How Do Christians Make Decisions

2 July, 2009

Over the years, we have seen many, many, many evangelical pastors and extremely religious right wing politicos get into trouble with drugs, prostitutes (male and female (you know the GOP is in trouble when the right heaved a great sigh of relief when Sanford’s mistress was actually female)), and theft.  Keep in mind (and this is why I pick on blog about them), these are the people who consistently claim that atheists cannot be moral, that Democrats are out to destroy the family, that gay marriage will destroy marriage and that liberals are out to destroy all that is good.  Anyway, here is a flow chart I developed to help me understand just how a good Christian decides that cheating or breaking the law is okay:


(Click for better resolution).

I developed this chart by listening to the excuses used by friends and acquaintances, as well as Republican and evangelical morons.



  1. Really funny chart, very creative.

    My former logic professor compaired religious morality to that of dogs because it is all based on reward and punishment (in this life or the “next”).

    Creative chart Billy!

    I just started a blog myself, check it our if you have some time!

  2. ABF: Thanks for stopping by. Never took logic in college, though I did start out as a computer engineering major. I did a lot of flow and decision charts trying to figure out how to write a progarm. Haven’t done it in a while, though.

    • Yeah, from what I understand about computer programming is that it works just like logic. Some schools have logic certificate programs that require some computer programming classes.

      How did you get the Atheosphere side bar?

  3. Not bad (((Billy)))!
    And there are folks who can (and do) rationalize anything. There are also those who manage to avoid it.
    I would hope that your flowchart for “Christian” rationalization of bad behavior has a few more iterative loops than the similar chart for atheists. I suppose one could be made.

    I don’t suppose you have come across in print or the web a site called the wittenburg door?
    They use to run a print version, it may be web-only now. But it is a Christian group who specialize in skewering the absurdities among our own. Your chart is exactly up their ally. As you probably remember, the Wittenburg Door refers to the cathedral door where Martin Luther nailed his 95 points of contention with the church, demanding some answers.
    You might enjoy a glance. Although it’s run by Christians for Christians, a lot of it is even harder on us Christians than you are!

    -R. Eric Sawyer

  4. […] View original here: How Do Christians Make Decisions […]

    • Again, do you even read what you link to? Or is this some autobotic idiocy?

  5. There must be a name for the phenomenon whereby the more some book or someone tells you not to do something, the more you keep thinking about it, and the more you want to do it, and therefore end up doing it.

    Furthermore, it’s not as exciting to do something that is not wrong to do. In that case you just weigh up the pros and cons and just decide not to do the ‘wrong thing’. Whereas for a Christian, the temptation to do wrong is so tantalising.

    Make any sense?

  6. Temaskian,
    I think you’re alluding to the general tendency for the new to be interesting and the old to be boring. If something is forbidden, people usually still wonder if maybe there is some hidden benefit to it. I think that regardless of belief or disbelief, everyone hears the pied piper call to the taboo to some degree. I do think that atheists are less likely to break taboos for several reasons: they have fewer personal taboos than christians to begin with; they are less likely to break obvious social taboos because they already know the sting of breaking them (atheism is already somewhat taboo in our society; if they hurt anyone in the process they are responsible to them. Christians have a different dynamic: god says not to commit adultery, but he also says not to eat shellfish, therefore if you already break some taboos with impunity, why not others?; many have never had the social backlash of breaking taboos before and therefore have nothing to judge it against; if they hurt anyone in the process, they relieve themselves of guilt by asking for god’s forgiveness with no real thought for their victims.
    Keep in mind that I just came up with this off the cuff; I’d be interested to hear what anyone else has to say.

    • I find your explanation interesting and highly plausible too. “Since I’ve already broken a few taboos, why not break a few more.” Perhaps even a desire to be consistent.

      And yes, I do feel that many Christians do wrong to others, and then apologise to God rather than to the one who has been wronged. It’s more convenient, less humiliating/humbling, makes the wrong somehow grander, if it’s just between the sinner and The Almighty God.

      I think there are a few verses in the bible that says, ” you have not sinned against man, but against God”. Actually it’s just a way-out of being responsible to those you have actually wronged! And instead to be responsible to a non-existent entity, which is supposed to be greater punishment, but actually no punishment at all.


  7. R.Eric: Good to hear from you again. I would disagree, though. ALL people, not just some, rationalize decisions. Some of us (and (90% of the time) I include myself in this subset) realize that we rationalize decisions and try to include that knowledge into our decision matrix. One of the problems with knowing that you are a follower of the one and only truth in the entire universe (most modern religions fall under that category) is it tends to limit the amount of investigation and questioning which is acceptable before making a decision.

