It’s been a long time since I’ve written a blog for the sake of it, because the only time I usually get to write these days is when I am preparing my column for the newspaper. However, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about religion. This is not necessarily distinguishable from work, seeing as I have a degree and a post-grad teaching qualification in the Study of Religions, but I myself am an atheist.
I think the reason that religion, Christianity in particular, has been on my mind, is due to the death of my grandfather. But it hasn’t been puzzling me because of any after-life issues – it’s been puzzling me because I get sick and tired of the seemingly un-Christian attitude of the minority of the alleged Christians that I know. Now don’t get me wrong – I have many lovely acquaintances and friends who also happen to be Christian, so I am making no sweeping statements here nor judgements. But therein lies the crux of the issue that’s bothering me: it’s the fervent Christians that I know, the ones who are very audible about their strong beliefs, who appear to be the judgement-makers and the hypocrites.
If you look online or research the matter, you’ll find many sites where Christians argue the fact that they do not need to keep the 10 Commandments of the Old Testament. A very simplistic history for those not in the know, is that the OT is not about Jesus – Christianity didn’t begin until after his death & alleged resurrection, so Jesus isn’t mentioned until the New Testament. He was, of course, Jewish, and the Gospels (meaning Good News) tell this Good News of his birth, and subsequent teachings.
However, the 10 Commandments are referred to in another book of the New Testament, Romans, and are upheld as something to follow. So here’s my issue – even if the 10 Commandments didn’t reappear in some form within the NT, surely the basic rules of society (don’t steal stuff, don’t lie and so on), are simply a common sense, nice person, moral code to try and live by? Obviously they are laid out as absolutes in religion (i.e. not relative to circumstances, just don’t do it and that’s that), which is hardly realistic for every day life, but they are there. And, Christian or not, these ideals are something we teach our children and generally try to abide to.
On top of this list, there are also the usual compassion, kindness, forgiveness teachings we expect from the NT. We find one of the gospels, Luke, having a real slant towards kindness to gentiles (people who weren’t Jewish and were generally regarded not as humans but as items expelled from the posteriors of canines). Luke for example is where we find the Good Samaritan – don’t pass by on the other side.
So why is it, that out of all my friends or acquaintances, I find that, sometimes, the ones who are full of their own Christian virtue, whose cups simply over-floweth with the juice extracted from a thousand biblical pages, are the ones with the least regard for true human suffering or respect for others? Maybe this is just my experience in life – for I’m not out to offend anyone – but it is making me curious to the hilt.
For example, I have a friend who is religious. He attends church and suggests that one should even pray for parking spaces because often God will help out in cramped residential areas. (I’m thinking that a God who will find you a parking space might have done something more to help out in the Holocaust, but that’s just being picky – and I’ve no wish to get into a theodicy debate just to confuse matters and start waffling about moral evil and free will.) I once questioned the Christian friend of an ex-partner as to where she believed God to be during the Holocaust. I asked purely out of my own interest in the opinions of a Christian in regard to this genocide, and she responded that those 6 million Jews obviously weren’t Christian, so God simply wouldn’t have been there. I could rest my case there, but I’ll go on.
I also know a Christian who had bariatric surgery. So does this mean that God can find parking spaces for some Christians, but can’t stop others eating themselves to death. This isn’t judgmental, I’ve been fat before – I’m simply stating the fact. I could list other examples, including people I know of who are devout Christians until the social issue arrives next door to them and suddenly the compassion disappears down the NIMBY bolt hole, but I’d rather throw this into the mix before I finish: are the non-believers among us actually the genuinely nicer and more moral people?
If you’re giving to charity not because you hope to get into heaven, but because you’re being kind, or if you’re offering compassion to the grieving because you’re empathetic and have no goal of eternal life, does that mean you’re more moral than the Christian who is doing it, in part, because they believe Jesus wants them to? I’m not agreeing or disagreeing; I’m just throwing it out there. There’s no such thing as an unselfish act (just watch the Friends episode or experience that tingle of personal pleasure at a good deed next time you donate to Children in Need), but if you’re trying to live the life of a good person simply through your own volition, not because you hope to go to heaven or please a deity, does this mean you are naturally kinder?
There is no answer really – it is akin to Pascal’s Wager – which is to say, that perhaps one should act as though God does exist, just to err on the side of caution. Not really a plan, because it doesn’t take faith into account, but what about those of us who are good atheists? If heaven, or paradise, or an after-life of any belief does turn out to exist, will those of us who acted nicely simply because we are nice burn in hell anyway? In which case, that’d be no part of a religion I’d have ever wished to follow anyway.
In conclusion, just because you’re a theist, it doesn’t automatically transpire that you’re a nice person. And ditto for any person of any belief or disbelief. But if you declare yourself, in your loudest voice, to be a Christian, then shouldn’t you at least try to act like one? Because surely that’s the thing about religion – you can’t just say you’re religious, there is an expectation. You must be a believer of that faith because you fundamentally agree with its teachings. Otherwise, you’re just as superficial as the fish symbol, crucifix, star of David, pentangle etc, that’s clanking around your neck.
Just a note – one could of course get into denominational discussions and moral absolutism and relativism, or myriad other routes, but really I just wanted to provoke thought and curiosity. There are no sweeping judgements here, no ‘one size fits all’, and nothing set in stone.