“Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?”: On Religiosity and Morality from Paul to Phil Robertson
Monday, March 30th, 2015
Detective Martin Hart: I mean, can you imagine if people didn’t believe, what things they’d get up to?
Detective Rustin Cohle: Exact same thing they do now. Just out in the open.
Detective Martin Hart: Bullshit. It’d be a fucking freak show of murder and debauchery and you know it.
Detective Rustin Cohle: If the only thing keeping a person decent is the expectation of divine reward, then brother that person is a piece of shit; and I’d like to get as many of them out in the open as possible.
In the third episode of the first season of HBO’s gritty detective drama, True Detective, the protagonists Hart and Cohle have this exchange while observing a rural Louisiana tent revival. Detective Hart, while not joining in the service, nevertheless provides a defense for the worshippers when Detective Cohle, a newly arrived outsider from Texas with a nihilistic bent, wonders aloud what the average IQ of the group is. Det. Hart points to the enjoyment that belonging to a community brings and that this religiosity serves a common good, in part because it keeps people honest and law-abiding. The heart of this particular exchange centers around the relationship between morality and religiously-bound ethics—without religious obligations, would people merely behave immorally, and if so, what does this say about people who would behave in such a way? Can human decency exist without “the expectation of divine reward” (or divine punishment)?
This conversation from True Detective came to mind as I read about Duck Dynasty’s patriarch, Phil Robertson’s, recent comments at a Vero Beach (Florida) Prayer Breakfast. During his speech, Robertson says in a mocking tone that we’ve just “dreamed up” the problem of having a conscious, that “there’s no right; there’s no wrong. There’s no good; there’s no evil.” This leads him to describe a hypothetical situation in which an atheist family is forced to confront the ramifications of their morally-relative worldview:
I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’ Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’
Atheism, for Robertson, is inherently moral and judgment free. Thus, by subscribing to an atheist worldview, you cannot expect anyone to behave morally, as there is no morality without the specter of sin (or the “problem of sin” as Robertson says just before this anecdote). Moreover, you cannot judge anyone for their behavior because there is no moral code against which to judge.
The Friendly Atheist blog published two response pieces to Robertson’s speech. In one by Hemant Mehta, Mehta mirrors Detective Hart’s sentiment: “I guess the only thing keeping Robertson from raping, shooting, and beheading other people is his fear of God and interpretation of biblical morality… in which case, I’m glad he believes.” The second post, by Terry Firma, suggests that Robertson doesn’t know any atheists, and thus simply “makes up” information about how he imagines atheists behave. Firma then turns the issue of moral judgment and behavior back on Robertson. First, he links to another Patheos post about incarceration rates among religious populations, and second, Firma cites—without any specific references—“people of faith” who behave immorally and criminally “either despite their professed religious creed or because they’re actually inspired by it.”
Between Robertson’s comments and the responses to them, the issue of morality apart from religion begins to become more complex. Added to this issue are claims and speculation of a clanish sort, with both sides digging into their othering. Each side is put into the position of defending their own worldview while challenging the hypocrisy of the other. This is, of course, not a new argument and neither are the types of accusations made by each side.
Paul, for example, confronts the question of lawlessness and immorality should people reject the Law (Torah) in his Letter to the Romans. According to Paul’s teachings, Gentile Christians were not expected, nor even to be encouraged, to follow the Law of the Hebrew Bible. Furthermore, Paul taught in Romans that followers of Jesus were freed from the power of sin through his death and resurrection. Readers can see in Paul’s letters the ways in which he sought to address the questions that resulted from these teachings, namely, without the Law and with the freedom from the power of sin granted by Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, won’t everyone simply behave immorally? In Romans 12:1-15:13, Paul answers this question in essentially two ways. First, that Christians are expected to present themselves as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1) and to love one another, as this love is the fulfillment of the Law (Romans 13:8-10; 12:9-21). Second, they are also expected to submit themselves to governing authorities (Romans 13:1-7; 1 Thessalonians 4:10b-12). These two points function as Paul’s defense that a Law-less gospel would not lead to lawlessness, either with respect to fulfilling the commandments of God or with respect to civil authorities. Paul urges Christians to be proactive in demonstrating to their non-Christian neighbors that they are quiet, mind their own business, work hard, and are not dependant on anyone else (1 Thessalonians 4:11). In a 2011 post on The Friendly Atheist blog, similar advice is given to atheists in the conclusion of an article discussing public distrust of atheists. The author suggests that atheists do good works in the community and that they inform people that they are atheists. While Paul wanted Christians to demonstrate to their neighbors and critics that they could be law-abiding without the Law, Hemant Mehta at The Friendly Atheist wants to “show people that we can be good without god.”
In addition to the broader point that Robertson is making about the connection between religiosity and morality, the subject of Robertson’s anecdote is also telling. He could have opted for a milder story, perhaps one better fitting a prayer breakfast. Instead, Robertson chose a brutal story, one meant to evoke horror and disgust rather than mild nods of agreement. Furthermore, his chosen imagery is meant to demonstrate the worst of what one would have to accept in a world without “right or wrong,” and thus Robertson drew from the deep well of taboo associated with human bodily defilement, particularly sexual defilement and dismemberment. I was reminded of Minucius Felix’s Octavius, a second or third century CE text in defense of Christianity. The author presents and then refutes pagan criticisms of Christians, including accusations of incestuous orgies, murdering infants, cannibalism, worshipping the genitals of their priests, and worshipping the genitals of their parents. Earlier, in 111/112 CE, Pliny the Younger, the governor of Bythinia-Pontus, wrote to the Emperor Trajan asking about the proper way to question, try, and punish Christians if they were breaking any laws. Seemingly to Pliny’s surprise, when he inquired about what Christians were actually doing, as opposed to what they had been accused of doing, he discovered nothing of interest. They met, took oaths—not to commit crimes, but rather to do the opposite—and had a meal together, not of babies but of an ordinary sort (Pliny the Younger, Letter 10.96.7). When faced with gratuitous rumors, Pliny questioned Christians and observed their practices only to discover that these rumors of eating unnatural foods and vowing to commit crimes were just that—rumors.
Ironically, then, Phil Robertson’s imagery was rooted in the same vein as the vile rumors about early Christians propagated by non-Christians. His speech was intended to shock his like-minded audience into fearing the worst about an ill-defined group of Others for the purposes of keeping these groups divided across a chasm of distrust and suspicion. As Hemant Mehta suggests, as Paul advised, and as Pliny discovered, the daily routines and moral codes of our neighbors—however alien they may seem to us—are often far more mundane and familiar than our grossest fears and most pernicious rumors would lead us to believe.
 Bart Ehrman reads this as a replacement of the cultic acts of sacrifice in the Hebrew Bible, thus suggesting that he, Paul, is not rejecting the Law so much as espousing a new way of fulfilling the spirit of the Law.
*Images courtesy HBO and Duck Commander.
Jennifer Collins-Elliott is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Religion at Florida State University. Her research interests include the body, gender, and sexuality, as well as martyrdom and violence in late Antique Christianity. She is currently working on her dissertation, which focuses on rape in early Christian literature and is tentatively titled, ““Bespattered with the Mud of Another’s Lust”: Rape and Physical Embodiment in Christian Literature of the 4th-6th Centuries CE.” She is on Twitter @JCollinsElliott.