“I can be good without god.”
– Dylan Galos, Columbus
Student … Atheist
It was part of the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “Out of the Closet” campaign and was one of seven billboards in the area featuring local atheists. Shortly after it was placed, a local church complained to Matrix Media Services, the company that, along with Clear Channel Outdoor, was placing all of the billboards for a month-long lease. The sign was moved to another location. The FFRF was surprised by the speed with which the company had acquiesced to the church’s demands and assumed the move was due solely to the complaint.
“The action of this censorious church shows exactly why our campaign, intended to encourage social acceptance of nonbelievers, is so important,” said FFRF co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor in an FFRF press release. “Do its deacons truly believe one can’t be good without god? Nonbelievers know that it is not what you believe, but how you act, that makes you a moral person. We don’t feel the need to be rewarded in heaven or threatened with everlasting punishment in order to do good and be ethical.”
It turned out that the land on which the billboard was posted was owned by Christ Cathedral Church, and that church’s pastor, Waymon Malone, Jr., had filed the complaint with the billboard company. That was perfectly within the church’s right, of course. But if the church was leasing its property for commercial purposes, then it should be paying property taxes. But FFRF could find no evidence that property taxes were being paid — and neither could Franklin County Auditor Clarence Mingo III. After investigating, the auditor determined that the one-tenth of an acre on which the billboard stood would be taxed at a yearly rate of $185.
But Christ Cathedral Church owned the property directly behind the billboard, as well. It had been purchased in 2006 for $550,000 and was almost entirely tax exempt because it was listed as a “place of worship.” The small portion of the property that is not tax exempt is being rented on a month-to-month basis by a dentist who was a tenant before the church purchased it. But the rest of the property is leased by private businesses, like Teach & Learn Child Care. Two of the businesses — AMC Realty and AMC Transport — are headed by a man named Anthony Malone, who is apparently related to Pastor Malone.
As a result of the auditor’s investigation prompted by the incident, the property will now be fully taxed. Christ Cathedral Church now owes $1,900 in back taxes and penalties for 2010 and will be expected to pay property taxes of $18,000 for the commercial property it had previously identified as a “place of worship.”
It’s important to note that the FFRF commissioned a package of billboards, but they neither specified nor chose the locations of those billboards. That’s how billboard packages work. The FFRF did not request that the billboard be placed on Christ Cathedral Church’s property, and they did not know at the time that the property belonged to the church.
When it turned out that Christ Cathedral Church was breaking the law by not paying taxes on property leased for commercial purposes — and further, that Pastor Malone was renting the property to the businesses of a relative — one might think fellow Christians would gently scold their brethren for engaging in such deception. After all, Christ Church Cathedral went through the process of having that property listed as a tax exempt “place of worship,” so clearly they were aware of the restrictions in place and had to know they were breaking the law.
But the response to this story — from the popular website ChristianPost.com, anyway — reserved its scolding for the FFRF. Christian Post ran the story under the headline Ohio Church Under Attack by Atheist Group.
“When Christ Cathedral Church in Columbus, Ohio had an atheist billboard removed from its property back in June, it thought it had heard the last from the billboard’s sponsor, the so-called Freedom From Religion Foundation. But the atheist organization, based in Madison, Wisc., found another way to attack the church. It sicked [sic] the Franklin County, Ohio Auditor’s Office on Christ Cathedral, claiming that the church was required to pay property taxes on the land on which the billboard stood, because it was used for
Notice the wording here. By stating that the FFRF “found another way to attack the church,” the Christian Post suggests that the initial billboard was an attack on Christ Cathedral Church. The FFRF had nothing to do with the placement of the billboard on the church’s property. It was not an attack and was, in fact, quite inadvertent. It’s safe to say that author Joseph Perkins knew that when he wrote the article, but he chose to characterize the story in a different way. He chose to dishonestly misrepresent the FFRF and portray the deceptive, tax-evading church as a victim.
The billboard itself is similar to many showing up around the country, placed by the FFRF and other similar organizations. These billboards are not an attack on Christianity in particular or religion in general, nor are they trying to change anyone’s mind or win converts. They are not an attempt to impose atheism on anyone. The billboards serve two purposes.
First of all, they let closeted nonbelievers know that their lack of belief does not make them bad people. This is necessary due to the widespread notion that people who do not believe in god have no morals and are nihilists who believe in nothing and for whom life has no meaning. This misconception is widespread thanks mostly to believers who perpetuate it.
