Casting Stones

An article was posted to the Stanford Review Opinion section by Charlie Capps which was critical of the atheist, humanist and agnostic (AHA) community at Stanford and their decision to invite Greta Christina to speak about religion, sexuality, etc. He calls her views “Straw-Man” arguments; in other words, atheists attempting to antagonize Christianity and other religions have invented and imposed an image of theology that is arbitrary and false – a straw man, per se – and attacked it instead of actual Christian thought.

Admittedly an informed and thought out article, it elicits a response from the people he took issue with. As an atheist-humanist, I took it upon myself to provide such a response.

Greta Christina’s criticism of religion is that it is driven by “divine command theory,” such that religious people believe that morality derives from God, and that if God commands something, no matter how inhuman, then by its nature it is moral. Capps’ general criticism of Greta is that this view is not held by all Christians and shouldn’t be viewed as such. Yet Capps finds the “same mischaracterizations… to be rampant in the atheist community at Stanford, and elsewhere.”

I am not sure how many atheists or agnostics Capps talked to about Divine Command Theory before he declared such “mischaracterizations to be rampant,” but for someone who criticizes Greta Christina’s theories as “mischaracterizations” simply because not every Christian believes in Divine Command Theory, he seems awfully willing to state that atheists hold such views of Christians with rampancy.

Perhaps he is right that Greta places Christians in a category in which he himself does not belong, simply because some notable Christians believe so. Even so, it would be unfair of him to place all atheists in category that holds all religious views in simplistic terms, simply because a notable atheist believes so.

Greta is one atheist with one view. I for one do not hold that her views are necessarily characteristic of religion (note the necessarily). Her model when applied to absolutes, namely that all Christians believe that all morality comes from God’s commandment, would be as unfair as asserting that all atheists hold this model in such terms or that this view is “rampant.” Yet this doesn’t mean that the model is entirely false with a couple of revisions.

The idea of Capps that morality is grounded in a desire for human wellbeing is actually a view generally held by atheists. I believe that any suggestion that this view is not held by some Christians as well would be foolish. If a Christian woman peered into an alleyway to find a man bleeding and crying for help, she would help him out of goodwill. She wouldn’t ponder how to act according to scripture. In suggesting Divine Command Theory, I am not suggesting the latter. But this scenario is also not what we as Atheists are concerned about.

Atheists are more concerned about the severe consequences of religion – crusades, suicide bombings, etc. These events were unnatural; they would not have arisen by visceral moral convictions alone. These were cold, planned events.

And they arose not because those involved were confused about human wellbeing; it was because they sincerely believed that their actions were commanded, despite their bloodshed, just as when Abraham acted against all his moral instincts to sacrifice his only son Isaac simply because God commanded it. Isaac’s sacrifice would seem stunningly awful were it not for the involvement of God, and when God does get involved, Abraham is suddenly lauded for his willingness to follow God’s commandment to the bitter end. Divine command theory is a part of Christian thought, and it is the means through which the worst, most unnatural offenses of Christianity emerge.

This is not the “Straw-Man” Capps made it out to be. Divine Command Theory exists and poses a threat to us atheists, and humanity in general. Whether or not Divine Command Theory *should *influence Christian thought, whether it is the correct Christian theology, is another debate which is irrelevant to us atheists. If Capps does not fall into this category of Christians, I would support him. If Greta claims that this category encompasses all Christians, I would disagree.

But the apologetics posed by Charlie Capps that dissent from divine command theory avoid the practical consequences. And to criticize the atheists for their desire to emphasize this concept in Christianity is also misguided. I am not worried about the Christians like Charlie who are thoughtful and intelligent, who form alternative moral systems and who take passages in bible about stoning figuratively and ethically, rather than literally. I’m worried about the Christians who, upon reading such passages, start looking on the ground for stones to throw.

Connor Raikes is a current Stanford Freshman uncommitted to a major. He is another case of having too many interests and too few lives to pursue them. He is an atheist-humanist born and raised in a Catholic household who keeps himself informed to the best of his abilities out of respect for the religions he ultimately rejects.

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