Saving Others

I think, Christianity is a great idea.  All people are inadequate in one sense or another.  All have imperfections.  All make mistakes.  All make bad decisions once in a while.  All are “sinners”, not in a sense “evil-doers”, but in a sense of lacking perfection in their thoughts, words, and deeds.  All need “salvation” from this inadequacy and imperfection.  I think, it’s important to realize this about myself. If I don’t realize and acknowledge my own mistakes, errors, and imperfections, I will persist in these errors with arrogance and pride.

Naturally, when we realize our own mistakes and errors, moved by love, we would also want to “save” our neighbor from repeating these mistakes…  And this is where the whole idea gets upside down.  Our neighbor is merrily going about his own business, enjoying life, and here I come as a “loving Christian”, bringing “the good news” that the wide road he is following is the high way to hell and that he needs to pick his cross and follow the narrow path.

But I am not my neighbor.  How do I know that the things that I consider “bad” for myself are “bad” for my neighbor?  Some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in a pot nine days old.  If my grand-grand-grandfather died after eating a bad shellfish, and, forever since then, my tribal rule book says “shellfish is detestable”, should I really take this message to the other tribe that has been happily living on shellfish for generations?

All Christians want to “be like Jesus” who is perfect.  The problem with this aspiration is that, at some point, people start to believe that they have achieved some state of moral perfection and superiority and are in a position to go around and teach others, righteously turning over tables in other people’s temples and saying “woe to you, hypocrites!”, not seeing the plank in their own eye.

The situaion becomes even worse when this desire to “save” others is made into a state policy.  This is where the whole doctrine of “salvation” creates hell.  When one nation takes on a mission of “saving” other nations – “liberating” them from whatever is considered “oppression”, “sin”, “immorality” – this doctrine leads to rivers of blood.

These words are prompted by the current events in Ukraine, my home country.  Some Russian leaders somewhere got an idea that Russia represents a unique culture, “civilization”, if you will, somehow “distinct” from the rest of the world and has a “special” mission – to save other “brother” nations from corruption, immorality, and oppression of the West.  On the other side of the ocean, U.S.A. poses as a world policeman and believes that all countries should have “the right” form of government to be “happy” and “free”.  As a result, there is an unprecedented surge of hatred between people in Ukraine fueled by media.  People are kidnapped, tortured and killed, civilians die from bullets and shells.  Each side accuses the other in “state-sponsored terrorism”, “fascism”, “genocide”, and what not.  The same scenario is played in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria.

So, is it right to “save” my neighbor or is it right to watch my neighbor suffer what I consider to be oppression, depravity, pain, or sin? Should I not “do unto others as I would have others do unto me?”    Should I not fulfill what I consider to be my moral and, often, patriotic duty? But how do others know how I want to be treated and how do I know how they want to be treated? I may consider my suffering real.  But is my neighbor’s suffering real or is it only in my head?  These are not easy questions, are they?

Here is an interesting picture regarding “saving Muslim women”.

In this picture, both women think that the other needs to be “saved”. Do Muslim or Western women really need to be “saved”? Perhaps, Sam Harris can devise a clever science experiment and save me from facing this choice.  But, on the other hand, shall we tolerate beating, torturing and killing women in other countries for not complying with some tribal rule books and sexual discrimination in our own?

There are words of wisdom in the Bible:

“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. — Romans 14:14”

Shakespeare adds:

“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”

Go figure who thinks what.

To save or not to save? That is the question. This dilemma seems to be at the very heart of Christianity.  But I can see how this post may outrage some Christians as “unchristian”.  I can be accused of advocating moral relativism.  I will be pointed to the numerous commands in the NT to “go and spread the word”, to the quotes about “the lamp on a lamp stand”, etc.

It’s interesting that becoming an atheist and rejecting the whole idea of “salvation” will not rid me of this dilemma.  I see a lot of atheists going out of their way trying to save others from what they perceive to be opression of religion.

Is there a way of this “spiritual darkness” and blindness?


