Friday, 24 August 2012

Christ-Like Atheism

Now that I'm an atheist, I can't help but notice that a lot of believers strongly associate particular virtues with Christianity.  Some of these laudable attributes have become so closely tied to the Christian faith, in fact, that some people have difficulty even recognizing the distinction between Christian beliefs and "Christian values".  In their minds, Christianity is a package deal.  What I mean to say is, "Christian values" have become bound, intractably, to the belief that Jesus was god, that he rose from the dead, and so on and so forth.  If you accept one (Christian beliefs), in so doing you accept the other ("Christian values"); and if you reject one (Christian beliefs), it is assumed that you have also rejected the other ("Christian values").  Or so the thinking goes.

But, does Christianity really have ownership over these values?

Clearly not, because I am an atheist who still believes in many of these (so called) "Christian" ideas.  Is this merely because I was raised in a Christian home and culture?  And does it also make me a Christian (or Christian-ish) atheist?  Is such a thing even possible?  Let me offer some examples, so you can see what I mean; three concepts; commonly associated with Christianity, that I still adhere to...


I was taken aback, a few weeks ago, while browsing another atheist's blog (not one from my blog roll).  The author, whose name I can't even remember, was listing off certain elements of Christianity that they now repudiate.  A little dramatic, perhaps, but fair enough.  I agreed with the content of everything they were saying.  That is, until they happened to throw forgiveness into the mix.  Whoa.  Wait a second here.  You reject forgiveness?  Why exactly?

Don't get me wrong, I'm open to the suggestion that forgiveness *might* be a bad idea.  But I strongly suspect that Christians have it exactly right, when they extol forgiveness as a virtue.  I would need to hear a pretty solid argument that it's not, before just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  In the absence of such a well formulated case, it seemed to me that this might be precisely what the atheist blogger in question was doing.

Having said that, I do think that a lot of people misunderstand forgiveness.  As I see it, forgiveness is not about releasing the offender from responsibility for their actions.  Rather, it's about releasing you from the resentment that resides in your heart; this resentment is, quite possibly, rotting away at your insides anyway.  A number of studies have shown that people who forgive report less health problems.  They are also happier.

And forgiveness doesn't imply that what the offender did was o.k., as if you had somehow sanctioned their actions by releasing your anger.  You can forgive someone, fully and completely, but still not wish to ever so much as see or be associated with that person again.

Now, I obviously no longer believe that we are commanded, by a supreme being, to forgive (lest we not be forgiven ourselves, like the Bible threatens).  Doesn't such a threat cheapen forgiveness anyway?

But I still think forgiveness is a pretty darn good idea, at least most of the time; and I don't need to believe Jesus rose from the dead to see that.

Serving Others

I won't spend a lot of time here because, in so far as I can tell, most atheists are completely with me on this issue. It's one of the things I appreciate most about blogs like "Friendly Atheist", for example.  Hemant frequently spotlights atheist humanitarian initiatives, of one form or another, and I say the more the better.  This is precisely the sort of thing that atheists need to become known for, in my view, if we are to change the public's perception of atheism.  (Need I remind anyone that polls generally show we are not viewed favorably by society at large?)

I have often wished that there were more secular organizations offering the equivalent of the church mission trip.  These trips, even though they often last only a few days or weeks, have given many a Christian a sense of real purpose and meaning (especially young people).  Atheists need to make it abundantly clear that you need not buy into the Christian worldview to have such purpose.  You can serve the poor without proselytizing.  In fact, you don't even have to do it "in the name of Jesus".  How about doing it simply in the name of compassion and empathy for your fellow man?  What's wrong with that?  Is any additional motivation really needed?  (Side note--If anyone does know of atheist organizations, that offer something comparable to the church mission trip, please enlighten me in the comments section below.)

When atheists show, through their actions, that they are good people it has a weird (cognitive dissonance) effect on Christians.  It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine that someone *deserves* to burn in hell, for all eternity, when every time you see them they are on their knees serving food to the poor (or something equally awesome).  This is a dynamic that I have previously termed "The Ellen Effect".

Let me also point out quickly that serving others goes well beyond charity work.  It applies in the business world (serving the customer), in marriage (serving our spouse), and so on.

