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Never Forgiven: Internet Outrage as a Glimpse into Post-Christian Morality

September 3, 2015

At times, I have had Christian and other religious commenters argue that morality was developed by religion. I think that many secular, agnostic, and atheist folks have heard this claim in one way or another — if we do not believe in God or do not adhere to a religion, from where do we get our morality? Recently, Jeff at Wheat & Tares used it as one of his points on his discussion of atheism.

One of the things I typically do in instances like these is to show examples of where Christian morality says one thing, show where that is disputed or disagreed with by others (especially secular/agnostic/atheist folks), and then point out that if morality came from God or religion, then we shouldn’t see that disagreement. Often, my religious interlocutor will argue that what is disagreeable in religion represents a distortion or an instance of hypocrisy…so I’ll point out that how that disagreement really isn’t a matter of people failing to live up to their religions, but them living up to their religions with stunning fidelity.

For example, conservative Christians will point out that the Bible is clear on homosexuality, and although liberal Christians will quibble around whether certain passages mean certain things or not, the relevant point is that when conservative Christians act on their beliefs regarding homosexuality regarding things like same-sex marriage, this isn’t just “Christians acting poorly” or “Christians acting hypocritically” — this is what their religion actually believes and they are following that. So someone who disagrees with that is basing their morality on a system separate from those religious precepts and that God.

Some of my interlocutors have gone one step further, however. They say that even secular people, when they are raised in historically Christian countries as in Europe or in North America, are steeped in Christian discourse and virtues, so even their departure from Christianity is particularly Christian. For example, they might say that the idea of the equality of people is a Christian idea, so people arguing for the equality of women, equality of LGBT people, etc., in the space of civil rights borrow that idea from Christianity even if Christians disagree on the application of that idea for various reasons.

I’m not sure I totally buy that argument, but it’s something to think about.

However, where some of my interlocutors go even further is that they suggest that this system only works as long as the Christian foundation exists. So, they would say if you look to secular societies that don’t have a Christian foundation, you have very different results. But even more…if societies with a Christian foundation forgot those Christian roots, then they would also get very different results.

In my life, I can see something like this: I recognize that being raised in the Mormon church gives me a very Mormon foundation. Even as an ex-Mormon, I have Mormonism as my primary religious language, and my habits are Mormon. Even if I depart from the Word of Wisdom, I am not at the same level as someone who was never Mormon in terms of familiarity to bars, alcohol, and so forth.

But if I were to have a child, it would be highly unlikely for them to have a similar relationship to Mormonism. They probably wouldn’t find the fringe Mormon stuff I find interesting to be all that interesting…but even more, they probably wouldn’t have the deep-seated Mormon intuitions that I still have in many areas. (And likewise, I do not have the pastiche of intuitions and awareness that my parents — who are converts with more diverse churches in their histories — have.)

That being said, I want to give a caveat right now. As I wrote in my previous church on the metaphor of Church as Spouse, I am not sure there is a pure Mormonism or a pure Christianity. I think it makes sense to say in certain contexts that America is a deeply Christian nation, but I also think it makes sense to say in other contexts that Christianity as practiced in America — or practiced anywhere, really — absorbs flavors from the surrounding not-necessarily-so-Christian culture. I can see why Christians would want to look at these instances as being “Christians not acting in accordance with Christianity,” whereas I often look at these instances as being, “what Christianity as practiced by 21st century Americans actually entails.”

So, the caveat is this: the things I will describe throughout this post are not just secular things. I can think of several Christians who would take similar views and not feel that those things violate their beliefs at all.

Forgiveness

In some ways, this post is a response to my earlier post “All Is Forgiven: Why Conservative Christians Get Away With Adultery.” Therein, I hypothesized that Christianity builds failure into its theology, so individual moral failures are not problematic if someone apologizes and repents of those failures. (That being said, I think Jewelfox had a great counterpoint that this forgiveness isn’t universal…focusing on well-known white Christian men obscures the fact that the forgiveness afforded to these men could just be their male privilege in an intensely authoritarian, patriarchal system. In contrast, such forgiveness might not be similarly afforded to women or children.)