31 thoughts on “Saving Others

  1. As usual, you’ve written an interesting and provocative post. As an atheist, I do not attempt to sway others who are religious by citing oppression or gullibility or anything like that. If asked, I will readily admit that I’m an atheist and I will talk about why I am and what brought me to it. I will explain why I don’t believe in God and don’t subscribe to any particular religion. But if someone is happy with their own beliefs and whatever religion they practice, that’s nobody’s business but their own. On the other hand, if they ask me what I think about their belief in God or in their particular religion, I’ll be happy to tell them what I think.

    As far as looking at things from a geopolitical level, you’re right, it’s not much different than what individuals and churches do with respect to beliefs and religion. I think the only reason for the US or Russia or any other nation to get involved in the affairs of any other nation is in the event of violation of human rights. And even then, it’s a slippery slope.

  2. Good question (and good post). I spend a lot of my time teaching Judeo/Christian theists things about their Bible that most never bother learning. Once they have this information, I have no intention, beyond that, to convince them of anything – they are free to believe whatever they choose, once they are in possession of all of the information that I have to offer.

    As Neil Degrasse Tyson once said,
    God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance, that gets smaller and smaller as time goes on.

  3. We once thought that we could lead Asscrackistan and Iraq out of their “spiritual darkness and blindness” but 6,717 body bags later (on our side, uncounted tens of thousands on their side) we are worse than where we started, because now the American people are disengaging from the world even in places where we can make a difference. The whole evolution has been a net negative.

  4. I struggle with this often, not in the realm of cultural differences, but when I see loved ones and good friends making decisions that actively go against their own happiness – when they’re stuck in a rut, or let their stubbornness get in their own way. It’s hard not to feel responsible, or like I ought to step in and do something, but more often than not, it’s not my place. It’s difficult to know when a person needs you, and when that person needs you to step back.

    • I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one struggling with these issues. I think, it’s a tough choice on personal, social, and international levels.

      • I think that’s sort of the point as well. To force us to engage with it and come to terms with it.
        Let us assume for the moment that the God of the Bible exists. The God of the Bible is a very interesting character in his own right. God sees Israel doing things that he knows are /actually/ detrimental to them, (having created them) and he “pleads” with them to return to him.(Micah 6, Jeremiah 2) and he warns them that their own folly is their own. And they do not repent, and he was right. And it probably grieved him. It grieved him so much that he sent his Son Jesus to die on the Cross, to die himself to our sin so that we might ALL be forgiven. It is a sort of Cosmic Plea to come home. God does not coerce us to believe in him, but he does it through acts of mercy and grace, not through the sword.
        God respects our freedom. Who are we to not do the same to others? That being said, that does not mean we should force our beliefs on others. Simply give an account, reason with them, and try and persuade them, but always do so out of love and grace. “Come let us reason together…” says the Lord. We enter into the conversation and the struggle with Him.
        You’re right though. It’s hard to know what to do. And sad to see the way people do it.

        • Any idea why God can’t simply forgive, without sacrifice (especially his own son)? I guess, he could, but sacrificing his son instead of punishing the transgressors, is a way to send the message and teach a lesson. Rather cruel lesson of “love and grace”, I’d say.

          I’d also note that wiping out living things with a flood, burning cities with sulfur, and wiping out whole nations deemed to be wicked by the sword of his” chosen people wasn’t exactly “a plea to come home”. I’m struggling to interpret these acts as well. I’m not saying that the bible is wrong or that God is immoral, but we can’t count on his endless mercy and forgiveness, it seems.

          • @agrudzinsky – none of those are true, my friend. The “flood” happened in 2900 BCE in Mesopotamia, and covered an area of only about 3 counties when the Euphrates River overflowed its banks – the king of Shurrapak, Ziusudra, escaped on a trading barge loaded with cotton, cattle and beer. A couple of hundred years later, an anonymous author wrote the first surviving work of fiction, “The Epic Of Gilgamesh,” in it, our hero, Gilgamesh, goes to find the King who escaped the flood, renamed “Utinapishtim.” A hundred years after that, Noah’s flood allegedly happened, with some of the same wording found in “The Epic of Gilgamesh” – it was plagiarism, plain and simple.

