AGAINST (The Our Father, Word by Word)

September 20, 2011 | 8 comments

Our Father Who Art in Heaven, Hallowed Be Thy Name.
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will Be Done,
On Earth As it Is in Heaven. Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread. Forgive Us Our Trespasses As We Forgive Those
Who Have Trespassed Against….

“But what if someone wants you to kill them and eat them?” my friend asked. I think that that was the moment I realized I was no longer a liberal atheist.

My husband and I were at a dinner party shortly after we got married, and someone brought up a recent news story about a man in Europe who had been killing and then eating other men. What turned the subject into a debate was that he met these guys in some kind of “Kill Me and Eat Me” internet forum, so the victims opted in to the whole thing. Because of this, most of my friends at the party declared that the killer had committed no crime.

“I think it’s fine, ” a friend’s husband announced. “In a way, the guy’s a hero. These other dudes wanted to be killed and eaten, and this guy was the only one who would do it.”

After doing a reality check to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, I began laying out the case that the man was not a hero, and had in fact done something horrible. After a few more back-and-forths, I grudgingly admitted that my friends’ case was not totally unreasonable. I mean, the victims had signed up for it — he even let people go who changed their minds in the beginning steps of the macabre process. But something within me screamed that this was wrong in the most dire sense of the world. And I even got my friends to admit that they thought so too.

“Yeah, you’re right, it does feel wrong, ” the gal across from me said as she sipped her merlot. “At first I had the same reaction you did: it’s a deplorable crime against humanity. But then I thought it through, and realized that it was fine.” Ultimately, they said, what’s right and wrong is up for individual people to figure out for themselves.

It was one of my first lessons that reason can convince you of stuff that’s stupid and wrong. It also primed me to be receptive to the idea of the Natural Law, which I would read about a few years later when I began exploring religion. I came across C.S. Lewis’ magnificent book Mere Christianity, where he makes the case that the truth about right and wrong is written on every human heart. To those who would say that morality varies widely by time and place, he responded:

But this is not true. There have been differences between their moralities, but these have never amounted to anything like a total difference. If anyone will take the trouble to compare the moral teaching of, say, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Hindus, Chinese, Greeks and Romans, what will really strike him will be how very like the are to each other and to our own…Think of a country where people were admired for running away in battle, or where a man felt proud of double-crossing all the people who had been kindest to him…Men have differed as regards what people you ought to be unselfish to — whether it was your own family, or your fellow countrymen, or everyone. But they have always agreed that you ought not to put yourself first.

This is what I think of when I hear the word against in the Our Father. It’s popular these days to scoff at the notion that objective Right and Wrong exists, to pretend that we have no notion of such a thing. It is usually only when someone goes against it that we suddenly realize that the Natural Law exists, and that it’s a horrible thing when someone violates it. And the more personal the situation, the more we realize it.

Borrowing my friends’ reasoning that there is no such thing as true right and true wrong, I could have announced at the dinner party that my personal philosophy was that “survival of the fittest” is the highest aim of humanity. I may have even gotten some folks to agree that it was a valid, reasonable view. But when I started grabbing the hosts’ belongings and putting them into my trunk, challenging them to a contest of strength to determine who gets to keep the stuff, I think they would have pretty quickly said that I was wrong — not wrong because their personal, subjective opinions happened to contradict my actions, but wrong because what I was doing was objectively, unconditionally wrong. C.S. Lewis continues:

Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining “It’s not fair” before you can say Jack Robinson. A nation may say treaties don’t matter; but then, the next minute, they spoil their case by saying that the particular treaty they broke was an unfair one. But if treatises do not matter, and if there is no such thing as Right and Wrong — in other words, if there is no Law of Nature — what is the difference between a fair treaty and an unfair one? Have they not let the cat out of the bag and shown that, whatever they say, they really know the Law of Nature just like anyone else?

It’s easy to quibble with the idea of Natural Law when it’s all theoretical. But we feel the truth of it on a visceral level when someone goes against it — when they trespass across the boundary of Right and Wrong — especially if they have done so in a way that impacts our own lives. Rarely are we more in tune with God’s truth about what is truly good, with the beautiful code of conduct that is inscribed on every human heart, than when someone has trespassed against us.


  1. Leila

    I just recently referenced that guy who ate willing victims, during a private talk with an atheist. So interesting that you brought it up now! How I love Lewis. He and Chesterton (and Fulwiler) are some of the most compelling former atheists out there. 🙂

  2. Michelle P.

    Fascinating insight, as always! I find that many of my pro-abortion friends and family hide behind a similar kind of relativistic thinking as your atheist friends. They argue that while they would never seek out an abortion, they think it’s fine for others to make that choice for themselves. As if there is no universal truth or natural law, only personal truths, relative to each individual. I wonder how, as a culture, we have become so blind to the truth that is written on our hearts. Thank you for this beautiful meditation on the Our Father.

  3. Barbara

    This also works using an example of racism. Almost everyone in modern America would say genocide is wrong, but the question of why if there is no Natural Law is not as easily answered.

  4. Michael

    I have met quite a few atheists who try to turn this argument on its head and say that atheists not only have morality, but they are more moral than most. I usually respond that “he who has no target is always sure to hit it.”

  5. A Philosopher

    Well, I’m a liberal atheist, and I think it’s wrong for someone to kill and eat willing victims. I can’t see any reason why there’s any inconsistency in my thinking that, or any reason why adding the existence of God to my stock of beliefs would make it any easier to ground or justify that moral judgment.

    • 'Becca

      Jen’s argument is actually with moral relativism rather than with atheism. It’s unfortunately confused, the way she’s written about it, because FOR HER the realization that there is such a thing as objective morality was very much tied up with her beginning to believe in God, and because the people arguing the moral relativist position in her example were also atheists.

      Of course, there IS a correlation between the two philosophies, in that most people who believe in God also believe in objective morality. But I do know some people who, although they believe in God themselves, believe that God can somehow be true for them but not for everyone; if this guy believes that dryer lint controls the universe, well, that is in fact TRUE “for him.” I don’t see how that can be.

      I don’t think it is inconsistent to believe that objective morality exists but God does not. C.S. Lewis did make a very compelling argument, though, that this “sense of Right and Wrong” which we all feel *is* God, or rather a part of God. I know a number of people who say they are atheists and argue strongly that there is no “guy in the sky” micro-managing the universe in any sort of person-like way, yet if you press them they believe in some sort of Force or something that you’re working with when you’re good and against when you’re bad–they’re just not willing to call that “God” because of the assumptions they associate with that word.

  6. Trisha Niermeyer Potter

    It’s amazing and (sometimes quite depressing and scary)what people will debate when it comes to morality when so many sanctity of life issues should be so inherently uncomfortable for us even to consider that we have an adverse response on a visceral level to such horrifying treatment of humans by humans.

    Lord, have mercy on us, for sometimes we’re quite aware that what we’re doing is wrong, yet we choose to do it anyway. Thank You for the gift of Your Son, whose pure sacrifice we need to wash away our many sins. Amen.

  7. Klara

    hey, it really made me thinking. altough i am agnostic, the christian guidelines could give some help for the atheists too, in the daily life. i haven’t heard about Lewis’ book, but i want to read it now. I haven’t analyzed Our God in a way like this before. it could be really interesting. peace;)

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