genuine question from atheist - view on Christanity and personal responsibility

(1000 Posts)
kentishgirl Fri 21-Mar-14 11:26:32

Hi - promise this isn't just Christian-baiting.

I've come to the conclusion that Christianity is a substitute for having a personal conscience or taking personal responsibility. Being a Christian is like having a 'get out of jail free card' in that you are taught God will forgive you anything. So you can do anything, as bad as you like, go and pray for forgiveness and move on, slate wiped clean, feeling great about yourself. So it doesn't matter if you do wrong. As an atheist, if I do something wrong, it's always with me, it's always on my conscience, so that makes me always try to do the right thing.
I didn't always think this way. It's the only way I can make any sense of something that happened to me at the hands of a couple of serious, committed Christians. One of them even works full time for a church. They did something terrible to me but have shown no remorse, no guilt, and made no attempt to make things right with me. I'm positive they prayed for guidance at the time and then forgiveness afterwards, and now all's good in their world, while I'm still dealing with the fall-out.
Am I really wrong in interpreting Christianity in this way? Isn't it true that it enables horrible behaviour by teaching you that if you do wrong, all you've got to do is pray for forgiveness afterwards, and you are ok, never mind the effect of what you did? Basically if God is your only judge, and forgiveness is guaranteed, it gives you permission to act like a right bastard as long as you say sorry to God afterwards? there's no personal responsibility for what you have done.

niminypiminy Fri 21-Mar-14 11:59:06

OP I am sorry to hear that you have had a horrible experience at the hands of some Christians. Christians, just as much as anybody else, can do horrible, cruel things. I am also sorry to hear that they haven't attempted to make things right with you. I can understand that this is making you very angry with them and with Christianity. I don't blame you for seeing Christian beliefs about forgiveness as a 'get out of jail free' card in this situation, particularly if you aren't a Christian yourself, so there would be no reason for you to have a correct understanding of what Christians actually do believe.

Christians believe both that we will face judgement for all the things we have done -- that God will see everything we have done in our whole lives, and who we are, and that we will have to bear that. There is no escaping the responsibility we bear for our own actions: we've done them and we will bear the consequences. But Christians also believe that we will be forgiven if we repent. Repentance means taking responsibility for what we have done, not hiding it or running away from it or pretending it wasn't so bad really, and then, with God's help, trying to do differently in the future. That means owning up to our cruel and horrible acts, making reparations, trying to make things right and do right next time. What forgiveness means is that we are offered a chance to change and do better next time. It doesn't mean that the bad things we do suddenly vanish -- far from it.

I have no idea what these people did, or what they have said to themselves about what they did, or what kinds of justifications they have given themselves about it. But God does -- and he is the one who is the ultimate judge -- and in the end they will have to bear the consequences of their actions, whatever they were.

capsium Fri 21-Mar-14 12:01:39

You'd have to question a Christian's belief in Christ, if they d something really wrong. In you fully believe in Christ's work, it should make you more Christlike, a better person.

Forgiveness is available but you have to repent, accept that you are fallible and admit where you have gone wrong (when you know it).

Of course, as your knowledge of Christ increases, you develop as a Christian. Some people start off at very low points, but bad behaviour will be brought to their attention. At this point they should confess it, admit it.

So yes there is personal responsibility. If you believe in Christ you should act like it, more and more, as your knowledge of Christ increases. So maturity, as a Christian, is a factor.

CatkinsMakeMeSneeze Fri 21-Mar-14 12:02:05

I’m sorry these people have hurt you.
To try to answer your question: this is how I would see it as a Christian –
God’s unconditional love and forgiveness is for everyone – that is for atheists as well as committed Christians. Presumably, if you are an atheist, you don’t worry about whether God would forgive you, but as a Christian I believe that he would, and that as a Christian I should forgive an atheist (or a Christian or anyone else) who hurts me in some way too (of course, atheists can do this too if they choose to - forgiveness and compassion are not exclusive to Christianity).
The thing about being a Christian is not that I get an exclusive get out of jail free card, but that I am also expected to be forgiving, and love others unconditionally – hence in the Gospels we are told that it is not sufficient just to love our neighbours, but we should also love our enemies etc (see here
for example). It is very challenging and difficult – this is why we pray to the Holy Spirit for help to do it – and most of us fail a lot of the time – but we shouldn’t be disheartened and give up, because God will forgive us too, so it is worth picking ourselves up and trying again. Unfortunately, it is a long hard road and most of us are a long way from perfect.

bluepen Fri 21-Mar-14 12:12:49

Unfortunately I do know a couple of christians who act as you describe.
In fact, in saem circumstances.

The posters above are correct in how they describe God's forgiveness.

I too am left wondering how God will deal with them.

I am tempted to pm you.

atthestrokeoftwelve Fri 21-Mar-14 12:45:33

I know christians who abdicate personal responsibilty. My sister is a Baptist Pastor and refuses to recycle- she says the pollution and destruction of the planet is god's will.

kentishgirl Fri 21-Mar-14 13:04:31

'That means owning up to our cruel and horrible acts, making reparations, trying to make things right and do right next time.'

I think that's just what decent people do, not just Christians, but I'd be glad to learn that is actually part of Christian teaching. My impression is that it isn't at all - isn't that contradicted by the teaching not to judge others, to forgive those who have harmed you, and just leave them to God? That doesn't say any action/regret on the transgressors part towards those they harm is necessary at all.

It's no satisfaction to me to think God will judge them, as I don't think that happens to anyone. Surely Christians should also care about the impact they have on people here on earth, not just what happens to them after they die?

bluepen Fri 21-Mar-14 13:04:53

Does she abdicate personal responsibility in other ways as well?

capsium Fri 21-Mar-14 13:11:57

John Chapter 14 verses 12-14 says this:

"12 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater [works] than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father
13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son
14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do [it]
15 If ye love me, keep my commandments"

This shows Christians should be Christlike, behave like Christ, if they believe Christ.

capsium Fri 21-Mar-14 13:12:40

^ So definitely part of Christian teaching OP.

capsium Fri 21-Mar-14 13:14:11

atthestroke You have written about how your sister has hurt you and your family before. I think it is very sad and I hope she will do some heart searching.

Beastofburden Fri 21-Mar-14 13:15:27

I am an atheist but I think there is a good answer to this in the legend of Faust.

If you recall, Faust thought he was onto an excellent thing by selling his soul to the devil in life, in return for endless debauchery, money, sex, etc. His strategy was to repent right at the last minute and be saved anyway, haha.

The original and best Faust by Christopher Marlow nailed it: "Ah, but Faustus never shall repent!" in other words, when it came to it, he tried to be sorry but he didnt mean it. His nature ("soul" to Marlowe) had been so coarsened by his behaviour, he wasn't genuinely sorry. So he burned. (Goethe, the big girl's blouse, changed the ending to some wet stuff about the eternal feminine redeeming us all).

Of course, it will no comfort to us if the smug Christians are damned after all, because they got this wrong. In fact, we will probably be forced to share our personal space with them.

There is little you can do with a narcissist and a self-deluder. Except to recognise they would be just the same if they weren't christians.

niminypiminy Fri 21-Mar-14 13:39:55

kentishgirl the reason you think that owning up to our cruel and horrible actions etc is just what decent people do is because our ethical code is basically Christian.

I don't see how the commandment to forgive others and not to judge others contradicts the commandment to repentance. Forgiving someone doesn't mean saying 'oh well, that's ok then, the terrible thing you did doesn't matter, let's be friends'. It means not eating ourselves up with grudges and bitterness and anger, and instead trusting that God will deal justly with a wrongdoer. It might mean walking away from a situation in which you are being hurt, and not staying in it. It might mean pursuing peace and not revenge. It might mean allowing the justice system to deal with a crime and not trying to influence it. Forgiveness is hard, really hard.

I can see that it's no satisfaction to you that we all have to face judgement after death -- even atheists -- and indeed I think this is one of the problems that atheists face. Where do they look for justice? But it is simply not true to say that Christians need not care about the impact our actions have on earth. Christ commanded us to 'love your neighbour as you love yourself', and if that's not commanding us to care about our impact on other people I don't know what is.

kentishgirl Fri 21-Mar-14 13:45:01

'Except to recognise they would be just the same if they weren't christians' - yeah I know. I actually know a lot of Christians through my work - some of them are lovely, some of them are awful, most are somewhere in between just like the rest of us.

I think this is making me bitter about Christianity as I know they are both 'mature' Christians, both in positions of real respect in the church, so they must somehow be making what they did square with the teachings of the church. In their minds, any way. They must know what they did was wrong. It just was - by anyone's standards. But they then deliberately made the situation worse. I know they feel they don't have to answer to me at all, they answer to God. And that IS the teaching of Christianity. If someone hurts you, let God deal with it. It's such a morally corrupt attitude, to me, but it is encouraged by the church's teachings (or, perhaps the church's teachings are easily manipulated into this, I don't know.) In either case, it means churches are great environments for bad people. Not just thinking of my own situation, it happens constantly in far worse ways, eg the Catholic treatment of paedophile priests. The church sanctioned forgiving them, encouraging them to become 'right with God' and just moving them on to abuse more children, instead of having it dealt with here and now on earth by the law. It's part of Christianity that allows the continuation of, for want of a better word, evilness, and the victims of that simply don't matter.

capsium Fri 21-Mar-14 13:48:46

I also think that forgiveness is important in that it offers Hope that the people who have behaved horribly can change in this life. Without forgiveness there would be no Repentance, no rehabilitation.

They would be condemned to remain flawed for the rest of their lives. The Repentance (needed for forgiveness) means a changing of direction can take place.

What would we do with all these people who could never even hope to improve their behaviour?

If the expectation is that they will always be bad, they do not have a chance to show they can change their behaviour for the better.

Thistledew Fri 21-Mar-14 13:51:46

I think that it is pretty much undeniable that there is such a divergence in how Christian belief is define and what it comprises of that you cannot honestly say that "Christianity teaches you X,Y and Z".

To take an obvious example of homophobia, 'Christianity' will teach you everything from that gay people are abhorrent and should be eradicated, to gay people should be forgiven but 'mended' in their ways, to toleration but they can't themselves be Christian, to there being absolutely nothing wrong with someone being gay and receiving Christian sacrament and marrying.

On an even more basic level, Christians can't even agree on who or what Jesus is - some Christians will tell you that he was mortal but infused with the holy spirit, some say that he was born of God, some will tell you he is God himself.

What I am trying to say, is that people will believe what they want to believe, whether they follow a religion or not. If they are the sort of person who is able to treat others abhorrently, then they will do so regardless of whether they do or don't follow a religion.

Many Christians will tell you that people who behave abhorrently are not 'real' Christians, which I find quite ironic - they expect deference to their beliefs because they say they have a genuine relationship with God, but yet will happily say that other people do not deserve such deference because it cannot be the case that those others have that genuine relationship.

-That has come out a bit muddy, let me try again. A Christian will tell you "I believe X,Y and Z because I follow my faith, and am guided by God that this is what I should believe. My beliefs therefore should receive deference as they come from God". if you point out that someone else who calls themselves Christian and has a genuine belief that God tells them A,B and C, they will say "That person cannot have a genuine relationship with God because God would never say that. Their views do not deserve the same deference as my own".

To an outsider, of course, there is no difference in the 'genuineness' of the belief of the first and second person.

What I am trying to say, is that I don't think that Christianity or any of the other religions provides a 'get out' to believe any particular thing, but it does provide an opportunity for the huge cognitive dissonance available to any person calling themselves Christian to claim that their views are justified and to avoid taking individual responsibility.

*NB references to Christianity also apply to the other Abrahamic religions. I don't know enough to comment on the polytheistic ones.

kentishgirl Fri 21-Mar-14 13:52:17

niminypiminy I do appreciate your responses, and it's very helpful to hear your point of view (even if I may disagree).

'the reason you think that owning up to our cruel and horrible actions etc is just what decent people do is because our ethical code is basically Christian'. I disagree with that, it's the basis of most religions, and ethical belief structures (the golden code) and it far predates Christianity. PErsonally I'm more in tune with the Jewish concept of forgiveness - this does spell out the need for reparation/reconciliation with the wronged party, and there is no obligation on the wronged party to accept or forgive. This puts the responsibility on the person who did wrong. Christianity puts the responsibility on the person who was wronged. But that's a whole other debate..

'love your neighbour as you love yourself', and if that's not commanding us to care about our impact on other people I don't know what is. Yes, I suppose it does. Thank you.

Perhaps I'm better to conclude that these two particular 'Christians' are distorting the messages of the church to serve their own ends. Certainly when I begged one of them to stop the mind games that were making the situation worse for me, out of pity, out of compassion, and they responded 'what's pity and compassion got to do with anything' it should have been clear to me that they aren't real Christians, just phoney ones. They would insist they are though.

capsium Fri 21-Mar-14 13:52:52

I think OP they are just very weak. It does not mean they can never do any good at all, unless they are thoroughly corrupt. It does not mean they are not sorry. Maybe they just possess to much fear to admit they were wrong to you?