…So, forgiveness is already a problematized concept in Christianity…

Yet.

It seems to me that some Christians idealize forgiveness (even if in actuality, they may not live up to those standards) in a way that many non-Christians do not. (And again, I caveat: many Christians will not idealize forgiveness…and also, many non-Christians will. Perhaps what I am describing is not a Christian vs. Non-Christian dichotomy, but just differing trends I’ve seen in people of various stripes)

The example I want to use is Kim Davis.

Kim Davis, Rowan County Clerk

If you aren’t aware of the basic story, Kim Davis is a born-again Christian who a county clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky. As part of her conservative Christian beliefs, she does not agree with same-sex marriage. As a result, she has refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This is not OK, as even the Supreme Court has spoken that she must issue the licenses, but she continues to refuse.

Predictably, this news story is a gold mine for outrage on the internet. And predictably, that outrage picks at a lot of aspects of Kim’s life…as another blogger has discussed, the outrage has included general misogyny, body shaming, combing over her own personal relationship details (to argue that she is a hypocrite and thus unqualified to comment on anyone else’s marriage), and calls for her to go to jail. But the thing I want to discuss is the last part of the blog post:

Finally, I’m deeply uncomfortable with people excited about the prospect of Kim Davis being jailed. Why is the carceral state the solution? Why must imprisonment be a real value that we embrace, particular as a means of increasing freedoms? Especially when we live in a country with a wholly corrupt, dehumanizing carceral system? Why do we continue to insist upon, as Chandan Reddy points out, degrees of oppressive state control to bulwark liberal freedoms? Are we not more than this?

In short, Kim Davis is a flawed, messy human. She’s one that is marshaling powerful, aggrieved Christian hegemony to make terrible choices. That should be called out without attacking her body, her sexual/personal choices, her gender, or wishing imprisonment. If we are committed to transformative justice, than we NEED to ‪#‎bebetter‬. We need to be more than this. We need to not embrace regressive, dark, or terrible things because we think it makes us free or more righteous.

I note that despite the critique of the carceral system and even the “powerful, aggrieved Christian hegemony,” this blogger self-describes as a “snarky queer black unicorn” and on the “About Me” page adds “Christian”. This part that I quote, especially that last paragraph, fits into a particular Christian narrative — Kim Davis is wrong, yes. (Early in the blog post, the author describes Davis as “making vile, calculated fuckery to deny legal rights to couples to marry”, so there is no disagreement on the actions’ wrongness.) She is a “flawed, messy human,” yes. But aren’t we all? is the implied afterword. We must be committed to transformative justice not just because she needs to be better because we need to be better.

Another commenter on another site put it like this:

Be kind to Kim Davis.

She is wrong – morally and legally and constitutionally and she is just plain wrong.

But she is not evil.

She really, truly believes in some things that are wrong. Wrong is not Evil.

She never understood the sophistication, strategy and goals of the people who want her in jail. They need a martyr. So, let’s talk about them! Who is funding her lawyers? Why are they advising her to go to prison?

She is not evil. She’s probably no worse than you are, on balance.

Kim Davis needs and deserves love and kindness.

She’s probably no worse than you are, on balance. This is an idea that I hear from Christians sometimes, even if it doesn’t feel like it is acted upon. Everyone sins, so everyone needs grace, right? (Yet it seems that some sins are hounded on more than others.)

Yet this blog post and this comment comes into response to people who think otherwise. I cannot say what particular comment triggered these articles and comments, but I can say that this general sentiment is going around on the internet. And I’ll list just a few quotes:

i don’t care what someone is in their heart of hearts if they are doing evil.

and

I don’t think this is about anyone deserving kindness. Do your job or quit.

and this point by point response:

Be kind to Kim Davis.

No.

But she is not evil.

She might be a delightful person, she might be Hitler reincarnated, I don’t care. Her actions are evil.

She is not evil. She’s probably no worse than you are, on balance.

Nope. She’s way worse than me. I don’t believe that some stupid bullshit written two thousand years ago gives me the ability to deny basic equality to a class of people.

