Chapter 4: God- The Practical Consequences

1 April 2006

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In the fourth chapter, Smith considers ethics, their foundation, and their relevance to an atheistic worldview. Predictably, a great deal of his offering here consists of critiques of Christian ethics, and the presumed psychological harm that is caused by them. However, most of these issues are really not germane to the question of God’s existence. As I show in my article here, many of Smith’s ‘arguments’ are simply misguided attempts to smear Christianity. Smith contends that atheists can still develop an objective moral system. This I will grant him, since I take up the moral argument and the existence of objective morality elsewhere. (see HERE, upcoming) Although irrelevant to the existence of God, I will offer some response to Smith’s claims concerning the inadequacy of the Christian ethical view.

Smith contends that the religionist response to the question ‘why should I obey the will of god?’ is, “Because he will reward or punish you accordingly, either in this life or in an afterlife.” [299] At least as far as Christian ethics is concerned, I think Smith is totally mistaken. It is by no means the ‘traditional’ response to the question, and even if it were, it certainly is not the correct response. I would answer the question, ‘because God is perfect and thus He knows what is best.’ I have a feeling that a great majority of Christian theists would answer this way.

In fact, this mistaken view of Smith’s is one of the major objections he offers throughout his chapter. He essentially claims that, since there are rewards or punishments for good or bad actions in this life, the Christian follows moral commands in order to receive rewards and avoid punishments. However, Christians contend that obedience to God flows naturally from our love of Him and our respect for His will. Unless Smith can show that Christians necessarily obey God’s will out of fear of punishment and hope of reward, he has simply erected a strawman which no Christian need defend.

Since Smith incorrectly assumes that Christians follow a moral code to avoid punishment, he cites the doctrine of hell as the ultimate form of sanction. He states, “The belief in eternal torment, still subscribed to by fundamentalist Christian denominations, undoubtedly ranks as the most vicious and reprehensible doctrine of classical Christianity.” [299] Here Smith is talking about the supposed “traditional” conception of hell as a place of unending physical torture. However, I do not subscribe to such a view- in my opinion biblical interpretation and logic demonstrate that Hell has to do with separation from God, not with constant physical pain. 1 In response to this theology of Hell, many nonbelievers will complain that I am “watering down” Hell or “rejecting the traditional interpretation.” But why should I (or any Christian) be committed to defending the early church fathers? It is clear to me that they were mistaken, and that their biblical interpretation was flawed. Atheists only object to my conception of Hell, it seems, because such a theology of Hell is much more difficult to object to. However, that is their problem, not mine.

Smith then claims that Christianity utilizes the term “sin” to inflict psychological damage upon individuals. He claims, “Religions have long recognized the importance of inculcating a sense of guilt in order to motivate people to obey god’s rules. But the feeling of guilt does not automatically follow from the thought of disobeying a supernatural being, even for those who believe in one. Emotions are the consequence of implicit or explicit value judgments, so it was necessary for Christianity to provide the missing evaluative link between the thought of disobeying God and the experience of guilt. This gap was filled nicely by the concept of sin.” [301]

Smith makes much of this notion of sin. For example, he claims (without argument) that, “Guilt, not love, is the fundamental emotion that Christianity seeks to induce- and this is symptomatic of a viciousness in Christianity that few people care to acknowledge.” [304] This is far from obvious- Christians in the past and present have emphasized love, and the Bible has done the same. Moreover, Smith is just plain factually mistaken, since the collectivist culture in which the New Testament was written did not even have a concept of guilt. 2 Not only is Smith’s declaration pure speculation, it also flies in the face of evidence concerning social interaction in 1st Century Judea.

Smith also complains that, “Christianity is largely responsible for the notion that morality is impractical, and has little or nothing to do with man’s life and happiness on earth.” [304] That is simply not the case. Christianity simply denies that worldly pleasures and endeavors bring ultimate happiness. So, while Christians may renounce these endeavors, it does not follow that Christianity is irrelevant to human happiness. In fact, I think that experience shows that worldly concerns do not bring happiness. 3 The Christian idea that growing closer to God increases true fulfilling happiness is quite reasonable, and Smith never addresses this notion throughout his entire discourse on morality.

Smith repeatedly complains that Christian ethics require blind obedience. He states, “While the content of Christian ethics has varied throughout history, this principle has remained unchanged: God is the master, man is the slave- and the fundamental characteristic of a slave is that he is not permitted, under the threat of force, to act according to his own judgment.” [306] This complaint is misguided for several reasons. The main problem is that God is not like a slavemaster. Since He is ex hypothesi a perfectly moral and wise being, it only makes sense to follow His commands and seek to fulfill His will. Smith is merely trying to arouse emotions by using terms such as “master” and “slave.” But when the nature of man and God is fully comprehended, it is supremely rational for man to obey God.

