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The tyranny of religion and the freedom of atheism

Galileo appears before the Italian Inquisition
Galileo appears before the Italian Inquisition
United States Public Domain

On occasion, the atheist podcast and radio show “Reasonable Doubts” will feature an interview with a high-profile atheist who was formerly a religious activist.

In the past two years, the show has interviewed a radio personality who began his religious activity lobbying within a fundamentalist evangelical church against liberal politics. From there, he converted to Catholicism. Finding the current Catholic doctrine to be too lax, he joined a Catholic sub-culture whose efforts involved resurrecting the far stricter teachings of medieval Catholicism. Finding this did not satisfy the perfection he sought in religion, he began to push a return to Old Testament law. This pursuit of radical legalism left him entirely disillusioned with religion, eventually causing his conversion to atheism.

The show also interviewed a former Mormon woman whose induction into the Latter Day Saints required her to embrace bizarre and oppressive standards, including absolute subjugation to her husband. She eventually divorced her husband, fled the religion, and has discovered giddy moral freedom in her current life as a professional dominatrix.

The most recent interviewee was a woman who embraced and became a leading voice in a religious movement known as Quiverfull. Formerly the administrator of the household – a role with which both she and her husband had been comfortable – her new religious views required her to insist that her husband take charge, while she remained submissive to him. She isolated her family to an extreme degree, eventually forming a home church and homeschooling her children. She had increasingly risky and life-threatening pregnancies, since her religious beliefs required her to have as many children as possible. Finally, a kindly atheist uncle helped her to see that her lifestyle was senseless and self-destructive, and she divorced her husband to become an atheist.

Around the year 2008, atheists in the UK and the US began promoting bus signs with various anti-religious slogans, one of which read “There’s probably no God, now stop worrying and enjoy life.”

This slogan succinctly sums up the looming problem with religion: only good boys and girls go to heaven. God, therefore, becomes a source of worry; of anxiety. How do I know if I’m good enough? With this omniscient authority figure frowning down from heaven on high, constantly judging my every action, ready to condemn, his laws are an oppressive burden that rob life of any enjoyment it might otherwise offer.

Consequently, atheism becomes a source of relief. Freed from the horror of this judgmental God, a person may now act as they please without fear of consequence.

This is, perhaps, summed up best by the closing paragraph of Rachael Slick’s 2013 article, The Atheist Daughter of a Notable Christian Apologist Shares Her Story:

“Someone once asked me if I would trade in my childhood for another, if I had the chance, and my answer was no, not for anything.
 My reason is that, without that childhood, I wouldn’t understand what freedom truly is — freedom from a life centered around obedience and submission, freedom to think anything, freedom from guilt and shame, freedom from the perpetual heavy obligation to keep every thought pure. Nothing I’ve ever encountered in my life has been so breathtakingly beautiful. 

Freedom is my God now, and I love this one a thousand times more than I ever loved the last one.”

The freedom from moral responsibility that atheism seems to offer is somewhat contradicted by “morality without religion” which has become a topic of much discussion in atheist circles.

In their article “Morality without Religion,” atheists Hauser and Singer have this to say:

“…there are no moral principles shared by all religious people (disregarding their specific religious membership) but no agnostics and atheists. This observation leads to a second: atheists and agnostics do not behave less morally than religious believers, even if their virtuous acts are mediated by different principles. They often have as strong and sound a sense of right and wrong as anyone, including involvement in movements to abolish slavery and contribute to relief efforts associated with human suffering.”

In her 2011 op-ed piece in the New York Times – titled “Good Minus God” - atheist Louise M. Antony says:

“We “moralistic atheists” …find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others.”

Both of these statements imply that humans naturally tend to follow moral laws without the necessity of a divine enforcer. One might assume from this that atheists believe religious morality is oppressive because it over-emphasizes the human obligation to be “good.” Freed from religion, the world would go on being moral without suffering the guilt of self-consciously comparing oneself against an artificial set of rules.

This may or may not be what “moralistic atheists” believe, but either way, there appears to be a paradox here:

How does one reconcile the moral freedom of atheism with the moral law of atheism? Is there not any point at which one’s personal desires and recreational preferences would violate the freedom of others? Is not the atheist still obligated to “treat others as you wish to be treated”? And if so, are there not some restrictions and self-restraints that atheists would necessarily have to abide by in order to live up to their own standard of morality?

If, for instance, an atheist is attracted to a woman other than his wife, he is left with the option of exercising his sexual freedom at the risk of his marriage, or protect his marriage at the expense of his sexual desires.

If and when religion is abandoned in society, prisons will not be torn down, wars will not cease, and individuals will continue to manipulate and abuse one another for their own selfish reasons. No morality enforced by religion, government, or nature has overcome these problems. If atheists are capable of being just as moral as the religious, they are also capable of being just as immoral.

Human beings are manifestly imperfect in their moral capacity. Capable of recognizing right and wrong, they consistently fail to live up to this selfsame standard.
The Christian Bible affirms this truth over and over:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”

The solution offered by scripture is not simply another moral code, doomed to failure. Rather, the Christian faith offers something no other belief system does - unqualified forgiveness:

“To [Jesus] all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”

Any version of the Christian faith which teaches that humans must fulfil some moral law - must live some kind of sanctified life in order to be saved/redeemed/forgiven; misrepresents the teaching of Christ and is just as oppressive as atheists claim.

The Apostle Paul summarizes:
“For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” (emphasis mine)

The very freedom people seek from the oppressive law of religion is offered through the person of Jesus Christ. As Jesus himself says:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Christianity, not atheism, offers relief from the oppression of moral law. Atheism offers no forgiveness, no release from guilt, because there is no one who can forgive.

For the Christian, the very God that advances the moral law justifies those who violate it:
“…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (emphasis mine)

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