Kim Davis needs and deserves love and kindness.

No, she needs to lose her fucking job and/or go to jail for refusing to do it. I give zero fucks what she looks like or wears or how many times she’s been married. She’s using horseshit religious garbage to tell people like me that we don’t get to be full citizens. Fuck that shit sideways. She needs and deserves to be shunned, unemployed, and jailed for refusing to do her fucking job.

Seriously. This is not some oh haha misunderstanding, this is not a point upon which reasonable people can disagree: she is perpetuating and perpetrating bigotry and hatred and she needs to cut it the fuck out. She can go on believing whatever antiquated nonsense she wants. What she’s not allowed to do is ignore the law of the land that says me, and people like me, actually get to be full citizens.

Now, again, I haven’t checked to see the religious backgrounds of all of these commenters…as I caveated above, I think on any number of issues, you could find non-Christian folks advocating for forgiveness and Christian folks advocating for the swift and uncompromising gavel of justice (I mean, normally, don’t we associate being “tough on crime” as a very conservative, often Christian position?), but whatever the nominal backgrounds of the participants involved, there seems to be a different approach to forgiveness.

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14 Comments
  1. Agellius permalink

    For me, the reason morality needs God is because without some objective foundation for morality, morality becomes subjective, that is, different for everyone, with no way of adjudicating who’s right. This is not to say that people who don’t believe in God can’t be moral, just that if you press them to support their morality, that is, give reasons why other people should agree with it, they won’t be able to give an ultimate answer that doesn’t boil down to saying “this is my preference”.

  2. I don’t want to undercut the work of secular/nontheist philosophers who want to develop frameworks for objective morality that do not involve God, but it seems to me that in practice, morality is pretty subjective for everyone — including theists.

    Even an appeal to God doesn’t really work if theists cannot agree upon what God is saying/meaning, and thus there are different religions and or denominations that make different pronunciations about God. At the end of the day, if you press most theists to support their morality, that is, give reasons why other people should agree with it, they also won’t be able to give an ultimate answer that doesn’t boil down to saying, “I believe God said that.”

    • Agellius permalink

      I’m not talking about what “works” or whether this or that individual theist won’t let some subjective element creep into his moral analyses. What I’m saying is that any moral system that doesn’t have an ultimate objective basis, will be ultimately subjective. This is obvious to the point of being a truism.

      I haven’t taken a poll, but I’m sure that even among philosophers who are trying to develop “frameworks for objective morality that do not involve God”, few of them would deny that God *can* serve as an ultimate basis for morality, even if they deny that he’s the only thing that can.

      • I’m saying that if most or all theists actually do have subjective elements in their moral analyses, then we should at least consider whether those subjective elements perhaps are an integral aspect of those analyses.

        FWIW, I’m not sure whether an objective morality that doesn’t take subjectivity into account even makes sense.

        IMO, moral systems based on God sound like, “well, God’s subjective opinion matters most”.

        • Agellius permalink

          “IMO, moral systems based on God sound like, ‘well, God’s subjective opinion matters most’.”

          That makes sense given the Mormon concept of God that you probably grew up with, who is not the source of morality but basically finds morality already existing in the universe and just sort of passes it on (I realize that there isn’t just one “Mormon concept of God” since a bit of leeway of belief is allowed, but this is the one that I encounter most often among Mormons that I have talked with). It makes less sense under the traditional Christian concept of God to speak of God having a subjective opinion, since he is the very source of all reality and therefore of all objectivity.

          • If you can say in your tradition that “God loves us”, that speaks to me as something that only makes sense if God has a subjective opinion. Saying that God is the source of all reality doesn’t make it objective… It just means you’re arguing his subjective opinion matters most because of his superior force/dominion

          • Agellius permalink

            “It just means you’re arguing his subjective opinion matters most because of his superior force/dominion.”

            The gist of your argument, then, is that morality, even if grounded in God, is not objective, because even in God it can only be subjective. What this boils down to is that God’s view of good is only an opinion. But one of the axioms of traditional Christian orthodoxy is that God is the *source* of all good; no good exists which does not come from him. Does the very source of good not have *knowledge* of what good is? Is a subjective opinion really the best he can do?

