November 4, 2018

Twin Pillars of Christian Morality

Guilt, fear & insanity: 3 cheers for Christianity
If you are a regular visitor to this site, you probably know that I've long been a fan of George H. Smith's book, Atheism: The Case Against God (Skeptic's Bookshelf). I first read it in 2006, and it inspired more than a few posts since then. This will be an example.

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. They are fond of using these passages as a way of championing the moral influence of their religion.

According to many Christians, especially those we would label "moderate," "liberal," or even "progressive," the central theme of Christianity is love. As it relates to morality, their god has provided humanity with ethical rules much like we would expect from 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 their god is about love, forgiveness, compassion, etc.

You are right to be skeptical here. This view of their god falls apart quickly when someone actually reads the Christian bible. When the 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. Of course, Christian hell is supposed to be far worse than that.

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.

A previous version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2006. It was revised and updated in 2018.