When Bill O’Reilly recently tried to pin America’s spree of mass shootings on atheism rather than guns or mental illness, he hoped to tap a specific set of beliefs that are common among Bible believers— that morality derives from religion; that Born Again Christians are a light unto the world while atheists (who lack any basis for ethics or morality) spend their empty lives in pursuit of money and sex; that when Christians get raptured or otherwise lose the upper hand, America will descend into the orgy of sex, violence, and anarchy depicted in the Left Behind books and movie.
This view feeds both righteous superiority and genuine anxiety among conservative Christians. One Facebook commenter named Georgia spelled it out:
Atheists shake with contempt at the thought of love and decency. Their whole lives are dedicated to nothingness, to the gaping void of pain that nihilism defines.
The original source of Georgia's comment, ironically, is a spoof article. But ordinary believers don't recognize the distortion for good reason. Calvinists and other fundamentalist theologians teach that humanity is “utterly depraved” and that the only hope for our fallen world and fallen individuals is the saving blood of Jesus. In the words of mega-minister Mark Driscoll, “If the resurrection didn’t literally happen, there are guns to shoot, there are people to shoot, there are parties to be had, there are women to be had.” Fox News contributor, Erick Erickson points to this kind of theology to justify dehumanizing atheists, literally. “I’ve largely moved toward the NT Wright view that as people move further and further from God, they [become] less than human.”
Sarah Palin plays out the logic: "The logical result of atheism, a result we have seen right in front of our eyes in one of the world’s oldest and proudest nations, is severe moral decay.” In this worldview, the growth of secularism means the growth of moral bankruptcy. Modernity is a grim slide into an end-times world where everybody lies, cheats, and takes whatever they can get. And here in America, this dark tide can be held back only by Christians in high places.
But this common wisdom is being challenged by the public behavior of both the godly and the godless—by atheists who publically embrace humanity’s moral core and spiritual quest; and by Christian leaders who keep getting caught, literally or metaphorically, with their pants down. The combination paints a picture that more than anything reveals our shared humanity—that the godless have their share of moral leaders and inspiring spiritual values, and the godly have their share of scoundrels.
Atheists Bare Their Beliefs and Values
Tired of being stigmatized and shunned, some atheists have set out to daylight the moral values they live by, and why. Some are specifically reclaiming words like morality and spirituality, which have long been owned by the religious sector. For example:
- This summer, photographer and filmmaker Chris Johnson began screening A Better Life: Joy and Meaning in a World Without God. The movie follows a related coffee table book in which prominent atheists (and—full disclosure—a few ordinary nonbelievers like me) discuss the values, loves, dreams and projects that give their lives purpose.
- New Atheist author Sam Harris, followed his book, The Moral Landscape with Waking Up, an inquiry into the rich human experience of meditation and transcendence—the universal human experience that we are more than just our individual selves and life is deeper than the hedonism of the moment.
- Small Sunday Assembly congregations around the world are continuing to experiment with building community around a three part motto—Live Better, Help Often, Wonder More.
- Blogger, Neil Carter, a theology-trained former teacher, has amassed a following of thousands who read his wry, tender morally-grounded musings as he navigates being Godless in Dixie.
- Humanist chaplaincies like the Harvard Humanist Hub have been springing up on college campuses.
- Even the Satanic Temple (actually an atheist religion that eschews supernaturalism and embraces Satan as a literary rebel against tyranny a la Milton) has stepped into the public eye with a mission and manifesto affirming broadly held humanistic values.
Scandals Expose Hypocrisy, Rock Christianity
Meanwhile, scandals have been hitting conservative Christianity, hard and fast:
After Christian abortion foes launched a blood-and-guts media campaign based on staged entrapment interviews with Planned Parenthood staff, public opinion wavered. Then the campaign crumbled as forensic experts found 42 splices, including in “unedited” videos, rendering them useless as evidence. A seemingly unimpeachable witness, a disgruntled Planned Parenthood employee who claimed she had been forced to sell body parts, was impeached by past statements that contradicted recent testimony, suggesting that she was unreliable and a likely plant. Anti-abortion leaders found the moral high ground crumbling beneath their feet.
Another Christian publicity stunt turned out to be fabricated by—to borrow a phrase from investigative journalist Chris Rodda—Liars for Jesus in the military. Republican presidential contender Ted Cruz has built his campaign around religious opposition to anti-discrimination laws, which some Christians claim violate their religious freedom and cause them to be persecuted. One ad features the story of Air Force Sergeant Phillip Monk who was fired by a lesbian superior for “expressing a traditional view of marriage”—except that he wasn’t. Oops. So much for the Bible’s prohibition against false witness. If Cruz had read some of the anti-Semitic, homo-slurring hate mail sent by military Evangelicals in the name of Jesus he might have been more wary.