I still believe in service, and that leads me nicely to my final point.


Humility is one of those things that's challenging to write about.  As soon as someone begins to wax eloquent, on the topic of humility, they run the very legitimate risk of being accused of arrogance.  It's like the old joke, about the guy who wrote the book, "101 Ways To Be Humble...And How I Achieved It".

So, I do not intend to claim, or even imply, that I am a humble person myself.  But I do want to make the point that I still very much believe in the concept of humility.  Nothing will cause me to gain (or lose) respect for someone, more quickly, than the perception of humility (or the lack thereof) in that individual.  It's a character trait that I greatly admire.

So, there you have it--forgiveness, serving others, and humility--three "Christian" values that I still believe in.  In my opinion, the emphasis Christians place on these attributes, and others I haven't mentioned, is representative of the very best that Christianity has to offer the world today.

What's my point, you ask?  Well, I have two of them, and with those I will close...

My first point is that "Christian values", such as the three I've listed here, have nothing to do with the claim that Jesus was god.  Let me say that again; "Christian values" have nothing to do with whether or not Christianity's core assertions are true.  This might seem obvious, and it is, but it needs to be said out loud because many Christians assume that it's their values us skeptics are rejecting at root (instead of their beliefs).  This is a hidden subtext in statements like, "he's just rebelling against god", but it's completely ass backwards.  As I have just explained, I still accept many "Christian values", but I think I've also made it clear, in previous posts, that I fully reject Christianity's historical claims.

My second, and I think most important, point is this...what many people refer to as "Christian values" are not unique to Christianity.  "Christian values" are only considered "Christian values" because, over time, certain concepts have become attached at the hip to the Christian message.  Is forgiveness discussed in the Bible?  Sure!  But that doesn't mean it's an exclusively Christian idea.  In fact, nearly every religion teaches on forgiveness.  Humility is also seen as a virtue in numerous religious and philosophical traditions.  Christianity has co-opted plenty of good ideas, but that doesn't mean Yahweh or Jesus invented them (yet this is precisely what some believers think).

This hit me like a ton of bricks, a few weeks ago, when a friend told me that, of all the Christians he knew, I reminded him the most of Jesus.  (He never would have said this, of course, had he known he was actually talking to an atheist.)  My first internal reaction was, "wow, what an incredible compliment".  My second, almost immediately after, was, "hold on a minute, something's not right here".  As I thought about it more, I realized that what he meant to convey is he sees in me characteristics he finds admirable.  In other words, my friend was simply assuming (wrongly, I think) that Jesus was the embodiment of all things commendable in human behavior. According to this logic, if you are kind, gracious, forgiving, or whatever it might happen to be, this automatically means you are "like Jesus".  It's the ultimate conflation of "Christian values" and Christian beliefs.  I suspect that most Christians think this way about Jesus.  Sometimes they will also take it a step further; picking up on something that Jesus said or did, in the gospels, and then attempting to frame that thing as if it were his central message while here on Earth ("Jesus was 'all about' serving the poor, didn't you know?").

So, as it turns out, the title of this post is something of a misnomer.  To say that someone is "Christ-like', is to assume: a) that Jesus was in fact "the Christ", and b) that Jesus had the very best character traits any human being could ever aspire to.  I don't happen to think either of those things are true.


  1. Whatever, you know you can't wait to eat some babies.

  2. Living as a longtime atheist among numerous families in a Catholic environment, some of my 21 grandkids have told me that, although I don't go to Mass, I don't confess, I don't join them in prayer, they notice that I am always ready to help people; and they even find me a better Christian than many of them are.
    In my replies, I have made them agree that one doesn't have to be a Christian to be a good person. Wishing, in vain, that they would give further thoughts to this, I regret that the indoctrination turns out to be too influential.

    Thank you for providing me the pleasure to read posts like this one. Keep it up!


    1. Good for you, Federico, and thanks for the encouragement!

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  5. I have a blog too addressing issues such as traditional religious conservative virtues through a secular lens! I think your pot is spot on when you brought up the question as to why Christianity in particular "owns" such values. I would say not too. I think that it is possible to strive for a more virtuous society without religion as well.