Confronting the Anything Goes Red Herring – John D. Carver


By John Carver

I am decades past high school, but modern technology makes it easy for old classmates to reconnect with email. Almost all my old chums are Christians, mostly fundamentalist protestant. Our interchanges are light- hearted and flooded with Internet jokes, so my policy has been never to inject political and philosophical controversies that divide us. My buddies, however, are not nearly so reticent. Their religiousness isn’t–or at first wasn’t–meant to be confrontational. It’s just that, like many Christians, they assume that morally respectable people welcome testimonials and viewpoints that reek with religiosity.

Recently I’d gotten my fill of comments based on their unquestioned belief that decent morality must come from God. You know, the assumption that if you don’t have God, then “anything goes,” that without belief moral nihilism would cover us like Noah’s flood. My reaction would normally be to argue the familiar being-good-without-God explanation to show how nonbelievers are, if anything, more moral than believers. But as convincing as that line of thought should be, it has a defensive quality (“see, we are really nice folks”). On one recent occasion, a remark on the godly origin of morality strained my tolerance for self-righteousness further than usual.

It was time to play offence instead of defense. So I tried a new tack. Here’s what I wrote:

“Hey, guys, I really do understand your disdain of ‘anything goes’ behavior. Just like you, I worry about that, too. But unlike you, I worry that religion causes an ‘anything goes’ world.

“I’m not sure we mean the same thing by ‘anything goes.’ It seems to me that religionists of any stripe or any era view anything less rigid than their own rules of conduct as an ‘anything goes’ philosophy. At each step along the centuries-long liberalizing of Christianity, those seeking to end awful practices of the pious were seen by the church as advocating something akin to today’s meaning of ‘anything goes.’ How dare they let women show their ankles, heretics run free, allow false doctrines, or challenge the geocentric universe? These heretics will stop at nothing to get their anything!

“But, as I said, I have a different take on the matter. Religion isn’t the answer, but part of the problem.

“In Christianity, apparently ‘anything goes’ in enslaving blacks as long as you can maintain the bible supports it. ‘Anything goes’ in treating women as chattel as long as you can maintain the bible supports it. ‘Anything goes’ in shaming and denigrating girls who get pregnant as long as you can maintain the bible supports it.

‘Anything goes’ in teaching children to ignore scientific findings that conflict with bronze-age beliefs. ‘Anything goes’ in defying tax law about churches supporting political candidates. ‘Anything goes’ in treating same-gender sexual preference as moral turpitude. ‘Anything goes’ in falsifying research about contraceptives. ‘Anything goes’ in lying about ‘abstinence only’ effectiveness.

‘Anything goes’ in keeping people whose religion (or nonreligion) you disagree with out of public office (e.g., even now it is virtually impossible for a nonbeliever to be elected in the USA, as it was Catholics til JFK). ‘Anything goes’ in faith-based mass murder in a crowded market is OK as long as you can maintain the Quran supports it. ‘Anything goes’ in destroying historical works of art if they offend the Quran. It was ‘anything goes’ in burning witches or torturing and killing heretics while it was maintained God supported it. “I’m not sure where the ‘anything goes’ criticism by the faithful got started, but it is highly inaccurate–good for pretending religious people are more moral. Expressed by ignorant people it is merely wrong, but expressed by people who know better, it’s just another faith-based falsehood. I’ll put my nonreligious ethics up against the norm of religious ethics anytime. (I’ve heard you say that an atheist of our acquaintance is ‘more Christian than many Christians.’) That’s kind of you to recognize, except that Christians as a whole don’t represent a very high bar.) Believers, while claiming the high ground, have as bad or worse per capita record of crime and other social ills than nonbelievers, but churches are prone to obscure that fact. (Ignoring research-based findings to cling to old tales is itself a good example of ‘anything goes’!).

“It seems the charge that ‘anything goes’ simply signals disagreement over flawed documents inherited from ancient tribes. In my Church of Christ background, we certainly put down other churches for their ‘anything goes’ approach to baptism, communion, faith versus works, and other idiosyncrasies of our particular faith. I abandoned the moral depravity of religion years ago partly because it taught that ‘anything goes’ if it is based on some long-ago ostensible revelation, no matter how much it conflicts with scientific findings or how damaging it is to the human condition. The history of pious mankind is that when the supernatural is to be pleased, indeed, anything goes.”

John Carver, Ph.D. received his doctorate from Emory University. He is author or co-author of five books and over 200 articles on corporate governance and has worked internationally in that field for 30 years. In semi-retirement he has returned to his first great interest: secular humanism, particularly in its application to church-state separation, morality, and the struggle between the scientific method and religion. John, a Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, lives in Atlanta.

Freedom From Religion Foundation