It’s a Bad Question… March 2, 2011

It’s a Bad Question…

Jason Boyett — a Christian who admits to having doubts about aspects of his faith — proposes a simple question on his site: (I’m paraphrasing)

Is it better to believe in God but live like you don’t or not believe in God but live like you do?

Or, phrased another way (in his words), “What’s more important: belief or actions?”

I winced at the question itself.

I don’t believe in God. And, dammit, I live like I don’t. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Religious people don’t have a monopoly on morality, but questions like this just reveal that bias.

I don’t believe in God and I’m a better person because of it. I don’t sit around, praying and asking others to pray for me, hoping for something miraculous to happen, because I know that’s useless. Instead, I get off my ass and get stuff done. And if things can’t get better, I accept that and try to move on. I know there’s no afterlife awaiting me, so I try to help others now, when it counts. I don’t cling to irrational beliefs because of tradition or faulty “evidence.” If I find out I’m wrong about something I’ve believed in for a long time, then I admit that.

I have no doubt Jason didn’t mean to suggest that atheists were bad people. But the question he asked implies that if you “live like you believe in God,” you’ll only do good things.

But every one of you can list countless horrible things people have done in the name of religion.

So here’s a revised question that I hope conveys the same intended meaning:

Is it better to believe in a God but act in immoral ways that go against what you preach? Or not believe in a God, but act as if someone were watching over you and judging you at all times?

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  • Jenn

    Another reason he may have asked that question, is that some ‘Christians’ believe that belief is enough. Others would rather have one do good things and not believe. Though I think most (or at least, most here in the Bible Belt) say it’s more important to believe in God, regardless of your actions. Twisted, huh?

  • Brandi

    Live good. Do good things. Keep the religion out of it. You dont have to be a bible thumper to do good things.

  • Fargus

    I was just having a discussion about this very topic in another forum, coincidentally.

    I’m very, very skeeved out by a belief system that based redemption solely on faith. I mean, of course they would probably argue that works follow faith, and that if you truly believe, you’ll do good things. But what about people who do good things and just happen not to believe? I feel like a belief system that necessarily excludes those people from consideration for the grand prize is only a few steps from evil.

  • Steve

    That’s one of my biggest problems with Christianity.

    In some other religions like Buddhism, the only thing that counts is actions. You do good and you are rewarded in the next life (or afterlife depending). Islam also instructs people to give to charity, though if that’s all there is, it seems like a buy-out.

    Now, evangelical Christianity especially has this notion that all that’s necessary for salvation is to accept Jesus. That leads to absurd situations where a criminal just needs to repent and believe and still be rewarded.
    Catholicism is a bit like that too I think, but they also emphasize that people should still do good.

    Serious question: Which major Christian sects actually believe that salvation can only be attained by deeds instead of believe?

    As said, it’s really a question of morality. Which doesn’t come from god from ourselves and society. Doing good only because you want a reward or fear punishment is far less noble than doing good simply because it’s the right thing to do.

  • Questions I often ask my friends:

    Is it evidence of a greater moral character that you do good in the hopes of avoiding punishment and obtaining reward, or that I do good for the sake of doing good because I believe it is the right thing to do?

    If you believe doing good is right because it is what your god wants you to do, then, if it was proven to your satisfaction that your god does not exist (OK, that’s proven every day but you know what I mean) would you stop doing goo? If so, doesn’t the existence of your god become moot if, in the end you agree that doing good for the sake of doing good is ultimately what matters?

    If we act under the premise that your god exists, and we are both called before this deity, you as a believer who acts only to gain favor and avoid punishment, me as a non-believer who asks because it is right out of concern for my fellow people, who will be judged more harshly and why?

    Good for goodness sake or god’s sake…which is the better incentive?

  • Robert L.

    I don’t believe in God and I apply my own personal code of conduct to my life:

    1) Don’t break the law,
    2) don’t harm innocents,
    3) keep a sound financial situation, and
    4) other than that, feel free to do whatever the hell you want to achieve your goals.

    There’s nobody watching over me that I’m not confident of avoiding, and there’s no such thing as karma. Ergo, as long as I don’t break the law (or at least don’t get caught), don’t harm people I deem innocent (i.e. everyone but religious zealots, overbearing authority figures/institutions and actual criminals) and don’t land myself in debt, I’m fine with doing anything I want. Hence, neither option applies to me.

  • I think that in asking that question, before the final words leave your mouth, a rational sane person already knows the answer.