            But another of the axioms of Christian orthodoxy answers that question: We believe God is omniscient, that there is nothing which can be known that he doesn’t know. Therefore he knows what good is, and doesn’t merely have an opinion about it.

          • Well, my view of morality is that it relates to subjectively experiencing beings. As I wrote below (was typing on phone and had already submitted the one comment, so I wrote another) — the idea of morality without reference to subjectively perceiving beings just doesn’t make sense to me.

            So, in my mind, the question is whether we can reach an intersubjective agreement about what sorts of things improve well-being or not. But even if we could say, “this will improve well-being for all folks” that is still a basically subjective thing, you know?

            When God is introduced, it seems to be a way for people to say, “You should do this thing regardless of your own assessment or evaluation of its impact on your well-being, because God’s perspective matters more.”

            I understand that from your POV, God knows more about our well-being than we do (hence even if some commandment may seem to cause physical suffering, it is for spiritual well-being), and also, since God created us, God created the set of requirements to maximize our well-being. But I still think that is a subjective consideration — not because of this “opinion” thing, but because at its most basic level, it deals with subjects.

            Saying that God is the source of all good, furthermore, doesn’t really solve that from the outside looking at y’all, it seems like our access to God is practically haphazard at best. I have little way of evaluating if someone is actually getting God right or really just attributing their own biases, experiences, etc., to God incorrectly. So, even if we could say conceptually that God has knowledge of what good is, that doesn’t mean any human institution or individual is accurately relaying that information vs. their own thoughts.

  3. Fwiw, I don’t think my views on morality necessarily align with how most Mormons will think it arises though. The idea of morality as being possible without reference to subjectively perceiving beings just doesn’t make sense to me. There is no morality among rocks, for example.

    So to the extent my views may happen to coincide with the Mormon idea you’re thinking of, it’s not because morality just existed randomly in the universe beforehand, but specifically from the idea that there were eternal subjectively perceiving beings (intelligences) there with God.

    Getting rid of those co eternal intelligences didn’t divorce morality from subjectivity to me… It just place God at the front.

  4. Parker permalink

    “But one of the axioms of traditional Christian orthodoxy is that God is the *source* of all good; no good exists which does not come from him.” God’s “good” is invariably filtered through human subjectivity.

    I’m reminded of a time when flipping through the channels I happened upon a Christian station that had a roundtable of physicians who declared that they were Christian physicians. They were talking about anxiety and stress and one of the physicians recommended yoga. Another objected strongly because yoga is a pagan practice and is therefore of the devil. On the other hand stretching exercises led by a Christian practitioner was God approved, even if they were the same as yoga.

  5. Agellius permalink

    Andrew:

    You write, “the idea of morality without reference to subjectively perceiving beings just doesn’t make sense to me”

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey here. What does “morality without reference to” mean? I’m not asserting that there is no reference between morality and subjectively perceiving beings; although I might say it the other way around: That objective morality is the reference point to which subjectively perceiving beings need to conform their behavior.

    This is what everyone means by morality, whether they take the trouble to think about it or not: Any time you accuse someone of wrongdoing or of a wrong (say, bigoted or hateful) attitude, implicit in the accusation is the existence of an objective standard which the person is failing to meet. Otherwise all you’re saying is, “I don’t happen to like what you’re doing.”

    The question is, if you’re asserting the existence of an objective reference point — which you are, every time you accuse someone of wrongdoing — why should anyone else admit the existence of the same reference point? Why should I concede that racism or homophobia are actually bad, rather than merely things you don’t happen to like? You could point to majority disapproval, but that’s obviously a shaky notion, after all the majority opinion on these things only shifted relatively recently. So, were racism and homophobia objectively bad all along, or did they just become bad in recent decades? If the former, then by what reference point were they objectively bad all along?

