Saturday, September 19, 2009

Soundbyte Atheism vs. Soundbyte Religion

Here in Bloomington -- long-known to area evangelists as a secularist Hellmouth, which the pious enter at peril to their immortal souls -- we have an atheist bus campaign too, after a brief struggle. (Too "controversial," doncha know -- unlike, say, this!) It's the American version, "You can be good without God."
Yesterday, though, I saw a bus with another sign on its side: "You can be good without God, but you can't be saved without Jesus!"

I later overheard a couple of bus drivers talking about signs that had appeared on the buses without having been authorized, and I wonder if they were talking about these Jesus bus signs. If so, more power to the god-botherers for being a little bit more decisive (without, for once, hurting anyone) than the wishy-washy atheists and their non-committal slogans. (P.S. But evidently not.)

I'd been expecting just that kind of response to "You can be good without God." Despite the efforts of many of its adherents and its opponents, religion is not a simple thing with one function. It's not just about feeling good about yourself as you go to work in the morning, as the original atheist bus campaigner thought; it's not just about being good. It's about different things at different times, like art or science or any other complex human institution. Missionaries will switch their emphasis freely on the side issues, because what they really want is that you buy their product.

Sticking to Christian terms for the moment: On the one hand, God loves you and wants you to be happy; on the other, you're a disgusting sinner, evil to the core, and you'll burn burn burn for eternity if you don't return his love, do his bidding, and join the right church. (Last week I watched again Michael Tolkin's controversial, flawed 1991 film The Rapture. When Sharon, the lead character, enters into her personal relationship with Jesus Christ, at first she's rapturous, like a giddy schoolgirl in love. Jesus is all she needs! But after a while she realizes that Jesus isn't enough. In fact, it's another Christian who, having divined that she lost her old friends when she was saved, asks her point blank: "You're alone, aren't you?" Of course she isn't alone -- she has Jesus! But she joins a church, and when its chaste spiritual communion fails to deliver what she needs, she tracks down her old fuck buddy Randy and marries him. Christians have all kinds of excuses for giving into loneliness and other fleshly concerns, but it wouldn't be a problem if they didn't oversell their religion in the first place.)

Besides, the Christian bus sign is just a bit disingenuous. It's a longstanding and mainstream Christian doctrine that you can't be good without God. Or even with him. To quote another Christian bumper sticker: Christians aren't perfect -- just saved! The churches have struggled with the troublesome fact that Christians still sin even after they've officially died to the sinful flesh in baptism, but there's no getting around it: they do. Jesus washes away your old sins and, hopefully, forgives the new ones you commit after you've converted, but a saved Christian goes to Heaven in spite of his or her sins. Not all Christians accept this position, I know, but it's both orthodox and ancient, and compatible with the teachings of Jesus in the New Testament.

My main objection to "You can be good without God", then, is that it's really beside the point, even for atheists. As I've asked before, "And what is good? How do we know? When people disagree in their moral judgments, how should the disagreement be resolved? Not all religious people worry about going to Hell or obsess about going to Heaven; different believers believe for different reasons and in different ways. Many of them are not at all comforted by the idea that there is no god out there to take care of them, to tell them what to do, to reward them for being good and punish other people for being bad." From what I've seen, atheists aren't dealing with these questions any better than theists have; which is not surprising, because right and wrong, good and evil, are not easy to define or determine. For many people "You can be good without God" may be reassuring; for others it will just confirm them in their complacency, their feeling of superiority to people who hold different views. For still others it's simply irrelevant. I really don't think that this soundbyte atheism is going to advance the discussion much. Besides, I always want to ask, "Good at what?"