll and others have persuasively argued, the seeds of maniacal Nazi antisemitism fell on ground well plowed and fertilized by Christian anti-Judaism. Centuries of Christian hatred of “the perfidious Jew” made Nazi antisemitism possible, if not inevitable. Well what about Mao and the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the 1960’s? Tens of millions were killed then; surely the Christian Church cannot be blamed for that. No, but look at what such a “defense” of Christianity has to do. Only by comparing the Christian record to the crimes of the greatest monsters of history can the Church’s record be made to look relatively benign. This is a pretty sorry showing for an institution that was supposed to be the Light of the World. As for the claim that the Church has done overall more good than harm, I can only ask “By whose measure?” or “Weighed in what scale?” How do we weigh a missionary’s solicitous care for a leper in the scale with, say, the murder of the philosopher Hypatia by a mob of Christian fanatics? Given such imponderables, I regard the claim of the Church’s overall goodness as quite meaningless.
Objection: You hold the classical Greeks up as a model. Surely you know that the Greeks were slave holders, regarded all non-Greeks as “barbarians,” kept their wives sequestered at home while they fooled around with prostitutes and fancy boys, fought continuously, and had governments that alternated between demagoguery and autocracy. The Athenians massacred the Melians when the latter refused to join the Athenian Empire. The Spartans beat boys to death to show how they could endure pain without complaint. Even your hero Aristotle justifies slavery and sexism. How can you hold such people up for us to emulate?
Answer: All ancient peoples held slaves and, with the partial exception of the Egyptians, kept women in inferior positions. In their vices, the Greeks were no worse, and in many ways better than their contemporaries. By comparison, Christianity has unquestionably been the most intolerant of all the major religions. Even Islam, at the height of its expansionism, gave its conquered peoples three choices–convert to Islam, pay tribute, or die. That’s two more choices than Christian crusaders usually gave their victims. Getting back to the Greeks, they were surely not greater hypocrites than the Founding Fathers of our country, who preached liberty in a nation where chattel slavery flourished and where the Founding Mothers were denied the vote. Yet if we can continue to be inspired by Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and Adams, surely we can turn to Homer or Aristotle also. Remember also, that the sins of Christianity I noted are deeply rooted in Christian doctrine, not merely lapses from an ideal. The basic message of Christianity is simple and brutal: Believe in Jesus Christ and you will enjoy eternity in heaven; disbelieve and you will suffer eternity in hell. Intolerance inevitably follows from this most basic of Christian affirmations. Humanity is divided into two groups–those who think like us (the saved) and those who perversely persist in disagreeing (the damned). The self-righteousness of the allegedly elect is an inevitable consequence. Of course, self-righteousness is one of the most seductive of human pleasures, but it is also one of the ugliest forms intolerance takes.
Objection: Christianity is the moral basis of our nation. The Founding Fathers clearly recognized that the people needed the inspiration and motivation of religion to promote civic virtue. This is why they called for national days of prayer and quoted scripture so often in their orations and writings. They recognized that only a religious people would have the virtues of self-restraint and industry necessary for the maintenan
ce of a free society. Only religious people will realize that freedom does not mean license and that all real freedom goes hand-in-hand with self-discipline and responsibility. Therefore the Founding Fathers were right to inculcate religion to promote a virtuous citizenry.
Answer: Again a short answer beckons: If the moral character of America is due to Christianity, then it must have inspired us to enslave Africans and exterminate Native Americans. Now if anyone thinks I am being merely flippant here, he or she should read Forrest G. Wood’s The Arrogance of Faith. Wood carefully shows how many of the most eminent and orthodox American churchmen not only condoned but actively encouraged slavery and genocide. Christianity cannot take credit for the inspiring the good things about America and avoid taking responsibility for inciting the bad. Now once again, I can hear people insisting that those who invoked the name of Christ to justify evil were not acting on true Christian principles. But I simply defy anyone to show that slavery and genocide are contrary to Scripture. On the contrary, the Bible clearly accepts slavery and condones genocide. Getting to the objection’s main point, did the Founding Fathers seek to fortify civic virtue by encouraging religion? First, the Founders clearly did not consider devotion to Christianity or any religion as necessary for civic virtue. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution explicitly says that NO religious test will be required for holding public office. Clearly, in the Founders’ opinion, the civic virtues were not the exclusive property of Christians. Further, contrary to the shameless lies and distortions of the Religious Right, the Founders clearly did intend to erect a wall of separation between church and state. However, they certainly were not hostile to religion in general and were happy to appeal to religious sentiment when they thought it would encourage virtue (the Founding Fathers, for all their genius and greatness, were still politicians, remember). De facto, the majority of the American people are at least nominally Christian, and biblical rhetoric can sometimes inspire us to greater vision, as Martin Luther King Jr. so eloquently demonstrated. There is nothing in the employment of such rhetoric that humanists need decry. I often quote scripture in the classes that I teach at a state university. My argument here is not that Christianity never has inspired people to do good. That would be silly, just as silly as if someone were to say that the Church had never incited harm. My argument is that Christianity, both in its doctrine and practice, has been too inconsistent to be trusted in a position of moral leadership. When Christianity has been good, it has been very good; when it has been bad, it has been horrid.
