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Christian Atheism: Honest Morality for the 21st century

Richard Parncutt

December 2015


At the risk of giving some kind of sermon, allow me to consider what happens when we combine two apparently contradictory approaches to morality.

The first is Christianity. As the name suggests, Christianity is, or should be, based on the teachings of Christ, which were written down generations after his death from oral tradition, and later grew to become the New Testament. To be sure, Jesus was not perfect, neither in reality (about which we can only guess) nor as his followers portrayed him, and his ideas can and should be critically discussed and adapted for modern purposes. But it is also true that if we did what he said, and "practiced what we preached" today, most of the world's main problems would not exist. The universal relevance of basic Christian morality has hardly changed in two millennia.

The second approach is atheism, by which I mean the honest admission and gentle insistence that there is no god and never has been - except as part of our fertile human imaginations. I am not talking about the death of god - I am talking about the total absence of any god of any kind at any time. Man created god and not vice-versa, and here I really mean "man" - not because "woman" would not be so crazy. Said another way: theism, as it exists today in the great world religions, is a product of patriarchy.

Don't get me wrong. I don't want to offend my religious friends and colleagues, or anyone else including adherents to other religions, whether monotheistic or otherwise. Religious beliefs have unquestionable importance for culture and personal identity,
and my ultimate intention is to promote human rights (as I have explained elsewhere), which include freedom of religious expression. Having said that, I enjoy expressing my opinions freely, developing a coherent argument based on a limited set of assumptions, and exploring the implications. Some of my comments are ironic, with the intention of livening things up a bit. Irony is often appropriate, given how difficult some of the issues are, how outrageously I am simplifying them, and how little I may know about the background. I can't possibly deal adequately with the all relevant aspects of these questions, so please let me know when you find an omission or error. 

In this contribution, I will argue that Christian Atheism is a promising approach to understanding the world and developing morally acceptable political opinions and actions (not unlike Greg Epstein in Good without God). Christian Atheism has great potential to attract large numbers of followers, and consequently to have a significant positive effect on human culture. It could perhaps even contribute to the long-term survival of humanity, which at present is threatened by war, pollution, population growth, poverty, mass migration, species extinction, and climate change. Not to mention the old-fashioned selfishness of politicians and the people who vote for them in so-called democracies.

I found a nice wiki page on this topic, but (at least in November 2015) it mainly talked about the history of the idea and its proponents. There was not very much about Christian Atheism itself and its enormous social, moral and political implications. The following text is intended to be a more accessible and relevant account. It is also biased toward my own approach and interpretation.

My background

I guess I could call myself a Christian Atheist. I am Christian in two senses. First, I was exposed to a lot of Christian ideas as a child. I can hardly deny that they had a big effect on the way I think, and the effect was mainly positive. Second, I continue to be impressed by the basic moral stance of Jesus as portrayed (in idealised form) in the bible. I am less impressed by the way in which Jesus's devoted followers extended, idealised and distorted his ideas after his death.

Whether Jesus actually existed is not the point. His ideas most certainly did, and they had enormous influence on subsequent history. We can be grateful for that, because it surely means that things could have been worse. Perhaps his ideas had more influence than those of any other person, ever. I am not saying his ideas were the best, but they were certainly brilliant, even in their simplicity, and it is astonishing how relevant they still are today, even if many people are distorting them.

I am an atheist because I don't believe in Father Christmas, astrology, homeopathy, or any other such fairy tales. As for the idea of an all-loving, all-knowing, all-capable god - well, that would be very nice and comforting if it were not so obviously untrue. I should be polite about it, and please forgive me if I am not. But after a few decades of listening to the same old logical fallacies, one starts to get impatient. Life is too short for a seemingly endless compromise on such an important issue.

Believing strange things

A few hundred years ago, Europeans still believed in witchcraft, satanism, prophesies, spiritual beings, and palm reading. Special items of jewelry protected people from harm, and a black cat crossing your path brought bad luck. People really believed these things! Two thousand years ago in the Middle East, people were living in a dream-like, spiritual, magical state of consciousness or subjectivity, at least by comparison to the more materialist or physical-world-oriented consciousness that we take for granted today. Many people back then thought everything that happened had a special meaning, usually intended by god; the idea of a "coincidence" was unfamiliar or unknown. Theistic explanations for everyday events were developed in male-dominated discussions of religious texts. Hallucinations and apparently magical events (miracles) were not explained away like modern UFO sightings, but given meanings. People believed all kinds of things that we today would consider strange, crazy or ridiculous. The feeling of living at that time was imaginatively, evocatively and sensitively recreated by José Saramago in "The Gospel According to Jesus Christ".

In this context we have to forgive people at that time for believing in god, and we have to admire Jesus for exhorting them not to believe in other things. That was certainly progress. Today, we can look back and say it was progress toward atheism.

Apart from that, in that society way back then, 2000 years ago, education was poor, focusing on religious texts, and limited to boys. Science, medicine and technology were primitive. Outrageous sexism was normal. The differences between then and now are enormous, and given those differences it is remarkable that most of the moral ideas held by Jesus are still valid today. Only the idea of a male, human-like supernatural being (or any other concept of god) has been clearly superseded.
Given this background, the interesting question is not whether god exists or not. The interesting question is why so many otherwise perfectly sensible people would continue to believe something that is obviously not true in spite of the mounting evidence to the contrary.

The case for atheism has been convincingly argued by some of the modern world's greatest thinkers, including Marx, Freud, Darwin, Dewey, Nietzsche, Sartre, Beauvoir, Russell, Brecht, Camus, Chekhov, Kafka, John Stuart Mill, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Proust, Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, and
Dostojewski, if I'm not mistaken. Not to mention Jodie Foster, Katharine Hepburn, Woody Allen, Marlene Dietrich, Brad Pitt, Emma Thompson, Douglas Adams, Arthur C. Clarke, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, Arthur MillerUmberto Eco, Peter Singer, Graham Greene, José Saramago, Germaine Greer. And what about Peter Higgs, Stephen Hawking,  and Isaac Asimov? And how about Richard Rogers, Georges Bizet, Byörk, Jacques Brel, Brian Eno, Bob Geldof, Billy Joel...? Arguing against a crowd like that (especially the philosophers) is a bit like a climate denier arguing against the international community of climate science. Both cases are not only hopelessly unrealistic - they are also profoundly immoral, when you consider the possible implications of dishonesty in questions of life and death for millions of people.

