Disagreements with my partner made me think about individual differences in how ex-christians become atheists and what defines their morals.

I think that there are primary and secondary christian beliefs. Most atheists agree on having discarded the primary christian beliefs of the existence of a god, an afterlife and the circumstances of life and death of a guy called Jesus as told in the bible.

But there are also secondary beliefs defining how good christians have to be, to behave and to think. These secondary beliefs can be summed up as the precept to give and to sacrifice more than to receive and to expect and to suffer more than to harm others. This precept makes perfect sense when derived from the primary belief in an afterlife and rewards by a god after death. But it makes no sense for atheists whose life ends at death.

Unfortunately the immersion in a christian culture and a christian upbringing sometimes has the effect that those secondary beliefs and precepts are taken for granted as the only possible way to be. Therefore some people become cognitive atheists, but in their morals they remain christians.

Only by overcoming also the secondary beliefs someone can become a full apistevist with morals derived from the principle of fairness and justice, of a balance of giving and receiving, of living according to Epicurus’ principle of not harming and not being harmed.

This can lead to the absurd situation that a christian atheist claims to be morally superior to an apistevist.

Has anybody experienced something like this?

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When I discarded my parents' faith I realized that I had to rethink everything I had been taught by them. I was 19 at the time and I filled a lot of notebooks to work it all out. How far I've succeeded so far I don't really know, but I'm watching (myself) critically, I always try to see how opinions come into existence. Nice that you mention Epicurus!


Because you say that you are watching yourself critically, I feel encouraged to ask you some further question.

Did you experience that rethinking the teachings of religion made you change your moral paradigm, your moral precepts?

My own christianity as a child was never more than skin deep. Until I was about 14 I never doubted any of the doctrines and claims, but at the same time they had just nothing to do with my own life. It never occurred to me that any impact upon me could be influenced by praying, or that any deity had any real power to reward or punish me. Religion was not a part of family life, it was a three hour per week exposure. One hour of religious instructions at school and two hours of church service on Sundays. All the stories of the bible were presented in a form appropriate for children. I went to church voluntarily because I enjoyed very much those fairy tales like those about someone walking over the water or someone converting water into wine. I also enjoyed Grimm’s fairy tales of magic and miracles but it became clear at a much earlier age that they were not about anything that can really happen. But the biblical fairy tales were ubiquitously believed and never in my presence doubted. So it took me a long time to grow out of believing them.

That means that I never was dominated by the emotional impact of christian morals and thus I had not to overcome them. But I need to understand my partner’s mindset, who has grown up as a parson’s son in a parsonage. It is difficult to know how experiences feel which I did not have myself.

I was exposed to fundie christianity from the start and I was told that I was very blessed to be there. But I saw early enough that my family weren't what they pretended to be; there was unhappiness, repression, hypocrisy and hate, alcoholism and there were suicide attempts. Nobody searched for solutions because praying was to be the solution. When I escaped at last I understood that religion never offered solutions and that I had never learnt anything useful. And now I realize that I can't give a straight answer to your question, because I only knew how to survive. My education and moral development started when I was 19....

Things I have changed over time;

the enforced hierarchy of religion is gone. I no longer accept leaders. I meet others as equals, never as bosses and subordinates. That goes for animals too. I'm a humanist, accepting everybody who doesn't harm or dominate others. I want to leave the world a bit cleaner and happier when I'm gone. It's the impossible task of a dreamer, of course, but that's no reason to stop working.

Perhaps this is no help to understand your partner's mindset. Listen to his stories about his youth...


Thanks for the food for thought. My partner grew up in the fundamentalist Missouri Synod. I do listen to what he tells about his upbringing. Unfortunately he took offense when I suggested that he were more a christian without a god than an atheist without secondary beliefs.

Not getting introspection from him, instead I try to explain my observations to make sense of his behaviors. As I cannot check the accuracy of my explanations with him, it helps me to get feedback from someone who had a similar upbringing.

Issue 1 – Rules for Behavior and Social Roles

It appears to me that christian morals prescribe one set of rules how to behave with all other humans. These rules are derived directly from commandments and indirectly extracted from the bible. Thus a good christian on his way to heaven blindly and without own critical evaluation applies the same rules to everybody, otherwise he is evil and on his way to hell. Therefore there are no distinct social roles in christian morals beyond recognizing superiority and inferiority.

It appears to me that my partner does not really distinguish social roles, at least less than I do.

Issue 2: Rules and Authenticity

When following externally prescribed rules is the only condition to reach the reward of feeling to be a good person, then inner, self-reflected values like authenticity, integrity, consistency are not needed to feel good about oneself. A good christian can allow himself to be a hypocrite, to manipulate and not to mean what he does and says, as long as his behavior follows the rules.

There is a very interesting book by Evelyn Sommers: The Tyranny of Niceness. The niceness as described by her represents in my opinion the christian way of following the rules while authenticity is easier for non-religious people.

This seems to explain, why my partner sometimes suggests to me to say and to do things which I do not mean just because it would bring good results from him.

There are more issues but I like to hear your (or anybody else‘s) feedback.

I'm not clear what you mean by "social roles". For example you say, "...there are no distinct social roles in christian morals beyond recognizing superiority and inferiority."