    Temaskian: I think that Revatheist has a better answer to that one than I could have come up with off the top of my head.

    Revatheist: And I think you could also add the absurdity of some of the tabus — mixing two kinds of thread? How could that possibly matter? Yet it apparently does, though it is pretty much universally ignored.

  8. It is fun to watch you make a fool out of yourselves by making up such stupid things. You have no idea how easy it is to surrender yourself to the love of Jesus and accept the Bible as the one Book of Truth in the universe. An athiest chart would read: Do I Want to Do It? Yes — DOi it, No, make someone else do it.

    You are pathetic. And ignorant of the way the world actually works.

    Accept Jesus and join the world.

    • zeig heil, lord jesus!
      zeig heil, he is my master!
      zeig heil, i have no will but his!
      zeig heil, the opposition must be burned!
      well ascot the jesus nazi, i tried it, but it just didn’t stick, sorry. 😦
      Maybe when you have some better way to get me to stop all independent thinking processes thereby giving up my humanity and blindly following absurdities, I’ll try again. ‘k?

  9. Ascot7 – you are very entertaining.

  10. Well at least your spelling has improved, Ascot7. Kudos.

    You of course have no idea how easy it is to surrender yourself to the love of heroin and accept the needle as the one instrument of Truth in the universe.

    You are pathetic. And ignorant of the way the world actually works.

    Accept heroin and join the world

    • philly,
      ascot failed with his so-called “jesus”, please tell me about this “heroin” of which you speak, it sounds like a much nicer master. 🙂

  11. “I would disagree, though. ALL people, not just some, rationalize decisions.”

    touché ! — To steal a phrase, “some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time” can act the fool.

    I find you comment interesting… “One of the problems with knowing that you are a follower of the one and only truth in the entire universe (most modern religions fall under that category) is it tends to limit the amount of investigation and questioning which is acceptable before making a decision.”

    My own thought is that when I believe that there exists an absolute standard of good (and that it is different from ‘what I want’) it forces me to dig outside myself, into what I know and can know about the character of God, through what I regard as holy scripture, and the person of Jesus, and by reason, combined with the less esoteric measures.; then submitting the whole thing to the filter of doubting my own rationality, as you describe. I would thing that the absence of such a standard would lead to a shorter process; with ones own ideas assuming a much more authoritative place.

    That said, though, I know that the Christian caricature of the ethical process of an atheist runs pretty much to “if it feels good, do it.”; that with no standard, anything goes. Similarly, the atheist caricature of Christian ethics is as you diagrammed. Unfortunately, there are enough examples of both follies to reinforce whatever prejudice we start with.

    Given that, how would you describe the process of making ethical decisions in an environment that has only self-referential standards, that postulates no absolute (or is that presupposition wrong?) I would think that any grounds for evaluating what is good ultimately is grounded in some absolute, in the character of the universe.
    Such things I interpret as part of God.

    -R. Eric Sawyer

  12. how would you describe the process of making ethical decisions in an environment that has only self-referential standards, that postulates no absolute

    “I believe that…”
    “through what I regard as…”

    You tell me. 😉

  13. Awesome chart…very funny, but sadly very true!

  14. Completely off topic, but Sarah Palin just announced that she will step down as the governor of Alaska effective July 25. It is currently up at Daily Kos.

  15. Chief, my point was that both Christian and atheist seem to respond to a caricature of the other side’s processes. (((Billy’s))) diagram was a well done description of faulty and self-deluded thinking by a Christian, and may be much more common than I would like to admit.

    Similarly, we Christians have a caricatured (and presumedly false) image of how an atheist makes moral and ethical decisions, not believing in any moral absolutes. Or, perhaps there are moral absolutes. If so, what are they, and why are they absolute?

    The thing is, I realy don’t understand, but I have heard from enough atheists who are morally caring people that I disbelieve the caricature.

    I’m not trying to bait you, I don’t think you’re likely convert material. But might as well make at least some attempt to understand how other folks think, rather than just go with my preconceptions. Got to keep that “looking for truth” thing going, you know.

  16. I’m fully aware of everything you said before, so there’s no need in repeating it. What I’d like is a response to the tiny little bit I quoted, the bit you’ve just overlooked.

    To cut to the chase, your acceptance of an absolute, your choice to believe this or that, your “looking for truth” is all ultimately a process of making choices. The same with interpreting scripture and anything else you find on your “looking for truth” journey, so my point was you could probably answer your own question by just looking at yourself.

