Getting Saved in the Soup Aisle (November 2001)

Shortly before Easter this year I was at the supermarket, in the soup aisle, when a strange, rather disheveled-looking man walked up to me and began talking. At first it was simple pleasantries in the “Hello, how are you doing?” vein, but before long came the inevitable invitation to join his church. I say “inevitable” because proselytizing seems to be the only thing these days that motivates anyone to strike up conversations with perfect strangers, particularly late at night in the soup aisle of the local supermarket.

I listened politely about his church and “God’s will” for me to join it and so on, until he actually asked me if I think I would be interested. Now this was an unusually high-pressure tactic, it being more customary to simply give the invitation and perhaps a glossy pamphlet without courting outright rejection like my new friend here was doing. I really didn’t want to hurt his feelings, but I definitely didn’t want to keep talking with him. The perfect solution came to me.

“I’m Jewish,” I lied. Looking a bit sheepish he said, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and walked away, allowing me to buy my soup in peace. I can’t help but wonder how many other shoppers he tried to evangelize that night.

Some might wonder why I didn’t simply tell him the truth, which is that I’m the son of a Catholic and a Protestant, I’ve been an atheist since I was about eleven, and I’d never even met a Jew until I was a teenager. The answer is that I didn’t want to get into an extended debate with the guy, I just wanted to be left alone. And living on a college campus as I do, I know from long experience with representatives of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and the Campus Crusade for Christ that the surest way to a long conversation is to tell one of them that you are an atheist (“Really? I’ve always wondered about that. Now why do you . . .”).

I also know that you can get a pretty bad reaction from some people about it. Less than a year ago a seemingly very sweet girl whom I had just told I was an atheist remarked to a friend that she thought devil-worship was more comprehensible than atheism as soon as she thought that I was out of earshot.

After that incident and the one in the supermarket, I got to wondering why Christians seem to feel so differently about atheism than they do about Judaism, or Buddhism, or any other religion. It seemed odd because, theoretically, a Jew is no more or less hellbound than an atheist. Neither believes that Jesus was the Son of God, so if the Christians are right, Jews and atheists are both equally damned. And when it comes to proselytizing, one would think that Jews would be a much more likely target, as they are already “halfway there” in terms of the religious texts in which they believe. Jews and Christians do certainly part ways a lot further down the road than atheists and Christians. So why is it that evangelists go into a feeding frenzy over atheists, while all but the most overbearing fanatics will leave Jews in peace?

I believe the answer to that question lies in the fact that religionists view atheists as lacking something important, that we are empty vessels waiting to be filled with their particular religion. Conversely, while Christians certainly feel that other religions are incorrect, they don’t perceive the gaping spiritual void that they do in the case of atheists. They can’t seem to accept that a person can be whole and happy without religion, regardless of what the religion is. So is it really about salvation anymore? Or is it more about controlling people here on Earth? Or, in other words, do they really care what we’re worshipping, as long as we’re on our knees?

I became an atheist the way a lot of people do, I suppose. As a child I was told I was a Christian, and so I thought, “Fine, I’m a Christian.” My siblings and I were taken to a Lutheran church (a compromise between my parents), and I loathed it as much as I would any lengthy, boring ritual that required me to dress up and sit still for any amount of time. It didn’t help that the purpose behind it all was utterly beyond my immature mind’s comprehension. I was vaguely aware that there was somebody named Jesus who was really good, and he was born on Christmas and did some amazing stuff, but the rest was just noise to me.

As my knowledge of Christianity grew, I realized that I was not a Christian and never was. Over the years I read the works of atheists like Ayn Rand and Bertrand Russell. I found much to like and much to dislike in each. It was in my choice to be influenced without becoming a disciple, and to assimilate rather than accommodate, that I understood for the first time the true essence of freethought. My consideration of their philosophies challenged me to explore and articulate my own beliefs. One of those beliefs is that not only is morality possible apart from religion, but in fact true morality only exists apart from religion.

