Monthly Archives: December 2014

Am I Evil?

Am I evil? Am I capable of pulling a switch to shock experimental subjects to the point of excruciating pain or even death? Am I the kind of person who would walk past a wounded person in need while making my way to give a speech on charity?

While commuting to work I’ve been listening to a set of 40 lectures from an enlightening course entitled Why Evil Exists (, in which University of Virginia religion professor Charles Mathewes surveys Western and Middle Eastern views on evil from the Epic of Gilgamesh to the modern era. The majority of the course looks at evil from a religious perspective, but I was particularly interested in hearing about a couple of key twentieth-century scientific experiments that reveal some scary tendencies in human nature.

No doubt many of you are familiar with the Milgram experiments, in which subjects were led to believe they were participating in an experiment that required them (at the behest of “scientists” in white coats) to pull a lever to deliver a series of increasingly severe electric shocks to other “subjects” behind a glass wall. The majority of those who were asked to pull the lever did so until the shock recipient actors nearly “died.”

Professor Mathewes also reflects on the “Good Samaritan Experiments,” in which one set of Princeton Seminary students was asked to deliver a speech on the Good Samaritan while another set was to give a nonreligious speech. As the speech-giving students walked from on Princeton building to another, they passed by an “injured” man in clear need of assistance. Most of the students neglected to stop and help the “injured man,” and it didn’t make a difference whether the speech they were about to give was on the Good Samaritan or not.

My first instinct was to think that I would be better than the subjects in these experiments, but then I realized that no doubt most of those who failed would have thought of themselves as good, upstanding people incapable of such moral ineptitude.

Though I’d like to think I’d do better than majority of these experimental subjects, maybe I’m just like the majority of individuals who think they’re morally better than the average person. The majority can’t be better than average, by definition.

Perhaps it’s helpful for all of us to reflect from time to time on our very real capacity for evil, especially those of us who think most highly of our moral rectitude. Did Hitler think himself immoral? No; as he wrote in Mein Kampf, “By fighting off the Jews, I am doing the Lord’s work.” I concur with the Apostle Paul, who wrote in Romans 12:3, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.”

Had I been a Hutu in 1994, could I have wielded a machete and mowed one or more of the million Tutsi slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide? As I sit in my warm, comfortable home in front of my glowing computer screen while my beautiful wife decorates the Christmas tree, with one son home from college for the holidays and another one on the way tomorrow, with a full belly and everything I need to flourish, am I in a position to judge whether, in a particular set of circumstances, in a time of want, in a wave of popular tribal ferment, I would not be capable of such moral monstrosities?

There but for the grace of circumstances (or, if you prefer, by the grace of God) go I.


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Community Conditioning

We all underestimate the extent to which our beliefs are conditioned by the communities we belong to. We’d like to think we’re driven primarily by more objective standards, whether it be by reason, by empirical evidence, or a holy book.

When I left the Christian faith, I had no intention of softening my hardline opposition to homosexuality and abortion; I didn’t defect because I was looking to loosen my morals. Over the years, however, my views on these hot-button social issues did gradually soften. I would like to think this was entirely a result of cool, rational reflection, but that would be naïve. If the great majority of freethinkers were opposed to abortion and homosexuality, it’s likely I never would have countenanced a change in my original position.

Freethinkers can be every bit every bit as vicious to those who hold conservative views as fundamentalists are to those who hold liberal ones. As a freethinker, I don’t relish the idea of being on the receiving end of this vitriol, and I can’t rule out the possibility that my thinking has been nudged in the direction of the majority of my fellow freethinkers. If I were even to contemplate coming out in opposition to gay marriage, for example, I would no longer be welcome in skeptical circles. As it turns out, I’ve come to a middle ground position that sidesteps the issue: I would prefer that our secular government get out of the marriage domain altogether. If a couple wants to marry, let their religious or family or social group recognize the marriage without the involvement of the government. The government could offer tax benefits to guardians in proportion to the number of children who live in their home more than half the year, without needing to ask the nature of the guardians’ relationship to each other or their gender.

Regarding abortion, I don’t toe the freethinking party line whereby a fetus is simply a part of the woman’s body. Yes, it’s a part of the woman’s body, but it also has its own body, with its own distinct and full set of human chromosomes, and it can feel pain starting at around 25 weeks. That doesn’t mean I think a single-celled zygote is a person in any meaningful sense, nor do I think that the 70% of embryos that spontaneously abort before the mother is even aware she’s pregnant constitute the sort of tragedy we would all perceive it to be if 70% of all cooing, dimpled children were to die sometime after birth. If anyone seriously thinks there’s any sort of equivalence between the two, I would ask why there’s so little concern and so little money expended to stem the holocaust of spontaneously aborted embryos. For religiously motivated abortion opponents, I would ask whether you think adult souls will be vastly outnumbered by human embryos that never saw the light of day, souls that never developed a personality or a thought in this world? And will you stop pretending to be opposed to abortion on the basis of the pain it causes the baby, if you have no qualms about the killing of an adult cow for your gustatory pleasure or the cutting off the foreskin of a baby boy, who feels the pain for hours or days, while a fetus aborted before 25 weeks feels none?

So in some ways I have been shaped by the freethought community I now identify with, but I’ve staked out a compromise of my own: I would prefer that neither gays nor straights be married in the eyes of the government, and out of caution I advocate that abortions be restricted after 25 weeks.

How have your views been shaped by the community to which you belong, and in what ways have you staked out more nuanced positions not held by the majority of your community?

