Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Good apples

seem to have the corner on the morality market. Not to say that they are more moral than us atheists, but it seems to define them in some way. Christians (as usual, I am basing my opinions largely on my own experiences which overwhelmingly involve Christians versus other faiths) are thought of as The Good Ones. It is an odd, backhanded complement, therefore, when Christians are accused of hypocrisy. When a priest is caught stealing, for example, we gasp in shock - so much for Christian morality, we mutter. We expect Christians to be good, to be upright pillars of society. Why is this? I consider myself to be a pretty good person. I'm just as against murder and theft as any good Presbyterian or Baptist, but if I happen to get caught stealing, I'll be called a thief but probably not a hypocrite. Hypocrisy is a very specific offense and, in my mind, it can only exist when someone makes a specific stand against something and then willingly, happily violates that position.

I don't expect Christians to be any better than Muslims or Jews or Hindus or atheists. I don't imagine that a religion grants any special moral knowledge. We are all people - some of us are bad apples, some of us are good apples. If the common understanding of religion and morality stood up, then crime rates would reflect a majority of transgressors as atheists and that just isn't the case. If anything, atheists are underrepresented in the prison system. I do not mean to say that religion causes bad behavior. I simply mean to point out that atheism does not lead to a life of crime.

The difference between atheist morality and Christian morality lies in the rules. As an atheist, my morality is not dictated by rules. I abide by general principles - do no harm, treat others as I would like to be treated, enjoy life, etc. These guidelines make most moral decisions fairly easy. That isn't to say that I don't do things I know I shouldn't, but if I violate these principles, I do feel guilt. Theists, on the other hand, have to abide by rules, some of which are artificial and have no real practical roots and can actually be destructive. The Catholic Church's ban on birth control, for example, has some severe and apparent practical repercussions. Keeping the Sabbath Day is more benign, but there is no good, social reason to keep this tradition alive. And yet those who stubbornly refuse to work on Sunday are usually revered and admired for their devotion. The same with those who don't swear or consume alcohol - much of our society regards these as immoral actions and treat those who abstain from them as worthy of admiration.

This is the same impulse that makes us feel guilty for enjoying ourselves. We advertise chocolate bars as 'decadent' and 'sinful' because they bring us pleasure without a significant ballast of pain. I don't think that teetotalers are more moral than I am, and although alcoholism is unhealthy, it isn't a sin. The same goes for many things that I do not even participate in. Cheating on your partner is wrong because it causes harm to them, but there is nothing implicitly wrong with having sex with more than one person, or even more than one at a time. Telling the truth is a good way to maintain trust with your friends and associates, but lies in themselves aren't immoral. Sometimes a well placed lie ("No, I think your new haircut looks great!") can be more beneficial than the truth. I'm a vegetarian because I think that the meat industry is unnecessarily cruel to animals, not because I think that eating animals is inherently evil.

The problem with religion is that it relies on rules, and rules are rigid. They never bend, they never yield, not even for practical purposes. Most Christians I know break the rules, but they aren't off the hook. Those who work on Sunday are in clear violation of the Fourth Commandment. I won't even go into the crazy laws from Deuteronomy and Numbers and Leviticus, but it be possible to live in modern society without breaking multiple laws each and every day.

Christians are people. Atheists are people. Some of us are good, some of us are bad. I don't think that anyone's religion or lack of it has any real bearing on their morality. What's the point of all of this? I refuse to grant Christianity the moral high ground by accusing them of hypocrisy.

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