“Morality Made Me an Atheist”

Even Christians can’t agree on “Christian” morality 

Auntie Em—Dorothy’s aunt in The Wizard of Oz—wanted so much to tell off Miss Gulch: “Almira Gulch, just because you own half the county doesn't mean that you have the power to run the rest of us. For twenty-three years, I've been dying to tell you what I thought of you! And now...well, being a Christian woman, I can't say it!” Which means that Auntie Em wanted to live by the Golden Rule, “do unto others…” We applaud her for that, but it’s not uniquely Christian. How do we know exactly what constitutes Christian morality?

It turns out there’s considerable confusion about this, as Dan Barker has pointed out:


“Believers regularly take opposing positions on such matters as capital punishment, abortion, pacifism, birth control, physician-assisted suicide, animal rights, the environment, the separation of church and state, gay rights and women’s rights. It might be concluded from this that there is either a multitude of gods handing out conflicting moral advice, or a single god who is hopelessly confused.” (Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist


Maybe we can look to Christian heroes who lead by example. But no, far too often that would be a mistake; consider the case of Martin Luther:


“The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. Luther advised the princes to adopt the most ruthless measures against the ‘mad dogs,’ as he called the desperate, downtrodden peasants. In his utterances against the Jews, Luther employed a coarseness and brutality of language unequaled in German history until the Nazi time.” (William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, p. 236).


What a disappointment too when we look at modern-day heroes, such as Popes John-Paul II and Benedict XVI (well, a tarnished hero: he had to resign). Both were virulently, aggressively homophobic and made sure their hatreds—positioned as “love” of course—were Vatican policy, thereby destroying countless lives. And they held on firmly to the official misogyny of the Catholic Church, because…Jesus. 


And, oh dear, even Jesus is no help. I’m working on my next book, and my Excel table count of bad, alarming, mediocre Jesus sayings is about 275.


Maybe, after all, religion isn’t the way to go, to work out morality. 


“The moral impulse that allows us to make decisions for the common good, to not hoard all the food for ourselves while others starve, is essential to every social species, not only Homo Sapiens. We imparted this morality to religion. Religion did not give it to us. We had it long before it ever occurred to us to explain the world around us by imagining supernatural beings.” So says Lyn Gerry in her new book, Morality Made Me an Atheist: Calling BS on William Barr, the Attorney General of the United States of America. (page 9, Kindle)


In fact, secular ethicists have been thinking and writing about morality for centuries, precisely because imagined supernatural beings haven’t done a very good job explaining morality to us—as the Dan Barker quote illustrates. But many Christian thinkers don’t see the problem, and deny that we can be moral without God. Of course, the more strident among them are pretty sure they know the mind of God, and are committed to telling the rest of us.


And here were are in this annus horribilis, 2020, confronted with uber Christians who want to replace democracy with theocracy. Because only that will save us. Thus first-time author Lyn Gerry, fully alarmed, was spurred to write her book.


“All my life I've been surrounded by people who believe, or say they do. They insist that one must believe in order to be moral, but they themselves are so immoral. They insist that religion is a moral guide, when many of the things that religions advocate are unjust and cruel, or just plain false. 


“For most of my life, I've let them go their own way. I have not stood at the doors of their churches and berated them for their hypocrisy. Or, quite frankly, in many cases, chastised them for what can only be described as downright idiocy. 


“But they keep coming after me, after all of us, demanding we revere their errors, subject our behavior to their dogma, and lecture us on morality while behaving like sadists and liars. No one is more emblematic of this sort of person than William Barr, the Attorney General of the United States.” (p. 3, Kindle)  


Gerry’s book is a welcome addition to the growing library of atheist works, especially as she addresses specifically the threats posed by advocates of theocracy. 


But how did she become an atheist? At the outset she mentions God’s impotence in the face of evil; that was a falsifier for her. She asks why God allowed


“…Nazis to murder six million innocent people and try to murder even more, including my mom and grandma? God had the power to stop that, yet he did nothing. Why? I would have. I'd even zap the little boys who tried to torture a puppy. Either God wasn't all powerful, or God was not good. Or, God wasn't there. I ultimately decided the latter was true. It was morality that made me atheist.” (p. 3, Kindle)


Dan Savage has said he didn’t lose his faith, he saw through it. In her Chapter One, Gerry explains a few of the ways she saw through religious nonsense. She was puzzled, for example, by the Ten Commandments:  