            The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, located at the southern end of the Dead Sea, lay on a major faultline that runs all the way to the Olduvai Gorge in Africa. The area is rich in bitumen, the Egyptians used to come to the area to mine it, for use in embalming. It’s a thick, highly flammable carbon sludge – oil, on it’s way to becoming coal. A major earthquake, occurring along the faultline, threw fast amounts of bitumen into the air, where it ignited and fell back on the cities – it was a perfectly natural, though tragic event, and happened hundreds of years before Abraham allegedly lived.

            The Caanite cities that Joshua allegedly conquered, had been conquered and overthrown by the Akkadian king, Sargon, centuries earlier.

            I can give you a long list of Biblical archaeologists – including many who are Jewish – would be quick to tell you that none of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, even Moses, never existed. They are stories made up to give the Jewish people a heritage.

          • I’m not discussing the factual truth of the story, but the story itself and the concepts of salvation, mercy, and forgiveness. Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” or Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” or Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” are not praised for being factually true accounts. They are literary works intended to make us think of certain realities of life. And those are not factual realities. They deal with such categories as duty, loyalty, guilt, suffering, to name a few. It would be silly to argue that Tolstoy’s novels or Shakespeare’s tragedies are worthless because Anna Karenina or Hamlet have never lived and, therefore, the what happened in the story does not matter.

            Are you trying to save me from being gullible and believing in nonsense? 🙂

          • No, I know you’re safe, but you never know who’s listening.

            As for the works of great authors, couldn’t agree with you more, except that those books never purport themselves to be anything but fiction.

          • Actually, I’m surprised that the story of Sodom and Gomorrah has any basis in fact. By the way, the bitumen and the earthquake stuff does not change the “God did it” thing. You, probably, know it :-).

            Speaking of stories, you gave me an idea for another post.

          • Glad i could help.
            Want some REAL whoppers? Look into Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of the Jews.”

          • God has a long list of attributes, his mercifulness is one, and his justice is another. The thing about Mercy is it only makes sense in light of justice. Mercy is being gentle on those who deserve justice, and justice is punishing those who have done wrong.

            What’s interesting about God is how he is a perfect balance of that. We like to read the old testament and be like, “Oh, wrath there, wrath there, wrath there…” and it’s so common that we think it’s happening all the time. It isn’t.

            Floods, and drowning cities with sulfur, and wiping out countries with countries are all stretched out over long spans of time. And even the countries and the people he uses to do these ‘wrathful’ acts, are not themselves immune to the wrath that comes with it.

            Ninevah was doomed to be destroyed and God sent Jonah to plead with them. Jonah knew that if the people of Ninevah knew, God would forgive them, and so he didn’t go until God made him go. And then he forgave the Ninevites who repented in that generation. (After a time though he did eventually bring wrath on them for their heinous actions.)

            So on the one hand we have to remember that God balances his mercy and his justice. He never punishes with wrath without first sending a herald or someone to talk about it. We see this.

            2nd, let us assume he forgave everyone. Let us assume he did that, and you didn’t even have to believe in him for that to work, or perhaps even to repent? Just simply, “Bam! Your sins are forgiven.”

            Then imagine, you were a victim of an awful crime(say rape or something) and you got to heaven and your rapist had gotten off scot free for his actions to you. There was no repentance, there was no sacrifice made in his place, no justice had been meted out, nothing. Just…sort of “Oh, you did some horrible thing but come on in anyways.”

            Those are just some things to think about. God is both Justice and Mercy. They are dependent attributes, but it’s not something we’ll ever quite get.

            For further reading I’d suggest:
            “Is God a Moral Monster?” By Paul Copan. There are other books, but that one is a good reader on making sense of the wrath of God in the Old Testament.

          • It makes sense that mercy without repentance is counter-productive. For a victim, it’s wise to forgive injustice. But for a judge or a policeman – not.

          • Surely, Zachary, you jest:
            “Then imagine, you were a victim of an awful crime(say rape or something) and you got to heaven and your rapist had gotten off scot free for his actions to you. There was no repentance, there was no sacrifice made in his place, no justice had been meted out, nothing. Just…sort of ‘Oh, you did some horrible thing but come on in anyways.’”