These arguments are not enough to convince most believers to give up their belief.
Probably nothing I can say or write can do that. Believers are very creative at finding arguments to support their belief. In this case they will point out that one could produce an equally impressive list of believers or theists, which it true. But it has generally been easier for the people on such lists to proclaim theism than to proclaim atheism. Theism encourages people to accept hierarchical social structures, so it tends to be promoted by the rich and powerful as a way of keeping everyone else under control. That is why there tend to be more theists than atheists. That is also why theism tends to be associated with the political centre-right, although in the case of Christianity it really should be associated with the centre left, given Christ's insistence on pacifism, justice, and caring for the poor and sick. The link between theism and social hierarchies also explains why the word atheism has such a negative feel about it, for no apparent reason.

For individuals, there is another good reason for believing in god, and in fairness I should attempt to explain it and refute it. I guess the main reason is that, without a god, life is meaningless. The trouble with this argument is that from a scientific viewpoint life truly is meaningless. We are specks of dust running around on a larger speck of dust in a ridiculously large universe that has existed and will exist for a ridiculously long time. Even the most famous human will one day be forgotten, and that will be it. The solution to this problem is to be honest about it. Look it in the eye and embrace it. We all have the choice to commit suicide or live, and in most cases everything inside is crying out to live. That, again, has a scientific explanation, which is perhaps best summarized by the phrase "selfish gene": things that increase our chances of survival and reproduction 
make us happy. That includes all the complex cultural content that we have built on top of survival and reproduction including social contacts and exchanges, the arts (music, drama, literature), hobbies, being liked and respected, helping other people, career success, financial security, and being remembered after our death. That is about as good as it will get, so we might as well take advantage of it and enjoy life. For a religious person, it takes a lot of curage and honesty to let go of god and be "born again" in the opposite direction, especially if god is functioning as a kind of divine cognitive-emotional crutch, if I may be so cheeky to call it that. But if you ask for the advice and support of a committed atheist, especially one who believes in Christian morality or something similar, you will realise that you are not alone. The seemingly impossible will become possible.

Given that such a "conversion" can happen, and probably happens quite often (I certainly know a lot of people who used to be Christian and then became atheists),I have a special request to my many Christian friends. Please get real and give me a break. People with the honesty to speak the truth and the courage to look life in the eye don't entertain hocus-pocus. Honesty and courage are surely two of the main ideals that Jesus represented (especially since they can be considered part of love).
Like Jesus, we must have the courage to speak the truth, even if it hurts.


Billy Joel sang that "Honesty is such a lonely word", and he was right - not only in relationships, but also in religion. Jesus's understanding of honesty and truth was based on the 9th commandment "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour". His belief in the importance of honesty is clear from his copious complaints about religious hypocrisy, and comments like this one from
1 John 2:4: "Whoever says 'I know him' but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him."

Unfortunately, Christianity as an institution is not very honest. For an atheist, it is blatantly dishonest about the non-existence of god, miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection and all that other magic stuff. That is perhaps the main problem from the perspective of a modern, western, educated, middle-class person. That makes you wonder whether those people who so enjoy talking about gods and miracles are honest, in general? Can such people be trusted? How much religious dogma is true, in general, if it has been developed by people who believe in things that are obviously not true?

If religions could be more honest about the distinction between truth and fantasy/imagery, they would be more authentic and plausible. If we are more honest in one area, we will presumably be more honest in others, right? By analogy, if we are more reluctant to kill non-human animals, we are more likely to stop killing humans. Both honesty and non-killing are high-level principles in Christian and universal morality, and they should be applied universally. If we are courageous enough to be honest about the non-existence of god, we might also be courageous enough to be honest about 
the main problems of today's world,  poverty and global warming - their existence, their seriousness and their various causes. We might be honest enough to admit that the rich countries are the main cause of these problems and their failure to be honest about that is the reasons why these problems are being perpetuated rather than solved. We in the rich countries are also the main cause of war and violence, including terrorism, which these days is primarily a response to Western militarism. Can we please be honest about that? That would be a big step toward a solution. Being honest about the non-existence of god would be another big step toward a better world.

I often wonder when people will understand that simple Christian or universal ideas - honesty and modesty, pacifism and altruism, caring and sharing - are not strange and radical, but the only possiblepath for humanity, if it is to survive in the long term? When will Christians realise that the main ideas of Jesus can and should be applied to modern politics? And that in order to apply these ideas successfully, we have to be honest about them, and everything else?

I am referring here only to things that Jesus is reported to have said directly, of which a list will follow (it includes, for example, "Do not kill" and the Golden Rule). I am not referring to obscure interpretations of what Jesus is reported to have said. Such distortions have been going on for centuries
(e.g. in the cathecism), but that does not make them any truer. If something is to carry the label "Christian", it had better come from Christ himself, as directly as possible- otherwise the Christian trademark is being abused. If honesty is important, the adjective "Christian" should be used more carefully.

In all honesty, I do not wish to get into topics such as homosexuality, abortion, contraception, or masturbation, about which Jesus apparently said nothing at all. It would be dishonest to pretend that he did. Nor will I refer to sex, about which Jesus made only a few ambiguous comments. The reason is evidently that he considered sexual issues subordinate to overriding principles of love, caring, respect, reciprocity, and non-violence. Jesus may have been opposed to adultery, but only because it contradicted other, higher principles: it is an example of dishonesty, or breaking a promise.

Jesus apparently said nothing at all about pre-marital sex. T
he apostle Paul expressed his fundamental opposition to it in 1 Corinthians 7. Sorry if I have missed something, but I don't see the relationship between this idea and the teachings of Jesus, as presented in the gospels. I don't know what life was like in the first century (perhaps prostitution was a big problem and Paul was merely reacting to it), but from a modern viewpoint, only a cold, angry, bitter person, or someone suffering from undue arrogance and sanctimony (things that Jesus definitely did not like), could want to deprive young people of some of life's most beautiful experiences. Switching back to today's world, it is one of the paradoxes of modern American society that on the one hand it has celebrated the joy and wonder of (premarital) sex like never before in popular culture (especially in music), while on the other hand it "officially" subscribes to Paulian prudery. This not only screws people up psychologically, guaranteeing plenty of work for psychotherapists - it also further promotes dishonesty.