Many freethinkers may be surprised to learn that, until a decade or so ago, a strong current of atheists, agnostics, and humanists were opposed to gay marriage, not wanting to lend support to the institution of marriage of any stripe.
Likewise, many evangelicals may be surprised that until the late 1970s, the majority of even the most conservative evangelicals were not opposed to abortion, using the Bible to support their position. Here I’ll quote from an article entitled “How Evangelicals Decided that Life Begins at Conception”, at

In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention agreed, in a joint resolution: “We call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

Dallas Theological Seminary professors also supported the cause. Bruce Wakte [Waltke], writing in Christianity Today, drew on Exodus 21:22-24 to argue that “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed.” His colleague Norman Geisler concurred: “The embryo is not fully human — it is an undeveloped person.”

If you’re surprised by any of the above, whether as an atheist or as a fundamentalist or anything in between, my hope is that you’ll come to a greater understanding of just how much we are prisoners of our own communities.
I’ll close with another example of this imprisonment. Ask Saint Francis of Assisi whether Jesus condoned wealth, and you would get a definite, “No.” Ask just about any modern American evangelical the same question, and you would get a definite “Yes, as long as you keep a proper attitude and don’t allow it to turn you away from God.”

That’s not what Jesus said in the Luke.

Here’s what he said in Luke 6:24-25:

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.

There it is, in black and white (or red, depending on your Bible). But evangelicals routinely gloss over this passage (and many others like it in Luke) because it has become acceptable in the evangelical community to be rich. If a sincere young reader of Luke comes across these passages for the first time, she may initially start to think wealth is bad, only to be assured by her parents, her youth leader, or he pastor that this isn’t what the passages *really* teach. And they she goes on her merry way, satisfied that it’s only really about the state of one’s heart, and she’s no longer troubled by it. Why? Because her *community* that she *trusts* tells her it’s not the problem she thought it might be. In other words, she trusts her community over the clear teaching of the Bible, but she doesn’t realize it, because she believes her community is following the Bible, and who is she to challenge all the smart and wise people in her community who have it all figured out? What she fails to understand is that the needs and desires of the community come first, and the Bible can be made to say whatever lines up with those needs. And why doesn’t she see this? Precisely because the community claims to base its views on the Bible, and the more the community insists on its allegiance to the Bible, the harder it is to acknowledge any divergence from the Bible. We see this also in the way the Bible is used by the community in one generation to condone abortion and in the next generation to condemn it.

Imagine if Jesus has said anything as clear as this alongside Luke 6:24-25:

But woe to you who kill a baby in its mother’s womb,
for the baby is a person from the moment of conception.
Woe to you anyone who engages in sexual relations with one of the same gender,
for God intended sex to be between only a husband and his wife.

Boom! No more debate about abortion, no more debate about homosexuality for those who follow Jesus.

Do you really think it would be that easy? Not at all! Because if those who today claim to be the most faithful to the Bible can worm their way around “But woe to you who are rich,” and “He who has two tunics should give to him who has none,” and “He who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple,” and “where your treasure is, there *will* your heart be also,” then it’s possible to get around “But woe to you who kill a baby in its mother’s womb,” even if Jesus had said it. Which he didn’t.

Why do conservative believers imagine themselves to be faithful to the Bible while ignoring (or explaining away) Jesus’ clear teachings on wealth? And why do more progressive believers believe themselves to be faithful to the Bible while ignoring (or explaining away) Paul’s clear teachings on homosexuality? I can’t pretend to speak for either party as I’m no longer a believer, but it looks suspiciously as though the leanings of the community trump the teachings of the Bible they claim to follow. If homosexuality disgusts you, then the few biblical passages that condemn it are “clear” and “applicable for all time and in all circumstances.” Women wearing head coverings and wealth being condemned? Not so much. If compassion is your number one value, then Jesus’ teachings on the poor resonate with you and you’re likely to be in favor of universal health care and the distribution of wealth, while sympathizing with gays persecuted by the Pharisaical religious right. And the community you belong to reinforces your bent further, demonizing those in the other camp and preventing you from seeing any merit in them.

In summary, I contend that believers’ social and political proclivities have priority over what the scriptures teach, whether you’re pro- or anti-slavery, pro- or anti-women’s rights, pro- or anti-segregation, pro- or anti-mixed race marriages, pro- or anti-feminist, pro- or anti-war, pro- or anti-immigration, etc.

If you’re a Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants’ prescription of polygamy can be set aside when the cultural tide shifts against it, as can be the proscription of blacks in the priesthood. If you’re the Apostle Paul, you can set aside the clearly prescribed ordinances of circumcision and Sabbaths and animal sacrifice and kosher food if it lowers the bar for Gentiles to enter the Kingdom. Because, *reasons*. Yes, there are always reasons for setting aside earlier divine revelation. But how can you get any clearer than Leviticus 16:30-32 (NASB)?

for it is on this day that [a]atonement shall be made for you to cleanse you; you will be clean from all your sins before the LORD. 31 It is to be a sabbath of solemn rest for you, that you may humble your souls; it is a *permanent* statute.

My arguments here are not likely to be accepted readily by many believers. Why? Because if it’s admitted that the community of faith is unfaithful to the teachings of the Bible, then the Bible can no longer be used as a rod to prod the errant into line. By errant it is meant those who don’t share the prior proclivities of the community, whether it be in relation to male headship, wealth, civil rights, segregation, abortion, slavery, mixed marriages, war, immigration, or what have you.

Again, the illusion that a community is faithfully following the scriptures must be maintained at all costs, or the authority of the community to impose its proclivities on those within and without its ranks will be jeopardized. But an illusion it is. I have raised here only a small sampling of the passages routinely ignored or conveniently explained away by Christians of various stripes. For a much fuller discussion of more such passages, I cannot recommend highly enough the book “Raw Revelation: The Bible They Never Tell You About” by Ron Roncace at (see also my review of the book on the Amazon page).


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