The cover of our magazine for this month gives a picture of something that is all too familiar to many of us.  We have a choice between eating a healthy fruit or a delicious ice cream cone.  Which will we choose?  The little girl has made the same choice that probably a large number of us would make, which explains our waist lines.  What does it take to make us eat healthy?  What does it take to make us conduct ourselves morally?  The two questions are very closely related and in fact share a great deal of common ground.

Atheists contend that the moral argument for the existence of God has no validity because religious people are just as immoral as atheists.  That statement is difficult to prove--either way.  What atheists do is look at the public failures of religious figures and assume that because the news reports that a religious figure has been found guilty of pedophilic behavior, all kinds of abuse, fraud, or some other kind of criminal behavior, all religious people indulge in such activities.  The only way a scientific evaluation could be made of this situation that would be conclusive would be to know where religious people would be if they were not religious, and where they are now.  Both of those quantities are unknowable.

For a few of us who have lived a significant number of years as an atheist and also as a Christian, that comparison can be made to our own satisfaction, if not to convince others. What may be more useful is to look at how we can and should make choices as an atheist and as a Christian. The only thing that this writer can speak from is his own experience, and that is what this article is about.

John Clayton as an Atheist.  My mother and father did not believe in God, but they were moral people.  To my knowledge neither of them was unfaithful to the other, and I certainly never experienced sexual abuse and I do not believe my two brothers did either.  My parents did drink, and cocktail hour was a daily tradition in which there was enough drinking to lubricate the conversation.  As a child I was taught that stealing, lying, being violent, and being sexually permissive were wrong.

As I got older and demanded justification for these things being wrong, I was given answers that did not make a lot of sense.   I was not old enough to drink coffee, smoke, or to get drunk; and that, in my opinion was rather ambiguous at best.  I was told that smoking and drinking coffee would stunt my growth--which might have been believed in the 1940s.  If these things were age-permissive, then why would not other behavioral issues also be age permissive--like being violent or sexually permissive.  When these questions were raised I was told, "I want you to choose who you marry and not have to marry someone."  I was never taught about contraceptives, but the pressure was there not to get sexually involved. I gradually began to realize that a great deal of what motivated my parents was peer pressure.   My father was a university professor, and my mother was very good at faculty dinners and social affairs.  It was extremely important to my mother that we not do anything to embarrass her, and when I did I was chastised more severely than at any other time.  One time a friend of mine and I got lost in a cave for six hours totally disrupting a party my mother was giving.  My friend's mother was hysterical as no one knew where we were or why we were late, and when we came into the party covered with mud, the meal was cold and people were upset and some left.  My mother was as angry as I had ever seen her, and I was told I was never again to go anywhere or do anything when she had a faculty party going on.  My parent's moral code was at least partially rooted in what their peers believed was right and wrong--what was socially acceptable.  There were certain things that you just did not do.  Not murdering, not lying, and not stealing were all put in the same frame of reference.

As I became a teenager I began to see that some of these things were abrogated both by my parents and by myself.  I saw my mother misrepresent things to enhance her social position in the university community.  These were not major things, but I realized that if someone gave a horrible party, you still had to tell them it was wonderful.  I also realized I could lie to my parents about where I went and what I did, and improve my odds of avoiding parental displeasure and punishment.  Learning to turn the speedometer backwards on the car was a skill that served me well.  If it was OK in the adult community, it was OK for me.  I did not have much money as a teenager, but I found ways to get money.  Stealing, was one of those ways and even though I got caught by my parents a few times when I stole from them, it was never a deterrent.  My morality as a teenager who had no religious beliefs was based upon survival of the fittest.  Whatever I could get away with was OK, and how you got to the top did not matter as long as you got to the top and did not in the process disgrace your family socially.

Another thing that shaped my morality as an atheist teenager was the positive moral actions I was never taught.  Since we did not go to any kind of worship and did not participate in any service to others, there was no instruction or example of giving or serving others.  Every year my parents would complain about the United Way campaign at the university.  Faculty members were pressured to give to the university goal, and there was social pressure to participate.  My mother wanted no part of not participating and being identified as one who did not give, and so they grudgingly gave the suggested minimum.  Similar things happened when there was a special drive for something, but no systematic way of giving or serving was practiced, and the children in the family never had any instruction or involvement in giving.  If your mantra was survival of the fittest, then those in need were simply those who were not fit, and you certainly would not jeopardize your own fitness by sacrificially giving.  By the same token, my parents did not like to have someone give to them.

My father's mother had spinal cancer and needed constant bed care.  His sister was a dedicated Christian, and cared for their mother for over ten years.  It was extremely difficult for my father to deal with this, and in fact it is the only time in my life I ever saw him reduced to tears.  Death and catastrophic illness were not something we were taught about or knew how to deal with.  When I was dating the girl who would later become my wife, her mother took us to a visitation of a man who was the father of one of my classmates.  I was 17 years old and had never been to a funeral or visitation, seen a dead person, or seen what people do when someone dies.  Death was not a subject we ever talked about, and my parents were extremely angry that I had been taken to a place where death was the core of the activity.

As an atheist my methods of making decisions were totally on the basis of assumptions about life that were self-centered.   When it came to obeying the law, taking advantage of someone else, sexual conduct, or even things like lying or stealing, the standard was what would be best for me as I perceived it at the time.  There was a lot of support for the way I made decisions in the writings of Ayn Rand in The Virtue of Selfishness and Atlas Shrugged.  Even my educational goals and objectives in life were centered on these thought processes.   The problem was that I never found my choices to be fulfilling or to bring real happiness.  Selfish decisions of the past came back to haunt me, and I gradually came to understand the difference between pleasure and happiness.  By the time I entered my twenties, I was a very frustrated and unhappy human being.