I have no doubt that Paul's intentions were good, but what interests me here are the long-term consequences of what he wrote. We already have the fundamental dishonesty inherent in pretending that god exists; beyond that, we have the dishonesty of pretending that I can communicate with god and you can't, so my morality is right and yours is wrong.
It is understandable that Paul was dishonest in these ways, given his spectacular conversion experience, but that doesn't justify his subsequent extention and distortion of the basic ideas of Jesus. Paul surely has a lot to answer for, and I haven't even mentioned the concept of "original sin" yet, which has nothing to do with Jesus as far as I can see, but was based on Paul's writings. Not to mention Paul's theory of salvation, which of course is nonsense from an atheist viewpoint.

Paul and his followers labeled Paulian ideas "Christian". These ideas then became the foundations of the early Christian church. But from a modern viewpoint, it is misleading (which is another word for dishonest) to use this label. The truth is that Paul's ideas are Paulian and Jesus's ideas are Christian. When I talk about Christian Atheism, I am referring only to the ideas of Jesus as presented in the gospels.

To his credit, Paul was not opposed to the idea of enjoying sex as an end in itself, provided it happened within marriage: "Let your fountain be blessed, And rejoice in the wife of your youth. As a loving hind and a graceful doe, Let her breasts satisfy you at all times; Be exhilarated always with her love" (Proverbs 5:18-19). It was only later that the Catholic church decided it is bad to enjoy sex for its own sake. Cathecism 2351 says: "Lust is disordered desire for or inordinate enjoyment of sexual pleasure. Sexual pleasure is morally disordered when sought for itself, isolated from its procreative and unitive purposes." Huh? What was wrong with the people who wrote this? To my knowledge, there is no evidence at all in the Gospels that Jesus would have subscribed to such a view, but plenty of indirect evidence that he would have opposed it as hypocritical. That being the case, it is dishonest (and hence un-Christian) to call such an idea "Christian". The idea is also sexist, because women tend to suffer more than men as a result of such irrational prudery (the female orgasm being more important than many men realise, especially if the men making the judgment are sworn to life-long chastity). Pseudo-Christian prudery has destroyed countless marriages, because you can hardly predict the success of a marriage without sexual experience.

The idea that it is bad to enjoy sex unless you are trying to make babies  contradicts the Golden Rule, not to mention the Christian principle that love is more important than everything else. Specifically, if someone wants to have sex with you, and you want to have sex with them,
and neither of you has promised to be faithful to someone else, and both of you are motivated by love and respect (as well as lust, which is natural and therefore good), then according to the Golden Rule and the overriding principle of love, having sex will be a good thing for some people and bad thing for no-one, so you might as well get down to it. Anyway, the forces of evolution being as they are, you are probably going to do it anyway, no matter what the church says. So it might be more productive to change the subject.

Apologies to Paul and many others, but Christianity would surely be a much better religion if Christians focused on what Jesus apparently really said, and the implications of those statements, without adding anything new. For all I know, Jesus may have called Paul a hypocrite if he had been alive to read the first letter to the Corinthians, and Jesus's postmortal cries of "hypocrite" would surely have become gradually louder as the Catholic church elaborated on their prudish ideas over many centuries, all the while calling them "Christian". Just imagine Jesus, alive today, reading the Cathecism of the Catholic Church. Oh my god. Not in my name, he would cry.

I am no expert, but it seems to me that all Christian cathecisms can be replaced by a single principle: Do everything with a loving attitude. To find out what that means in specific situations, we have to practice the "Art of Loving", as Erich Fromm called it. Just ask yourself honestly: What is the loving thing to do in a given situation? Seek the company of people with similar ideals, and listen to their ideas and advice. But don't get tied down by a book full of inflexible rules, such as a cathecism. In Matthew 12:11, Jesus asked, "If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out?" The general message behind this scripture is that any rule can be broken if necessary to satisfy a higher principle. The highest principle in Christianity is love, but in specific situations this principle requires interpretation, and interpretation must always allow for flexibility depending on the context. New situations require new responses.

Martin Luther made big progress toward solution of such problems, but he also took many of Paul's ideas on board, again calling them "Christian". And of course he did not solve the problem of irrational theism. Today, we need an atheist reformation that preserves and promotes the moral foundations of Christianity - the morality of Jesus himself. We need a Christian Atheist Reformation.

A child's perspective

During the past few decades, I have tried countless times in vain to convince fellow Christians to reconsider their belief in god. If I had any sense, I would give up. But something inside me tells me not to. Perhaps my religious friends will find the following story interesting.

I once spoke privately to a 9-year-old boy about his belief. His parents were quietly atheist, as so many people are, but they also tried hard not to push their son into atheism. They wanted him to check out what was going on and decide for himself. This happened in Austria, and the boy was exposed at school to typical Austrian Catholic religious instruction. That included first communion at the age of 7, which he did voluntarily, probably because all the other kids were doing it. (That's how the Catholic church gets you in. It's a tried and tested method. Of course there are good things about the catholic tradition of first communion. Parents publicly celebrate their wonderful children and their love for them. There is also something negative, namely trusting one's children to men who are sworn to refrain from sex with other adults and could therefore with a certain probability transfer their sexual urges to children. We hope that it will never happen again, but since the problem has only been half solved by the Catholic church, I guess it probably will happen again. So be vigilant. But I digress...)

Later, the young man in question stopped going to religious instruction altogether, although most other kids in his class stayed with it. When I asked him why, he said there were two reasons, and he was remarkably clear about them. First, he liked the extra free time. Second, as everybody knows there is no such thing as magic or magicians. He considered himself an expert on that topic, having watched countless TV shows and movies about people or creatures with magic powers. Of course all of that is just fantasy, he said. He didn't believe in Father Christmas any more, either (except when it was convenient to feign belief, which might explain why many Christians still feign belief in god). Anyway, he then brought this logic to its obvious conclusion: there obviously cannot be a god with magic powers. I asked him if someone else had told him that, and he said no, he had worked it out for himself. I don't know if that's true, but he was right all the same. It's as simple as that, really, and one wonders why so many adults fail to understand such simple logic.

I am all for freedom of religion. If people want to believe in gods, astrology, the age of aquarius, living water, divining rods to find underground water, UFOs, intelligent design, the harmony of the spheres, and other such fantasies and new-age hocus-pocus, they should be free to do so,
provided they are respecting human rights and not hurting anyone. People should be free to believe what they want and maintain beautiful old traditions. It would be nice if those people also learned how to think clearly (critical thinking) or if they read some of those "skeptics magazines" that enjoy dismantling nonsense of any kind. Personally, I can also participate in beautiful traditions, if I want to, even if I have to tolerate people making public statements that are obviously untrue. But I don't have to believe those things. Die Gedanken sind frei, as we say in German.

