Atheists as Christians in Disguise

Over at Everyday Ethics, Jeremy Neill raises the critique of atheism offered by Nietzsche, in which he argues that atheists claim to have rejected "God" but nevertheless subscribe to Christian ethics.  Ostensibly the questions raised have to do with whether or not atheists are hypocritical as a consequence, and whether they are, in the words of Neill, parasites on Christian culture.  In Neill's words:

Now here’s where Nietzsche strikes and criticizes atheists. He says that atheists, who pride themselves on their belief that God does not exist, in fact are hypocrites because they are still drinking the Christian Kool-Aid. Take the value of equality as an example of what Nietzsche is saying. Virtually all atheists in America are going to tell you that they believe in the value of equality. But at bottom, according to Nietzsche, the value of equality is fundamentally a Christian value. It is Christian because it comes out of the Christian teaching that the weak should be privileged and that all persons are equal before God. There was no value like equality in the ancient Roman world, or the ancient Greek world, or any ancient culture before the rise of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

There was "no value like equality" anywhere before the rise of "Judeo-Christianity".  Mr. Neill is an Assistant Professor at Houston Baptist College, having graduated from the Christian Wheaten College and obtaining his Ph.D. in philosophy from St. Louis University.  He teaches ethics.  I wonder how it could be that Dr. Neill is apparently unaware that nearly five centuries before Christ, the Greeks had developed a sophisticated philosophy of legal and political equality ( which outdoes ours in some ways ).  They had articulated philosophies of equal representation under the law, equal representation in government, and equal opportunities to serve in government.  The Greeks had, by the seventh century BC, developed a kind of house of representatives to which no one was elected, but in which anyone could serve.  Greek ideas regarding equality are radical in some respects even by our standards.

These ideas were works in progress, of course, and the ancients still suffered the social inequalities prevalent in Bronze Age cultures.  Women could not vote nor hold office, voters initially had to be landowners, slavery was common ( which given the scientific and technological prowess of the ancient Greeks might well have delayed the arrival of the Industrial Revolution for two millennia ), and tyrants occasionally seized power.   But all these things were true too of Judeo-Christianity, and unlike Greek philosophy, this religious movement still clings to and promotes variations of these inequalities, such as requiring celibacy of priests, denying women leadership roles in many churches, and promoting policies which ostracize homosexuals and put them at risk of physical harm.  And of course Judeo-Christianity has long taken credit for the economic success of the West, and there is probably no other force in the West as responsible for creating inequality as capitalism.

So why did Dr. Neill raise the issue of equality in light of Nietzsche's argument?  He wants not only to credit Christianity for innovations it did not actually originate, but to deny atheists moral standing:

Atheists these days, for Nietzsche, are still largely adhering to legacy Christian moral values. They do not subscribe, say, to the values of the pre-Christian world. When atheists run around saying God does not exist, but then continue to subscribe to Christian moral values, they are, according to Nietzsche, deeply hypocritical. He means that they are continuing to act like functional Christians – or at least like legacy Christians – because they are continuing to subscribe to the very values of the belief system that they claim to reject.
He goes on to characterize Nietzsche's argument as demanding atheists "need to go back to an earlier, pre-Christian pagan world, when Christian teachings about the importance of serving the poor and not thinking of yourself all the time were non-existent."  Dr. Neill is apparently unfamiliar with the democratic reforms of Solon, which were agreed to by the aristocrats out of fear of revolt, or that Aristotle rooted eudaemonia in one's own best interests, which could not be served by treating others poorly.  Neill is right that Christ advocated caring for the poor, but was this really purely altruistic?

Christ said "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me," and "[ If ] a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.  He that loveth me not keepeth not my sayings".  ( John 14:6, 23-24 )  Interpretations about works or faith differ, but if the principles Christ identifies are true, then works - acting on his words - indicate faith.  The alternative to caring for the poor is, by this logic, damnation and eternal torment.  Thus Christians are induced, coerced even, to this "pure" altruism out of concern for their "immortal soul".  I think this alone is enough to refute claims like those made by Dr. Neill, we needn't reflect on the socio-political climate of Christ's day and how quietism and altruism were made possible and even necessary by the Roman Empire, and how Christ offered a radical way to assimilate in practical terms, but to remain set apart ideologically.

Why then should Neill argue atheists are forced to "go back to an earlier, pre-Christian pagan world"?  In part I think because he realizes this is impossible, and in part because he wants to insinuate that Christianity is the very definition of selfless altruism, and thus of morality.  It's a rhetorical ploy which depends on false claims and implication rather than evidence and reason and explication.

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