  17. Sorry for being dense, chief; I missed your pot/kettle jibe. I take it that you are claiming my statements about sources of authority are also self referential. There is an opening for that, in that these sources, while external to me, were never the less chosen by me. Thus, any authority I claim that they have over me only theirs by my own will. By this line it could be said that it is only my own authority over me. calling it external is truncated thinking.
    You said it much more conciesely, but I missed it.

    By this standard, religious dogma is more of a rorchach test (sorry, no spell-check) or even a mirror, showing us ourselves, possibly even showing what we expect or desire to see. But I think this a very bad way to read scripture.
    One is much less likely to fall into this trap if you read it to see the places where it (or God) is NOT like me. find the places that don’t feel right, and struggle with them. Of course, we cristians go really off the deep end here, and claim that God can use it (if we want Him to) to bring to light the places where I am screwing up. But it is a mistake for me to read it to find where phillychief is screwing up. That leads me straight back to (((Billy’s))) chart.

  18. But to take your point as a given, for the sake of conversation: I deal with the choices by finding something I believe is absolute.
    If I want to know how long something is, I go to the store and choose a yardstick. I choose it, so maybe I am responsible for choosing a stretchy one, but I am trying to find something trustworthy. but that only works if I trust that distance is stable, and that an inch is something real. If I argue with a Jew or Muslim, I am arguing about which ruler is right. All three of us agree that an inch is something real and stable.

    For you (and this is conjecture) I don’t think we have that much in common. I don’t know how one builds without a philisophical framework that says there is an underlying reality to which we should conform.
    Do you do as I do, and choose one? Do you take a set of values because you judge them useful, even if ultimately false?
    The framework I have chosen and believe true contains a belief that there is such an absolute, and that it is real, and would still be real even if I had not chosen it. How can one wok without that?

  19. find the places that don’t feel right

    Hello self reference. 😉

  20. yep, but I trust it is revelation by successive iteration, to keep in (((Billy’s))) programmer mode.
    Do it enough, and I start to wash out more of my own junk, and become a more accurate judge

  21. or refine your self styled decision making.

    Have you ever watched the show House? Ethical decisions are arrived at like diagnoses, based on evaluation of the symptoms. I would argue that everyone does this to varying degrees, regardless of what their absolute authority is or if they have none. The magic word is interpretation. That’s how the Christian bible, for instance, has been used both to promote slavery and condemn it.

    You choose to believe your realizations are in fact externally given revelations? Well, to each his own.

  22. “but evaluation of the symptoms” even if differing, presumes the ideal of a healthy body. Again, even if the understandings of what a healthy body is like differ, there is at least the concept of the existence of a healthy body.

    As an ethical, presume a choice of starving verses theft. OK, which is better? what does “better’ mean? better for whom? better for the most people? why should I care about the number of people harmed or helped? why is that better? and so on.
    I think to make ethical judgements at all presuppose some minimal belief in an absolute.

    Is there another take on that?

    by the way, your examples of interpretation is why I insist on a strong demarcation between “the truth” and “eric’s understanding of the truth”
    I never know where that line is, but I must never forget that there IS a difference

  23. Yes, but how to distinguish between the truth and what Eric thinks is the truth, if they’re ever not the same?

    I think you’ve sunk my House analogy.

    Ethical absolutes are elusive, so your questions can’t be answered absolutely. They’re situational. Just look at thou shalt not kill*.

    * except in cases of self defense, witches, infidels, unruly children, blasphemers…

  24. Of course, I think you know that the Hebrew is much closer to “murder? than “kill”, but I’ll agree that absoutes are hard to tease out. In one place among several in the bible that tries to do just that, the prophet Micah says

    And what does the LORD require of you?
    To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

    I think that the more I try to distinguish the “truth according to me” from “Truth” the more light I find. The big thing is just keeping in front of me the idea that my understanding is only an aproximation.

    But my main point is that any attempt at refining one’s own map is based on the conviction that there is an actual landscape to which you want it to conform. My understanding says that we/I will never get it completely right, but that does not invalidate the idea that there is underlying truth.

  25. Love the work Billy – can we steal it and put it on our fridges?

    Eric, the only absolute truth you need in life is the understanding that you’re selfish and that you need to get on with others if you want to survive in today’s world. All your decisions will always come back to those two basic precepts. Keep asking why and it will become self evident.