Telling this to a devoutly religious person, you can actually feel a wave of hostility wash over you as they reject the notion out of hand. But think of the implications if it were not true. If right and wrong simply came down to God’s say-so, is that really morality? Would murder be moral were there not a Commandment against it? Of course not. Decent people recognize the fact that if murder were considered an acceptable option by any large proportion of people, the resulting atmosphere of fear and danger would destroy the quality of life of our entire society. One need not look to God for reasons why killing is bad.

However, in other cases the situation is different. There are things prohibited in the Book of Leviticus that seem rather morally neutral. Take, for instance, the dietary restrictions. What bearing does a person’s diet have on how good a person is? In those cases one sees the reason why the contents of the Book of Leviticus are known as Levitical Law rather than Levitical Morality. While law and morality may overlap, they are far from identical.

One way that law and morality have been linked in the past is the idea that the immorality of an unlawful act lies solely in the fact that it contradicts God’s will. Any harm caused or not caused to others is considered incidental next to the fact that God was disobeyed. This is at the heart of the Christian concept that all sins are equal in the eyes of God, all worthy of damnation. But the idea that the most minor indiscretion is in any way equivalent to the most awful atrocity is the worst kind of nihilism. Anyone who compares murder to masturbation is not to be taken seriously. It is the sort of irrational, counterintuitive nonsense that one finds at the heart of any claim to mystic, esoteric wisdom.

Another problem with the “religion as morality” argument is the fact that there are numerous commandments and implicit concepts in world religions that would offend any decent person’s sense of morality. For example, Chapter 22 of Deuteronomy tells what should happen to girls who have been raped. An unbetrothed girl’s rapist must pay his victim’s father fifty shekels and marry the girl, which wasn’t really a hardship for him, since he was permitted as many wives as he pleased anyway. The girl, of course, had no say in whether or not she should marry her rapist. However, if a betrothed girl was raped, and nobody heard her cry out (regardless of whether she actually did or could cry out), then the rapist and the girl were to be stoned to death. A girl would also be stoned to death were she found not be a virgin on her wedding night. Who but a monster would call that morality? But it was done countless times throughout history, at the behest of the same God that millions today call the source of all goodness.

Clearly, Christians and Jews today do not execute rape victims or force them to marry the man who raped them. It’s still there, though, in black and white, in “The Good Book” they say we should base our life on. So what happened? Morality happened. A brutal, primitive society advanced to the point that it recognized that the actions encouraged by the bible in some cases were clearly evil, and thus chose to tacitly ignore the existence of large sections of its holy texts.

I have long believed that people make religion better to a much greater degree than religion makes people better. As Christianity made the transition from small doomsday cult to world religion, some changes had to occur. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, in which he exhorts his followers to make no plans, carry no money, and sow no seeds, had to be largely forgotten if civilization were to continue to exist. Once it became clear that the Second Coming wasn’t going to happen any time soon, Paul’s constant demands of celibacy for all but the weak and ungodly had to fall by the wayside if Christians didn’t want their religion to die out in a generation. And if you ask most modern Christians, they’ll tell you they believe that good people of all faiths will go to Heaven, directly contradicting Jesus’ own statement in Matthew 16:16 and corresponding verses in other gospels that those who do not believe and have not been baptized will suffer damnation. Jesus is quite clear on this, but Christians today hold entirely modern views about tolerance and fairness. They cannot imagine a God who would damn Mahatma Ghandi, every Jew who died in the Holocaust, and every unbaptized baby, while that is, in fact, exactly the God described in the bible. The values identified today as Judeo-Christian are more like those championed by the secular humanists of the last century than those demonstrated by the characters in the bible. The religious establishment was forced to co-opt these values and change radically with the times or lose all but its most fanatical followers.

A logical fallacy that many people fall into is that they say, “I am a Christian, therefore what I believe must be Christianity.” However, what they should do is take a long hard look at exactly what the bible contains and say, “If I truly believe all of this, then and only then am I a Christian.” If church leaders demanded that sort of intellectual honesty, or if people expected it of themselves, religion would be circling the drain, leaving those few who truly wanted to live by archaic, millennia-old “morals” to slip away into history unlamented. The rest of us would be left to acknowledge the fact that humanity has come a long way in the last several thousand years in terms of morality, and we have no one to thank but ourselves.

Freedom From Religion Foundation