    It is the ones who ask the question and don’t know the answer that scare me.

  • Claudia

    Yeah, this is just a case of “acting as if you believe in God = acting good” (and vice-versa). I’d bet he means well, but being brought up with faith often means you don’t realize how insulting that is to those of us who are good without god/s.

    Bit of an alternative take on this. Apparently in certain sectors of the religious Jewish communities belief is less important than following God’s law. That is to say that it’s more important to observe the rules (and there are a LOT of rules if you’re Orthodox) than to have faith. The idea I think is that doubt can happen and shouldn’t neccesarily be condemned, but if you are no longer observant you are abandoning the community, which is unacceptable.

  • “Is it better to believe in God but live like you don’t or not believe in God but live like you do?”

    Well, in both cases you’re a hypocrite, so I’m with Hemant: I don’t believe and I act like it.

    But…which “God” is he asking about? This presumption that there’s only one god, that it is easily identifiable and that it’s considered synonymous with good is absurd. The soft underbelly of this argument needs to be exposed at every opportunity.

    Any god worthy worshiping wouldn’t want to be worshiped and anyone whose reverence would be meaningful wouldn’t grant it.

    The various gods typically suggested are far from synonymous with good.

  • asonge

    The Christian me from 15 years ago was immediately reminded of the Parable of the Two Sons (Matthew 21:28-32). Belief is clearly more important than action.

    Over and over again the Bible prefers the sinners who are STILL SINNING but who profess repentance to those who act piously.

    Remember, if you stop sinning, Jesus died for nothing.

  • Rob

    Neither is a good choice, it’s a false dilemma. It would be far better to simply be honest, regardless of wether or not you have faith.

  • Heidi

    I still don’t like the question. How about, Is it better to pay lip service to a belief system without following its dictates, or to toss out the idea of an imaginary Moral Overlord and follow your own conscience and the laws of society? That’s basically what they’re asking, right?

    I mean, the whole let he who is without sin thing… I don’t think it applies to their baby-murdering, genocidal god. So he needs to keep his judgment stones to himself. I’ll judge myself, thanks.

  • Lost In The Bible Belt

    Someone is watching me and judging what I do and it is me. And if I step outside of legal behavior I am judged by the laws of society. I think that is plenty…

  • Here here to baby eating, drug induced orgies and murdering!

  • Roxane

    The old debate of justification by faith or by good works is what split the church during the Reformation. Lutherans decided faith mattered, Catholics clung to their Good Works. Just part of the great smorgasbord of Christianity, where you can believe whatever you want.

  • Oliver

    How about this question instead:

    Is it better to:
    1. Believe in God and be good because you fear his judgment
    2. Not believe in God and be good out of empathy for others

  • CanadianNihilist

    Not this thing again.
    Steve, Sean, Heidi, pretty much everyone that’s posted. They’re all right.
    Why is it that christians continue to think that they are the only moral creatures on earth? We all know what they think of other religions even. Do they just assume everywhere that’s not predominantly christian is rife with murder, rape and all sorts of atrocities? (unlike the USA which is predominantly christian with some of the highest crime numbers in the world)

    This christian moral thing is retarded. I have two godless heathen cats that behave just fine. They play and share their toys. They don’t fight over the canned food, somewhere in the middle of their meal they trade bowls and share. (even though it’s the same flavor)
    They haven’t killed each other yet and I’m confident that they won’t suddenly attack me in a blind Satan fueled cat rage.

  • The proper response should be: If you must believe, then at least act like you don’t.


    You will be more ethical and less likely to commit crimes (at least, crimes punishable by imprisonment).

  • Silent Service

    I had a friend ask recently what I believe. It was pretty obvious that she was asking how I could possibly be good without her Dog. I hit her with the Golden Rule than slapped her around with the Hippocratic Oath. Okay, I’m not a doctor but you can’t do to badly by treating people nice and trying hard to do no harm. Neither are exclusively Christian moral standards. I’m pretty sure that stoning people and shunning people violate both.

  • Most Christians believe that you go to heaven only by the grace of God. It is up to God. God could give grace to everybody, nobody, or any percentage in between. It then comes down to trying to get in (or guess) the mind of God. There are two main theories:

    1. God is impressed by your good works
    2. Good is impressed by you believing the “right” stuff.

    I think a good rewording of the question would be

    Would it impress God more to do good works but not believe the “right” stuff or to believe the “right” stuff but not do good works?