    • As a minister’s daughter, a strict atheist, and a scientist, I usually revert to Terry Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum when talking to christians about my decision making process. Granny Weatherwax sums up Bruce’s above point:

      Priest: ‘…There is a very interesting debate raging at the moment about the nature of sin, for example.’

      Granny: ‘And what do they think? Against it, are they?’

      Priest: ‘It’s not as simple as that. It’s not a black and white issue. There are so many shades of gray.’

      Granny: ‘There are no grays, only white that’s got grubby. And sin, young man, is when you treat other people as things. Including yourself. That’s what sin is.’

      Priest: ‘It’s a lot more complicated than that-”

      Granny: ‘No. It ain’t. When people say it’s a lot more complicated than that, they’re worried that they won’t like the truth. People as things, that’s were it starts.’

    • Yes.

  26. I won’t comment on this subject but I just wish that everyone had a wonderful 4th and watched tons of fireworks and remembered the freedoms we have lost in the last eight years. Sorry I am a bit maudlin at this moment, But Happy Independance Day one and all.

  27. Bruce, I appreciate your point, and I agree that I am selfish, and it is in my own interest to cut it out.
    It sounds like you are saying that my getting on well in the world is an ultimate value. Well enough, but then how are we to explain or teach values like heroism or self-sacrifice? After all, the firefighter risking his life to drag a kid out of a burning house does not particularly get on better in this world, he/she risks leaving it, and yet we praise such actions. If the ultimate level is that which helps me survive in this world, such a risk seems foolish.

    Antistokes, I agree with you that it ain’t all that complicated, unless you are looking for excuses. One paragraph (or a couple of sentences) of rules, and 40 volumes of loopholes. In your tale, Granny has it right. I’m a little surprised in the roles. Usually I hear religious folk cast as the ones trying to shove everything into black or white; ignoring the shades of gray that come with each situation. But I’m with Granny.
    As to the point I was trying to get to, though, I don’t think it helps me much. Granny has a notion of what sin is, and that one shouldn’t do it. Whether her notion is right or wrong, and I think she’s right, where does that notion come from, and why does it matter whether we treat people like things? If you say it’s because my life will go better if I treat other folks right, that is well enough, but not always true. As a very limited example, the great industrialists of the 19th/20th century got on very well indeed by treating people as things to exploit. Why is that wrong? My religious perspective gives me an answer to that –No, not fear, it is that those others are made in the image of God, and are beloved by Him. Therefore they deserve to be treated by me with respect.
    My point is not to issue a challenge, but I know I don’t understand how you support the ethical decisions you come to. I am not doubting the decisions, as with “granny” I think them often good, and I can tell many people of no or anti religious faith care deeply about ethics. But the why? or why not? seem to disappear somewhere over the horizon, or lost in the mist of forgotten history. The Christians’ stereotype is just that: the a-theist or anti-theist ethical position is fruit of a branch which has severed and forgotten its own root. The leaves may still be green but without some other rootstock, they will soon wither.
    It sounds very much like (was it Sen. Dirkson?) the definition of pornography: “I may not be able to define it, but I know it when I see it.”

    R. Eric Sawyer

  28. Billy, I’ve enjoyed your lighthearted and humorous blogging. I also laughed recently at your wife’s quip about printing a keyboard on herself to capture your attention.

    But, – I am now working and need to recover some of my lost time and be far more productive. I’ll probably remember the name of your blog for decades to come and I guess that I will still check in from time to time.

    The comments and exchanges that I’ve had with others on this blog have also been beneficial, educational – and at times challenging. I particularly benefited from the challenges as I’ve learned some about myself – especially my faults that I will try to change!

    It is my hope that what I’ve learned here may eventually help me to treat others better.

    I am certain I’ll miss you all – but I’ve got to refocus.

    I’ve just deleted your website from my “usual sites” bookmarks that I open up each day. I’ll let the “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” button so I’ll follow this prolific thread to its conclusion.

    It is hard to say good bye in just the right way – I’ll just have to click the Submit Comment and go and maybe pray for some of you – as I find much to respect in those I’ve come to know here especially ModusOperandi, Craig, PhillyChief and you Billy.

  29. All motivation is selfish, Eric, even self sacrifice can be. In fact, I’d say it’s incorrect to call it self sacrifice, since the self is hardly sacrificed, but rather elevated to hero status. There are plenty of examples throughout history of humans trading their lives for either a maintenance of, or more likely an elevation of their self status. So it’s impossible to face your selfishness and “cut it out”.