My understanding is that Christian morality is one form of Dominator Culture, which does rank everyone. However there are lots of other values embedded in Dominator Culture too, such as male being morally superior to female, male being warrior (violence based power) and female relegated somewhere between submissive baby machine and outright property.

I suggest you clarify your idea of social roles in regards to moral values for readers.

A role (also rôle or social role) is a set of connected behaviors, rights, obligations, beliefs, and norms as conceptualized by people in a social situation.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Role

Of course there are the gender roles in christianity. But they are not regarded as gender roles but rather as god-given biological differences of purpose.

In the framework of regarding morals, the connected aspects of social roles are scales between extremes. Some examples out of many more are:

1. Trust vs. distrust

2. Equality and reciprocity vs. hierarchy and unevenly distributed power

3. Emotional and social closeness vs. indifference, insignificance and social distance.

The moral relevance is how to know which position on each scale to apply to each role and which role is appropriate for any individual interaction for the goal of avoiding to harm and to hurt others without harming oneself.

For example there are very different appropriate and rational levels of trust and emotional attachment with a spouse as compared with a co-worker. With a spouse equality is appropriate while hierarchy is a part of the social role of a boss.

Christian doctrine does not apply such scales. As long as they want to be good christians, people do not need to distinguish social roles.

1. Christians are supposed to trust that whatever happens to them is their god’s will. They are not expected to distinguish whom else to trust or how much, because other people are just the god’s tools.

2. Christians are supposed to humbly and meekly accept whatever low place the god has put them in and to be submissive and obedient. They are not allowed to miss or to claim equality when they do not get it.

3. Christian are supposed to love not only their neighbors but even their enemies and to present the other cheek for a second slap. They are supposed to be kind, giving and caring to all human beings in complete disregard of how much they merit it by their own demeanor.

In every day life most christians more or less do behave according to social roles. But the more they do so the more they get into cognitive dissonance between the moral requirement of following absolute rules to be applied to all humans and their own behavior.

I don't agree that the three examples you gave represent Christians not needing to distinguish social roles. I've met many Christians and was my self a Lutheran until just after my freshman year in college. They are just as good at dealing with slimy used car salesmen as atheists in my experience. There's plenty of cognitive dissonance, to be sure. 

Are you implying that your partner either actually follows absolute rules which are inappropriate in a relationship or that she/he is unable to feel confident as your equal? Overall, I'm still confused about the nature of your immediate dilemma.

Maybe I did not express myself well. I speculate that fundamentalist christian upbringing does not teach children to distinguish social roles, but that they nevertheless can discover social roles later.

My partner grew up as the parson‘s son in a parsonage of the Missouri Synode. I suspect that his morals (which he considers as superior to mine) are derived from his upbringing even though he has become an atheist.

1 The social rules in the christian world are clear and very strict and there is an enormous gap between the rules and the self. The rules leave no space for individual needs and christians are expected to ignore the self; they call that 'killing the old Adam'. At the same time they are discouraged from analyzing their situation, so they feel helpless and turn to religious leaders for guidance.... It works with many people.

Issue 2 is a difficult subject to me. Integrity is important to me from a very early age and the many clashes with my family's hypocrisy hit me hard. I remember that there is a bible verse that went like this: 'Nothing is forbidden for people washed in the blood of the lamb.' This opens possibilities for hypocrites and we all know how many believers make use of this. 

Is this division (hypocrisy vs integrity) the dividing line between believers and autonomous people? It might well be.... At least it explains why I could never settle in the religious life.

Under 1 you describe what I have gathered from reading lots of 19th century novels. They have been my primary source for getting an idea of the magnitude of brainwashing and distorted thinking and feeling as a result of christian upbringing. I am aware that most temporary christians are not as much damaged by their upbringing as the heroes of old novels. But I imagine that fundamentalist Christian thinking may still be similar to what I read in the novels.

I assume that the difference between hypocrisy/niceness and integrity/authenticity depends upon self-esteem and self-confidence. Someone who grows up always at risk of being shamed as an evil sinner condemned forever may just have too much anxiety and fear to dare to be authentic, for him hypocrisy may be the safest way to survive.

This leads to my issue 3 about intentions and results and the difference between christian and non-religious upbringings:

In the case of unintended bad results in spite of good intentions, the appropriate way is to reinforce the child as being good but to make it clear that it has to learn a better way and to gain more information.

Christian upbringing installs shame and guilt into the child as an evil sinner who needs a god’s forgiveness for not having obeyed the simple unambiguous rules.

As an adult the non-religious person is usually able to take responsibility for unintended bad results without feeling bad about himself. He can learn from the event to do better the next time.

The adult christian cannot own and recognize to be the cause of a bad result without feeling shame and guilt as a sinner. He attempts to avoid this pain by either denial of his responsibility for the bad result, or by disputing that the result is really bad, or else he blames the target of the bad result for having brought it upon himself. That makes improvement difficult.

And far into the 20th century. It's such a horrible waste of time and energy to undo christian brainwashing. I'm 66 and I still struggle to boost my self-esteem and confidence, I still have to remind myself not to be frightened when criticized. I could've conquered the world with a better start in life, but at least I've been true to myself. 




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