An Atheist Challenge

October 18, 2005

Recently I was challenged by another blog writer to a conceptual debate. He was trying to prove that Christianity provides a very weak ethical base for society. At first glance, that seems like a nonsense position. But in reality, there is one argument he used which does have a degree of merit.

Primarily, he brought up the question of history itself. For Christianity to be a great moral and ethical system, the historical data should prove it. In recent years, the Christian sub-culture has not produced higher levels of ethical purity. See my blog entry from a few weeks ago for documented evidence of this.

Going further back in history, we must compare Christian culture with the alternatives. In Europe of the middle ages, there is much evidence that Christianity was decadent. The history of the Church, especially after it moved to Constantinople, is one of corruption, sexual deviance, divorce, abortion etc. The spread of Christianity to the so-called New World is a story of murder, rape and genocide. Those are not exactly proofs of an ethical system worth copying.

But was Christianity worse or better than other systems of its day? Most decidedly it surpassed other societies it shared the world with. The Muslim system was much more violent, much less accepting of the cultures it conquered. It had less cultural acceptance of women and children and more emphasis on slavery, ceremonial rape, abortion, thievery and incest. The Buddhist systems of Southeast Asia were even more violent and practiced the ritual killing of children. The Mongols were despicably violent and had no codified ethical system. These are the primary cultural system that co-existed with Christianity in the Middle Ages. There were other smaller cultures, but none of them rose to enough prominence where we even know or recognize their belief systems today.

The claim of today’s atheist is that they can figure out a system of ethics not based upon a book of “tribal myths” (as they sarcastically refer to the Bible), but based upon ethical consensus of society at large. They admit that there are inherent weaknesses to this system, but they claim that most of the weaknesses come from the Christian opposition; if we used logic instead of Christian “narrow-mindedness” a much more humane and workable system of ethics could be produced.

In other words, get rid of Christianity and the waiting brain trust of logical atheists will invent a system of ethics that will work.

Promises, promises.

There aren’t a lot of atheists in history that claim to have a system of morality. Men like Nietzche and Freud, famous atheists of German history, claimed that no system of ethics and morals were necessary. You simply do what seems best to you, and for the most part, you will be right. This leads to a utilitarian view of mankind. Whatever is most convenient for society at large becomes the greatest good. Consider these comments by Philosopher Ray Cotton:

The Nazi holocaust began with a subtle shift in attitude that judged the value of people based upon their cost/benefit ratio to the state. First, it started with sterilization and euthanasia of people with severe psychiatric illnesses. Soon all those with chronic illness were being exterminated. Before too long, all patients who had been sick for five years or more, or were medically unable to work and unlikely to recover were transported to killing centers; what started as “mercy killings” in rare cases of extreme mental illness soon expanded to mass extermination on an unprecedented scale. Before long all those who could not work and were medically evaluated as incapable of being rehabilitated were killed…The German medical profession then started using human body parts for medical research, and this led to the grisly “terminal human experiments,” in which live people were used in medical experiments.

It was the doctors of the German Third Reich that pushed for more and more people to be sent into concentration camps. They believed that their “experiments” on real live bodies would advance science so much faster than working on animal models and cadavers. What they succeeded in advancing was the level of horror we feel about mankind. An ethical system without a moral consensus is bankrupt from the start.

Winston Churchill recognized that Democracy was the worst of all possible political systems, but the only one that had any chance of working. The same thing could be said about Christianity. Because it recognizes that mankind is fallen and will never be completely redeemed in this world, Christianity is not taken aback that its systems are not yet perfect. But it may be the only ethical system with any hope upon which to build a decent society.


  1. You wrote:
    “Because it recognizes that mankind is fallen and will never be completely redeemed in this world, Christianity is not taken aback that its systems are not yet perfect. But it may be the only ethical system with any hope upon which to build a decent society.”

    As an atheist and former Christian, I disagree because I find the presumptions of original sin and the need for divine redemption debasing. You mention that Christianity “recognizes that mankind is fallen,” and this is exactly the problem. As far as I can tell, humans have invented myths and religions to explain why life does not fit snugly into their competing desires, whether that competition arises inside, among themselves, or outside, with natural forces.

    I find that morality must be naturally autonomous and evolving among those who use it, not dependent and static, derived from a morally disconnected divine presence. When you love your neighbor because you truly love your neighbor, then you have a genuine morality, but when you feel the same because someone demands it of you, then you have effectively divorced personal opinions and feelings from the rules by which they operate.

  2. Uberkuh, I like your point about genuinely loving your neighbor, not because you are told to. Wouldn’t it be nice if all of us did? But we often don’t. In the absence of the ideal, does not a command to love trump an unloving relationship? Furthermore, those who love without the command would not stop loving simply because they were told to. So the end condition is better than without the command.

    As for your belief that mankind is not actually fallen: prove it! Show me a state that has excelled in morality without the “encumbrance” of religion. The only truly atheistic states that I can think of are communistic. Shall we look at the former USSR, China, North Korea. All have a horrifying track record of personal rights violations, murder, genocide…. This is evidence of our fallen nature. Without something holding back our evil, we sink to morally reprehensible lows.

    Lastly, you mentioned that morality must not be static, but autonomous and evolving. You didn’t mention what standard you base this morality on. The only reasonable standard that I can think of that would change is popular opinion. And there is a fundamental flaw with a moral/ethical code based on a consensus. Look at the original post about Nazi Germany to get an idea of what happens when the needs of the majority trump the rights of the few. Here is another example: You might remember that when Christopher Reeve was alive he was famous for advocating stem cell research. I cannot judge him; I can’t imagine how I would feel in his shoes, but creating humans for harvesting is exploiting the innocent and defenseless for needs of society. What Mr. Reeve ignored was that in a society who has embraced a consensus based morality the needs of the many outweigh the rights of the few, which makes him a drain on society. If his beliefs were applied broadly, he would no longer be around to hold them.

    Furthermore, in a society which completely embraces a consensus moral code what happens to the minority who disagree with the morality of the majority. In this situation it is human nature to rebel. Many would abandon the code and live however they wanted to. Anarchy would be the result. Compare that to the situation that would exist if the entire society embraced Christianity. There would be no minority. All would be in the same boat with the same beliefs.

    Thank you for your comments. They have made think more clearly about what I believe. I appreciate the discussion.

  3. Thank you!
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