May 28, 2006

Twin Pillars of Christian Morality

If you are a regular visitor to this site, you know that I've been reading Atheism: The Case Against God (Skeptic's Bookshelf). I'm almost finished with it, and I must report that this is one of the best books on atheism I've read in years. This will be another post inspired by this book.

One of the most common justifications Christians offer for their religion is the link between it and morality. Without the Christian god, they say, morality would have no meaning and mass depravity would result. These Christians can offer many passages from their bible which appear to convey solid ethical principles with which few of us would disagree.

According to most Christians, especially those we would label "moderate," "liberal," or "progressive," the central theme of Christianity is love. As it relates to morality, their god has provided humanity with ethical rules much like a good parent. If we follow these rules, we are promised eternal salvation. Those who have difficulty following the rules are not necessarily lost because god is about love, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

This view of god falls apart the second someone actually reads the Christian bible. When the entire context of this book (and not just select passages) are considered, a very different picture of the Christian god emerges. Drawing on Smith's book, what I refer to as the twin pillars of Christian morality are fear and guilt.

The pillar of fear concerns the existence and meaning of hell. Hell is something you don't hear much about from moderate/liberal/progressive Christians, but the fundamentalists and indeed the bible itself, remind us that it is central to Christianity. Hell is the stick you get hit with for engaging in bad behavior. To stick with our parenting analogy, hell is physical punishment.

As effective as hell-induced fear is, it pales in comparison to the pillar of guilt. In the context of Christian morality, guilt concerns the doctrine of sin. In the parenting analogy, guilt is about psychological control. By indoctrinating children into Christianity's doctrine of sin, the Christian accomplishes an internalized guilt which is supposed to aid in good behavior.

Thus, Christian morality is about fear (hell) and guilt (sin). Can this version of morality be reconciled with the "god is love" claim we so often hear? No. Is there a viable alternative to this version of morality? Certainly. Secular humanism provides such an alternative.

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