Does God pose an authority problem for you?

I’m going to steal this entire post from Tough Questions Answered to get a conversation started:

Many of the people I know who reject God or who have crafted a God that makes no demands on them have a fundamental problem with authority.  They don’t want anybody telling them what to do.

For a person who wants complete autonomy, who chafes at the thought of anyone having authority over them, a creator God who makes demands is way inconvenient.

Many people who believe in God, but also have this authority hang-up, create their own version of God.  This God gives them what they want when they want it.  He approves of everything they do, as long as they are just trying to be happy.  He encourages them to follow their desires, wherever they lead.  C. S. Lewis compared this God to a senile, old grandfather who never says “no” to his grandchildren.  You want chocolate for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?  No problem!

Is this the Christian God?  Philosopher Paul Moser answers the question:

It would be a strange, defective God who didn’t pose a serious cosmic authority problem for humans.  Part of the status of being God, after all, is that God has a unique authority, or lordship, over humans.  Since we humans aren’t God, the true God would have authority over us and would seek to correct our profoundly selfish ways.

If you are “worshiping” a God who makes no demands on you, you’re worshiping no God at all.  You’re just trying to find a deity to make you feel good about your selfish choices.  What’s the point?

I’m posting this because I’m looking for comments. Do you know anyone like this? I’ll help by getting you started with some sample atheists.

Famous atheists agree: God is not the boss of them

Consider the words of Thomas Nagel, a famous atheist philosopher:

“In speaking of the fear of religion, I don’t mean to refer to the entirely reasonable hostility toward certain established religions and religious institutions, in virtue of their objectionable moral doctrines, social policies, and political influence. Nor am I referring to the association of many religious beliefs with superstition and the acceptance of evident empirical falsehoods. I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers.

I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”(”The Last Word” by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press: 1997)”

He is a widely respected atheist. He once named Stephen C. Meyer’s Signature in the Cell as one of the Times Literary Supplement’s best books of the year.

And what about atheist Richard Lewontin: (and by “science” he means “naturalistic science”)

“Our willingness to accept scientific claims that are against common sense is the key to an understanding of the real struggle between science and the supernatural. We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our own a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, not matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.” (Richard Lewontin in New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997, p. 28)

Interesting. He’s willing to tell people lies to keep the Divine Foot outside the door.

And one last one from Aldous Huxley:

“I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantegous to themselves… For myself, the philosophy of meaningless was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.” — Aldous Huxley in Ends and Means, 1937

So this is pretty widespread among famous atheists. How about among ordinary atheists?

Survey says

Additionally, atheists are not as charitable as religious people:

Arthur Brooks’ survey showed that atheists certainly give less in charity and do less community service as religious people on the right and left.


Drawing on some ten data sets, Brooks finds that religiosity is among the best predictors of charitable giving. Religious Americans are not only much more likely to give money and volunteer their time to religious and secular institutions, they are also more likely to provide aid to family members, return incorrect change, help a homeless person, and donate blood. In fact, despite expecting to find just the opposite, Brooks concluded: “I have never found a measurable way in which secularists are more charitable than religious people.”

Consider some examples. Religious citizens who make $49,000 gave away about 3.5 times as much money as secular citizens with the same income. They also volunteered twice as often, are 57 percent more likely to help homeless persons, and two-thirds more likely to give blood at their workplace. Meanwhile, those who insist that “beliefs don’t matter as long as you’re a good person” are not as good as those who do think beliefs matter. The former group gave and volunteered at much lower rates.

Yet even these findings tend to obscure the impact of religion on charity. This is because some of the survey respondents that Brooks classified as secular are indirectly affected by religion if they were raised in a religious household.

Atheists also divorce more than committed Christians:


It’s a number that is trumpeted from the rooftops — and the pulpit: Half of marriages among Christians and non-Christians alike end in divorce.

But the reality is that Christians who attend church regularly get divorced at a much lower rate.

Professor Bradley Wright, a sociologist at the University of Connecticut, found that among people who identify as Christians but rarely attend church, 60 percent have been divorced. Of those who attend church regularly, 38 percent have been divorced.

W. Bradford Wilcox, a leading sociologist at the University of Virginia and director of the National Marriage Project, found a nearly identical spread between “active conservative Protestants” who regularly attend church and people with no religious affiliation.

Professor Scott Stanley from the University of Denver, who is working on the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, said couples with a vibrant religious faith have more and higher levels of the qualities that marriages need to avoid divorce.

“Whether young or old, male or female, low-income or not, those who said that they were more religious reported higher average levels of commitment to their partners, higher levels of marital satisfaction, less thinking and talking about divorce and lower levels of negative interaction,” he said. “These patterns held true when controlling for such important variables as income, education and age at first marriage.”