    Granny’s black/white world is an illusion. I agree that it’s a nice start to not consider people as things, but that hardly solves every problem. It can even cause problems if you embrace the Christian variant of the Golden Rule, for it’s a license to lord over others with what one thinks is the best of intentions, doing for others what they’d want done for them. What about what THEY’D want done for them? Where’s that consideration? It’s absent. I also think you run into trouble when your basis for considering people as people rests solely on believing those others are made in the image of your god. I think THAT “ethical position is fruit of a branch which has severed and forgotten its own root.”

    Your concern, Eric, seems to be with how one arrives at a basis for moral decisions without an absolute moral yardstick to reference, yet what I repeatedly say and you continue to ignore is morality is yet another item to shop for in the marketplace of ideas, and everyone picks and chooses what they deem best. Those who choose a ready-made yardstick still pick and choose how to interpret its measurements. I agree that it’s harder to sell a moral idea without either the threat of divine retribution or dangling a carrot of a divine, heavenly afterlife. Such morals have to be sold simply on their own merits.

    • Ok, sorry, just to point it out, Granny was more an advocate of ‘you should be facing in the right direction’ on matters of “light and dark”. Pratchett is actually a bit complex, from a morality standpoint. Another Pratchett– “It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness” (I take this to be a commentary on science, and the limits of human understanding of their incredibly complex environment).

  30. Eric, you stopped asking ‘why’
    Why do fire fighters rescue people?
    Because they care about live
    Why do they care about life?
    Because they have one and know what it would mean to loose it
    Why do they care about loosing their life
    Because they want to live as long as possible and know that others want that too.
    Why do they want to live as long as possible?

    You get the picture, of course there is lots of different answers to why, but as PhillyChief points out you will eventually get to ‘ground zero’ and it will be a selfish reason of either wanting the ‘hero status’ or wanting to ‘please god’ either way, its still a selfish act. God is a construct that should be done away with as it serves no useful purpose. Morals are derived from a corrupted biblical system, perhaps you’re ready to move on to ethics.

  31. As a very limited example, the great industrialists of the 19th/20th century got on very well indeed by treating people as things to exploit. Why is that wrong?

    Well, they treated people as things. This did indeed work for them short term, but, if I’m recalling my history correctly, society as a whole eventually rejected the idea of corporate monopolies.

    Therefore they deserve to be treated by me with respect.

    Yes, exactly, humans got over slavery, too (well, the more blatant forms, anyway). And as a society, I personally think we are still far from not ‘treating people as things’ (just look at the US health care system).

    The “granny retort” is something I usually just use
    when young christians are evangelizing at me.
    My more thoughtful answer would be that humans are pack animals. We have been bred over thousands of years to live around other humans, and to consider the repercussions of our actions under the pressure of natural selection. Humans who grow up absent of other humans are not truly humans (another good Pratchett quote is ‘it is though other people that we truly become people’)– this is born out by the ‘wild children’ psyche studies. On a more personal note, when I was in grad school, I would often go for days to weeks at a time where I literally did not talk to anyone (aside from swearing at my laser system, which doesn’t really count). During these periods I became progressively more sociopathic. What ‘cured’ me was when during my final semester I had to TA a couple of classes- the exposure to other humans re-orientated my Red Robot “Kill All Humans” mentality (although to be fair I really love teaching).

    As for the ‘where do I get my morals from’ question, the answer would be that I do not have morals. I have actions within a society, and the consequences engendered by those actions. I accept personal responsibility for my actions, and do not
    require a ‘reference point’ to a Higher Truth (after taking a few quantum classes I’ve taken on a more We Are, Because We Interact approach to life). So, heh, I guess I’m agreeing with the good Justice. I am in the situation, I act within the situation, and I accept the consequence of my actions.

  32. society as a whole eventually rejected the idea of corporate monopolies

    Yeah, good thing that happened because could you imagine today if we had corporate monopolies?

    • Well, the Wild West Robber Baron monopolies, anyway….and we did get all them pesky labor laws….although, now I’m thinking about China, and hmmmmm maybe not *sigh*.

  33. Guys, I’m going to bow out of this discussion for now, and let (((Billy))) move on to other things.
    You have given me thoughtful answers to my questions, and while neither of us has convinced the other, the discussion aids my understanding.

    It has been really refreshing to have civil discourse with folks who have profound disagreements, and I thank you all for your courtesy.

    R. Eric Sawyer

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  35. Thanks for the post for composing “How Do Christians Make Decisions (((Billy))) The Atheist”.
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