Objection: The whole argument so far has overlooked the fact that there is overwhelming evidence that Christianity is true. Jesus appeared numerous times after his death, showing himself to many persons, even those who had not previously believed in him, and even to five hundred at one time. His tomb was found empty on Easter morning with the stone rolled away from its entrance. The disciples, utterly dispirited at the time of the crucifixion, were transformed into invincible witnesses whose courage and zeal began a movement that ultimately conquered the Roman Empire. The only reasonable explanation for these events is that Jesus did triumphantly rise from the dead as predicted by scripture, so proving his divine mission and status. If Christianity is the true religion, then surely we as individuals and as a society should be guided by its tenets.
Answer: I have elsewhere given in detail my reasons for holding that Christianity is not true. Briefly, I find the so-called evidence for Christianity to be extremely weak. There is, and again I do not mean to be flippant here, no more reason to believe in the post-mortem “appearances” of Jesus than in those of Elvis. We now know quite a bit about the psychology of anomalous experiences. Specifically, it is now quite well understood how people can become convinced that they have had paranormal experiences, like abduction by aliens, when no such event has occurred. Very recently, neuroscientists have shown that the brain seems hardwired to produce, when appropriately stimulated, a sense of the numinous or feelings of a divine presence. Further, research by psychologists into the dynamics of memory shows how easy it is for false memories to become implanted and how authentic they can seem to people who have them. Also, folklorists have shown how legends arise and propagate, often in defiance of the eyewitnesses of the original events. In short, the records of the post-mortem appearances of Jesus are more scientifically and economically explained in terms of hallucinatory or visionary experiences, the accumulation of false memories, and the legendary accretions around historical events. As for the empty tomb, as John Dominic Crossan argues, there is no reason to think that Jesus was put into a respectable tomb. Crucified miscreants were usually thrown into dishonorable mass graves. The charming Gospel stories about Joseph of Arimathea and Jesus’s honorable burial are clearly legends that the perceptive reader of the Gospels can watch grow as they are told and re-told. In all likelihood, these stories developed to cover Christians’ guilt over the shameful treatment actually given to Jesus’s body. As for the zeal and courage of the disciples, let Christians consider Mohammed, Joan of Arc, Joseph Smith, and innumerable others who claimed to be motivated by a divine epiphany. Are Christians willing to accept all of these claims as authentic? As for the “appearance” of Jesus to 500, what about the “appearance” of the Virgin to 17,000 at Fatima? Prima facie nothing distinguishes such claimed epiphanies from those of, say, Paul in I Corinthians 15. In conclusion, I find many of the “facts” adduced for the truth of Christianity not to be facts at all, and those events that did probably occur can be better explained non-miraculously.
Objection: You are quick to point out the dark episodes in the history of the Christian Church, but you forget that atheism has its dark side also. Soviet communism was explicitly and militantly atheist and its ideology sanctioned some of the greatest crimes of history. Stalin, with his purges and engineered famines, tortured and killed untold millions. When God is dethroned, the state becomes God, and people are expected to bow before their political masters and worship the all-powerful Total Society.
Answer: The position I am defending is humanism, not atheism. Atheism is defined by some as disbelief and by others as merely unbelief in God or gods. Either way, little follows from atheism per se. Atheists can be political conservatives, lib
ertarians, liberals, or radicals. As cases in point, Antony Flew and Kai Nielsen have been two of the most outspoken atheists among recent analytical philosophers. Their critiques of theism often sound remarkably similar. Yet Flew is a staunch Thatcherite Tory and Nielsen is a committed Marxist. Humanism, on the other hand, is an ancient philosophical tradition with roots firmly in classical civilization. The person in whose life humanist ideals were most fully developed was probably Socrates. Socrates taught that we must follow reason wherever it leads, and that erroneous opinion must be corrected by patient dialogue, not persecution. Intolerance of contrary opinion, salient characteristics of both Marx and Jesus, was utterly alien to Socrates. Humanism despises dictatorships of the left and the right. To humanists, oppression is oppression, whether conducted by ayatollahs or commissars. Christianity, however, has often winked at right-winged autocrats, just as long as they were friendly to the interests of the Church hierarchy. To mention just one example, during his long dictatorship over Spain, Franco and his Falangist thugs enjoyed the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the Roman Catholic Church.