    Of course the question is somewhat academic if you don’t believe in God or heaven or that God decides who goes to heaven.

  • religion plays no role in my moral system and never has. i learned everything i need to know about what is good and fair and right from Sesame Street. no, really, i mean that. i went to a public elementary school, and back then the fundies hadn’t taken over the school board, so the only exposure i got to religion in school was via history classes, and the little pageant they did during the holiday season, but that was mostly about singing and wasn’t limited to xmas carols alone. we’d watch SS once a day and then talk about the lessons we learned. why sharing is important, why telling the truth always is right, etc.

    morality isn’t really that hard. it’s one of the things i despise about religious philosophers and believers more than almost anything. the Golden Rule, the Hippocratic Oath, and just knowing the definition of the words “fair” and “kindness” and “truthfulness” are enough. any child can be taught all that, no need for fairy tales or convoluted logic which explains why “gawd is good” but vaporizes cities and instructs believers to slaughter those of different belief.

    the older i get the most convinced i am that the religious cling to religion because they are morally crippled. i use the word in the secular sense, but i think the more religious a person is, it’s because they are that much more prone to ‘sin.’ i have also come to the conclusion that the religious, much like modern american republican politicians, tend to project their own flaws on to others as a form of distraction from the sad, sick truth of their own lives. i think a lot of the most vocal religious are in fact wracked with doubt and fear about their behaviors and beliefs, and the louder they shout about my supposed lack of morality, the more likely it is they are the ones breaking all the moral rules and laws they pretend to espouse.

    there are many reasons i subscribe to the notion that “religion is for the weak, and weak minded” and lack of natural moral character is one.

  • Douglas Kirk

    In the words of Ebonmuse (although a philosophy I arrived at before he articulated it much better than I)

    “In all decisions always attempt to maximize both actual and potential [individual and societal] happiness while minimizing both actual and potential [individual and societal] suffering.”

    I added the bracketed words, even though technically they’re not necessary.

  • anthrosciguy

    Still not a good question. The second half should be “Or not believe in a God, but act like a decent human being”.

  • Stephanie

    Someone IS watching over me and judging me at all times.

    This question still has presumptions as to a morality split between believers and non-believers. There is no valid conditional dichotomy here.

  • CanadianNihilist

    Speaking of morality If anyone hasn’t seen these videos they might like them.
    Even though it’s just “preaching to the converted” because we all know religious people won’t watch them.

  • jolly

    Typical religious blinders on. Can’t think of any other choices. When I have run across someone who is starting to doubt but is worried about acting morally, I just say, act as if you are being video taped and this will be shown on the 6 o’clock news for all to see.

  • Is it better to believe in God but live like you don’t or not believe in God but live like you do?

    This is such an odd question. It presumes that I would live my life differently if I believed in Jason’s god. However, I can’t think of one thing about my life that would change if I suddenly started believing in a deity.

    I find it ironic that Jason connects belief in his god to virtuous behavior, since I find the character and actions of the god of the Bible (and Christians’ justifications for its purported demeanor) to be quite immoral indeed.

  • Secular Stu

    Is it better to believe in a God but act in immoral ways that go against what you preach like allowing a woman to speak, teach, or otherwise have authority over a man? Or not believe in a God, but oppose equal rights for homosexuals anyway?

    Hmm. That is a tough one!

  • I interpreted the question first as “What would be better: believe in God and pretend that you don’t or don’t believe in God and pretend you do”, and it didn’t make any sense. While many people appear to do the latter, hardly anyone is doing the former. Other than that, living a lie is always bad, no matter what the lie you’re living is.

    But the line after that suggest we should rather interpret the question instead as “What would be better: believe in God and not be a good person or don’t believe in God and be a good person.” Which still seems a silly question to ask. From the point of view of the rest of the world, the latter option must surely be the clear winner.

    But I suppose that the real question is about what God would favor, and until there is a reliable way to determine if God exists, and if so, what exactly he favors, this is an entirely uninteresting question.

  • Kristi

    Their minds work in strange ways when they are raised to think within certain limits. I don’t think he intended any insulting. He was taught that non belief = immoral. That’s something very hard to get over and the later in life you realize it, the harder it is.

  • Mike Christerson

    Am I the only one who saw the question as “Which false face should I put forward in order to fit in?”

  • Brian Macker

    “Is it better to believe in God but live like you don’t or not believe in God but live like you do?”

    False dichotomy. It is best to not believe in God and live like you don’t believe in him.

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