    Yes, the existence of objective morality and the recognition of it by individual subjects is another issue. There is, as you imply, a distinction between whether something is true, and whether people recognize it as true. A corollary is that even if people have trouble recognizing what is true, it remains true nonetheless. If evolution happened then evolution is true no matter how people understand the Bible, right?

    So, my contention is that there is a moral standard or reference point that exists objectively. People recognize and conform themselves to it in varying degrees and for different reasons, but the objective thing is there regardless. If it’s not, then our moral outrage over various things is a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

  6. Agellius,

    I’m not sure what you’re trying to convey here. What does “morality without reference to” mean? I’m not asserting that there is no reference between morality and subjectively perceiving beings; although I might say it the other way around: That objective morality is the reference point to which subjectively perceiving beings need to conform their behavior.

    This is what everyone means by morality, whether they take the trouble to think about it or not: Any time you accuse someone of wrongdoing or of a wrong (say, bigoted or hateful) attitude, implicit in the accusation is the existence of an objective standard which the person is failing to meet. Otherwise all you’re saying is, “I don’t happen to like what you’re doing.”

    I don’t think this needs to be the case. I think that accusing someone of wrongdoing or a wrong could be an appeal to an inter-subjective standard. In other words: yes, I don’t like what you’re doing. And now I recognize that I still have to give you reasons to convince you that, given those reasons, you don’t like what you’re doing either. But if I fail to convince you, then we both go about our ways in disagreement, you probably keep doing what you’re doing, and I keep disliking what I’m doing. The only difference on whether we disagree and say we have different views on objective morality vs we disagree and say we have different views on subjective morality is whether we are honest that the most important part of the process is the persuasion. And to be fair, I think that many believers in objective morality do want to do the leg work in making arguments to persuade others, but I think that they miss the fact that that persuasion really matters in morality in a way that it doesn’t in other things that are called “objective” (I’ll get to this later w/ your evolution analogy.)

    I’m not counting on objectivity here. I’m counting on subjective perception — that the reasons that persuade me may persuade you. But it’s the persuasion that matters. It’s the convincing that produces change.

    If you, on the other hand, can persuade me, then that’s what matters. But in both of our attempts to persuade each other, we have to deal with the data that we have — how certain actions make us feel, how we respond to those feelings, etc., So, in many cases, it will be difficult to convince someone who’s hurting that that hurt is OK. But that’s still a subjective call.

    The question is, if you’re asserting the existence of an objective reference point — which you are, every time you accuse someone of wrongdoing — why should anyone else admit the existence of the same reference point? Why should I concede that racism or homophobia are actually bad, rather than merely things you don’t happen to like? You could point to majority disapproval, but that’s obviously a shaky notion, after all the majority opinion on these things only shifted relatively recently. So, were racism and homophobia objectively bad all along, or did they just become bad in recent decades? If the former, then by what reference point were they objectively bad all along?

    With racism and homophobia and things like that, if you ask an individual if they would like to experience these things, I’m going to bet everyone is going to say no. (more on this bet later). So, the fact that on an individual level, people will say, “I don’t like that” is material. I don’t like that…and you don’t like that.

    Moving from here…people already know that racism and homophobia are bad when it happens to them, so the question is expanding that awareness to others (since a lot of people don’t necessarily personally experience these things, don’t necessarily know that others are experiencing it, don’t necessarily know the extent of the damage caused, etc.,) So, the next step for people to realize that racism and homophobia are bad is when they begin to take a more empathetic view. I think the difference of previous eras and more recent eras are that people are undergoing a process to see that racial, gender, or sexual minorities are more similar to them than they thought in previous eras. Once they have that empathy, once they have that stepping in the shoes, they ask themselves: “Would I like to be treated that way if I were in that place?” The people who say “no” will then not find it OK to treat others similarly.

    But again that’s a subjective process. It really is about what things we happen to like. To the extent racism and homophobia were “bad all along” isn’t about objectivity, but about whether everyone would say — if it were happening to them — that subjectively, they wouldn’t like it…and then taking the next step to empathizing that others are similar to them.

    But this is all something that has to be hard fought through the subjective process of persuasion.