My survey of atheists

I like to find out what atheists are really thinking. So a while back, I did this massive survey of the atheists in my life, and this fear of authority (and morality) seemed to be the central belief animating atheism.

Here’s Question 11:

What is your purpose in life, and why did you choose that purpose? Is it just yours, or for everyone else too?

And these were the responses:

  • Mine is to feel good about myself and to feel respected by others.
  • Mine is to enjoy it. I’d hope that I go about it in a way that doesn’t interfere with others enjoyment and that when it does we can compromise.
  • Mine is to relieve inordinate suffering, while leaving room for constructive suffering that lead to creativity and progress. Based on empathy.
  • Mine is to help the species survive by having lots of children, because that lasts after you die
  • Each person decides for themselves. My purpose is to have happy feelings
  • My purpose is to have happy feelings by doing what most of the other people are doing and avoiding social disapproval
  • I have no “objective” purpose. I do what I can to be happy, all things considered.
  • To live as contented as possible. To find answers to big questions. To prepare my children for adulthood. I chose these things because that’s what I like. I don’t care what another’s purpose is as long as they don’t harm anyone.
  • My purpose is to seek happiness while doing no harm (or as little harm as is it may be possible to do) for as long as I’m alive. Of course it’s just my own purpose – I can’t presume to choose another’s purpose. That being said, I do presume everyone has more or less the same goal of happiness and fulfillment, but the precise methods of going about it are always going to vary from person to person.
  • I want to be happy. I generally like other people, and I want them to be happy too.

Here’s Question 12:

Suppose Jesus appeared to us right now and addressed you directly with the following words: “I’m really here and you need to follow me in order to flourish and achieve the goal for which I created you”. He then glares suspiciously at me, snatches a few fries from my plate, eats them, and then disappears. Later on, the Ghostbusters show up and confirm that Jesus was no ghost, but really God stepping into history. And everyone in the restaurant saw and heard exactly what you and I saw and heard. How would you proceed? How would you find out what to do? (i.e. – the atheist now knows Christianity is true, and I want to see what they think they should do in order to act like a Christian)

And these were the responses:

  • I have no idea
  • I would not follow. My own goals are all that I have, and all that I would continue to have in that unlikely situation. I would not yield my autonomy to anyone no matter what their authority to command me
  • I would not follow, because God doesn’t want humans to act any particular way, and he doesn’t care what we do
  • I would not follow. Head is spinning. Would go to physician to find out if hallucinating.
  • If I found there was no trickery? I’d have to change my mind wouldn’t I! Not really likely though is it?
  • I would keep doing what I am doing now, acting morally. That’s what all religions want anyway. (In response to my triumphant scribbling, he realized he had fallen into a trap and changed his answer to the right answer) Oh, wait. I would try to try to find out what Jesus wanted and then try to do that.
  • I hope I would be courageous enough to dedicate my life to rebellion against God.
  • I would not have to change anything unless forced to and all that would change is my actions not my values.  I would certainly balk at someone trying to force me to change my behavior as would you if you were at the mercy of a moral objectivist who felt that all moral goodness is codified in the Koran.
  • He would have to convince me that what he wants for me is what I want for me.

Here’s Question 13:

What would be the most difficult thing about becoming a Christian for you? Would it be the moral demands? The demands on your time? The unpopularity, humiliation and persecution that you would face? How would you feel about publicly declaring your allegiance for Christ and facing the consequences? (i.e. – they have become a Christian, what is the most difficult adjustment from your current life?)

And these were the responses:

  • I don’t know
  • It would not be that big of a change for me. I already act morally, I’m already public about my beliefs, and I don’t care what people think about what I believe. I don’t mind disagreeing with people and being unpopular for it. I think the 10 commandments are good. I could find out what to do and start doing those things.
  • I would not be able to believe in miracles, so there would be cognitive dissonance
  • Sacrificing my personal moral standards to take up a standard from a book that is very old and outdated
  • The most difficult would be the fact that I believe something without good evidence.
  • I work many hours a week for institutions and organizations that are charitable. I’m certainly not going to swap those for hours for “prayer time” and waste them.
  • I would certainly balk at someone trying to force me to change my behavior as would you if you were at the mercy of a moral objectivist who felt that all moral goodness is codified in the Koran. Obviously, it is possible that if I became a Christian, then I would have different values then I have now.
  • The most difficult thing would be trying to believe the ridiculous claims of Christianity. As for what a Christian finds difficult, how would I know?
  • I could never obey God from gratitude and love, only from servility inspired by fear and cowardice. I do not see myself as servile, fearful or cowardly, and to behave in such a manner would injure my self-esteem and self-image.