I don’t go around announcing to people that I’m an atheist, but if, in the course of a conversation, it comes up, or I’m specifically asked about my religious beliefs, I’m open about it. More often than not, the response is one of horror, frequently accompanied by a gasp, as if I’d just announced that I make my living running a profitable child slavery ring. On several occasions, the next question has been, “But where do you get your morals?” The question is not approached cautiously — it is asked directly, without hesitation and in precisely those words. My response is always, “I have them shipped in from Europe. If I order in bulk, they send me a nice package of espresso as a bonus.” But that’s only because, in addition to being an atheist, I’m a smartass, and I enjoy highlighting the ignorance and offensiveness of that deeply stupid question. The fact that I’ve been asked this question so many times points out the need for these billboards.
The other purpose the billboards serve is simply to introduce a community to the fact that atheists are among their friends, relatives and coworkers. They are productive and happy members of every community and are not the amoral fiends so many wrongly believe them to be. They are parents, grandparents, students, teachers, friends, business owners and charity workers. The fact that they are nonbelievers is made relevant only by the untruths repeated and believed about them. The phrase “I can be good without god” is not an attack on anyone. It is, if anything, a response.
But the Christian Post characterized this entire incident as not just one but two atheist “attacks” on a Christian church. What did Perkins’s article have to say about the fact that Christ Cathedral Church had engaged in deception to avoid paying property taxes?
“Although it would seem that the out-of-state organization would have no legal standing to bring a tax claim against the Ohio church, Franklin County Auditor Clarence Mingo sided with the atheists. So Christ Cathedral Church now finds itself liable for roughly $20,000 in commercial property taxes, as FFRF gloats on its website. On its Facebook page, the church informed its congregation it had been targeted by ‘Satan and his imps.’”
Here the website places blame not only on the FFRF, but also on the county auditor, who it claims “sided with the atheists.” But the auditor, in fact, sided with the law. That the FFRF is an “out-of-state organization” has no bearing on the fact that Christ Cathedral Church broke the law. And how much maturity and integrity does the church show when it refers to the FFRF as “Satan and his imps?”
Does the Christian Post address the church’s guilt? No. Not even indirectly. Instead, it suggests a racial motive on the FFRF’s part:
“It seemed more than coincidental to some that the pictured atheist student was black, just like Christ Cathedral’s pastor. That suggested to some that FFRF is taking its crusade against religion — which heretofore has concentrated on the white evangelical community — to the black church.”
Again, it accuses the FFRF of being on a “crusade against religion” and makes a long, clumsy reach for a racial angle. The article has absolutely nothing to say about the church’s responsibility for its crime, which never would have been discovered had Pastor Malone and his church not been so brutally offended by the simple, non-threatening, non-hostile statement, “I can be good without god.” Instead, it illogically — one might even say irrationally — devotes itself to casting blame for the church’s tax evasion on the people who discovered it.
For nonbelievers who have any experience dealing directly with organized religion, this comes as no surprise. It is, in fact, tiresomely predictable. But for all its predictability, it remains quite irritating when you consider how often organized religion in general and Christianity in particular points an accusing and condemning finger at others.
Personally, I find it rather infuriating, because the people who so often ask me, “But where do you get your morals?” when they learn I am an atheist seem to find it difficult or impossible to question the morality of religion, no matter how often religion engages in openly and blatantly immoral activity. No matter how shameless the behavior — the fleecing of the flock by greedy, lying televangelists, the rape of children by priests and bishops, or physical abuse or murder for religious reasons — religion always seems to get a pass.
Here in northern California, where I live, people are reacting to a recent shooting in Cupertino. 47-year-old Shareef Allman, a disgruntled employee of a limestone quarry, opened fire at an early-morning safety meeting, killing three and injuring seven, including a woman he carjacked a few miles away. While writing this, I’ve been listening to a San Francisco talk radio station as listeners call in to express their horror. Among the callers have been friends and acquaintances of Allman’s, all of whom have said they are shocked by his behavior. One of things repeated by several callers was disbelief that Allman could do such a thing because he was a such a good, church-going Christian who believed in and loved god.
How many times have we heard that? Someone commits a murder — or several murders — and those who knew him are baffled by it because he was such a good Christian and was actively involved in his church. It happens over and over again, and no matter how many times it happens, people voice the same confusion every. Single. Time. As if no church-going, god-fearing Christian had ever done a bad thing before, ever, in the history of humankind, as if a belief in god is an iron-clad guarantee that a person will never behave badly or hurt anyone in his or her lifetime. We know that’s not true, and yet, when confronted with that truth, people always behave as if it has happened for the first shocking time.
Do people do that because they have short memories? Or do they do it because they simply refuse to connect bad behavior to religion in any way, even though all of human history shows us the utterly delusional wrong-headedness of that kind of thinking?
