An Atheist and a Christian walk into a bar.

March 29, 2009

This thought has reoccurred to me a number of times. It is kind of simple and definitely in need of refinement. It is essentially related to the problem of evil. When you ask nonbelievers why they don’t believe in God, especially those who once did, you frequently get an interesting response. “If there is a God look at all the pain he’s caused, all the evil he allows. How could anyone believe in him?” They blame the God who doesn’t exist for the problems in the world. But there is a disconnect. Without God being responsible for evil we are left with two possible conclusions as to evil’s existence. There is no evil, or evil is humanity’s fault.

In the first category you have Nietzsche and Richard Rorty. Evil is merely a definition that varies according to person or the powerful. This is, so far as I can tell, the most logical outcome of true atheistic ethics. However, if you don’t subscribe to that outcome of atheism you are left drawing the same conclusion as the Christian.  We’re responsible.

This is where exitential guilt comes in.  Every time I lie, every time I take an action that in some way injures someone else, it is my responsibility.  I can blame no one else.  This guilt seems to be little felt in the West, where the consequences for something as simple as buying a cup of coffee or pair of sneakers are so far removed from us we don’t see them.  But we’re contributing to the mess of the third world by our mere existence.  Forget pollution, try and imagine everyone on earth producing as much physical trash as we do, there isn’t the landfill space for it.

Christianity, and Judaism before it, had and has a word for this problem: sin.  We are responsible for the problems of the world, merely by existing.  The atheist doesn’t agree with us on the terminology.  But if they believe that evil exists in the world then we are on the same page.



  1. Well said, and it isn’t just the US. Trying to suggest to people that maybe their actions afffect others in their village, area and world meets with blank looks here as well. If people don’t see the con sequences or the connection we seem to be able to ignore the sin in our lives.

  2. If God is sitting this one out, then we have to do it ourselves. Feel like starting a business with me Liam? We could do good professionally. Shelter and educate the homeless, care for the sick, that kind of thing. Put our useless pieces of expensive paper to good use.

  3. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is the disgrace of a people.” Question for you Liam. What is Righteousness?

  4. Hey Andy, Thanks for the comment. I’m as guilty as anyone. Looking at our garbage walking into my apartment I realized we’ve epically failed in terms of recycling and composting. I keep thinking about how systemic sin is the most invisible. Our participation renders us complicit. Maybe that’s the whole point of the distinction between in the world and of it. That will need further thought. Although it does tie into Matt’s question of Righteousness exalting a nation. Maybe righteousness as a nation is dealing with the deep faults in the system of governance and authority.

  5. Germany is a bit better in terms of recycling and re-using, but it’s married to the motor vehicle to a ridiculous degree, and I think you’re right, systemic sin is invisible, especially when it’s the cultural norm.

    I know what you mean about getting at the roots of governance. But when I look at history I feel that lasting positive change comes from a grass roots starting point, certainly Christianity seems to be more effective when we just decide to live counter-culturally and love people.

  6. Hey Matt,
    I’m all for it. I’ve got ideas I’d love to run by you. Let me know when you get back in the vicinity of Toronto.

    In terms of righteousness, You’ve yet again poked a hole in my pretensions to knowledge. I kind of hinted at what I believe it is in the context of a nation, but I’ll have to reflect on that idea further. At a personal level righteousness is reflecting the goodness of God. It is more than being a good person, but a godly, perfect person. Which is what Paul is getting at in Romans when he says “no one is righteous, not even one.” We can’t be perfect, we have a hard enough time just being decent. Righteousness is God’s alone and the reason for Jesus’ sacrifice is to allow humanity to become righteous in spite of ourselves.

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