            The provisions for that are already in place – you just quickly say you believe in Jesus and accept him into your heart, then you, the raper, and your victim, the rapee, are together in heaven forever! Meanwhile, your god, who is omnipresent, knows all and sees all, was right there in the room during the rape, and although he is omnipotent – he can do anything – did nothing. Where is your sense of values?

          • It’s impossible to judge a nonexistent entity – if I’m judging anything, it’s the human concept of an imaginary god.

          • My sense of values? I’m not aware that my philosophical stance could be attacked validly by aiming a question at me. (argumentum ad hominem)

            1st, no one in their right mind who properly reads and understands the bible would actually tell you that your Straw Man argument is a valid way to get yourself into heaven. The Greek word for repentence implies a ‘complete turning around’ and is a word picture for a change of life. What is NOT, is a “get out of consequences free card.” If a criminal has done a thing like that, truly comes to faith in Christ, he will love what God loves, and God loves justice. And so he’d turn himself in and face his time here on earth.

            I feel that the caricature you give of the conversion experience is common unfortunately, and even preached (unfortunately) by many people in the modern age. Salvation is not an instantaneous act, it is an act that requires perseverance and repentance and genuine change and even(if necessary) confessing to earthly crimes and doing your time. In short, the man who does the crime, and the man who winds up in heaven, by the end are two different people.

            2nd point.

            And this is not a personal attack as in “don’t you have values?” but a meta-ethical question concerning yours. From where do you derive your values? If atheism is true, then objective moral values do not exist. We must echo with Nietzsche that “There are no moral facts” (Twilight of the Idols) and that we should stand above such moral judgments.

            How then, is rape wrong on atheism? Isn’t it just the propagation of our genes and the impulses we get from them. The universe doesn’t care, “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (Dawkins: River out of Eden.)

            So how does an atheist(or agnostic) GROUND moral propositions?

          • Zachary, there are canned answers to this question. Jonathan Haidt has a fairly good theory. Here he speaks of it with respect to political choices, but the 5 criteria he lists apply to other areas.

            But, as usual, humans answer the question “how” which has nothing to do with the existence of God.

          • Interesting, those 5 criteria are good. Yes. (I read the transcript, it’s faster.)
            Harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, in-group/loyalty, authority/respect, purity/sanctity, are good categories for explaining how people order their morals.
            But it doesn’t explain ‘why’ morals are moral?
            Why is it a good thing to not cause harm to people or things? Because we evolved that way? Ducks sometimes forcibly copulate with other ducks, and that’s just the way evolution made them. But are they doing ‘wrong’, well no. But if a human forcibly copulates with another human it’s suddenly wrong, and for reasons I don’t understand.

            Once again this is evolutionary prescriptive ethics. I want evolutionary meta-ethics. Any answer I’ve seen has little bearing when thought out into the abstract.

            For example.

            Let us say that instead of human philosophy we’re wolves doing lupine philosophy.

            According to wolves, they evolutionarily speaking have a sense of hierarchy and inferiority in their society. It benefits them by Darwinian mechanisms. Their society is organized in the way they deem most “just” by having “classes” and “ranks” that are really quite unequal. But in this inequality they believe there to be most justice. The big wolf gets it all, and the little ones do not.

            We humans might say “Oh, no a society should be equal because everyone has a right to that.” And the lupine philosopher would say “poppycock.” Because it’s simply a cultural difference. If a wolf group decided to become an equal society, it is not because it is ‘better’ than the other inequal society, but rather that it’s different. And the Lupine philosophers would be livid, but it’s hard to see how they’re doing anything “wrong”, but instead just “unfashionable” by forming an equal society.

            Yet our experience tells us strongly that there are moral facts. There are some things that are objectively wrong. Say…”torturing babies for fun.” But bears sometimes eat their young to reduce competition. Would that be acceptable for humans? If not, why?

            Canned answers are just that.

            Canned answers are like canned soup. They hold water, but only because you are willing to settle for something quick and easy.

            Kant seemed the most promising to me for a while, until I read this objection.