A John Oliver August expose of televangelists exposed so much corruption—from multi-million dollar tax-exempt parsonages, to personal trips on private jets, to manipulative but unfulfilled promises of healing—that if religion wasn’t exempt from truth-in-advertising laws the ministries in question would have their butts sued off. The wide blanket of “religious freedom” may provide legal cover for preachers like Robert Tilton or Joel Olsteen but it can’t cover up the fact that their ministries stink of moral rot. Oliver launched his own church, Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption, with dollars (and seeds and beef jerky) that flowed in from eager viewers, challenging the IRS to investigate—and not just Oliver.
And then, of course, there’s the ongoing scandal surrounding Ashley Madison, the matchmaking site for would-be adulterers hacked by possible extortionists who released member names to the public. Early controversy focused on the membership of Christian patriarchy leader, Josh Duggar, whose teen pattern of molesting younger girls—and the family’s response—recently cost his parents their multi-million dollar reality show, 19 Kids and Counting. But a 2014 survey conducted by Ashley Madison itself revealed that a quarter of members surveyed identified themselves as Evangelical Christians, while another 23 percent identified as Catholic. At least three of the hacked accounts had Vatican email addresses, and an estimated 400 accounts belong to church leaders including pastors, deacons and staff. “Family values” politicians like Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum and Ted Cruz, who flaunt their Christian credentials and loudly lament how gays and feminists are destroying marriage appear to have lost their voices when it comes to adultery, a sin that—in contrast to gay marriage or abortion—the Bible clearly condemns.
Moral Decay or More Transparency?
Have traditional Christianity’s claims of moral superiority always been mere conceit, now visible to all, or has something changed? Certainly the internet has made it harder to live a double life or hide hypocrisies, or to protect the faithful from outside information. I wrote about this in “Religion May Not Survive the Internet.” But there’s also reason to believe that Bible-believing Christianity once worked better than it does today as a guide for individual and community behavior:
- Archaic sex and gender scripts drive hypocrisy. As gender roles and intimate relations become more flexible in modern society, the rigid Iron Age sex script gets harder and harder for Bible-believing Christians to impose—not only on society at large but even on themselves. Trying and failing, young Evangelicals vow abstinence until marriage but instead engage in impulsive, high risk sex (because planning and protection would signal premeditation). Pastors, priests and patriarchal men—who often find the old script equally impossible—pay queer prostitutes, exploit their positions to fondle children and female parishioners, and fill the coffers of internet porn providers—all the while loudly condemning the sexual obsessions of gays, women, and youth.
- Clinging to creationism drives rabbit hole reasoning. As evolutionary theory gets incorporated into computer science and the next wave of engineering and even manufacturing, creationists find themselves backed into a corner, needing to cast aspersions on the whole scientific enterprise (with a peculiar corollary emphasis on undermining climate science). More and more, the only way to preserve and protect a biblical world view is to engage in self-deceptive rabbit hole reasoning—a very bad habit for any individual or group that hopes to be a moral light in the midst of humanity’s darkness.
- The quest for political power drives corruption. The fusion of conservative Christianity and conservative politics into the Religious Right has corroded Christian values and priorities in America and soiled Christianity’s good name. In the words of Sean Illing, “This unholy union of religion and politics has proven disastrous, particularly in the era of PACs, which allow economic libertarians to manipulate conservative Christians for political purposes.” Politics is a notoriously ruthless no-holds-barred affair in which power corrupts—sometimes absolutely. Right wing candidates and politicians who tout their close relationship with God may baptize their own reputations, but they simultaneously foul the Church.
- Bibliolatry drives moral stunting. As culture continues to evolve and moral consciousness deepens, the tribal, racist, sexist worldview of the Bible writers appears ever more cruel and morally stunted. Bible believers, who insist on treating ancient texts as if they were the literally perfect word of God, and their own interpretation of these texts as if it were the only one possible, end up coming across the same way. As their views become less appealing, young people motivated by an honest search for truth and compassion find the Church less and less appealing, leaving those with other priorities to wave the Christian flag.
In sum, conservative Christians are being Left Behind morally and spiritually; and they have responded by looking for love—and answers and power—in all the wrong places. If they find that Americans increasingly turn elsewhere for inspiration and ethical values, maybe they should do a little soul searching instead of pointing the finger at atheists.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.