So you might be surprised to know that even if Christianity were true, atheists have no intention of changing the way they live. That’s the real issue – and that should be scary for any atheist to realize. If they just cracked open a Bible and read Romans 1, that should be enough to scare the crap out of them – because it’s pretty obvious what is going on with humans – all of us have an authority problem. And a lot of the learning and striving that atheists do is just an effort to get people to think that they are so great and successful after they’ve dumped their relationship with God.

I hope that more atheists look in the mirror and are honest with themselves about what’s really going on. Is it really such a terrible thing to have a relationship with the person who cares the most about you and wants the best for you? Is fun really that important that people have to push away a real, significant, eternal relationship just because it requires self-denial? If I didn’t embrace chastity, as God wishes, where would I get to time to do the really heroic things I do – and how could I concern myself with a woman’s real moral and spiritual needs if I got into the habit of using them selfishly? You can’t experience imitating God when you shut him out. And that’s what we are all here to do – to know him, to be his friend, to act in a way that allows us to feel what he feels, and to have sympathy with him.

16 thoughts on “Does God pose an authority problem for you?”

  1. “I hope I would be courageous enough to dedicate my life to rebellion against God.”

    That one made me laugh out loud. Will write a slightly more comprehensive response when I fix the bugs in my homework (if I find them).


    1. It’s very important to talk to actual atheists to understand what they really think. I find especially useful to ask them about conscience rights for pro-life doctors, as well as abortion. What I almost always find is that they want the state to force Christians to act like atheists in public, even if it violates their consciences. That’s what atheists really think of human rights like the right of conscience. When I think back over history when there have been atheists regimes killing millions and millions of people, that’s exactly what they believed. In fact, you can see atheism on display right now by looking at abortion, which kills 1 million babies per year in the United States alone. What is the typical atheist attitude to it, judging by their tendency to vote for legalized abortion? Well, their view is that the strong should be able to pursue happiness and to use murder to escape the consequences (babies being conceived) of their actions should those consequences make them unhappy. It’s very important to understand how atheists think and how it applies to other issues. They don’t believe in human rights or objective morality, by and large. Those things are not grounded by their worldview. In a country saturated with Judeo-Christian values and history, they may feel peer-pressure to behave better than their worldview allows. But that’s not to their credit – they are just borrowing goodness from a worldview they don’t hold.

      They want to be happy. And in a meaningless, accidental universe, there is no reason to limit their pursuit of happiness with moral rules or “human rights”.


      1. “Well, their view is that the strong should be able to pursue happiness and to use murder to escape the consequences of their actions should those consequences make them unhappy. It’s very important to understand how atheists think and how it applies to other issues.”

        I think we ought not to confuse what atheists are with what they think. An atheist would probably rephrase your statement by saying,

        “Women have the right to take care of their own bodies and should not be forced to have a baby against their will. Besides, the foetus isn’t even a person. Do you want women to have children they cannot take care of and suffer? Do you want the children to suffer? Do you want to take away a woman’s free will and force her to carry a pregnancy she does not want and cannot afford? What if having a baby would kill her?”

        Yes, I agree with you that this comes from their rejection of God, but they do not think that it does. Your quote accurately summarizes their situation, but I think mine summarizes their thoughts. It reminds me of Orual from ‘Till we have faces’. What you call their view is what they think in truth. What I said is what they think they think. Perhaps that understanding would help us better handle the situation.

        Do you have any idea how to answer atheists when they do not say what they mean? As C S Lewis pointed out, [a human] “must be speaking with its own voice (not one of its borrowed voices), expressing its actual desires (not what it imagines that it desires), being for good or ill itself, not any mask.”


  2. I’ve never been an atheist, so I find it hard to figure out what goes on in their minds, but I can say this:

    When it first occured to me that Christianity might not be true, one of the first things I thought was that I could then do whatever I liked. I wouldn’t have to obey my parents or wait till after marriage to have sex. Afterall, I only did those things because I thought that was what God wanted. I could cheat on tests (everyone else did and they never got punished). My parents would be upset, but they couldn’t do anything to me.

    After thinking about it for a while, I rejected atheism first for that reason – it makes a mockery of moral values by taking away their foundation and I didn’t want to become the very thign my parents had taught me to abhor (immoral).

    With that background in mind, I can say from experience that independence (or rebellion from my perspective) is an important issue as far as belief in God is concerned. If an atheist does not flat out reject God because they wish to reject his claim on their lives (something I strongly believe), then they must certainly have some liking for their current status as judge of what is right and wrong in their lives. Otherwise, they just don’t know themselves well enough.

