Atheism Is No More Relativist Than Christianity

Phil RobertsonI 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 provided 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.

6 thoughts on “Atheism Is No More Relativist Than Christianity

  1. It’s weird how fascism arises. Learning about it in school, we always were taught that sensible people were pressured into accepting irrational beliefs. In truth, the more irrational the belief, the more it appeals to a certain segment of the population — one that conflates rationality with all the lies and betrayals they understandably recall and loathe. Being over-the-top with aggressive totalitarianism shows the speaker isn’t like the mainstream, the mainstream that has certainly done working-class America little good.

    • I think FDR was a bit of an authoritarian. I don’t especially buy his justifications for being president for so long. Just the same, I think if he had stepped down after two terms, things would have been worse. Most likely, the people would have voted for someone who was liberal but not as much of a fighter — you know, someone more like a modern Democrat. So I can see the appeal of authoritarians — as long as they are doing what I like.

  2. Yes, it’s actually probably a good thing that Presidents can’t have more than two terms now, although I would have voted for FDR every time. Shit — I’d vote for Obama again. I actually never voted for Obama, always a token vote for the Greens because our state wasn’t a toss-up, but you know what I mean, I’d take Obama warts and all over Scott Walker.

    What I find amazing about religious people who condemn atheistic “relativity” is that atheists/humanists tend to be more consistent, over time. I can’t think of a single moral edict that’s survived in mainstream Christianity, Catholic or Protestant, for more than the last 50 years or so. (Misogyny is always there, that’s not exactly a moral stance.) The obsessions with abortion and homosexuality are quite new. In 1965 pretty much every mainstream white American church thought interracial marriage was, if not an offense in the eyes of God, at least an offense to other parishioners that shouldn’t be permitted lightly.

    While atheism/humanism have their own schisms, pro-war and anti-war, super-capitalist and super-communist, with a ton in between (and outside those margins), I feel as though there’s a thread which connects Voltaire and Paine and H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell and Susan Jacoby. (All of which would have passionately debated each other, no doubt.)

    Do you see a thread that connects WWII Catholic officials, who apologized for fascism, to Pope Francis? (Hell, do you see a thread connecting Francis and Romero to John Paul? I don’t.) Nor do I see any connection between the Protestantism of Luther, John Adams, Henry Beecher, William Jennings Bryan, Billy Graham, and these Duck Dynasty fools. Or a connection between Mohammed’s relatively progressive attitudes towards the rights of women and the repressive anecdotes told about that prophet after he was long dead, for that matter.

    The appeal of Robertson (Pat or Phil) is close to the appeal of a dictator, and as you noted close to the appeal of FDR. Magic Daddy will solve your problems if you do as He says. It’s an abrogation of civic responsibility. And that’s perfectly understandable in hard times; we’re all pretty stressed out.

    • In 2012, I wanted to vote for Rocky Anderson but he wasn’t on the ballot in California. I ended up voting for Jill Stein, but I wrote that I still supported Obama and I would have voted for him if the vote was going to be even within 10 percentage points (he ended up winning the state by over 23).

      You are bringing up a lot of issues I’ve been writing about. Tomorrow I will post an article on JWs and how their position on blood transfusions is ridiculous from a theological standpoint and how it has changed over the years. And I’m kind of working on an article about how Christians are using the same “religious freedom” argument today regarding LGBT rights as they used against African American rights in the 1950s and 1960s.

      The problem I have is how hierarchical religion is. I has having an email conversation with Infidel753 and I mentioned that I felt my “arbitrary opinions” were more valid that their vaunted “sincerely held religious beliefs” because mine are at least my own; almost to a person, these religious beliefs are just what they’ve been taught. It is a kind of affinity fraud perpetrated by pastors.

      I do think that most of the appeal for religious people is fundamentally authoritarian: they want to be told want to do. And as I said, I understand this — but it doesn’t mean that it is good. Look at how Garry Wills has been treated for arguing that the Catholic Church should give up priests. I’ve been kind of annoyed at atheists who claim there is no difference between religious people and “spiritual” people. But there is: “spiritual” people may be mushy thinkers but they aren’t authoritarians. They are good ol’ idiosyncratics and cranks. And that’s lovely!

  3. We are at the point with gay rights where society at large no longer does the discrimination for you. “You” being the religious pizza merchant for example. I did not say christian, because if you are going to amputate christ from the dogma you really should get a new name. And so you have to make the discrimination you wish to practice against a vulnerable minority an individual effort, and face the consequences of that choice as an individual. Here is the feeling of having power and losing it that Corey Robin says is the passion that animates conservatism. I really wish the media would engage these people with the question of how they are being harmed? LGBT equality is the classic “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” situation. In fact, how is someone giving you business doing you harm (yes, I know what the real answer is)? Okay, so we redact the Good Samaritan, the sheep on the right and the goats on the left, and all that ‘cuz F that hippie crap. There is still Paul instructing them that paying their enemy kindness is like heaping coals on their head. Like I said, I know the real answer: they practice witchcraft, not theology. Angels and demons, spiritual warfare, collective divine punishment for the sins of the few. Utter bullshit even within the christian worldview. Fundamentalists have this weird ju jitsu that allows them to claim to be the most authentic expression of a faith. Here, Israel, Saudi Arabia. It is a power the more liberal faiths hand to them because moderating the dogma means weakening the authority of the foundational texts. And while that’s all fine in seminary school where educated people who can handle complexity can learn the truth about The Truth, they don’t want to do this in public.

    • Well put! I have a couple of articles coming out in the next two days about this stuff, so I won’t go into it here. But what bugs me about all the fundamentalist crap is that people claim they are reading the Bible literally, but all they are doing is listening to some powerful person who is telling them what they claim the Bible literally means. As Ed Kilgore wrote earlier today, conservative Christianity has a long history of using fake “literal” readings of the Bible to justify their objections to social change. And just like every generation of Christians thinks they will be the last (for the same reason: because they’ve been told), every generation forgets the vile arguments the last generation made.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *