What’s the Appeal of Christian Ethics?

William R. Creasy

In a cover story in Newsweek, “The Forgotten Jesus” (April 9, 2012), Andrew Sullivan advocated that people should follow Christian ethics. He proposed the Jefferson Bible (formal title: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth) as a model. The Jefferson Bible was edited by Thomas Jefferson to consist of the moral teachings of the New Testament without the miracle stories. Sullivan also argued for paying attention to the ethical teachings of Jesus and editing out the supernaturalism.

Christian ethics still receives a lot of respect from Americans, even among non­theists who reject the rest of the religion. Sullivan is a believing Christian, but he is clearly trying to reach a moderate middle ground in discussing Christianity. In his article, he criticized the religious Right and the “prosperity” sects of Christians (those who think Jesus will make believers wealthy and prosperous). He also disparaged religious people who try to mix religion and politics. Sullivan wrote: “When politics is necessary, the kind of Christianity I am describing seeks always to translate religious truths into reasoned, secular arguments that can appeal to those of other faiths and none at all.”

But the Christian ethics that Sullivan advocates needs informed criticism as well. Is there anything about it that deserves respect, advocacy, and publication in a national news magazine?

Sullivan gave the heroic examples of Jesus and Francis of Assisi. These men gave up material possessions, were celibate, and relied on faith in God (at least, according to tradition or the mythical accounts). Sullivan wrote, “A modern person would see such a man [Francis] as crazy, and there were many at the time who thought so too.” Clearly, there aren’t many people, ancient or modern, who want to emulate this lifestyle. Those people who are forced to live this way, such as the homeless poor, are often perceived as unfortunates who can’t afford to buy the things they want, rather than as fortunate people who have the opportunity to live without wants and possessions. But the ideal survives to this day. For example, see Mary Johnson’s book An Unquenchable Thirst, about Mother Teresa and her order, the Missionaries of Charity.

So why do Christians insist that Jesus and Francis are admirable? Let’s give Sullivan the benefit of the doubt that he is expressing sincere admiration, rather than justifying the lifestyles of Jesus and Francis. (We shouldn’t forget, though, that some of this admiration is likely from the influence of two thousand years of Christian propaganda. This is the propaganda, after all, that made crucifixion sound like a good thing.) But perhaps there are deeper reasons for the persistent admiration.

In the same issue of Newsweek, E. O. Wilson wrote an article about the importance of group identity. (See also his book, The Social Conquest of the Earth, on this subject.) Humans, as social primates, have innate admiration for people who selflessly try to benefit the group at their own expense. Individual group members often benefit from leaders who make an effort to help their group. Of course, the leaders also gain benefits for themselves: respect, subservience from others, and attention from the opposite sex. Their selflessness is not really selfless; rather, it is a strategy for gaining advantage. This kind of admirable person isn’t limited to social or religious leaders. A leader in battle who acts courageously and kills enemies is a hero to the group. Even a fictional crime fighter such as Sherlock Holmes, Batman, or Miss Marple is admirable in the sense of benefitting society by eliminating evil people. Other members of the group understand the strategy and can evaluate whether the leaders are asking for too much in return for their help. For example, are they being bullies? Are they being greedy?

It is hard to fit Jesus and Francis into this category, though. What particular benefit did they bring to a group, and how did they benefit in return? What gain did they get? According to the modern tradition, Jesus and Francis disavowed the obvious social benefits of their activities by giving up possessions and by being celibate. They didn’t get anything for their efforts except the respect of a small group of followers. But why are they still honored today, instead of being perceived as equivalent to homeless people? Of course, the historical truth of their actions could be very different from the tradition. But modern admiration depends on the modern perception of their actions, rather than on historical truth that may not be known to modern people.

Perhaps the key distinction is that Jesus and Francis confronted ultimate problems of life and death. They didn’t claim primarily that they sought to stop evil people or improve living conditions. Instead, the goal of Jesus’s life, according to the doctrine that may have developed after his death, was to defeat death itself. In the face of this goal, an earthly reward is temporary and futile. The only worthwhile rewards come in the supernatural afterlife. Given this Christian premise that supernatural rewards are the ones that matter, there is some logic in the fact that their ethics is based on supernatural rewards that supercede natural ones. Jesus’s reward for his selfless work for the group, by this logic, was to become the king of the afterworld.

But Jefferson’s (and Sullivan’s) ideas of Christianity attempt to edit out the supernatural miracles to remove the supernatural basis of the religion. This approach doesn’t work for this kind of ethics. Christian ethics is still based on supernatural rewards. Those rewards are still implicitly included in the rules of ethics. They can’t be removed by ignoring the explicit miracles.

Sullivan gives paraphrases of ethical commands: “Love your enemy and forgive those who harm you; give up all material wealth, . . . and give up power over others, because power . . . requires the threat of violence, and violence is incompatible with the total acceptance and love of all other human beings that is at the sacred heart of Jesus’ teaching.” (Sullivan also included love of God in this passage, which I edited out because it is obviously overtly supernatural.) The disavowal of all material wealth or earthly power indicates that to Sullivan, the natural world has to be considered as less important than the rewards of the supernatural one that comes after death.

This presumption must be rejected by secular people, because of the immense evidence that it is inconsistent with the way that we understand the world to work. There is no objective evidence of supernatural rewards. Thus, we have to deal with natural laws and their implications.

A better framework for humanistic ethics is to attempt to find a balance between competing needs. We need some power and control to get things that we need to live. But hoarding too much power for oneself can hurt other people if it keeps them from fulfilling their needs. It can also destroy the environment, which will hurt everyone in the future.

The problem with Christian ethics is that its ideal of denying material needs ignores the imperative to find a balanced way to live in the natural world. Perhaps such ethics can be suited to conditions in which everyone has to live at subsistence income levels or to life in a communal tribe. In such cases, no one has much power and all rewards are temporary. But the approach is a poor fit for modern urban life. Some Christian sayings are practical, such as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” a principle that existed in various forms before Christianity. Perhaps someone can edit statements like this into a list of statements of naturalistic ethics from the Bible, something such as Jefferson tried to do for miracles.

Most of Christian ethics has unrealistic, unachievable idealism based on perfect supernatural rewards and perfect justice. Christian doctrine itself says that everyone is an imperfect sinner who can’t keep the Commandments. Perhaps this extreme idealism is another aspect that Sullivan finds admirable.

The doctrine of extreme idealism gives Christians two logical and equally extreme choices for their conduct. The first option is that they can attempt to behave in a perfect, Christlike way, knowing that the effort is futile. This attempt can make them difficult for others to deal with. Like the Jehovah’s Witnesses who come around to knock on doors, it’s hard to know whether they will be insulted or hurt by even offhanded comments. Their personalty depends on having enough willpower to control all their impulses.They act like they have a hair-trigger, so that some failure to have perfect behavior will make them feel inadequate.

The other extreme is to disregard all Christian ethical instructions and assume that each true Christian will be forgiven before he or she dies. This is almost like having no definite ethics at all. It implies the repugnant conclusion that Hitler could be in heaven if he confessed his sins before he died, while his Jewish victims receive eternal punishment.

Fortunately for an orderly society, most Christians tend to ignore these logical extremes. They act with the pragmatic, humanistic ethics that is necessary for routine social functioning, even if they may give lip service to the ideals. They generally realize that science works based on natural laws and not on miracles, and they accept the benefits of science (although some make exceptions for some subject material, such as the creationist attack on evolution).

However, there are ideals from Christianity that have seeped into Western culture. Christianity has had remarkable longevity in Western countries. Are there principles that are beneficial, either to society or to a person’s psychological well-being, that have helped it to continue? Can humanists accept the benefits without believing in the supernatural afterlife?


The effort to do good deeds, according to Christian ideals, may produce some good results that wouldn’t happen otherwise. A church group may open a homeless shelter that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Buses of church-goers went to Louisiana to rebuild houses after Hurricane Katrina. Some people gain psychological benefit from such an extraordinary effort.

But the flip side is guilt caused by the inability to be perfect. Many former believers have lost faith because they felt guilty after failing to meet unrealistic expectations about themselves and were disappointed that they didn’t get a reward for trying to be good. But these problems can be counterbalanced by the social interaction and fellowship that comes from working with other people to accomplish a worthy goal.

As a psychological benefit, therefore, the ideal ethics seems to give mixed results at best. Humanists should encourage philanthropic behavior. But it isn’t clear that naturalistic motivations to help others can be as strong at motivating some people as supernatural rewards or guilt and fear of punishment. It may remain a matter of choice whether an individual finds the benefit of belief to be worth the effort for a particular issue.

Two examples for comparing Chris­tianity to secular humanism can illustrate further. The first example is the idea of reciprocity. Reciprocity is the general idea that people actively help people with whom they interact on a regular basis on the assumption that the others will be helpful to them in turn at a future time.