God, the virtual mother

Why do so many people believe in god in spite of the lack of any scientific evidence? If seems that believers are strongly motivated by their feeling that god exists exists. That feeling certainly does exist, even if god does not. So if we want to understand in a scientific way where the belief comes from and why it is so widespread, we have to understand where the feeling comes from.

In general, if you have a strong feeling that something is true, that is not scientific evidence that it is true. Our feelings are based on our unique human perspective. They do not necessarily generalise to a more universal perspective, which is what you need to answer such questions. From our subjective human perspective, the earth is flat and it is also the centre of the universe, but that does not mean things are really like that. We may feel that our own culture (language, religion, socioeconomic status, profession, skin color, gender, sexual preferences) is superior to other cultures, but that does not mean our culture really is superior. And so on.

It is easy to explain why we have the impression that the world is flat. Knowing where this feeling comes from helps us to realise that the world is not flat. We can also explain our feeling of being the centre of the universe, which helps us to understand that we are not at the centre. We can also explain why we feel our culture is superior to other cultures (perhaps based on evolutionary theory), which helps us to understand that our culture is not in fact superior. That raises an interesting question. If we could understand our feeling that god exists, would that help us to understand that god does not exist?

The feeling that we want to explain, then, is the feeling of being in the presence of a human-like, all-loving, all-knowing, morally guiding, somehow perfect and eternal god. Where does it come from? I have a relatively simple answer, and I wonder why it isn't obvious to more people.

All of us have or had a mother, and our relationship with her (which started before we were born) was the first human relationship we ever had. From an evolutionary viewpoint, that was probably the strongest relationship we ever had, because our survival depended crucially on it. As an infant, we experienced the unconditional love of our mother. Most of us will never again experimence unconditional love, but at some level we never stop longing for it. Highly committed relationships can come close to fulfilling this need, which explains why commitment is such a perennially hot topic.

To fill this gap, we take solace in a fantasy called "god", which bears a remarkable resemblance to our mother as we perceived her as an infant. God is all-loving, all-knowing and all-powerful. We don't have episodic memory of infancy (we can't remember specific events), but we subliminally remember the feeling of the presence of, and communication with, an all-loving, all-powerful, all-knowing being. Before we were born, that being was also omnipresent; her voice boomed down on us from on high, and she moved in mysterious ways. She evidently represented our origin and hence our creation, which in our infantile world meant that she was the creator of everything.

Christian beliefs and stories incorporate many aspects of the mother-child relationship. Perhaps that is why Christianity is so successful. Christmas is a good example. The story of the birth of Christ is beautiful because every baby is a miracle. Babies are also mysterious: there is something about human agency, experience, spirit, and the mind-body problem that seems inherently impossible for us to understand. The emotion that makes us want to care for babies, triggered by the infant schema (cuteness), is a very strong one. This is one of many cases in which scientific understanding (in particular, the theory of evolution) can help us separate wisdom from nonsense. Christian atheists could celebrate the birth of every baby everywhere, female or make, black or white, sick/disabled or healthy, as if it were the baby Jesus - a symbol for the miracle of birth and the equal inherent value of every person. Paradoxically, for long-term environmental reasons we must also think about how best to reduce or manage the birth rate in developing countries, the best solution being education, poverty reduction, and the promotion of other human rights, especially for girls and women.

The gender question is interesting. Why is god usually conceived of as male, whereas the mother as perceived by the fetus or infant is female? For the fetus or infant, gender has no meaning, but in a patriarchal society, it seems obvious, or is simply taken for granted (at least by all who have not yet understood the foundations of feminism), that the ultimate boss must be male. If the mother as perceived by the fetus and infant really is the ultimate origin of god, we can talk about the process whereby an implicit connection is made between mother and god: we somehow transfer our misty, emotional, corporal, existential memories of our mother as we perceived her (or it) as a fetus or child onto a culturally transmitted male concept called "god". We have no trouble making that connection because the two concepts are so similar, and the emotions are so strong and so positive.

How does our emotional memory of our mother become connected with the religious concept of god? When we grow up from infants into children and teenagers, we increasingly come in contact with religious people who tell us stories about their "god". The stories seem intuitively correct, because we already see how difficult it is to understand death and infinity. In fact, it is impossible to understand these things, but we refuse to believe that. We want to understand everything. People then show us how to pray in church and when we do so we get warm, safe, magical feelings, which (after a little instruction) we associate with the presence of god and perhaps even communication with god during prayer. With all those nice warm secure feelings, it's no wonder we fall for the stories of those smiling religious people. They make us feel good, which is what everyone wants. So we should forgive ourselves and/or others for our naivete and gullibility.

Jesus would have been deeply shocked by the last few paragraphs. Who am I to say his father does not exist? Who am I to explain away his existence? (He did exist, it's just that Mary just didn't tell anyone. But I digress.)

Anyway you don't have to believe this theory. The point is that it is possible from a totally atheist viewpoint to explain (in this way, or in some other way) why so many people believe in a god. Not just any god - one with quite rather specific characteristics that are surprisingly similar between different religions. This observation by itself is strong evidence that god is no more than a figment of our fertile imaginations.

Believing in love

I am not totally against talking about "god". I would be happy to admit that god existed if we used the word in a different way. The meanings of words change with time, after all. Jesus said that god is love, and you have to respect him for that.

In 1 John 4:8 we read that "Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love". That's taken out of context, but it is interesting to imagine what it would mean if god really was love, and nothing else. What if the word "god" was just another word for "love"? Then every time someone started talking about "god" you could think aha, they are just talking about love, and that would be fine. If they said they believed in god, they would actually be saying they believed in love, which is most definitely a good thing.

The point is illustrated rather wonderfully in a papal video from Does Francis realise he is supporting atheism with this video? In my opinion, he is. The representatives of different religions start by saying they believe in god, and continue by saying they believe in love, suggesting that god and love are the same thing. Which kind of explains away god, if you ask me. The video is a direct and effective plea for more constructive interaction among world religions. Unfortunately, the gender balance in the video is rather skewed toward the male side, but there is hope that this problem will gradually be solved (just wait another few generations...). The video is also a constructive response to religious extremism of all kinds, which from a practical viewpoint is its most positive feature. A video like this can save countless lives. The video can also be interpreted as a plea for better relations between theists and atheists, which (believe it or not) is one of the aims of the present text.

So what's all this about god and love? The following passage about love in 1 Corinthians 13 (by Paul) is one of the most beautiful and significant texts in the bible:

If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (...) And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

As a skeptical scientist reading that text, I could say hold on, it's all very well to say these nice things, and I feel very good about them, but how do we know if someone's actions are loving or not? Do we have an operational definition of love? Apart from that, surely the main thing is the good action itself? Don't actions speak louder than words?

Well, those objections may be valid, but the point of this passage from Corinthians is surely that if good actions are based on deep convictions (such as for example the conviction that other people are essentially good, or that the best and most rewarding things that we can do in our lives is to do good things for other people), then the point becomes clear. We are talking about sustainable altruism. If you believe in altruism and your belief is based on a deep conviction that is resilient in the face of changing circumstances (or what Christians might call "temptation"), then you are more likely to do good things for others and the world reliably and for a long period - ideally, for the rest of your life. This deep conviction is one way of defining love.

Incidentally, I have developed the idea of sustainable altruism into a concept for a political party and movement called SAGE politics that is based on principles of Sustainability, Altruism, and a Global and Egalitarian outlook.

The big picture

Today, humanity seems to be in the process of destroying itself. But there is hope. Billions of us belong to religions whose main aim is evidently to help their members become better people. Religions may do that in strange ways sometimes, but the positive intention is important. We should highlight it, especially when we are trying to resolve situations of conflict. For example, the so-called Islamic State may be a textbook case of evil and craziness, but even those crazy, violent people are dreaming of a better society that is led by an all-loving "god" (which could in fact mean "love"). Like us, they are dreaming of unconditional love and like us, they are afraid to admit it and covering up their weakness with a show of strength. If we acknowledged and appreciated that aspect of their faith, and tried to negotiate with them, instead of merely trying to destroy them by military means, in exchange for their destructive excesses, they might become a little less crazy. Negotiations leading to peace might become possible. Many lives could be saved.

I certainly don't want to claim that Christianity is superior to other religions. Anyway, I don't know enough about the details of other religions to make such a systematic comparison. But when I hear people claim that Islam or Judaism (to take two of many examples) is somehow inherently inferior to Christianity (or vice-versa), my first impulse is to object. First, in specific cases there are usually good counterarguments. For example, Islam may be more sexist than Christianity, but that is in part due to the societies in which Islam flourishes - not the religion itself. The Catholic church has failed miserably to shake off its sexist traditions, although the societies in which Catholicism thrives are much more supportive of such a development, and may even be crying out for it. The second reason I object is because Jesus (apparently) taught that you should look at yourself before criticizing others. From John 8:7: "Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone." The point is not merely to talk about self-criticism, but to actually do it. Otherwise, Jesus will be calling you (or me) a hypocrite, and he will be right.

In spite of these reservations, I do want to affirm the moral stance of Jesus as presented in the Christian bible. Today, 2000 years later, it is still realistic to build one's moral house on a Christian foundation. It is
also strategically interesting, because so many powerful people in today's world are already at least nominally Christian. So they can hardly disagree with you (although many will try), and they are the ones who are going to get things done. If only the Christians of the world, and in particular those countries that claim to be Christian, would actually implement Christian morality, instead of just talking about it, the world would be a much better place.

What to do

Actions speak louder than words. What at are the main messages of Jesus that can be implemented by modern atheists?

When answering that question, it is important not to get distracted by controversial secondary issues. Take sex and marriage, for example. Religious leaders are very interested in this topic. Sometimes, they seem to be obsessed. They are only human, after all. But how important are sex and marriage, really? Christian churches have a remarkable tendency to rave on about both at the expense of more important issues, just as the American and global media once wasted a whole year raving on about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky when they surely should have been discussing current domestic and foreign policy. This relatively trivial affair attracted much more attention than the Rwandan genocide a few years earlier. The truth about sex is that it's healthy and fun if done respectfully, and the truth about marriage is that it's mainly for the benefit of children, so without children it is no business of the government. Marriage should be a private agreement between consenting adults, with no legal or financial consequences; and people should also be aware that a marriage that begins wonderfully could one day turn into a serious problem. Churches and governments should stop interfering in people's private lives; both should instead focus on more serious issues of wealth and poverty, environment and pollution, war and peace. In comparison to the main problems facing humanity, sexual ethics are relatively unimportant. If churches still insist on talking about sex, they should do it from a human rights perspective. That means for example preventing rape and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases such as AIDS and Hepatitis B. Churches should place issues of that kind at the top of their list, to show that they actually care about real people.

Having got that off my chest, I would like to claim that the following Christian or universal principles are highly relevant for today's atheists:

Do not kill. Do not kill any human anywhere or anytime. This is a big deal, which explains why this paragraph is so long, so please be patient. Let me begin with the main point. Every day, some 20 000 people, mostly children, die as a consequence of poverty (hunger, curable disease, preventable disease) in developing countries. Most of these deaths could have been prevented by now, had the rich countries adequately addressed the main causes, which include tax havens, unfair trade, exploitation of natural resources by multinationals, failure to work together with developing countries to reduce corruption, failure to meet development budget targets, and so on. In coming decades, this death rate will increasingly depend on climate change, and failure to address climate change adequately will be added to the list of causes. This is not murder, but some might consider it killing in the sense that the people who actively contribute to and profit from the various causes of poverty are generally aware that their actions will likely exacerbate this appalling death rate. That is the most important problem that I will consider in this paragraph; the second-most important is death by violence. On the average day, hundreds or even thousands of further people are killed violently in different parts of the world (war, bombs, weapons). Again, people are profiting from this shocking situation; they include hawkish politicians trying to attract votes, and arms manufacturers trying to increase their profits. These people can reasonably be considered responsible for the resultant deaths, if only indirectly. As Christians (or merely as human beings) we should be trying harder to reduce such enormously shocking death tolls in the long term. Keeping these urgent problems in mind, we can now ask what, exactly, "do not kill" means, in a theoretical, ethical or religious sense. If we approach this question with a loving attitude, and consider the well-being of others to be more important than rules or theories (cf. Matthew 12:11), we can discover two important exceptions to "do not kill". The bible says nothing directly about these exceptions, and Jesus (as portrayed in the gospels) said nothing at all, so even those who believe in the absolute truth of the bible have to think for themselves. The first is euthanasia: A person's life can be ended if their quality of life is so low that their life is clearly not worth living AND there is no chance of improvement AND they clearly want to die. The second is abortion: The life of an embryo
(defined as up to 8 weeks after fertilization or 10 weeks gestational age, i.e. from the last menstruation) can be ended given convergent scientific evidence that the embryo is not yet sentient, i.e. it is entirely lacking reflective consciousness or volition, so it does not experience anything in the adult human sense. I feel qualified to write about this topic, having read and publishedon prenatal psychology and fetal cognition. Research in developmental psychology shows how reflective consciousness emerges gradually in stages over several postnatal years, mainly in interaction with caretakers. Romantic beliefs about fetal consciousness (let alone embryonic!) without evidence are comparable with beliefs in cute creatures such as fairies, pixies, leprechauns, elves, gnomes, goblins, unicorns, and trolls, all of whom we imagine to have reflective consciousness. It may also be compared with beliefs in larger creatures with reflective consciousness such as extraterrestrials, angels, mermaids, spirits, ghosts, dragons, bogies, vampires, demons, and devils. Human imagination is very fertile when it comes to good or evil beings that can talk, think, reflect and plan. Using our same fertile imagination, we assume that babies, pet dogs, and even teddy bears have reflective consciousness. But in a scientific approach, babies, like pet dogs, are unable to reflect on their experience. That counts out the fetus, let alone the human embryo. To be sure, we interact with babies as if they had reflective consciousness, which is a very healthy way for an adult to behave, and helps babies to acquire reflective consciousness themselves and start to contribute actively to human society, gradually and in many stages. The strategy doesn't work with pet dogs, presumably because complex language is a pre- or co-requisite for reflective consciousness. Our belief in the reflective consciousness of babies partially explains our absolute revulsion at the thought of killing a baby, which is sufficient reason to equate infanticide with murder in the legal sense. (It is interesting, but not directly relevant, that infanticide was commonplace in early humans and primates. We have made  progress since then.) But our loving feelings toward babies are not scientific evidence that they have reflective consciousness. In science, an idea is not true if it feels good - and idea is considered true, or as true as currently possible, if the empirical evidence is consistent with it. If the evidence is complex and controversial, as it is here, we must accept the advice of recognized experts and communities of scholars - just as for example when considering the political consequences of global warming. Questions about consciousness in the infant, fetus or embryo are psychological and philosophical questions, and you have to study the literature carefully before developing a plausible opinion, and be aware of possible sources of bias, such as fundamentalist religious ideas lurking in the background. There is also an important legal issue to consider. The embryo is biologically part of the mother, who like everybody else has autonomous control over all of her body. It is her right to decide for or against any form of medical intervention. Moreover, there is the issue of the well-being of mother or future child; if either is threatened, the gestational age limit on abortions can be extended, often to 20 weeks, which from a scientific viewpoint still entirely rules out the possibility of killing a being that has some kind of reflective consciousness, there being no clear evidence of that before about one year after birth. Of course every abortion is regrettable, but that does not mean patriarchal institutions with long outrageous histories of sexism should intervene. Instead we should care about the woman, for whom the situation is at best difficult and at worst tragic. Unlike her embryo, she has both feelings and the ability to reflect on them. When abortion is illegal, abortion clinics are dangerous places. If the Catholic church were really concerned to reduce the abortion rate (as I am, along with most pro-choice campaigners), it would promote contraception. So why doesn't it do that? Jesus said nothing about these questions, if I am not mistaken, so it is odd that the Catholic church should be passing off its radical fundamentalist approach as "Christian". If Jesus was lying in his grave, which he apparently is not, he would be turning in it. But as I said it is not my purpose to consider these fraught issues in detail, so please forgive me for getting distracted by them. Nor is it my intention to focus on the arguments of Buddhists or vegetarians against killing of non-human animals, which I also support: the industrialised killing of non-human animals must be slowed down, steadily and sustainably, for both ethical and environmental reasons. Ethically, killing is generally bad; it is merely worse for humans to kill humans than to kill non-human animals, and if people were less blasé about killing and eating non-human animals, they would hopefully be less blasé about killing each other. Environmentally, meat (especially red meat) is making an especially large contribution to global warming, and it is finally time to start talking openly about this problem, and take action, for example by taxing red meat (along with carbon). But this is  not the main point, either. The most important point is surely this: We should never kill another human out of hate, anger, or revenge. It is amazing how often this fundamental principle is violated by card-carrying Christians. In the USA, where every banknote bears the inscription "In God we trust" (which perhaps means: "In Love we trust"), we still have the death penalty, chronic militarism, and a continuing failure to alleviate global poverty, which causes about ten million premature deaths each year. Deaths due to poverty and violence are fully experienced by sentient beings who want to live, which makes them incomparable with euthanasia, abortion, or the industrial killing of non-human animals, and far more important from an ethical viewpoint. Some people may disagree with this statement on theoretical grounds, but they would hardly do so if they witnessed the death of a personal friend, or more likely the young child of a friend, as a result of poverty or violence, and multiplied that feeling by millions. We still have a massive global arms industry; staggering amounts of money change hands internationally so that governments and terrorists can legally (!) buy the means to kill large numbers of people. The US has bombed 24 countries since 1945 and shows no clear signs of apologizing or changing their violent, arrogant approach to global politics. We still have US-based cigarette companies that are making big profits from a legal drug that causes five million deaths every year. The insane US military reaction to 9/11, which cost 100 to 1000 times as many lives as the original attack, is clear evidence that Christians have not understood the meaning of "Thou shalt not kill". Killing may be ok in clear cases of self-defence, but revenge is most definitely not self-defence. From a Christian viewpoint, killing based on revenge is always wrong. Why didn't the "Christians" realise that after 9/11? I don't even remember this issue being discussed in the media. Christians of the United States of America: stop being a herd of sheep. Wake up and raise your voices so that American militarism can be stopped.