Yes, their sorriness should override their fear. But people are often damaged. Putting this damage right is what Redemption is about.

kentishgirl Fri 21-Mar-14 13:55:23

Sorry, thanks to all - very interesting ideas and plenty for me to think about and maybe bring me a little more peace with it all. That's what I want. Carry on - glad to hear more smile.

(I was just getting worried niminypiminy might think I was picking on her/arguing for the sake of it, that's why I singled her out for thanks last post).

niminypiminy Fri 21-Mar-14 14:00:30

I don't think we are not supposed to seek justice for wrongs done to us -- indeed justice is one of the two great attributes if God's kingdom. I can understand your anger if there has not been justice about whatever this thing was.

But there's a difference between justice and vengeance. It's the bitterness, the holding grudges, the desire for revenge and to hurt the other person that Christianity teaches against. Justice is never, never served by trying to hurt the other person back for what they did to you (and that is why the judicial system requires that people involved in a crime cannot be involved in judging the perpetrator).

I agree that the cover-up of sexual abuse by priests is a terrible, sickening thing. But let us not forget that this is not all the church is. We could say exactly the same of the family -- it is an institution that provides a perfect environment for people to abuse the vulnerable, and to do cruel, terrible things. More people have been abused by their fathers and mothers than by priests. But does that mean we should say that the family is itself a morally corrupt institution, and that we should get rid of it?

niminypiminy Fri 21-Mar-14 14:04:27

Kentishgirl that's very nice of you. As capsium says these two sound like a right shower. And I hope you do find some peace with it all. That is the best way for you to be able to move forward, whether you are a Christian or an atheist.

behindthetimes Fri 21-Mar-14 14:06:14

I'm not Christian, am from a different faith which has the concept of forgiveness for sincere repentance, but does not believe that Jesus (peace be upon him) died for our sins.
However, I feel maybe I can shed some light on the repentance and forgiveness thing. I think without this, people could do something wrong, and then end up going down a very dark path, and doing more and more bad things, as they would not feel like they could change, or ever be seen as different. I used to work in the field of addiction (gambling and alchohol) and it was well known that religious conversion was one of the most effective means of people managing to change in the long term. I suppose it guards against despair, if you feel you can start again.
However, in regards to the people you have mentioned who hurt you, in the religion I follow, unless those people tried to make ammends with you, and made very sincere repentance to God, before they died, they would be punished in the afterlife. Also true repentance involved the clear intention never to commit that action again.

niminypiminy Fri 21-Mar-14 14:13:06

Thistledew, don't have time to address your post in detail, but just to clarify. This is what Christians believe about Jesus:

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made, of one being with the Father ... By the power of the Holy Spirit he was made incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

That's the Nicene Creed, the basic statement of doctrine that all Christian churches adhere to. There are huge debates about what it means in detail and practice, but essentially if you don't sign up to this then you are not a Christian (as, for example, Unitarians and Jehovah's Witnesses don't).

kentishgirl Fri 21-Mar-14 14:38:09

'the family is itself a morally corrupt institution, and that we should get rid of it' - no, but generally families don't hold themselves up as something that guides/instructs others on the right way to live. Churches do, and with that comes a responsibility that families don't hold.

I do desire justice; in simple terms an acknowledgement of what they did and a heartfelt apology. I'm not in the vengeance line. I could have caused them both a lot of trouble but chose not to. I held out the olive branch and wanted to bring things to a more amicable close, but they both refused to.

Thinking about it all - what they did is the same as two other people did to me in the past. One of those was Christian, one atheist. I've had no further contact with/from the Christian, but made things up with the atheist and we are remotely friends still (in a Facebook sort of way) and I wish them well, and they wish me well. It's interesting to me that the will to put things right and reconcile to some degree was there in the other atheist, and absent from all three Christians. I do think that comes from the atheist view that life here and now is the only thing that matters, which is obviously not a Christian's view.

BigDorrit Fri 21-Mar-14 14:49:04

I think one of the main problems with things like this is that the Bible says so many different, and frequently contradictory, things that people who want to call themselves Christian can pick and choose all those that reinforce their inherent bigotries and feel the smug satisfaction of being a good Christian, without having to change a single thing about themselves.

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