I don’t actually care what Phil Robertson has to say on any subject at all. He is, however, useful in demonstrating that one can be educated and rich and still be ignorant and parochial. Of course, Robertson is fun in that he’s spent his whole life being the most educated guy in a very ignorant crowd. So he’s always got this ostentatious air to him that makes his pronouncements especially nutty. As a result, he is useful as a pedagogical object for teaching basic subjects about Shintoism and the like.
Most recently, Robertson stood before the Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast and engaged in some very creepy fantasies about teaching an atheist father and husband a lesson about the existence of God through the use of rape, murder, and castration. It doesn’t really matter the details. Robertson is an extremely troubled man who is living proof of hell on earth. He’s also an excellent advertisement for atheism. The best advertisement for Christianity is a caring person who is a follower of the religion. Robertson shows that for most people, Christianity is really all about exclusivity and hatred. Other than people already in the tribe, he doesn’t win converts — and he clearly pushes people away.
But his example with the brutal violence perpetrated on an atheist family is based on a common misunderstanding of atheism. To him, atheism is a relativist philosophy. To such simple minds, there cannot be any morality unless it is imposed from without. That’s a curious notion given that atheists don’t act less morally than Christians. But it is deeper than that. Like most Americans, Robertson is a proponent of what I call “Santa Claus Christianity”: he is good because if he isn’t, God will be mean to him; and if he is, God will reward him.
Note how this is quite distinct from what more thoughtful Christians claim the religion is all about. Supposedly, the spirit of Jesus Christ comes into a person and makes them behave morally. This is largely what the earliest Christians believed. It was only later in the 2nd and 3rd centuries that the church developed the idea that we were all sinners and that we were only saved through Jesus. But American Christians have taken this to a whole new low where all they have to do is “believe” in Jesus and all their sins are washed away. Linus’ system for The Great Pumpkin makes more sense — at least The Great Pumpkin judges on the basis of sincerity.
What Christians don’t seem to have a handle on is that God’s laws are not an absolute when the God in question is slippery. The evidence for God is at best weak. And then there is the question that there are literally thousands of gods that people have posited. Different gods want humans to do different things. What is absolute about that? Wouldn’t a good and moral God just be clear? Why all this game playing? Why allow people in the hills of Afghanistan to go their whole lives without ever being exposed to the One True God that is whatever god you worship? Phil Robertson chose the God he was going to believe in. (Shockingly, it was the same God that everyone else in his tiny world believes in!) And then he followed those rules (maybe). Once he made the first choice, the rules were absolute. But first he had to make a choice of religion, which is no different than making a choice of which of God’s laws you are going to follow.
Consider something else. Morality evolves over time. Today, for example, slavery in its strict sense is universally considered wrong. The Bible is just fine on the issue of slavery. If God were really interested in micromanaging our morality, wouldn’t he have either (1) got it right in the first place or (2) occasionally provide updates the way that the Oxford English Dictionary does? Of course, we know why none of this happened: God (at least the micromanaging kind) doesn’t exist. Religion is a human invention, and — most tellingly — a later invention than morality. Morality existed before God — much less before Jesus.
There are sociological reasons why we have the morals we have. In a species that depends upon working together as a group, behaviors that harm the group badly enough are pushed out of the realm of acceptable behavior. This is why we are not a bunch of psychopaths killing everyone we see. But in Phil Robertson’s mind, raping children, murdering people, and castrating men would be “fun” if only God weren’t wagging a finger at us. Except such acts aren’t fun. That isn’t how morality works. I’m an atheist and yet I find each of those acts repugnant. Of course, Christians throughout the ages have gleefully done at least two of those three.
Relativism is not a useful concept when it comes to this debate. All Phil Robertson has done is create a straw man — and an incredibly common one at that. But he isn’t alone. Throughout the conservative blogosphere, people have defended Robertson on the grounds that atheists are relativists. In a sense we are — but only in the sense that Christians are too. But at least atheists are upfront about it. I kind of doubt that Phil Robertson never eats shellfish or never has sex with his wife during her period. And I don’t know of any atheists going around fantasizing about torturing Christians to prove to them that God doesn’t exist. But I guess because the Bible doesn’t say anything against it (In fact, it is kind of in favor of it!), it can’t be wrong.