It is routine for most people to be nice, or show reciprocity, to other people whom they see on a daily or weekly basis. Family members or close friends usually get the best treatment. These actions are usually automatic and don’t take much thought. As people deal with strangers, the decision about whether to help becomes difficult. People tend to be solicitous to strangers whom they may never see again if the others are in serious need and there isn’t a major risk associated with the assistance. But this depends on culture. There is no reciprocal relationship that ensures that being nice to one stranger will lead to a different stranger being nice in return.

Christian doctrine has a response to the problem. It says that people should always be nice to others, be they strange or familiar, as in the Good Samaritan parable. Even if the others never reciprocate, the good deed will benefit the doer in the afterlife. Of course, if the other person is a Christian, it is assumed that he or she will be nice. So Christians argue that this ideal niceness has improved life and advanced civilization over the centuries. Non-Christians argue that Christians have been tribal, formed sects that went to war with each other and can be as selfish as anyone else, implying that the ideal hasn’t been followed.

Humanism has a different response. Humanists assert that people should be nice to others because we are all human beings. This is a weaker argument than the Christian doctrine, in the sense that we all know other people who are nice and deserve to be treated well, but we also know people who will take advantage of a favor without any intention of being nice in return. Being nice without any chance of reciprocity is a waste of effort. Ultimately, each person has to decide whether another person is trustworthy and worth helping. The need to make a judgment invalidates, to some degree, the principle that we are all humans who equally deserve benefits.

So in this case, the idea of an afterlife impacts Christian ethics by making an ideal of being nice logically possible without an expectation of reciprocity. The ethics doesn’t work without a belief in the supernatural, because the humanistic alternative is weaker and more cautious.

The second example is the problem of the meaning of life (or of particular actions). Christian doctrine states that events are predestined by a supernatural, omniscient God. The assumption is that God’s plan makes each event meaningful, even if humans don’t understand it. However, this idea has always conflicted with the concept of free will that is needed to explain human sin, and there is no resolution to that conflict. For the purposes of rationalizing mistakes or natural disasters, or even just of explaining away luck or coincidences, everything that happens is “supposed to happen.” The supernatural plan means that one and all are doing what they are supposed to be doing with their lives.

The idea of God’s will can be used to say that Christians enjoy a psychological benefit of having less anxiety about mistakes or future bad consequences. They argue that if something bad happens, God wants it to happen. The disadvantage of this way of thinking is fatalism. If every event is predestined, why strive to make improvements? Why bother trying to avoid mistakes or prevent disasters? Indeed, the traditional doctrine is that the world will end in an inevitable apocalypse that is entirely the work of God.

The approach of humanism can be grim but not fatalistic. Natural laws imply that death and disaster could happen at any time, anywhere, without consideration of human needs, and there is no guarantee that the consequences could be in any way beneficial. Many species have lived on Earth and have gone extinct, and the same could happen to the human race. But we can and do rely on our own reason and abilities to try to foresee problems and prevent them. We may still fail, but we have no excuse not to try. As a result, humanists don’t look to the end of the world but to continued improvement in human life. Human actions can be successful. Our fate is in our hands, and we must work together to our mutual benefit. If actions improve human existence, they are meaningful in that sense.

Neil deGrasse Tyson gave an eloquent defense of the manned space program in these terms in a March 15, 2012, appearance on C-SPAN. He argued that the space program would confer economic benefits and defense advantages, so it would have meaning in that sense. A humanist finds that meaning from this kind of human advancement is more fulfilling and satisfying than the completion of an unknown supernatural plan that is out of our hands.

From these examples, Christian doctrine gives mixed results. It can make reciprocity an ideal to be pursued without thinking, but at the cost of guilty feelings when one can’t bring oneself to “turn the other cheek.” It can provide reassurance that actions have meaning in the grand scheme of the universe, but at the expense of fatalism.

But overall, the ideal system of Chris­tianity is based on belief in supernaturalism, which is difficult to justify rationally. The humanist approach, based on observable reality, is better. It depends on demonstrable benefits of real human actions, which are stable over long-term history. It makes interactions between humans to be based on mutual understanding rather than unverifiable faith.

William R. Creasy

William R. Creasy is a past president and current board member of the Washington Area Secular Humanists (WASH). A version of this article was published in WASH­line, the newsletter of WASH.

The problem with Christian ethics is that its ideal of denying material needs ignores the imperative to find a balanced way to live in the natural world.

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