When was the last time you heard this: “Oh, he was an atheist! Well, no wonder he went on a killing spree!”
I’m not trying to say that all people of faith are immoral and corrupt and all atheists are shining examples of unblemished behavior. That would be wildly untrue — and insane. But there is a widely held opinion that belief in god and adherence to religious laws are essential for a healthy, functional society, and that a rejection of religion is at the root of all societal problems. How many times have we been told here in the United States — which some wrongly insist is a “Christian nation” founded on Christian principles — that we need to go “back to god,” that all of our problems began when god and the bible were removed from public schools, that secularism will destroy our society. We’re told that god is on our side, and even our money reads “In God We Trust” (which seems at least somewhat appropriate given how devoutly we worship money in this country).
In September of 2011, Pope Benedict XVI toured Germany and at a stop in Erfurt, he told believers that the most important thing all Christians could do was combat “the push of secularism.” He said, “The more the world moves away from God, the more clear it becomes that man, in the hubris of power, the void in his heart and in the longing for fulfillment and happiness, is losing ever more touch with his life.” (He also said he was very upset about the children who’ve been raped by the priests and bishops he’s been protecting, but that’s for another blog.) Is secularism our biggest problem? Really? And is religion the answer to that problem? To any of our problems?
The long-held belief that religion keeps a society healthy and secularism makes it sick might sound good, and to many it might feel right. But it conflicts with the facts. While it’s true that religion has never had much use for facts, they stubbornly continue to exist and remain relevant. These particular facts are not on religion’s side.
In his article “Sects and Violence,” Pitzer College associate professor of sociology Phil Zuckerman discusses the research of Gregory S. Paul. Paul compiled data from the International Social Survey Programme, Gallup and other sources to correlate rates of religious belief and nonbelief with various measures of societal health, and his results were published in the Journal of Religion and Society. Paul found that:
“In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies. … No democracy is known to have combined strong religiosity and popular denial of evolution with high rates of societal health. Higher rates of non-theism and acceptance of human evolution usually correlate with lower rates of dysfunction, and the least theistic nations are usually the least dysfunctional.”
Zuckerman makes an important distinction in his article between nations with high levels of “organic atheism” and those where it is enforced by totalitarian governments:
“One must always be careful, of course, to distinguish between totalitarian nations where atheism is forced upon an unwilling population (such as in North Korea, China, Vietnam, and the former Soviet states) and open, democratic nations where atheism is freely chosen by a well-educated population (as in Sweden, the Netherlands, or Japan). The former nations’ nonreligion, which can be described as ‘coercive atheism,’ is plagued by all that comes with totalitarianism: corruption, economic stagnation, censorship, depression, and the like. However, nearly every nation with high levels of ‘organic atheism’ is a veritable model of societal health.”
Where does the United States fit into all of this? When it comes to belief in god, the divine inspiration and literal interpretation of the bible, prayer, the divinity of Jesus Christ and the frequency of church attendance, the U.S. is the most religious industrialized nation in the West with the possible exception of Ireland. When it comes to societal health, the U.S. does well and ranked eighth in the United Nations’ 2004 “Human Development Index.” But, according to Zuckerman:
” … when we compare the United States to its peer nations — i.e., developed, industrialized, democratic nations such as Canada, Japan, and the nations of Europe — its standing in terms of societal health plummets. The United States has far higher homicide, poverty, obesity, and homelessness rates than any of its more secular peer nations. … The fact is that extremely secular nations such as Japan and Sweden are much safer, cleaner, healthier, better educated, and more humane when compared to the United States, despite
the latter’s exceptionally strong levels of theism.”
I hope you’ll read Zuckerman’s article and take a look at Paul’s work, because they show that the facts simply do not fall in line with the popular belief that religious adherence improves the health of a society.
Why, then, is the statement “I can be good without god” so offensive to so many people? Why do we continue to buy into the demonstrably untrue claim that religion makes all of us better people and is necessary in order to be a moral person? I think it has a lot to do with marketing.