    My two cents.


    1. Wow, that is exactly my experience when I was a teen as well. And at that point I already knew about the cosmological argument and the Big Bang, so there really was no way out of theism. I did not want to be one of these people who just rebel for the sake of being happy, no matter who they hurt in the process. I wanted to be good.


  3. I’m an atheist, and the conversation so far doesn’t resonate with me at all. I have a few problems with the original post that I’d like to discuss with you all. The first line of evidence is based on quotes from a handful of atheists, but it doesn’t seem appropriate to me to extrapolate their views to “atheists.” As a silly example that I hope makes the point, I wouldn’t see any use in quoting Rush Limbaugh to demonstrate what people who believe in God think. Second, studies have shown that religious people are more charitable, but secular people are more supportive of publicly funded organizations that benefit the needy. Another factor here is that atheists certainly lack the social structure that religious people have, but there’s no reason to think that atheists won’t become more organized in charitable giving as they become more organized in general. I can’t quote any data to back up these two hypotheses, but do they not seem like reasonable propositions? Third, 9 responses do not constitute a massive survey, and there again is no reason to extrapolate from these answers what atheists in general think.

    It does seem that you want to continue the conversation with atheists, which I think is a good thing. I would just try to keep an open mind when you are tempted to generalize viewpoints.

    I’d like to address a few of the comments that I thought were thought-provoking. First, I’d like to say that when I believed in God, I oversimplified what non-Christians meant when they said “happy” and took it to be quite shallow. I don’t think it’s fair to assume that “happy” means any particular thing to anyone. Some people are happy working on their computer, others are happy walking in the woods, others are happy serving in a soup kitchen, others are happy playing with their kids, others are happy because they are content with what they have no matter what happens, and others are happy because they are surrounded by people they love. Being happy doesn’t seem like such a bad goal to me, but it depends on what you mean in my opinion.

    Second, several of you said that when you considered atheism, you realized that you would be able to do whatever you wanted. Did you then actually want to do harm to others as you suggest? When I turned away from Christianity, one of the things that convinced me most that I was making the right decision was that I was just as nice as I was before. Do you all have the fear that “without God, all things are […] ” desirable?

    Thanks for the discussion.


    1. Hi, Walt,

      While I don’t think WK can quote some atheists and argue on the basis of those quotes that all atheists have an authority problem, I do think he can argue based on his findings that this is a significant problem with the atheist community. I believe it’s called induction. I’ll let him clarify his meaning, though. WK?

      Secondly, you said that “studies have shown that religious people are more charitable, but secular people are more supportive of publicly funded organizations that benefit the needy”

      Have you considered that perhaps this has nothing to do with charitability? Take the case of a person who donates money or time to a charity and a person who votes for a president who intends to increase the public funding for welfare checks. Perhaps it is just as WK argues that the second person is merely fostering dependence on the government and religious people do not want that. If the second person isn’t giving his time and money (but simply asking the government to do so), how concerned is he, really?

      “several of you said that when you considered atheism, you realized that you would be able to do whatever you wanted. Did you then actually want to do harm to others as you suggest?”

      I have a problem with your question. When I considered atheism, I realized that I could do whatever I wanted. Did I want to harm someone then? No, not at that point because I couldn’t figure out how it benefited me. I wanted to cheat on tests and shoplift and lie to my parents, because those things benefited me. If, however, I were the kind of person who derived pleasure from hurting others, you can bet I would have been thinking about that. I could do whatever I wanted (if I wanted it).

      “When I turned away from Christianity, one of the things that convinced me most that I was making the right decision was that I was just as nice as I was before.”

      Whatever made you think that if Christianity is true, then apostasy should make you a worse person?


      1. Yes, I meant induction. But really I am not trying to draw any conclusions about atheists as a whole. I am suggesting that this is a problem that Christians may want to consider when evangelizing atheists. I.e. – it may be that atheists are not motivated by true at all, and so you have to investigate the underlying issue behind their view, which might be just rebellion against any kind of moral principle that might constrain their pursuit of pleasure. I think the insight is useful in finding out what animates them to believe what they believe, especially the very odd things that many of them believe that are knowably false, like the eternal universe, the multiverse, aliens seeding the Earth with life, and so on.

        Wow, thanks for making that point about government, Tracy. You’re right – what credit should people get for being generous with OTHER PEOPLE’S MONEY? Charity is about using the money that you yourself earn by the sweat of your brow to help other people. After all, governments in places like Canada provide free sex changes. Is that the same as letting a homeless person live with you in your own house and buying them food with your own earned salary?

