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A Christian and an atheist see a drowning stranger…

Here is a fun analogy. I could think of so many words to replace the word ‘fun’, but I will bite my tongue.

Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.
As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.
You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.

So that is the scenario, let’s look at the analysis.

Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?
For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.
The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death. Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.
For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.
Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.
Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.
In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).
In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.

Wintery Knight posted The drowning stranger illustration challenges atheistic morality. An earlier post that created the illustration can be viewed via this link.

We are simply specs of stardust, with no logical reason to assist or help any other clumps of stardust, right? But whether you believe in God or not, we are constructed in a certain way. We know how we are constructed, regardless of whether there is or isn’t a god. We feel empathy although we do not know for certain what happens after death. I don’t understand why the addition of a God glorifies this any more and a lack of a God brings a more pessimistic view. We could break down God to such a degree. Afterall, God is just a clump of matter using intangible methods of communication that make our brains act in a certain way. Why does god become exempt from such a deep analysis and breakdown? Oh, because that’s not very beneficial for religion. A huge part of theism is to take the oppositions opinions and dissect to such a degree that anything and everything becomes a ‘what’s the point?’.

Why can’t we do this with God? Theists need to stop using God as an impenetrable barrier for discussion and understand that he is not excempt. It is the perfect example of a closed mind and the unwillingness to cooperate. 

In a comment, I said it could be argued that an atheist would want to save her more as this life is the only one. One response was why should the atheist care?

I am an atheist and I’m telling you that I care, I hare how my genuine feelings of compassion are continuously ignored and refuted. Stop lying to yourself that atheist don’t or shouldn’t care, and if you do start to open your mind you will realise that I would have no more reason to care as a Christian as I would an atheist. She only has one life, I value that.

I also questioned why a Christian would want to help if an afterlife is just around the corner? Why keep the poor lady struggling in this imperfect world when paradise is a much more desirable destination. Humorously, I was then asked how I knew she deserved to go to heaven. Admittedly I don’t, sorry for wanting the best for her. What I find repulsive about this scenario is that it is used to question atheist morality. The more it is discussed the more immoral the theist position seems. 

Keep throwing such scenarios out there, it only helps to reassure me that leaving religion was a great decision. What also helps reassure me is when my follow up comments are ‘awaiting moderation’, it seems like some people aren’t fully confident in their own position.


2 replies »

  1. I love these confused philosophical rambles from Christians. I can’t wait to read the original post. There is a ‘morally correct’ thing to do. So if a non-swimmer Christian father of six young children dives in because his god told him souls are important, then he was a moral and good heroic Christian. Not a fool sending himself to almost certain death and in the process leaving a family fatherless. They can’t fathom the idea of evaluating any course of action by analysing the likely outcomes, and using empathy which is common to us all. Every single factor regarding the situation would be of relevance, there can be no general situation where there is a definitive right or wrong, good or bad, course of action.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Good argument. There are so many arguments to put on the table against such scenarios, I really don’t see why they cannot see them before putting such a post out there in the first place.


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