We also refer to the bible as “the good book,” when in fact, it’s a book that condones things like slavery (Exodus 21; Deuteronomy 15), child abuse (Genesis 22; Deuteronomy 21; Judges 11, etc.), torture (Exodus 21:20,21, Deuteronomy 25:2, 1 Samuel 5:9, Proverbs 19:18, 19:29, 26:3, Psalm 89:31, 32, Revelation 9:5,6, etc.), rape (Deuteronomy 20 – 22, Numbers 31, Judges 21, 2, Samuel 12, Zech 14:1,2, etc.) incest (Genesis 4:16 – 17, 11:26 – 29, 19:31 – 36, 20:12 – 13, Exodus 6:19 – 20, II Kings 13), murder (Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, etc.), genocide (Exodus 34:11 – 13, Leviticus 26:7 – 8, 1 Samuel 15:2 – 3, etc.), and even — GASP! — communism (Exodus 16:16 – 18, Acts 2:44 – 45, 4:34 – 37, etc.). But we’re all told from the earliest age that it’s the “good book.” Many religious parents try to prevent their children from reading Harry Potter books, but they have no trouble at all with the idea of their children reading the bloody, perverse book we call the bible.
Marketing is a powerful thing. If we’re repeatedly told something long enough — like the claim that religion will solve all our problems and the lack of religion will create nothing but problems, or the idea that the bible is a book of love and the source of all morality — we come to believe it so completely that we don’t check it out for ourselves or even question it.
Again, I’m not trying to say that religious people are all corrupt, immoral monsters, so please don’t accuse me of that. People are people, whether they’re religious or not. I’m simply pointing out that religion is not a guarantee — or even an indication — of morality. And sometimes it can be used to justify a lot of extremely bad behavior.
For many, religion has come to represent, in and of itself, moral superiority. Many people think that simply by virtue of their belief in god and their church attendance, they occupy the moral high ground. Christianity, for example, provides forgiveness of sin by Jesus Christ, and all you have to do is ask for it. How many times have we seen religious politicians or wealthy televangelists get caught with their pants down, only to hear them say, after the fact, that Jesus has forgiven them, so everyone else should, too? If you have an easy out, a quick way to clean the slate of your wrongdoing, then what keeps you from doing that wrong? If the only thing you have to answer to is an invisible man in the sky whose job it is to forgive his followers when they ask for it, then blowing it really isn’t that big of a deal.
Most religions teach that being good is rewarded in an afterlife of eternal bliss and being bad is punished by eternal torment. Raised as a Christian, I found that this damages a lot of people’s ability to empathize with others. If you’re a Christian, then you are taught that those who do not adhere to the rules of your religion will go to hell. That means that someone you might care about personally will not be with you in heaven. I was taught this as a very small child. It requires you to turn off your compassion for those who are outside your religious circle. That is a very dangerous thing. I’ve seen it happen, I was told to do it myself and I have been on the receiving end of it from people I loved very much. If you are able to turn off your compassion for someone you believe will be punished by god while you’re rewarded with eternal life — especially if it’s someone you care about — then it’s not always easy to turn that compassion back on. The very idea of hell requires one to be indifferent to suffering. And for some, it even justifies enjoying the idea. I’ve known many Christians who actually relish the thought of others — people they perceive as morally inferior to them — burning in hell. How loving and humane is that?
Many religions teach people that they are guided by god. They come to believe that their very thoughts and emotions are the result of god’s manipulation. And not only does god work in mysterious ways, but he’s never wrong. If you think you’re being guided by god — not in a mentally ill way, but in a way that is commensurate with your religious beliefs — then you’re less likely to question or analyze your own behavior and you can end up doing some pretty bad things without ever analyzing them or considering their effect on others.
If you think your beliefs are absolute truths that cannot waver in any way, then getting those truths across or enforcing them in others may not require behavior that is strictly honorable or caring. No matter what you do, those truths will remain absolutes, and besides, you can simply ask for forgiveness, right?
Religion is not the source of morality. Religion and morality are two separate things, and sometimes they conflict. A quick review of the things god tells his people to do in the bible will confirm that.
So why is it so wrong to say “I can be good without god?” And why are so many unable to see that a whole lot of people are bad with god?
Pastor Waymon Malone and his congregation at Christ Cathedral Church should be asking themselves these questions. They won’t — but they should. They should denounce the nasty, untrue article in the Christian Post and Pastor Malone should admit that he broke the law by not paying taxes and that he lied when he claimed the church’s property was a “place of worship.” They won’t — but they should. They won’t because they don’t have to — they’re already forgiven and they’ve got god on their side. They should simply because it’s the right thing to do.
And everyone — all of us — should stop and think before asking someone where he or she gets his morals, or automatically assuming that, because someone does not adhere to one’s own personal beliefs, he or she is immoral. Everyone should … but they won’t.
People can be good with god, sure. But there are a whole lot of people who are bad with god, too, and we need to stop deluding ourselves into ignoring that fact. Belief in god is not a shortcut to morality and church attendance is not emblematic of a good person What a person believes really doesn’t matter. What matters is how a person lives. That should be our focus — how we live. Unfortunately, that focus, more often than not, is blurred by religion.