Letters From An Apostate: Dear Bill Barr, Atheists Are Moral
A response to US Attorney General Bill Barr regarding his speech to Notre Dame Law School in October 2019
I watched your presentation to the students of Notre Dame. It engrossed me, and while there are a lot of things I disagree with, I take your words seriously. I respect your sincere concerns and deep convictions. You are a person of immense power as the attorney general, and your words carry weight — not just because of your role but also because your arguments speak both to and for so many people — people I used to be a part of.
You see, I was a Christian — and while it may be tempting, please do not be quick to dismiss that. Multiple people reached out to me after I made my apostasy public, pointing out that if I fell away from the faith then I had never truly accepted it, never truly understood it. They insisted that apostates were never really saved, and they are all the worse now because apostates can never be saved.
But it was real to me, and I took it seriously. My faith was personal, not just something cultural that I assumed without question.
I was a believer, and I trust that your faith is real to you too — something deep, cherished, and living. It makes sense that you started your speech where you felt that faith is most threatened. You discussed discrimination against believers, and how affronted you are by a myriad of attempts to infringe the free practice of religion. I’ll address this throughout and more in a later letter, but I agree with you more than you likely anticipate. Hold on to that thought.
You explained how you believe that religion is essential to a free society. You detailed how the great experiment of American democracy can only succeed as long as its people can keep it — and they can only keep it through their individual virtue and self-discipline. You quoted John Adams, James Madison and others — but your quote from Edmund Burke stood out to me: “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”
You continued by stating that our freedom and the government derived from it is only suitable and sustainable for a religious people. Religion, you argued, gives men rules to live by and promotes a moral discipline unique to people of faith. You contrasted this with the moral relativism of secularists, and the rising numbers of illegiticism, depression, suicide, violence and drug overdoses. Your language escalated, and you talked about how secular forces ignore these statistics and press on with ever greater militancy. You mocked, “Progressives, where is the progress?” and asked that in this allegedly post-Christian era, what has replaced it? You said no secular creed has filled the role, there is nothing in secularism that undergirds our values as a people — nothing commands our adherence to any morality. You then accused unbelievers as having a morality amounting to mere sentimentality drawing on the vapor trails of Christianity.
Let’s step back from that for a minute. To me, these are serious accusations.
You propose that religion is the only means for a person to discipline themselves to be moral, and more that religion is the only justification for morality itself. This was repeatedly reinforced to me when I was a Christian. This question was one of the most difficult ones I grappled with as I deconstructed my own religious worldview: how can atheists be moral? Why should they care? There is no eternal consequence for their actions. No god to oversee them. I remember what the Apostle Paul wrote: “if the dead are not raised, then let us eat and drink because tomorrow we die.”
But is that really the best atheists can do? Eat, drink and be merry because tomorrow we die?
The answer is no, and it’s straightforward to understand. Think about this example — god does not command the faithful to be in good physical shape. So without any divine direction, why do so many Christians exercise and try to eat healthy food? For the same list of reasons that non-Christians do. Put it another way: do we atheists want to be any less healthy or less fit? Or do we ultimately share the same concerns?
Reconsider the question — “Why do atheists want to be moral?”
Why do I want to be moral?
Put it another way: Do I want to love and be loved any less than you?
When I tell my daughters, “I love you,” I mean it sincerely and deeply. There is no subtext of “…because god commanded me.” No — “I love you” is a sufficient statement. Words I live by.
Additionally, I value the richness people add to my life, and I hopefully add to theirs. We all have people we care about — whether it’s friends, family, our person, on and on. I care about having meaningful relationships as much as when I was religious. If anything, I am more fervent about them now — knowing these years are all I have. I find joy in them. Meaning. Life.
I want to be good to people, and want them to be good to me. This isn’t something unique to Christianity, nor did it begin with Christianity. You can go down the whole list of what actions and attitudes comprise morality and find it aligns with a philosophy that many religions have settled on. While Confucius and others have advocated the same principle, I’ll use Jesus’s words specifically: “do unto others what you would have them do to you.” To quote the Apostle Paul again: “For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,” and later he adds, “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”
I want to reap a rich life, so I sow richly too.
But is my morality too selfish? I don’t think so, and even if it was why would selfishness be wrong? I can only empathize with other people and the pain they experience because of pain that I first experienced. I understand how other people want to be loved, respected and valued because I experience those same desires in myself. I understand humanity by being human. I need to start with myself to understand someone else. I assume everyone else is like this too. Like Ayn Rand said, “To say ‘I love you’ one must first know how to say the ‘I.’”
What’s the alternative? How horrible a thing can someone say to someone else, “I love you because god tells me to …” or worse “because I don’t want to go to hell.” That seems like a bad selfishness, not a positive one. I don’t accept that as love. I don’t want someone sacrificing who they are when I only want them as they are. And I certainly don’t want them to only be putting on face, caring about me because they feel like they have to. Love me because you want to, because it’s authentically who you are, because it’s truly your heart. That’s how I love too.
“They brought me food during a tough time.” “She bought me a coffee.” “He sat with me at the bar and made sure I wasn’t alone.” Would any of us feel good if the person doing these things for us was only doing them because god commanded them? Would we feel good if we were the person doing these things only because god commanded us? Is that really morality or just the appearance of it — a candy-coated coercion?
To say the morality of a secularist can only amount to mere sentimentality that draws on the vapor trails of Christianity is vapid, ignorant, and flatly untrue. I have values. I value people. I value knowledge.
I value myself.
And I love without promise of heaven or threat of hell.
Do you see what I mean?
And I would like to press this a little more and present you with a question: does your god have a conscience?
If yes, then right and wrong are external to him, so what disqualifies an atheist from recognizing morality even if they sidestep god? However, if god is the only source of right and wrong, he really has no conscience because everything he says and does is his own subjective measure. He can never be wrong because there is no external standard. “Good is whatever I say and do,” he says. There’s no voice in his head or Jiminy Cricket on his shoulder. He does not owe anyone anything.
Which means the ten commandments carry a huge asterisk. When a god who is his own standard of right and wrong says “thou shalt not kill” there is an implicit “…unless I tell you otherwise.” And so went the Amalekites. As god commanded Saul in 1 Samuel 15:3 — “Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
That scripture is one of many scriptures that don’t sit well with me as a moral being. Can you defend genocide because a god without conscience commanded it?
Yes or no?
Or do you take it on faith that god has a divine purpose that is unclear to us? What stops god from making the same demands today?
We should use our minds before exercising our faith. As Christopher Hitchens talked about, if people didn’t need evidence or reason to convince them to do something good, then they can very easily be persuaded to do something bad.
All of this then makes me wonder about your question. You asked what secular creed can undergird our values as a people. Are people not sufficiently valuable in and of themselves? Is our value only determined by god?
In pressing you like this, I’m not asking you to give up your faith. I’m asking you to be humble because there are real questions here, and we disagree on how to answer them. Atheists address the questions differently than you, but we still have perspectives and convictions regarding them because we are moral, thoughtful and principled — just as much as religious people. To think of us as less moral simply because we disagree with you is a caricature of convenience or blatant ignorance.
Religion is a way people express and develop their innate morality, their human nature. But it is not exclusive, not the only way. Like you said at one point in your speech, according to scholars religion has been integral to homo sapiens’ development and thriving since we emerged fifty thousand years ago. You pointed out that it has only been the last couple hundred years that we have been experimenting without religion.
In my view, this experiment has been a successful one.
To name it explicitly, the experiment has been freedom, and this includes the freedom of and freedom from religion. I think most importantly it includes the freedom to question — to use our minds — the foundation of science. Like James Madison celebrated when the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom passed, “I flatter myself we have in this country extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.”
We both have to agree, objectively the last couple hundred years have been something unparalleled in terms of medicine, technology, education, human rights, and so much more. We’ve always had religion, war, and despots — we’ve not always had these other things. So you ask where the progress is — maybe it’s best demonstrated in our recent history as the revolutions from the Enlightenment continue to unfold.
And this progress has been contributed to by believer and unbeliever alike, note especially in the sciences where there is a large proportion of non-religious people, if not the majority. Why would unbelievers contribute so much to the world if they did not possess as rich a morality as the religious?
Each of our camps have a responsibility to each other to be both thoughtful and humble regarding our shortcomings as we all try to be good to each other. None of us is an “other.” We are all trying to be moral, and we are all human enough to fail.
And sometimes we fail to understand each other. Other times we fail to respect each other.
I want to talk about the rest of your presentation, and I will write more later this week.
I hope this finds you well. Take care.
Christopher, The Apostate