    That’s what I’m talking about when I refer to an “inter-subjective standard.” This process does not require objectivity (and moreover, I still don’t see how objectivity is particularly helpful)…I simply am staking a belief that we are similar enough that we will “like” similar things, and that the reasons that persuade me will also be persuasive to another person, given they are presented in an appropriate way.

    Here’s the thing though: I know that that isn’t a given. That’s why I talk of this as a “bet”. I know that that isn’t necessarily assured, because people aren’t all exactly the same, don’t all respond to the same information in the same way, etc., It is possible that we are materially different enough that we do have profound differences in likes and dislikes on questions we call moral. (After all, we do have profound differences in likes and dislikes on questions we don’t call moral…e.g., what music is good…what is beautiful, etc.,) Yet, that’s what we have to try. It may be a sisyphean task, but that’s what we all are doing when we make moral arguments — we are arguing to people’s subjectivity. Objectivity is not a helpful concept here.

    But as I keep saying…”objectivity is not a helpful concept”…I think that it could be even worse than that. When people introduce the idea of an objective morality, it seems that they are saying that regardless of what anyone feels about it, regardless of any reasons to persuade or convince people with, morality is a certain way. I think that for a variety of other things, objectivity makes sense. Regardless of if I believe in it, regardless of if I want to believe in it, gravity affects me and other objects a certain way and that’s not going to change even if I can never be convinced or persuaded by it. Regardless of if I believe in it, regardless of if I want to believe in it, evolution either is or is not the origins of humanity.

    But morality strikes me as something that is intensely connected to subjective beings. It is *about* us *and* our subjective well-beings. This is the difference between, say, evolution being true regardless of what people think about the Bible. Evolution doesn’t claim to concern our subjective states.

    OK, so you may say: “well, morality also isn’t about our subjective states.” But if you want to define morality as being similarly unconcerned with our subjective states, that’s going to strike me as really problematic. Like, if true, I don’t care about morality at best, because I really care more about my subjective well-being…Give me the alternative term for what that is instead, and I will talk about that instead. But at worst, then I might have to be anti-moral, because if someone’s “objective” morality requires going against my subjective well-being, I will have to oppose that.

  7. Victoria permalink

    I’m enjoying your blog. Particularly the fact that you can argue a point and not take it personally. 🙂
    I’m not really sure where i developed my sense of morality. I see it as an amalgamated sense of decency and goodness based on the natural order.
    As far as good goes my first question would be “does it endeavor to preserve human life and propogate the species”?
    War, death, destruction, genocide, ignoring the poor and hungry are all evils in my eyes because they negate the natural instinct to preserve ourselves. If we wish to remain alive ourselves, we inevitably must at some point rely on others. If we are not available to give help when it is needed, we have no natural right to expect others to come to our aide.
    The inverse of that being that if we reap death and destruction on others, we have no right to ask for mercy when we are threatened.
    My view of homosexuality is rooted in the same frame. It does nothing to perpetuate the species, brings no overt good to the world, and very likely interrupts evolution. It’s the same as my view of abortion.(artificial selection)
    It’s a direct and willful act that runs counter to the natural order. That’s not to say that these things don’t have consequences reaching further than the material world, only that they are contrary and disruptive to nature.

  8. Victoria,

    Thanks for commenting. While I can see the general logic of your position (and the Catholic view of morality), I have to say that your view of homosexuality seems too clinical and narrow; it doesn’t seem to account for the real life lived experience of many gay and lesbian relationships. IMO, the good of a relationship cannot just be based on propagating the human species in the sense of having more kids, because plenty of people (straight, gay, or other) will not have children and will not even desire to have children. On the other hand, some gay and lesbian folks will want to have children (and will have children). But something i think we can see is that mixed orientation marriages generally don’t tend to do well for the people in them (and if they end/divorce, then that can ripple out), whereas gay and lesbian people who can happily pursue relationships with people they are actually attracted to will improve their lives.

    And beyond this, I think that people can propagate the human species in more ways than just having children. So, individuals — regardless of if they are parents — can contribute to society’s flourishing.

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