Put down your weapons. This principle overlaps with "do not kill", but also goes beyond it. Jesus was a pacifist, and nothing could be clearer than that. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God" (Matt. 5:9). "If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also" (Matt. 5:38-39). Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Matt. 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-28). "Put your sword back in its place...for all who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt. 26:52). Nothing could be clearer than these statements. Christianity is pacifist by definition; the expression "Christian pacifism" is a tautology, because all Christians should be pacifists. People who call themselves Christians while at the same time promoting militarism (which seems to apply to most members of the US Republican Party, as well as many Democrats) are comparable with Muslims promoting jihad. We are talking total contradiction here, and a very severe case of dishonesty. If the Christian idea of ex-communication is to have any meaning, it should be applied to Christian militarists. Militarism is one of the most serious crimes, both from a Christian and from an atheist human-rights perspective. It is arguably much worse than murder, which "only" causes individual deaths. It is time to give up the old adage that "All is fair in love and war". Bombing foreign countries is never fair. Did I already mention that since 1945, the USA, a "Christian country", has bombed 24 other countries, arbitrarily killing countless millions? In the public consciousness, both in the US and elsewhere, this is nothing compared to 9/11, which killed about 4000. Are people thinking about this? Christians of the world: raise your arms in horror! And keep doing so until US militarism is recognized for what it is, namely one of the worst evils of our time. The US, and everyone else who is pretending to be Christian, must stop all military interventions in other countries immediately and permanently, and instead invest in peace. Talking is always better than fighting. War is always worse than dictatorship. I know of no exceptions - not even the end of World War Two. Has anyone thought about that? The D-Day invasion in 1944 cost 150 000 lives, including 30 000 French civilians killed by allied air raids. Did those people think the invasion was worth it? Were they asked for permission to be killed? Today, most people think the invasion of France in 1944 and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 were justified. Christians, think again. There is a clear answer to the question "what would have happened otherwise": countless lives would have been saved, and the standard procedures of conflict resolution, which apply to every conflict, could have been applied. The allied powers could have applied these principles consistently and patiently, for as long as it took. At the dawn of the nuclear age it also would have been necessary to threaten Germany and Japan with nuclear weapons, but that does not mean using them to kill large numbers of people, before many different approaches to negotiation and creative mediation had been patiently tried out.

The Golden Rule. Again, this principle includes the previous principle, and goes beyond it: Treat others as you would have them treat you. "And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them" (Luke 6:31). “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 7:12). This means much more than not killing them and it also means more than not threatening them with violence. Every child learns this principle when playing with other children, because play doesn't work otherwise. Evolutionary psychologists go so far as to suggest that "tit-for-tat" behavior (you scrub my back and I'll scrub yours) is universal, as is the social exclusion of free riders who fail to implement this principle. Given the additional religious status of the "golden rule", Christians should be especially concerned to implement it. If this principle alone were adhered to, most problems in the world would not exist. Are examples necessary? The USA would not bomb innocent civilians in other countries (so-called "collateral damage"), given that they presumably don't want to be bombed themselves. Every time countries are deciding whether or not to "solve" a problem by military means, this principle should be invoked, along with "do not kill". If that happened, there would be no foreign military interventions. None at all. People would negotiate instead of fighting, and they would keep negotiating for as long as it takes to solve the problem.

Speak the truth. This is an aspect of the Golden Rule, because most people want to be told the truth, and in the few cases where they do not, one might argue that it is morally acceptable and perhaps even preferable not to do so. In other words, the Golden Rule may be the basic principle behind telling the truth, to which it is subordinate. But telling the truth also means having the courage to state the truth, even if there may be negative personal consequences (such as being crucified). "If I have spoken wrongly, testify of the wrong; but if rightly, why do you strike me?" (John 18:23). The question here is not whether Jesus was speaking the truth from a modern perspective, which he obviously wasn't when he was talking about god. The point is (i) that he insisted on saying things that he genuinely believed to be true; (ii) that he did so courageously, because truth was more important for him than personal consequences; and (iii) that his truth had a strong moral basis, and his criterion for truth was related to what we would today call human rights. We can adopt the same attitude today when exposing injustice and hypocrisy, which should be labeled as such. "If anyone says 'I love God' and hates his brother, he is a liar"
(1 John 4:20).  "Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves" (Matthew 7:15). Jesus was a classic whistleblower who spoke out courageously against the hypocritical religious leaders of his time. It will be a great day for humanity when the Christians of the world realise the importance of whistleblowing and start to generally and systematically promote this gentle art. 

Protect, care for and comfort the weak, poor and sick.
This principle is also subordinate to the Golden Rule, because people who are weak, poor or sick usually like to be protected, cared for and comforted by people in more fortunate circumstances, provided their motives are genuine and not patronising or attention-seeking. The Gospels contain many well-known stories of Jesus doing good things for less fortunate people. It follows that genuine Christians, whether atheist or not, must act to protect innocent people from the cruelty, insensitivity, extravagance and stupidity of the rich and powerful. This applies especially to people who are perceived as "foreign"; the story of the good Samaritan has obvious implications for the treatment of refugees today. While some Christian organisations are constantly implementing these ideas, others are ignoring them. Many are even supporting the strong and rich in their constant attempts to undermine the already precarious situation of the weak, poor and sick, although they may not realise that they are doing so (or pretend not to understand). The solution is to work hard to properly and fairly understand the political causes of poverty, and then systematically counteract them.

Be self-critical before criticizing others.Again, this principle can be derived from the Golden Rule. Let he who is innocent throw the first stone. There is a contradiction here: we are all ordinary mortals and we all make mistakes, and Jesus was no exception (a Messiah complex is not especially humble). According to this principle, strictly speaking no-one should accuse anyone of anything, because that is generally hypocritical. So I should not be writing this text. The solution to this contradiction is to be open about one's failings and to strive for a balance. If for example I am sounding off about global warming, I should first admit that my own personal carbon footprint has been far too high, and probably still is, which is why I am trying to drastically reduce it now. If anyone is guilty of contributing to global warming, it is me. That's why I'm doing something about it, and talking about it. If others did likewise, the problem would be solved more quickly.

