The Judeo-Christian Atheist
“Morality is the custom of one’s country and the current feelings of one’s peers. Cannibalism is moral in a cannibalistic country” –– Samuel Butler (19th Century British Novelist).
Although spanning only two sentences and consisting of just 21 words, Butler’s statement pretty much says everything that needs to be said about morality in a universe without God. In the world of the atheist “morality” has no actual significance; it is simply a word that is used to identify the “custom of one’s country,” the “current feelings of one’s peers” and personal preferences and psychological conditioning.
For the non-believer, the statement “murder is immoral” does not reflect some underlying existent reality or truth about our universe. It is simply a statement about the way people in our society feel about things today.
It can be stretched and pulled and transformed into anything we’d like — as long as enough people agree or can be convinced of its validity. For example: Murder is immoral; but it is not murder to lynch a black man who acts in a lewd manner towards a white woman; it is actually a public service. It is unmistakably clear from the expressions on the faces of those mugging for the camera at lynchings that they didn’t feel there was anything at all immoral about what had transpired. These were people who loved their children, spouses, parents, friends, dogs and many of them were fine upstanding and moral members of their communities. They were simply following the “customs of their country” and abided by the deeply held “current feelings of their peers.” Lynching is moral in a society that accepts lynchings.
Or: Murder is immoral; however, a fetus is not a human being until it fully emerges from the uterus and birth canal of the female body where it has developed and can be destroyed at any point prior to full emergence. Abortion is moral in a society that accepts abortions. The opposite is also true.
The realization that the term “moral values” is interchangeable and synonymous with personal preference, societal conditioning and the latest public opinion poll, is not very uplifting. As atheist philosopher Michael Ruse put it: “Morality is just a matter of emotions, like liking ice cream and sex and hating toothaches and marking student papers…Now that you know that morality is an illusion put in place by your genes to make you a social cooperator, what’s to stop you behaving like an ancient Roman [raping and pillaging]? Well, nothing in an objective sense.”
Greg Epstein (ordained atheist/humanist “rabbi”) and Bart Campolo (a former Christian minister) seem to disagree with Ruse. Epstein’s book, Good Without God: What a Billion Nonreligious People Believe, was one of the factors that inspired Campolo to become a Humanist Chaplain at USC, according to a recent New York Times article by Mark Oppenheim. The article described Campolo as “the son of a famous pastor…now a rising star of atheism.”
It is worthwhile noting that neither are militant atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. Epstein, also a campus Chaplain, once graciously informed an interviewer that he’s “not out to poach souls from the nearby [Jewish] Hillel House or the Catholic Newman Center.” (Perhaps he’s not out to poach souls, because he doesn’t believe in the existence of souls)
Be that as it may, Epstein and Campolo, who strongly believe that people “can lead good and moral lives without supernaturalism, without higher powers, without God” are still stuck with the intractable philosophical problem of how “leading a good life” can possibly mean anything other than simply doing what is acceptable in one’s own society and era; whether it is helping old ladies across the street and enjoying a Thanksgiving dinner with friends, or cheering as gladiators kill each other in the Roman Coliseum and participating in a public feast of a dozen cooked human beings, as was the custom among 19th century natives in the Fiji Islands.
It is self-apparent that in a universe consisting of nothing but mass, energy, light waves and the laws of chemistry and physics, morality means whatever you want it to mean. Ultimately, for the atheist, there is nothing that is truly “moral” and nothing truly “immoral.” There is only what I like and what I don’t like. The only “moral boundaries” that would prevent the humanist/atheist from committing murder with impunity (assuming a powerful motive) are the potency of one’s inborn nature and societal and psychological conditioning – and once overcoming those – the question: Do I think I can get away with it?
Despite this, I am certain that both Epstein and Campolo are very pleasant people and I’m not worried about them committing violent crimes. This is because they are not real atheists. They have not formulated their value systems by following an atheistic world view to its logical end, which is amorality. They are Judeo-Christian Atheists. Their values are drawn from the eternal, unshakeable, God-centered values of the society in which they have been raised.
The fundamental moral principle of Judeo-Christian society – which we take for granted but which was revolutionary when first introduced by the Israelites – is that all human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis, Chapter 1). All human beings, therefore, have value that transcends the entire physical universe. All human beings stand equal before their infinite, transcendent Creator. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they have been endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights.” This provides a rock-solid foundation for what is commonly called ethical and moral behavior towards our fellow human beings. It is this principle that has been embraced by humanists like Epstein and Campolo (and then quietly dropped the God part).
Human beings certainly don’t have value just because their structure is carbon-based. The preciousness of a human life certainly does not spring from the assertion that a bacterial cell emerged from a pre-biotic swamp by some lucky fluke, and then evolved into cockroaches, chimpanzees and the upright walking primate we call homo sapiens. Having evolved more brain power than a lobster may make us smarter than a lobster, but it does not provide us with any compelling principle why we should not boil humans alive and eat them just like lobsters. Focusing on the reality and truths of an atheistic world view lead us to the dreary conclusion of Sigmund Freud: “When a man contemplates the meaning and value of life he is sick, because objectively neither has any existence.”
Joseph Stalin and Mao-Tse-Tung – two brutal Communist dictators — were real atheists. None of this Genesis-image-of-God-nonsense. They murdered scores of millions and shed oceans of blood without batting an eyelash. After all, if you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to crack a few eggs.
Thank God for Judeo-Christian Atheists like Greg Epstein and Bart Campolo.
Rabbi Moshe Averick is the author of The Confused World of Modern Atheism (Mosaica Press, 2016) available on Amazon and in fine bookstores. He was ordained as an Orthodox Rabbi in 1980 and has taught Judaic studies, spirituality, and Jewish theology for over three decades. He may be contacted at: [email protected]. If you would like to subscribe to his column, send an email to above address with the word “Subscribe” in the subject line.