        I think it’s important to see the underlying view of religion behind his questions: namely, he thinks that the point of religion is to make people perform actions. This is the impression that many people get of religion in the popular culture, but it’s unbiblical. What Christianity is about is having accurate beliefs about God’s existence and character, and what he has done in history to interact with us. Once that has been established, THEN the actions are performed as part of that relationship. The most important goal is to know God. On that standard, which comes straight from Jesus’ own words about the “greatest commandment”, no atheist could be justified before God by doing “good” things. That’s not the main point of life.

        Wow, this is such a great answer to all of his questions. It’s first class work! I’m so impressed!


  4. If God were real, it is true that if wouldn’t be much of God if it didn’t impose laws and punishments that were seriously thought through.
    But they’re not. Taking the Biblical God as my case study, ‘perfection’ is an impossibly high order to reach–especially for a species that has Fallen (something God apparently refuses to fix).
    So here I am, a fallen individual failing to meet God’s just-plain-ridiculous expectation of me. And for that I shall go to a Hell of eternal torment. I’m failing to see the justice in the expectation or the fairness of eternal torture for a finite crime.
    Anyway, I’m offered a loophole through the death of His son, Jesus. Again, I’m failing to see the justice; it’s human sacrifice I have to respect here! If I accept Jesus’ death then the expectation drops. In fact it drops to just about nothing. As long as I have faith I’m on a free ride to Heaven.
    None of that seems wise, fair, just or seriously thought through.
    Now, let me make my position clear. I am an atheist who is entirely unconvinced by the evidence if God existed. If I as presented with convincing evidence (not sure what that would look like) I’ve believe.
    But that doesn’t mean I’d consider God anything less than a tyrannical ruler with magic powers!

    Why have I bothered to write here? Because I don’t like to be condescended to by the suggestion that I am a nonbeliever because I have a problem with authority! I am nonbeliever because I have not had sufficient evidence to believe.


    1. I won’t argue with you about why you are a non-believer, Allallt, but I do have to say that your understanding of Christianity is seriously skewed.

      Firstly, God hasn’t refused to fix us. Fixing us is exactly what Jesus did on the cross. Keep reading for my explanation.

      Secondly, Don’t forget what God;’s expectation is. God’s expectation is that we do not break his laws. God sends you to hell because you do break that law. If you believe that people who commit crimes should be punished, that shouldn’t be too difficult to understand. And the duration of a punishment does not depend on the duration of the crime. If it takes me three seconds to shoot and kill my brother, I’d be in jail for a lot longer than those three seconds.

      Perhaps what you mean is that the punishment is too severe for the crime. But I doubt you are in any position to determine what the appropriate punishment is for flaunting God’s law thereby rebelling against the one being in the universe who has absolute authority over you and deserves your unconditional allegiance (He does own you), acting as if you have the right to determine what should and shouldn’t be done, hurting him and the other people he has made, etc.

      Also, I don’t know what makes you think there are such things as finite crimes (unless you are referring to the duration). The consequences of one wrong action may well produce a domino effect that goes on for eternity. Then there’s the possibility that those who go to hell go on sinning forever which of course, would make it impossible to free them.

      Thirdly, Jesus’ sacrifice is not that difficult to understand.
      “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” – 2 Corr 5:21
      “All we like sheep have gone astray;
      We have turned, every one, to his own way;
      And the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” – Isaiah 53:6
      1 Peter 2:24 – “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. ”

      The Bible’s teaching about Jesus is that he took on our sins, becoming the guilty one and making us innocent, and then he was punished for those sins. If justice is to give people what they are due (punish the guilty and acquit the innocent), then no injustice was done. Call it human sacrifice, but if you think it is unjust in some way, then feel free to speak up.

      Finally, when we accept Jesus’ sacrifice, does God’s expectation from us drops to zero? It depends on how you look at it. Accepting Jesus’ sacrifice means accepting him as our lord and king and therefore, following his lead. If you have accepted Jesus, God will teach you to follow his lead. But it is not following him that saves us, it is his sacrifice that saves us. it is not listed as a requirement for salvation but it is expected. If you are saved, you will become more like Jesus with each passing day.

      In more practical terms, when you become a Christian, if you steal, God will not send you to hell. However, the more his holy Spirit works in you, the better you will be able to see stealing for the horrible violation of God’s law that it is and the less likely it is that you will do so in the future. In other words, he changes us.

      I apologize for writing you an essay, but it is the only way to be thorough. I hope WK doesn’t mind.
      I also apologize if I am vague in some places.


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