In fact, humans recognize the value of following a superior authority. As children, we look to our parents and elders for guidance on how to act and how to conduct ourselves. Why is this the case? The answer is simple- we follow parental guidance because, as young children, we are incapable (at least some of the time) of making informed judgments about what is the best. We recognize that our parents are wiser and more experienced, and thus we recognize that it is best for us to follow their guidance in many situations.

Now, the parallel to man’s relationship to God becomes obvious. Since God is much more benevolent and wise than even the most virtuous of men, it makes perfect sense for us to follow His commands and desire to fulfill His will. Smith thinks that human reason should guide our action, which is perhaps the best strategy if God does not exist. However, if God does exist as the Christian maintains, then following our own “reason” is actually quite irrational. If the God of Christian theism actually exists, it is clearly most rational to follow His commands and pursue fulfillment of His will.

The Supposed ‘Anti-Pleasure’ Nature of Christian Ethics

Smith complains, “If Christianity is to gain a motivational foothold, it must declare war on earthly pleasure and happiness, and this, historically, has been its precise course of action.” [308] He makes much of the traditional Christian view of sex, and how Christianity has supposedly stifled men and women in this area. However, Smith’s complaints are multiply flawed.

First of all, even if it were true that Christianity was ‘anti-pleasure,’ this would not even begin to show that Christianity is false. In fact, Smith nearly admits such elsewhere in his book. For example, he states, “Even if theism did lead to happiness (which it does not), this would not demonstrate its correctness. The psychologizing of atheism, therefore, is irrelevant to the subject of theism versus atheism.” [25] Here Smith and I agree. Yet, if the happiness a worldview entails does nothing to affect its truth, then surely the supposed misery that Smith claims Christianity creates has nothing to do with the truth or falsity of the Christian religion either. Smith cannot have it both ways.

Second of all, in declaring that Christianity has ‘historically’ been anti-pleasure, he does not really address the issue of whether a proper understanding of Christianity is actually anti-pleasure. As an example of this, he states,

“When the Christian ‘reformer’ comes forward to declare that sex is not evil and that sex outside of marriage may , after all, be permissible- and when he calls on Christian churches to spear-head his new movement- one must wonder if it ever occurs to him that he is nineteen centuries too late. If such theologians were truly concerned with man’s happiness on earth, they would begin by repudiating, totally and unequivocally, Christianity itself.” [309]

Thus, Smith tries to smear Christianity by claiming that, in the past, Christians have been anti-pleasure. If a present day Christian tries to argue that, no, Christianity is not anti-pleasure, then Smith will simply retort that, well, that is not what Christianity really stands for. But how on earth does Smith know that? As I have said before, I have no problem maintaining that the early church fathers were mistaken on certain issues. Once again, Smith is trying to smear Christianity by pointing to the past deeds and beliefs of Christians. However, any man with respect for reason will recognize that it is wrongheaded to judge a worldview by its adherents (see Here for more on this.) In fact, Smith himself admits such elsewhere in his book. He chides theists for dismissing atheism on the basis of specific personalities;

“[Anti-atheist] books are content to identify atheism with specific personalities (such as Nietzsche, Marx, Camus, and Sartre) and, by criticizing the views of these individuals, the religionist author fancies himself to have destroyed atheism. In most cases, however, the critic has not even discussed atheism.” [5] Therefore, Smith himself admits that it is irrational to judge worldviews by their adherents. Why then is he attempting to discount theism by citing the views of past Christians?

In any case, where is Smith actually getting the idea that Christianity is anti-pleasure? Throughout the chapter one can easily see that the issue of sex is his primary example. Apparently, Christianity advocates a stifling view of sexuality. But is that the case? I must admit that I find claims that the Bible is anti-sex to be hilariously mistaken. A read through the Song of Solomon should demonstrate that the Bible is not anti-sex. In fact, it is a humorous irony that, in other contexts, non-Christians have charged the Bible with being too explicit about sex! 4 In any case, most Christians view sex as a wonderful gift from God.

But the real problem is that the Bible forbids sex outside of marriage. Well, truthfully, I can hardly see why this requirement should be viewed as ‘anti-pleasure.’ It is perfectly fine to engage in sexual activities, as long as you are married to your partner. Far from being ‘anti-pleasure,’ this advice seems to be extremely wise, since many will admit that sex before marriage can ruin relationships; in addition, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies are largely avoided if sex only occurs within marriage. Perhaps Smith has some difficulty controlling his sexual desires, and so the restriction of sex within marriage is too tough for him, but that is entirely his problem and not a problem with Christian morality.

Thus, I think that the mature Christian can reasonably argue that prohibiting extra-marital sexual relationships is actually pro-pleasure. Within the confines of a marriage relationship, the risk of STDs and unwanted pregnancies is reduced, there is reduced worry of hurt feelings and harsh psychological repercussions, and two people can grow in emotional and physical sexual compatibility.