Love and pray for your neighbor, including your enemies. Forgive them, because they don't know what they are doing. This principle is not completely consistent with the Golden Rule, because my enemies may not want me to love them (whatever that means exactly), let alone pray for them. But crazy acts of selflessness of this kind may indirectly promote peace by resolving conflicts and spreading good feelings, which in turn could benefit many other people, corresponding to the utilitarian principle of promoting universal well-being. This principle doesn't mean being chummy with arseholes. We all have our self-respect. But it does mean recognizing that we are all human with strengths and weaknesses. We are all going to die one day, and in death we will all be equal; that applies to the worst tyrant or terrorist. The principle does not mean we should abandon law and punishment. On the contrary, legal forms of punishment should be applied consistently to everyone, including the worst white-collar criminals who also happen to be politicians or CEOs of fossil-fuel, tobacco and arms corporations. All criminals should be fairly tried and fairly punished. Militarism, tax havens, and climate denial cause millions of innocent deaths; anyone who influentially supports such things on a large scale should be behind bars. Not mentioning any names - I am talking about the principle, and legal scholars everywhere are challenged to find the courage that is lying deep down and dormant in their hearts, and cry out for the reforms that will be necessary to make this possible. This is all part of loving your neighbor, because laws and punishment are, or should be, there to protect the innocent - not to allow society or individuals to reap revenge.

Promote altruism in human affairs. Jesus didn't use those words, or anything like them. Instead, he declared the "kingdom of God" or the "kingdom of heaven", which many Christians consider his central message - the "good news" of the gospel. (A similar message can be found in the Islam and Bahá'í.) From an atheist viewpoint, this is delusional nonsense. But if we take the liberty of replacing the word god by the word love (since "god is love") and if we interpret love primarily to mean altruism, or doing things for the benefit of others without material reward, then the "coming of the kingdom of god" might mean the "coming of the rule of love" or the "coming of the kingdom of altruism". Just imagine: a rule of law that is governed at a higher level by a rule of love: high-level political decisions that serve the interests and concerns of ordinary people everywhere. And since the implications of political decisions for ordinary people everywhere are often difficult to predict, this also means that decisions must be based on the opinions of relevant experts (i.e. people who primarily do research on similar questions, whose research is internationally respected within established research communities). In the USA, the self-proclaimed home of modern Christianity, the coming of this kind of "kingdom of god" would mean the end of the death penalty, the end of foreign military adventures, the release of hundreds of thousands of prisoners, stricter gun laws, more money for international development, less money for the military, faster progress toward a zero-carbon economy, and new taxes on wealth, carbon, and international transactions. We would stop regarding altruism as an exceptional kind of behavior exhibited by strange idealistic do-gooders, and instead regard it as normal. To make altruism go mainstream, we must promote it at all levels: friendships, families, communities, and local, national, regional and global politics. A gentle revolution of this kind would only work in the long term if powered by a long-term change of attitude. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:17). For Christians "righteousness" means doing things that god will presumably approve of, which can unfortunately manifest itself as holier-than-thou arrogance. But if god is love, and no more than that, righteousness simply means doing things with a loving attitude. The "peace and joy" that Paul referred to are the result; modern positive psychologists affirm that altruism is a good foundation for long-term happiness. In practice, Paul's statement boils down to promoting altruism in all aspects of human affairs. This interpretation of the "kingdom of god" may seem far-fetched, but I can't think of a more realistic one. Today, politicians and the voters who support them simply need a more loving attitude. We need new ways to promote and maintain a loving attitude, so that politics can become sustainably altruistic. That will allow us to solve existential problems such as global poverty, global warming, and global violence, all of which are threatening all humans everywhere. This issue is becoming truer and more urgent as humans on different continents become more connected with and dependent upon each other. The atheist or existentialist aspect is that we have to do this ourselves. It's no use waiting for a supernatural being to do it for us.

The new church

The churches have lost their moral authority. Perhaps the main reason is the strange things they are still asking their flocks to believe. Here is the Catholic "Apostle's creed":

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the Communion of Saints, the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.

From a modern scientific viewpoint, most of this statement is untrue. Don't get me wrong: I have no doubt that Jesus existed, and that most of the non-magical things described in the gospels actually happened. I am also a strong supporter of the kind of morality that Jesus evidently proclaimed. But we know today that the supernatural parts of this story cannot be true. We can also understand how ideas of this kind might have arisen psychologically, from interactions between individual beliefs, desires, and hallucinations in exceptional situations, and sociologically, from social interactions (link). It is a logical fallacy to assume a connection between the supernatural and moral aspects of these stories. Even if Jesus did those magic tricks, and even if the people at the time believed he could perform miracles (which they evidently did), it does not follow that his morality was superior to anyone else's. The morality of Jesus was indeed superior, but for a different reason, namely that it stood the test of time, and is still relevant and indeed urgently necessary today.

As science has progressed over the last few decades and centuries, problems of this kind have become increasingly clear to congregations. But religious leaders have clung stubbornly to their beliefs, turning them into long, complicated texts with a quasi-legal flavour (catechisms), and failing to understand what Jesus himself said about hypocrisy: "The teachers of the law ... tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them" (Matthew 23). It's time now to lift that finger. The basic moral message of Jesus is as strong and important as it ever was, but the hocus-pocus that accompanies that message is increasingly rejected by both religious and non-religious people, which undermines the moral authority of religious representatives. The solution is to express that message in modern universal terms, and leave the rest out. Something like this:

I believe in one goal - love - and a society based on universal moral principles of honesty, respect, humility, patience, justice, and peace, without hypocrisy. I defend the natural rights of all people everywhere, including future generations. I advocate and celebrate diversity, since all people have equal value and freedom regardless of language, religion, gender, color, age, or ability, and all are equal before the law. I care for other animals, to whom we are biologically related, and our shared natural environment, upon which we depend for our survival. I accept that science can advance our understanding of many, but not all, important questions. I believe in myself as a courageous and loving person with unique skills and talents, and I accept my imperfections. We humans are accountable for our actions; together, we will determine our fate. Amen.


If I haven't missed anything, those are the main Christian principles that I guess both theists and atheists alike should be implementing today. And nothing could be simpler or easier. I am talking about things that everyone understands. No complex theorizing is necessary.

Unfortunately, most powerful people who call themselves Christian are not implementing these basic principles, with tragic consequences. Pretending to implement basic moral principles is a bit like faking an orgasm, if you will mind the comparison - there tends to be a lot of passionate and ecstatic screaming and yelling, but in the end the experience is not satisfying. Instead, we get conflict and alienation.

To be authentically and courageously Christian, we must implement these ideals in the political arena, for the benefit of ordinary people everywhere. At the same time, we can be authentically and courageously atheist, which means having the courage to talk honestly about important issues, and taking responsibility for our own actions rather than passing responsibility off to a higher power (or pretending not to do so).

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