            “Apparently, Kant’s Principle of Humanity, as it appeared in the empyrean and before the foundation of the world, read, “Should, against all probability, there be stars, and should, also improbably, those stars align in such a way as to permit the emergence of life, and should, against overwhelming odds, some of those living things turn out to be ‘human,’ then they are to be treated as ends-in-themselves and never as means to ends, and this even in the event that the contingencies of evolution direct them to think otherwise. Disregard this directive in those universes in which these conditions fail to obtain”

            I’m not saying I have the definitive answer or the way of knowing it, but I don’t see how evolution can give us objective morality, if objective morality is itself non-causal b/c it exists as an abstract object mind-independently. Unless a mind lines up the universe with abstract objects(numbers, propositions etc. (assuming they exist) how then can they exist. By chance? I suppose, but I don’t like the odds.

          • it may not be because of God. I don’t claim to have the absolute answer. But I strongly suspect it’s not evolutionary if Objective Moral values do in fact exist.

          • To your first point, didn’t the thief on the cross do exactly that, at the last minute?

            As to your second, we – the Human species of ape – have learned over the eons that certain social behaviors are conducive to our continuation as a species, while others are not, and in time, we incorporated those into our religious literature and put the words into the mouths of our gods, to give them more emphasis. These even differ, from religion to religion – for example, the Muslim might well believe that a nine-year old girl is a satisfactory sexual object, while a member of another religion might not.

          • 1) The thief already had a spirit of repentance, seeing as how he admitted that he deserved what he was getting and that what he had done was wrong. It was just that in Jesus, he found the proper object of that repentance.

            2) So there are no ‘objective’ facts, meaning “non-person dependent moral facts.” Got it.

            Anyways, I feel like this is a tangent not in the spirit of the post. So I’m going to stop, and write a post on it soon myself. Sorry for this sort of tangent.

          • “The thief already had a spirit of repentance, seeing as how he admitted that he deserved what he was getting and that what he had done was wrong. It was just that in Jesus, he found the proper object of that repentance.”

            And by your logic, a rapist could do exactly the same thing, and wind up with a seat in your heaven, next to his victim.

          • So, a question then. A better question would be I suppose, “Why does a good God save anyone?” Everyone has done something terrible at some point, we’ve all lied to someone, or stolen something, or betrayed their value. So everyone is going to hell unless God provides a way and he did. (Or we’re all going to die and turn to mulch in which case some people got away with their crimes.)

            You don’t have to believe in God to be good, but it seems hard, again, to understand how goodness, objective goodness, could exist without a supreme mind.

            Anyways, like the original post said, I don’t think it’s an easy thing to understand this relationship between mercy and truth. We correct societies that have “incorrect scientific knowledge” but we let people who have “incorrect moral knowledge” go on and on. But either, both are objective and real, or one is real and the other isn’t. If moral knowledge is not real, then there was really nothing wrong with the Holocaust, it was just a bit unfashionable based on the laws of the Allies and their societies. (For the record, I don’t think that’s the case. Anyways, like I said, I don’t think I should continue this tangent.)

          • “(Or we’re all going to die and turn to mulch in which case some people got away with their crimes.)”

  5. Hi Coel,
    On reaching the bubble’s edge, the descriptions I read in both Greene’s and Tegmark’s books implied that space inside the bubble was infinite (having to do with an infinite future, an ever expanding bubble, and the relativity of simultaneity), but maybe that’s not a universal assumption of the model.

    On eclipses, I think we know the parameters much better. We can test the theory by predicting future eclipses. The logic of then predicting past ones is much simpler with virtually no degrees of freedom in the variables.

    Perhaps a better comparison would be the attempts to derive what other solar systems were like before we started detecting exoplanets. Back then, we had to extrapolate from what we knew of our solar system but were working with a lot of unknowns. Of course, the exoplanets are showing most of that speculation to have been pretty naive at just how strange reality can be.

  6. What I actually meant to say here was, well said! Imposing our beliefs on others is equally bad from religious believers, atheists, political zealots, or anyone else. I do think there are times when the right thing to do is to intervene in someone else’s life, but it should be done with the utmost caution, and it never hurts to get advice from others before doing it, to minimize the chance that we’re just projecting our own challenges on them.

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