“I was old enough to know that when you make a list, number one on a list is the most important. Why wasn't it the one about murder? Or something about lying? Why was the first commandment, ‘Have no other gods before me.’ Why was that even necessary? Since, as I had been told, there was only one God, why would the commandment refer to other gods? Were there other gods? What were they? How was I to find out?” (p. 13, Kindle)


“Why couldn’t I believe? Why did other people believe? I was willing to believe if only God would talk to me. I prayed and prayed he would. Nothing.” (p. 13, Kindle) 


She is also appalled by the excuses offered by believers in the face of suffering. What are they thinking? For example, in the wake of a tornado that wiped out a small town:


“The reporter interviews a survivor who is standing amid the rubble that was once his home, now a total loss. Reverently, he points out the one remaining part of the structure still standing, a post with a cross hanging on it, a sign from God, a miracle. If that is how the Supreme Master of the Universe with the power to control heaven and earth chose to manifest that power, then he is a sadist. The lonely post with the hanging cross is not a miracle, it's a big fuck you." (p. 7, Kindle) 


I enjoy Gerry’s takedown of theism, but there’s much more in this short book (88 Kindle pages); she analyses the agenda, obsessions, and hang-ups of theocrats. In one chapter we appreciate her scorn for sex being the top focus of their morality:


“If there's one thing that makes the religious stand out from other people, it's not extraordinary kindness, nor the renunciation of worldly goods and power. It's not even the rejection of the pleasures of the flesh. It is the obsession with controlling how other people have sex, who they are having it with, when they do it, what body parts are touching. Sometimes it seems as if those pastors are getting boners just thinking about all that sex they are going to stop other people from enjoying.” (p. 24 Kindle)


But a significant portion of the book is her reaction to a speech Barr gave at Notre Dame; it was posted on the Department of Justice website, which has become his bully-pulpit to advance conservative Christianity. According to the Wikipedia article about Barr:


“In a 1995 article for The Catholic Lawyer, Barr said the American government is ‘predicated precisely’ on the Judeo-Christian system. Barr grapples with the challenge of representing Catholicism ‘in an increasingly militant, secular age.’"


Gerry takes us to the heart of the issue:


“William Barr views the application to government of his own great Christian injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself as un-Christian! I kid you not. Here are his words: 


Interestingly, this idea of the State as the alleviator of bad consequences has given rise to a new moral system that goes hand-in-hand with the secularization of society. It can be called the system of “macro-morality.” It is in some ways an inversion of Christian morality. 


Christianity teaches a micro-morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation. The new secular religion teaches macro-morality. One’s morality is not gauged by their private conduct, but rather on their commitment to political causes and collective action to address social problems.


His argument becomes profoundly absurd when you apply it to the problem of health care. How do you focus your personal morality on needing a medical procedure that costs $ 100K when you can barely afford the rent on your apartment?” (p. 46, Kindle)


We so often want to remind theocrats that their theology is not our theology, but they fail to grasp that theology is unevidenced. They’re sure everybody else should just take their word for what God wants, and how religion is supposed to work. Gerry explains the consequences: 


“Enshrining his biases into the law is what William Barr 's quest for ‘religious liberty’ is about. I know because men like Barr have been attacking my religious liberty my whole life, trying to shove God down my throat, in matters great and small. They literally have been trying to deny people like me the rights of full citizenship because we do not believe in God. Once you go down that road as a society, where do you end up?” (p. 58, Kindle)


Gerry offers her valuable secular insights on so many issues, e.g., our nation’s heritage poisoned by greed and slavery, clergy abuse scandals, intelligent design, entrenched misogyny—reflected especially in traditional resistance to divorce, abortion and birth control—and resistance to marriage equality.


An American theocracy would enshrine the idea that there’s a god—well the Christian version thereof—keeping a close eye on human affairs, and meddling sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. Maybe Barr resists the macro-morality of secularists because his doesn’t want to interfere with his god punishing through suffering. But we can manage without that god espoused by both the Old and New Testament.  


Lyn Gerry mentions this particular benefit of secularism:


“I can understand addiction; I just can't fathom religion as the drug of choice. When I realized there was no God, I felt relieved. It meant that the evil in the world was not caused by an all-powerful supernatural being whose personality strangely resembles Donald Trump. Therefore we could stop it.” (p. 80, Kindle)


David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. It was reissued in 2018 with a new Foreword by John Loftus.


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