Faith, Acceptance, and Morality
Is there any connection?

I am convinced that the single greatest cause of atheism is not evidence, philosophy, higher criticism, pop psychology, evolution, or any of the other things that are frequently cited by skeptics. The greatest cause of atheism is the way people conduct themselves. This was drawn home to me recently in the Cincinnati airport as several of us watched the news on the airport news channel. One of the clips showed Bill Clinton leaving church with a Bible in his hand and shaking hands with the minister. The lady sitting next to me snorted, "How can anyone believe in God when Christians do stuff like he has done?"

This is a popular notion. It raises the valid question of whether there is any connection between what people believe religiously and what they do. I would like to suggest that it also raises the question of whether there is a difference between faith and acceptance. There is no question but that the followers of Christ and Christ himself taught and believed that the behavior of Christians would speak eloquently of their faith in Christ and their belief in God (Matthew 5:14-16; Acts 6:3; Acts 9:36-39; 1 Timothy 3:7; and 3 John 11). In our day and time, we have all known leaders in the church who have committed gross acts of immorality. Many of us who come from families made up of unbelievers or who work extensively with people who disbelieve know some of them who have high morals and whose conduct is above reproach. How can this be? Is it a proof that religious conviction has no correlation with moral behavior?

In this article, I would like to propose some ideas that I believe maybe helpful in addressing this problem. It is not the purpose of this discussion to justify any one person's behavior or to attack any person or group. I do believe that there are valid answers to this apparent anomaly, and I also believe that there is a valid argument for the existence of God from a moral standpoint.

There is a difference between faith and acceptance.

One of the buzz words in religion that always concerns me is the word accept when used in reference to one's salvation. People speak about "accepting Christ," many times without explaining what this phrase means. For many people, acceptance of something involves mental assent and nothing more. I once had a teenager in class whose behavior was highly destructive, even though she was supposed to be a Christian and, in fact, was very active in church activities. I tried to talk to her about her inconsistency of living destructively and yet being active in church programs. Her response to me was, "Well, I only go to church to get my folks off my back. It's a small price to pay for peace at home".

There have been politicians, community leaders and even church leaders who have found that going to church and even participating in some church activities is politically and socially advantageous. There is no real faith in God and certainly no belief that the Bible writings are true and should be followed as a guide to life. Atheists have complained over the years that they are pressured by the culture in which they live to conform to things religious in nature. Most of those things involve show--not the things which the Bible describes as pure and undefiled religion... to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction (James 1:27).

It is my suggestion that, when a religious figure engages in an act of gross immorality, the main problem is most likely a belief problem. Such a person may express great remorse for their acts, but the remorse may be over getting caught--not any real sorrow for the act. The constant bombardment of Christian beliefs by everything from the media to the entertainment industry to the educational establishment is going to produce doubt. Unless there is a conscious effort to remove that doubt, the motivation not to engage in things that are wrong (but bring pleasure) is weakened if not totally removed.

The media and the skeptic deliberately overlook the large number of good things done in the name of Christ.

A religious figure who makes a major moral blunder is front page news. What about the hundreds of thousands of true believers who do good things because of their faith? For every religious person who makes a moral error there are thousands who do not because of their religious views. More to the point is the fact that there is enormous good done by people who do what they do because of their faith. All across America and the world, there are hospitals built by believers as a reflection of their attempts to do the teachings of Christ. The needs of people are met locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally by people who do so as an expression of their faith.

Why is it that atheists, agnostics, and skeptics do not engage in these activities? Individuals may do some good things, but the dominance of Christian works in almost any area one wishes to investigate can be easily seen. The most dominant works done by Christians are not those high budget physical structures, but the daily service that individuals do to serve others.

The issue at hand is not what do individuals do, but rather what does the system do and teach.

Many years ago I heard a story about a famous writer named Carl Sandberg. Someone supposedly asked Sandberg what he thought about Christianity. He is reported to have said "I don't know; I've never seen it tried." In a sense, this is true and, in a sense, it is not. No one has lived the Christian system perfectly. To use the biblical statement, "All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23). The fact is, however, that there have been literally millions of people who have been benefitted by the system.

It is the Christian system which spoke against prejudice and bigotry, beginning with Jesus and the Samaritan woman and continuing to Peter's statement "God is no respecter of persons" (Acts 10:34). It is Christianity that taught that marriage should be one manŠone woman committed relationship with each caring for the other, not a male ownership of many women who were possessions. It is Christianity that presented religion as "to look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27)--not a building, shrine or pyramidal government. The list goes on and on as to all the good things and positive supports to all humans brought by Christianity.

We must hasten at this point to say that we are keenly aware that terrible things and gross injustices have been done in the name of Christianity--from the inquisitions to the Klu Klux Klan to religious wars. These things were done in diametric opposition to the teachings of Christ. There is an old saying that sitting in the hen house does not make you a hen. Jesus talked about loving one's enemy, turning the other check, returning good for evil, going the second mile, and being at peace with all men.

Where do the alternative religions and philosophies take us. If our behavior is evolutionarily determined, then survival of the fittest is the guide. Where does such a view take us? Can it deal with the realities of life? Is it a workable system. The fact that a famous atheist had numerous sexual liaisons seems to evade the notice of the press (Bertrand Russell, for example). Is this because it is an expected result of his philosophy and religious belief. I would suggest that is very likely.

There is a difference between perfection and faithfulness.

There is no human today who is perfect. There are many Christians who are faithful. These two statements are not contradictory. I can be faithful to my wife, but I cannot be perfect to my wife. People who criticize religion and bill it as useless frequently do so by pointing to something Christians need to be doing that they are not doing. This charge is incontestable. All of us lack vision and fail to see good that we could do that we are not doing.

The difference between the Christian and the atheist is that the Christian has every reason and motivation to do it even at great cost. If I believe there is a place for me in heaven, then what happens in this life is not of overriding importance. From an atheist view, the situation is exactly the opposite. If there is no life after this life and no gain of any sort for me to do good or live a certain way, why would I do it? All kinds of rhetoric can be given on this subject; but when you get down to basics, from an atheist viewpoint, there is no real reason to do anything that does not bring me immediate gratification.

Being a faithful Christian means "laying up treasure in Heaven," to use Jesus' words. It is not about expecting to be perfect, but about how we lead our lives.

--John N. Clayton

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