When I tell atheists that I used to be an atheist, their attitude is typically skeptical. “It is the propagandists stock in trade to attempt to claim objectivity by saying that they used to be a part of the opposing camp. You were not an atheist, you are just saying that to get credibility for your apologetic arguments.” The truth is, however, that I was an atheist and even now I have a tremendous sympathy for many atheist arguments. As an example of this sympathy, let us take the argument that rages over the success of the United States and modern western societies. Modern western societies have experienced greater economic success and political freedom than any other societies in history. What is responsible for this increase in prosperity and happiness? Christians argue that Christian principles were the basis for the success. Atheists argue that secular principles were responsible for the success. The truth is, of course, far more complicated than either of these simplistic alternatives.
The Consequences of Divine Law
One of the largest problems with religion in human history is the simplistic belief that most religious believers have in divine law. For an uneducated person who does not know history, imposing divine law on society seems like a good idea. If you ask religious believers how society should be run, they will tell you that a set of divine laws should be imposed with an iron fist. Whether these well-meaning believers are Christians who want to enforce the Old Testament law of Moses or well-meaning Muslims who want to impose Sharia, they do not intend to make everyone miserable. Quite to the contrary, they are trying to improve peoples lives and earnestly believe that divine law will make the world a better place. Their beliefs tell them that God knows everything so what could make people happier than imposing God’s law? Unfortunately, imposing divine law on society is a horrific mistake and must lead to corruption and totalitarianism. Why?
Examining the nature of divine law, the answer becomes readily apparent. Divine law can be summarized as simplistic moral absolutes imposed with draconian penalties. Does someone commit adultery? Stone that person. Is someone a thief? Cut off that persons hand. Does someone question their parents or the divine nature? Kill them without hesitation. In most historical faiths, divine law is absolute morality imposed with zero tolerance for error and no allowance for human flaws. What could possibly be wrong with such a system? With no adulterers, thieves or blasphemers, society would be a better place and all the good people would live their lives happy and free!
Or possibly not. What would happen if human beings were not inherently good? What would happen if human beings were, in actual reality, incapable of abiding by such an inflexible moral code and every human being slipped once in a while? If human beings are incapable of perfect obedience, then everyone would end up dead if the law was impartially enforced. Surely God does not want that to happen? Surely we can make the occasional exception for a good person who makes the occasional slip?
Now once we have made an exception for “good” people who occasionally slip in an understandable way, the system has become corrupt. The enforcers of the law are exempting themselves from the law so that they can do the hard and unpleasant work of enforcing God’s law on others. In addition to himself, any enforcer of the law would naturally exempt his friends and his family. It is, after all, extremely difficult to be one of God’s select few good people and such hard work must come with a few perks. Those who recognize this reality and petition the enforcers with generous gifts of cash or favours might also be exempted.
All therefore whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do; but do not ye after their works: for they say, and do not. For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers. (Matthew 23:4)
When one examines the history of imposing divine law, one finds precisely this kind of ubiquitous corruption. Whether it is Moses slaughtering the worshippers of Baal, the Pharisees of Jesus day, catholic members of the inquisition, puritans in the New World or Mullahs imposing Sharia in Saudi Arabia the result is always the same. A small class of privileged enforcers of the divine law imposing unlivable burdens on people using draconian penalties that make people miserable. Because the law is commonly held to be God’s law, questioning it is blasphemy and all dissent is crushed with brutal methods. Is it any wonder that Enlightenment thinkers rejected the model of divine law and that those who wrote the United States constitution embraced this rejection and insisted on the “separation of church and state”? Modern atheists are correct that secular thinking helped free humanity from these chains. Modern atheists have good reason to be terrified of the simplistic ideas concerning divine law held by the faithful. (See my post on the politics of abortion to see more of my thoughts on religion and politics.)
The Advantage of Christianity
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)
The fact that secular ideas freed humanity from the chains of oppressive divine law, however, causes atheists to miss the contribution made by Christian teaching and thinking. Christian societies were only willing to embrace and tolerate secular Enlightenment ideas on the subject of divine law because Christians knew at some level that Jesus Christ had come to free us from the chains of the law of Moses. Paul, for example, explicitly teaches in Romans that the purpose of the law is to increase transgression that we might know that we are sinners in need of the grace and forgiveness of God. This rejection of legalism by historical Christianity is demonstrated by the fact that most Christians have routinely ignored one of the Ten Commandments by not strictly observing the Sabbath on Saturday. Because Christian society was fundamentally compatible with the separation of church and state in this way, it provided a fertile soil where the ideas of freedom and religious tolerance planted by secular thinkers (aided by some enlightened Christian thinkers it should be noted) could take root and grow.
This issue has a tremendous contemporary importance in the discussion of Muslim immigration into the West. Because many people including many Christians do not recognize that Christian doctrine contains vital foundations for religious freedom, they underestimate the importance of such foundations and believe that no harm will come to western societies because of Muslim immigration. Muslims can be “good” people who are well-meaning and their kindly intentions must surely mean that they will cause no harm?
Unfortunately, the simplistic notion that divine law is good for human beings because it was created by God is toxic to freedom and prosperity. For this reason, the imposition of Islamic law (Sharia) on western societies by well-meaning Muslims will have a catastrophic impact on human happiness and well-being just as Christian attempts to impose Old Testament law have in the past. It is because I fundamentally agree with atheists on the harmfulness of imposing divine law that I hope that western societies insist on the separation of church/mosque and state and take decisive measures to prevent the implementation of Sharia.
I dealt with the aspect of how God frees us from the law in “Abolish vs Fulfill“.