John Clayton as a Christian.  When science forced me to ultimately reject the atheist assumptions upon which I had based my life, and my study of various religions brought me to center on Christianity, my basis of making decisions in life had to change.  That was incredibly hard, and it did not happen overnight. God blessed me with the association of dedicated Christians including a wife who demonstrated decision-making to me based on the Bible, and over a ten-year period I came to understand how to make decisions in a different way.  The major event that catalyzed this process occurred when we decided to adopt a child and Tim became our son.

Tim was a normal newborn, but after six months we discovered that he had a number of birth defects that the medical establishment had missed.  My wife and I had a decision to make.  Were we going to try to raise a child with multiple birth defects or return him to the adoption agency, meaning he would most likely spend his life in foster homes.  Our Christian beliefs motivated us to decide we would go ahead and raise this baby to the best of our ability.  This was inconsistent with my parents morality.  "What will people think?" was one of the first things my mother said to me when she realized we were even considering continuing with the child.  When my parents realized that we were not going to follow their judgment in the matter, they had a local physician who was their family doctor call the adoption agency and try to force them to take the child away from us.  The analogy that the doctor used was that when you buy a used car and it has something major wrong with it, the car dealer is obligated to take the car back.  All of this was consistent with the way in which my family made moral decisions.

I share all of this to make the point that the methods of making a moral decision, when you have no absolute frame of reference to make the decision by, is so relative it is dysfunctional.  I once asked my father why he did not sleep around on my mother when I knew he could have and he responded that he guessed it was the way he was raised.  He was raised by a minister, and even though he lost his father at a young age his childhood biblical teaching was still the basis of much of his morality.  This point really came home for both of my parents when they faced death.   My father developed leukemia, and his whole attitude changed when he was faced with his eventual mortality.  He not only rejected his atheism, but also rejected the lifestyle that had been a part of his career years.  My mother lived to 93 years of age, and as she became dependent on others for basic things she too rejected her atheism, and also the university establishment.  What hit her the hardest was that when she had a stroke and was placed in the assisted living part of the university retirement center, she was not allowed to attend the faculty social events of the retirement center.  The realization that she was now one of the "untouchables" of the university establishment was a blow that angered and depressed her and caused her to want to move out of the university environment to the area where I lived.

As I have observed all of this, and as I have seen the inadequacy of these methods of making moral decisions I have also seen Christians faced with the same decisions and the same problems in life.  The three men who were leaders of the Church in South Bend when we moved here in 1959 have all passed from this life.  I watched all three of them as they dealt with the last years and days of their lives.  When they faced problems among their children, they used biblical principles to deal with what happened.  When they dealt with strokes and terminal diseases, their family and friends rallied around them and filled their last years, days, hours, and minutes with love.  I saw them give to others and to experience joy in that giving.  They taught me the morality of sharing and giving and serving, which they drew from the teachings of Christ.

In addition to what I saw in the lives of Christians I saw my own life blessed by the moral code that the Bible taught.  I never realized how deeply and how intimately love for one's wife could be until I saw the Christian plan for the home in operation.  When people I knew in the Church had problems they solved these problems using biblical principles.  It was not that these people or my wife and I had any more strength, wisdom, or knowledge than anyone else--it was that they had a method of making moral decisions that worked and led to joys that were beyond comprehension.  That also does not mean that the world of Christians is or was perfect.  Ecclesiastes 9:2-9 tells us that problems in life come to all of us as a matter of chance.  The writer says, "All things happen alike to all:  there is one chance for the righteous and for the wicked; to the good and to the bad, to the clean and to the unclean; to him who sacrifices and to him who does not sacrifice; as is the good man, so is the sinner: and he who swears is as he who fears an oath.  This is what is wrong in all that is done here under the sun: that one and the same fate befalls every man" (NEB).

We have had multiple problems in life.  My wife has had insulin-dependent diabetes since she was 10, and that has produced a multitude of health and relational problems.  Having a child born with multiple birth defects changes your life.  The change does not destroy you or your happiness, because the way you make moral decisions leads you to a new way of finding fulfillment and happiness in life.  We have built a ministry around helping people dealing with diabetes and its related complications and also with people struggling with birth defects in children.  This has led to new friends, new ways of enjoying life, and new opportunities to find joy in serving.

Does all of this mean that I do not make bad moral decisions?  Of course not. I am a human being, and I make mistakes.  The older I get, and the more wisdom I acquire as I see the consequences of selfish moral decisions, the less likely I am to make bad decisions.  I have an absolute standard by which I make decisions, and while my humanness and weakness may cause me to err, I will do it far less frequently than I would if I were still following the method of selfish goals being the driving force behind my decisions.  I may even eat the banana instead of the ice cream!

Editor's Note: We would like to remind our readers that we have books on each of the situations written above that can be secured from us on loan or at cost. Write us if you are interested. They are:
Timothy, My Son and Teacher--Multiple birth defects in children
Living Successfully with Diabetes--Diabetes and its complications
A Whiner's Guide to Chemotherapy--Cancer
I'd Offer You My Seat But It's Taken--Catastrophic injury/disease
All He Needs for Heaven--Major human disability
The Empty Crib--Problems of infertility and birth of a stillborn
The God of All Comfort--Encouragement for Christians dealing with suffering
Why I Left Atheism--John Clayton's autobiography

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, MayJun07.