I grew up in churches where obedience to God was emphasized, but compassion and charity was not. What was most important, the preachers and Sunday school teachers said, was doing what God said, as directed through the Bible, and that had little to do with being kind to people. After all, they would tell me, "Do unto others as you would have done unto you" doesn't mean be kind - it means to be Biblical. In other words, you should want people to tell you that you are going to hell unless you repent - it's what's BEST for you!
That means that the story of the fishes and loaves wasn't about pooling our resources so that we can care for each other; it was about Jesus being divine, as shown through his performance of a miracle. The story of the good Samaritan was just a skit for Vacation Bible School - I'm not sure I ever heard it talked about from the pulpit. Every sermon I remember was about just one thing: accept Christ as your savior, and you get everlasting life. Accepting Jesus was more important than any behavior. or feeling. The churches I attended as a child held no canned food drives, built no homes for the homeless, collected no money for people without healthcare insurance. Charity was never discussed in my family home, beyond helping family members that were ill. What was oh-so-much-more important was prayer and having the capacity to witness for Jesus to neighbors and co-workers and friends.
I'm catching up on reading through a stack of New Yorker magazines, and am just now reading about how Megan Phelps-Roper turned against her church - the Westboro Baptist Church. The article notes:
Church members disdained human feelings as something that people worshipped instead of the Bible. They even had a sign: “GOD HATES YOUR FEELINGS.” They disregarded people’s feelings in order to break their idols.
It was like something clicked in my head - I remember that message from my youth, though it was said in more quiet, firm tones, not screaming, and not quite so explicitly: we are sinful, and feelings are a product of that sinful nature - only obedience can save us. If we're comfortable and happy, then we're not true Christians!
I hear my Christian friends lament that the Westboro Baptist Church aren't really Christians, because members have such hateful messages and seek to make people feel awful at funerals for loved ones, but the reality is that, based on a literalist view of the English-language Bible (which is, of course, the language Jesus spoke), they have a doctrinal basis for their hate.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters--yes, even their own life--such a person cannot be my disciple.
Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me;
Whoever loves his life will lose it, but whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.
In their view, being a Christian doesn't make you happy, doesn't give you peace, doesn't make you feel better - if those things happen, you are actually worshipping an idol - your heart - not following the Bible. Being a Christian should make you uncomfortable or happy or peaceful. If you aren't hated for being a Christian, you aren't really a Christian!
You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.
An unjust man is abominable to the righteous, And he who is upright in the way is abominable to the wicked.
Hear the word of the LORD, you who tremble at His word: "Your brothers who hate you, who exclude you for My name's sake, Have said, 'Let the LORD be glorified, that we may see your joy.' But they will be put to shame.
Then will they hand you over to be persecuted and killed, and you will be hated by all nations on account of My name.
If you were of the world, it would love you as its own. Instead, the world hates you, because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world.
And you will be hated by everyone because of My name.
By your patient endurance, you will gain your souls.
And that's just some of the Biblical fuel that makes the members of the Westboro Baptist Church do what they do. Are they not doing exactly what the Bible tells them?
Indeed, it was my feelings of compassion and sympathy and wonder, and my reason, that turned me away from Christianity and all other religions. It was reading the Bible, and many of the verses I've just quoted, that made me decide to delve deeper into the origins of the Bible, to read, read, and read some more, and ultimately, all that knowledge helped me to embrace my atheism instead of trying desperately to cure it. And I've been so much happier as a result, so much more whole, so much more peaceful, so much more connected to the world and my fellow humans - which, of course, goes against what the Bible teaches. My morality comes from balancing my feelings and my reason, from believing that all people have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, because that makes sense, that benefits everyone, that makes the entire world a better place to live for everyone - including me. I don't rob or kill people, or steal, not because of the state's laws, and not because of the Bible, but because I know it will hurt people, and I don't like hurting people. By contrast, helping others feels good, sometimes in a selfish way, sometimes in a healing way for myself - I am healed through kindness to others. Admittedly, there are a few atheists that are nihilists, and therefore, rejecting God means rejecting morality, but most atheists are moral atheists, as university philosophy professor Louise M. Antony notes: "we find moral value to be immanent in the natural world, arising from the vulnerabilities of sentient beings and from the capacities of rational beings to recognize and to respond to those vulnerabilities and capacities in others." We moral atheists are therefore puzzled by Christians and other people of faith who say morality comes from God. As Antony asks, "To say that morality depends on the existence of God is to say that none of these specific moral judgments is true unless God exists. That seems to me to be a remarkable claim. If God turned out not to exist — then slavery would be O.K.? There’d be nothing wrong with torture? The pain of another human being would mean nothing?" It's no wonder that atheists are motivated more by compassion that people of faith.
It's not easy to live life without dogma. My morality and values are challenged, and I must do a lot of thinking, a lot of exploring, to come to terms with these challenges. My feelings are sometimes in conflict with my reasoning, with logic, and I can't just read some scripture and get an absolute answer - I have to research and consider what I'm learning. I often feel like a lawyer looking for past judicial rulings to make a case. If you think that sounds so much harder than following a religion, consider this from psychologist Dr. Darrel Ray: "If these teachings were simple and clear, then there would not be 38,000 different denominations and branches of Christianity all saying different things."
My morality tells me that the members of the Westboro Baptist Church are engaged in abhorrent behaviors. My morality tells me that these people are despicable. But Christians, the scripture you say you believe in agrees with their actions.