Thursday, March 17, 2011

Religion and Morality

One of the first religious beliefs I questioned as a child was the concept that only Christians possessed morality and that atheists and agnostics were sinful and depraved. To this day, it is a belief that I continue to find bewildering, since it is so obviously incorrect. Yet, it is still a widespread notion within fundamentalist Christianity. Why? For the same reason fundamentalist Christians hold most of their beliefs: fear.

A quick note: I am well aware that agnosticism is not the same as atheism, and that it is quite possible for an agnostic to be either a theist or an atheist. However, in my experience, a majority fundamentalist Christians do not distinguish between the two, which is why they have been lumped together in this post. 

The entire system of fundamentalist Christianity is established on the few being entirely right and the many being completely wrong. There is no wiggle room. They vigorously insist that the only way to procure a genuine relationship with God and enter into heaven is through their religious system. All other methods are an illusion. Of course, as humans, we frequently judge the merits of a belief system on the actions of its adherents. Fundamentalists know this. That is why they advocate the position that they solely exhibit morality. First, it lends credence to their particular beliefs. Second, it disparages non-believers. From the outside, this accusation seems obviously ludicrous. But to a believer, it merely confirms their convictions.

Most fundamentalist Christians were raised in the faith. Despite claims to the contrary, long-term converts are relatively rare. Because of this, it is in the church's best interest to retain as many of the children as they possibly can. Fear of losing members forces them to assert the immorality of atheism and agnosticism. Even if a person is entertaining doubts, they are less likely to renounce their beliefs if they assume that all non-believers are corrupted by the devil. Church leaders regularly promote their moral superiority by highlighting some predicament currently effecting the world and connecting it with godlessness. Even troubles within the church are attributed to nonbelievers masquerading as Christians.

Fear of an individual's ultimate fate another rationale for alleging moral supremacy. In fundamentalist Christianity, the fate of an individual, in theory, is relatively simple. If you have accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior and you have followed all the beliefs of the church, you will progress to heaven. Everyone else is condemned to hell. Of course, as I have written about previously, fear of hell is an excellent motivator. In my experience, many fundamentalist Christians felt prompted to be "good" because of their fear of hell and their desire for heaven. They presumed that, if you took away the threat of punishment and/or the reward of paradise, there would be no incentive for an individual to be a good, moral person.

Personally, I find this motive for morality to be exceedingly immature. If your only rationalization for behaving well is your dread of punishment, you are not an authentically good person. To truly be a moral person, your motivation should be your knowledge of right and wrong, and an eagerness to be good just because it is the right thing to do. You should treat people compassionately because it is proper, not because God might punish you if you don't.

The perception that religion must be the basis of morality is utterly absurd. For several years after I left the Southern Baptist church, I considered myself an agnostic with a slight leaning towards atheism. It is during this period of my life that my personal system of morality developed. I desired to be a good person because I longed to help people. I did not require a God or the threat of punishment to justify that aspiration. I still don't. Although I do now consider myself a theist, my moral convictions and my basis for them have not substantially changed.

Religious hostility has done nothing except allow for increased conflict in the world. If we concentrated on assisting our fellow man instead, we could make our world a better place. Personally, I believe God would much rather us feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and comfort the suffering than argue about whose morality is inherently superior.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I was just on a Fundamentalists blog, and he made use of the argument that Christians who do bad things aren't really Christians. So, like you said, they are always going to see themselves as morally superior, because they jettison anyone who might hinder their argument that way.

  3. Personal knowledge of conservatives is for me based on my own experience as one and my perception of conservatives through my eldest son who is one to this day. My experience with true fundamentalists, for example, fundamentalist Baptists (Missionary Baptists) is limited to friends of that persuasion and to what I read about them.
    I find precious little difference between them. The exclusivity of both makes me very sad.

  4. Great post. For me, the most important thing was being right. In my mind I believed that by striving to be right I was closer to God. Such thinking breeds arrogance.

    As a non- Christian I have come to see that rightness is not the end all and it is ok not to know. Within 20 years I am likely to be dead and gone. My time is better served helping others and trying to pass on things that matter. Sadly, much of my Christian life was spent striving after things that didn't matter.

  5. A quick comment to Andrew. As his run in with a fundy shows, fundamentalists are like Nazi's striving to have a pure race. (church) over 25 years as a pastor I ran off a lot of good people. They didn't meet my template for a Christian. I bitterly regret hurting people, good people who had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of an issue.

  6. @Andrew-

    I have encountered that argument as well. Instead of recognizing the fact that every single person struggles with sin, they close their eyes and put their hands over their ears and pretend that the moment you convert to Christianity you become completely immune to sin and the problems of life. This creates an environment where people refuse to confess they are having problems and ask for help because they are terrified their church will reject them for not being perfect. Unfortunatly, that's a completely justified fear. The church's good reputation comes before their Christian duty to assist others, although they'd never admit it.

    What's even worse is when a member of a fundamentalist church is involved in some kind of scandal (whether local or national), and the other church members are absolutely shocked. If they were not so obsessed with moral superiority, the scandal might never have occurred. But, by that point, the church leaders are too busy rationalizing the scandal away by claiming that real Christians could never perform such an act to realize they probably had the power to prevent it.


    It makes me extremely sad as well. They put an enormous amount of energy in defining who is "in" and who is "out". It is such a waste. What is even worse for me is that these are some genuinely wonderful people who could do amazing things for the good of the world, but have been instilled with the doctrine of exclusivity from childhood.


    In the church I grew up in, being right was absolutely everything. Nothing else truly mattered if we weren't right. Even today, that mindset still affects me. I can get so caught up on whether my theology is "right" that I can lose track of the big picture. I have to remind myself that not getting all the tiny details perfect or not knowing all the answers is OK.