5th place — Samuel Hagen: Can we learn anything from theists?

FFRF awarded Samuel $600.

By Samuel Hagen

Samuel Hagen

As an unabashed atheist on campus, I am frequently pained when I find myself placed in a seminar with zealously believing classmates. The undergraduate seminar room is, after all, a sacred place that values reason above all; the best ideas win validation by the professor, while poorly constructed arguments fall flat, or worse, are subject to ridicule. In such an environment, it seems unlikely that one could learn anything from theists — especially, as one often encounters in this great nation, evangelical Christians — because the perpetuation of dogma has little to do with reasoned argumentation, let alone our grander project of learning.

In a recent course in the university religion department titled “Theism and Moral Reasoning,” I found myself on the first day of class seated across from a young man proudly sporting a T-shirt featuring a bible quote: “I can do all things through Christ.” Continuing my glance around the room, I spotted another student with an unavoidably large laptop sticker, proudly projecting in bold, italicized papyrus: “I am pro-life.”

Well, this will be a fun semester, I thought. While my believing counterparts in the course will remain entrenched in the divine ditch, my reason will win out these discussions every time! After all, I figured that these theists didn’t have much to say about moral reasoning, aside from the usual inevitability of my route as a nonbeliever to hell.

One of the major themes of the course was the idea of divine moral arbitration, that is, the moral judgment of right and wrong (e.g., God condemning people to hell), as opposed to the belief in some human potential to arrive at moral principles through reason. The concept of divine moral judgment is, as it turns out, logically unsound. Plato knew this. In his Euthyphro, he aptly points out that it remains unclear whether certain actions are morally commendable merely because God desires them, or if God promotes certain actions because they are moral. The first case is problematic, as it implies that morality — the pursuit of goodness — is merely arbitrary dogma; the second case would mean that God’s judgment remains subservient to some ultimate, higher morality, and thus makes God irrelevant to moral reasoning. By either formulation, morality could not logically have anything to do with God, and the concept of hell becomes obsolete.

Relieved that reason would let me eschew eternal damnation, I began to wonder if I might learn anything from my theistic classmates. As the semester progressed, and our weekly discussions inevitably devolved to the same questions of belief, I began to realize that the issue with their theistic reasoning was merely a question of moral ownership. Whereas evangelicals would have us believe that God is the ultimate owner of moral value, I believe that I have full ownership over my own morality. Sure, they may be able to “do all things through Christ,” but personally, I can do all things through myself. I will never burn in some New Testament inferno, but I might suffer — hellishly, perhaps — if I  fail to follow my own ethical code. Through our class discussion, I began to see theism as a sort of lazy ethic: Rather than reasonably consider the moral stakes of one’s actions, theists would rather enter a transactional relationship with God. Do x, go to heaven; fail to do x, go to hell.

I’ve come to realize that theists and atheists both pursue a certain divine goodness. It’s just that I would label this “reason,” whereas theists would say “God.” My task, then, as I leave the seminar room and look beyond my college campus, is to reclaim the supreme divinity of reason. The only hell that reason can conceive of is a land devoid of reason — and the longer we allow theism to flourish, the sooner we might be headed for such a hell after all.

Samuel, 22, is from Gainesville, Fla., and attended Harvard University, having graduated in May. He majored in theater and art history and minored in Russian literature. Samuel is now working for an entertainment company in California.