Sunday, October 23, 2011

Moral Disconnect

In 2006, the University of Minnesota released the results of an interesting poll, a telephone sampling of over 2000 households in the U.S.A.  Atheists were revealed as being the most distrusted minority group, even behind Muslims, even after 9/11.

The results were puzzling to me.  At the time, I couldn't think of a reason other than perhaps the lingering influence of our now-defunct arch nemesis, the Soviet Union.  Communism, after all, was godless by design.  That communist, atheist threat stood poised for decades with a nuclear arsenal which could obliterate our entire country several times over, not just fly some planes into some buildings.  I grew up as one of the last generations which had practiced duck-and-cover drills in elementary school.

About a year ago, my wife had gotten Morgan Spurlock's 30 Days documentary series from Netflix.  In that series, people end up spending thirty days living with someone of a polar opposite perspective, like a border patrol agent lives with an illegal immigrant.  It's really a great series for enriching the human side of controversial issues.

Anyway, in one episode an atheist woman went to live with a devout Christian family.  Over the course of the thirty days, the Christian mother and kids eventually warmed up to the atheist woman, but the Christian husband got stuck.  You could tell that he had begun to like the atheist woman as a person, but he could not figure out where she got the moral guidance from to do right as opposed to wrong.  In his mind, morality required faith in God and a Bible in hand.  Most churches are not shy about promoting such a stance, given that they consider God to the be author of morality.

From that perspective, it seemed as though the issue many Christians had with atheist is that they didn't have an official guidebook for morality, and no ultimate accountability.  Perhaps that's why atheists are scarier to Americans than Muslims.  Well, it may just be part of the reason.

Then, last week, I had a revelation of sorts.  I was listening on the radio to a passionate sermon from Chip Ingram, with Living on the Edge ministry.  He was discussing his conversion story of when he first accepted Jesus as his savior.  He described the day after (very paraphrased):
"Man, I tell you, I could swear up a storm.  It was nothing for me to drop curse words into sentences.  But after my conversion, I suddenly came to realize that that was not right.  From then on I cleaned up my speech and began trying to live as God would want me to live." 
I think that Chip's words held a key to better understanding where many Christians stand.  Chip associates his conversion with the identification of morality.  Biblically speaking, you could make a case for it too, as the saved are supposedly baptized with the Holy Spirit at the moment of conversion.  Note that Chip didn't say that he consulted the Scriptures and discovered that being foul-mouthed was sinful.  Rather, he just knew it.  (Perhaps that's why too few Christians spend time really studying the Bible for morality.)

From the perspective of many Christians, not only do atheists seem to lack a sense of an ultimate accountability and an official morality guidebook, but also lack a defining moment in their lives, a conversion experience, when they were graced and bestowed with an internal Holy moral compass.  This last factor may be the most important in Christian-atheist relations, because psychologically it encourages Christians to project their own prior pre-Saved behavior (plus the pre-Saved behaviors from other people's conversion stories) onto atheists.  Atheists become potential representatives of the epitome of evil, even though atheists don't believe in the epitome of evil.

If your kids are still looking for an idea for a Halloween costume, may I suggest dressing them in a simple white T-shirt with the word "atheist" written across it?  Chances are, it will scare the bejesus out of people.  just make sure that you are there to protect your kids if necessary.

But seriously, like what 30 Days promoted, people tend to have more tolerant, or at least more understanding, views about groups who they are opposed to once they get to know well someone on the other side.  I suspect that the semi-regular Christian commenters on this blog, Ollie Wallflower and dsholland would agree.  So if you are an atheist who is good friends with a Christian, but you haven't told that Christian friend about your lack of belief, I would encourage you to do so to promote understanding and tolerance.  The more Christians know atheists, the less likely we are to be considered morally depraved, and instead we'll just be considered deluded.  :-)


  1. I had not heard of that series (30 Days) but I am familiar with the concept. It is always enlightening to remember that the people with whom you may disagree have a perspective from which their views make sense. The ability to communicate across that divide is the highway between those positions.

    This may account for the hostility in both camps.

  2. @dsholland
    True, David. Maybe we can work on bridging the gap together? :-)

  3. The most "morally depraved" people I have met have been those who took no stance with regard to religion. That is, they didn't identify with a religion *or* atheism. Presumably they're so immoral that they don't even want to *think* about morality. Most atheists and nearly all agnostics I have met have been law-abiding people with high moral standards. Of course, their moral standards are centered around the idea that "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, it's okay," but that's to be expected given their lack of belief in a higher power. When it comes to helping those in need, they're just as "good" as the average Christian, if not more so.

    Everyone needs to try this "30 Days" thing! Being involved in debates and discussions like the ones found here are a good start.

  4. @Ollie Wallflower
    I haven't run into many morally depraved people personally, nor asked the ones I have crossed paths with about their views on faith, but it certainly appeared that they were consistent with the "no stance with regard to religion." I've also crossed paths with atheists who couldn't go beyond saying that religion was just dumb, and so clearly hadn't thought much about it. They also appeared to me to be of questionable repute, but that was judging a book by its cover.

    The "as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else, it's okay" is not a bad starting point, just like the oath doctors take to first do no harm, but older people I've met with this philosophy as their sole morality tend to be fairly self-centered.

    In truth, I think there is as wide a spectrum of morality among non-believers as there is believers. :-)

    The 30 Days concept was awesome, somewhat equivalent to the proverb of walking a mile in another person's shoes. I was saddened to discover that the series was canceled after the third season. :-( But I agree with your sentiment that we should all try to understand each other better, and discussions like this are a good start. :-)