Smith obviously disagrees, but on what basis? Has Smith tried both waiting until marriage to have sex, and having pre-marital sex? Obviously not- it is impossible for someone to do both. So, he has little or no basis for saying which is, in the end, most pleasurable. As such, his main claim to the supposed ‘anti-pleasure’ nature of Christian ethics is completely unwarranted.

The Ethics of Christ

Smith tries to substantiate some of his views on Christian ethics by quoting the teachings of Jesus. However, his interpretation of verses is consistently off the mark. For a corrective on many of the verses Smith cites, see Holding’s critique here.

Many of Smith’s objections try to establish that Jesus was not a “unique” moralist. However, I consider this uncontroversial. First of all, morality had been around for thousands of years, and why should we assume that Jesus would have much ‘original’ to say? Secondly, although I would say that Christ was morally perfect, I do not think that His primary mission was to preach a moral code. Thus, many of Smith’s objections are simply irrelevant.

Smith tries to argue that Jesus is inferior to intellectual giants like Plato and Aristotle since they argue for their claims while, “Jesus, on the other hand, issues proclamations backed by the threat of force.” [321] Smith fails to realize that Christ substantiated His claims by miracle and resurrection, which (if actual), is much more impressive than argument. Further, although he never defends this claim, Smith repeatedly argues that Christ uses ‘threats of force’ to impel obedience. Like most non-Christians, Smith wrongly assumes that Christ uses the ‘threat’ of Hell as His main apologetic tool; on the contrary, Christ’s mentioning of Hell was a morally praiseworthy action (since if it actually exists, it is best that Christ warn us about it), but is not used as a foundation for an ethical system.

Smith incorrectly argues that devotion and commitment to God is a bad thing. “When conformity is required, as is is in Christianity, what are the results? To begin with, the sacrifice of truth inevitably follows. One can be committed to conformity or one can be committed to truth, but not both.” [321] This false dichotomy fails to realize that Christians regard God as a morally perfect and omniscient Creator, thus, to follow God inevitably is to follow truth.

Smith also complains, “Another significant teaching of Jesus…is that certain feelings and desires are in themselves sinful….Morally, this doctrine is reprehensible, because it erases the crucial distinction between intent and action. Psychologically, however, it is nothing less than murder.” [323]

Smith claims that it is impossible to control our thoughts and desires. Is this true? I personally don’t think so. There are many ways I can directly or indirectly affect my thoughts. For example, if I begin to have angry thoughts, I can choose to think of something else or I can choose to construct fantasies. Furthermore, I can attempt to control my thoughts by controlling my environment. Thus, if I know that gambling makes me an extremely angry person, then I can avoid gambling and thus significantly reduce my own tendency to have angry thoughts. Moreover, I can seek out good, nonviolent friendships in order to improve my own character. Therefore, it is far from clear that it is impossible to control, or at least affect, thoughts and desires.

Smith’s overall thesis, that Jesus’ ethics and moral commandments make people miserable, is irrelevant to the issue of truth, but additionally, it is false. Some of the happiest people I know are dedicated Christians, myself included. Smith can take his psychologizations elsewhere, because I’m not buying.

Conclusion

Although Smith tries to reveal Christian ethics as absurd, I think that the objective reader will see that Smith is really the one who is off base. In a revealing passage, Smith states,

“Through inculcating the notion that sacrifice is a virtue, Christianity has succeeded in convincing many people that misery incurred through sacrifice is a mark of virtue. Pain becomes the insignia of morality- and, conversely, pleasure becomes the insignia of immorality. Christianity, therefore, does not say, ‘Go forth and be miserable.’ Rather, it say, ‘Go forth and practice the virtue of self-sacrifice.’ In practical terms these commands are identical.” [310]

I will leave it to the reader to decide whether the Smith and his “rational ethics,” which equates ‘self-sacrifice’ with being ‘miserable,’ is actually superior to the Christian view of ethics.


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NOTES:

1. See, for example, Glenn Miller’s work on the doctrine of Hell HERE. Also, J.P. Holding plausibly argues that Hell is a place of shame and disgrace (thus images of flames symbolize such shame) HERE.

2. Holding, J.P. “Returning Japanese” available at http://www.tektonics.org/af/culturegram.html. Holding compares the culture of Biblical times to current Japanese culture, which is collectivist rather than individualist, and which focuses on shame rather than guilt.

3. For example, many of the wealthiest, most famous people in history have had severe depression issues.

4. The Skeptics Annotated Bible claims that it is a “pornographic poem.” However, I think that the mature believer can regard the Song of Solomon as a beautiful description of God’s gift of sex.




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