I’m Sure You’ve Heard This Bible Verse Before
“So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him ﬁrst cast a stone.” – John 8:7 King James Bible. Out of the few that there are, this may be my favorite Bible verse. It is illuminatory not only for it’s insipid, and stupid injunction that only those who are without fault may judge, but also because it serves as the logical basis for why I conclude it is in fact, only atheists who are capable of “throwing stones”.
I often enjoy discussions of theology with company both great and poor for it’s particularly
poignant ability to remind us how even the most intelligent among us are capable of believing
idiocy on occasion. My ﬁrst encounter with this particular verse compelled me to argue against
it’s reason emphatically during a course in my undergraduate program. It was being discussed
among some fellow philosophy students, a group that in my experience tends to be far more
interested in vocalization than in metacognitive exercise. It was being presented as the only
rational basis for objective moral judgement, much like a poor man’s Veil of Ignorance. As a
someone who nearly worships the concept of the social contract forwarded by Kant, Hobbes,
Rousseau and Jefferson I found myself unable to avoid interrupting the conversation to save what
seemed to me to be a clearly sinking intellectual ship.
I implored my newly annoyed peers to consider the resulting scenario if the result of the
verse was the conclusion to be reached. Were we sticking to the contradictory and laughably
ethically vacuous Judeo-Christian teaching, the result would be a world in which a man guilty of the consumption of shellﬁsh (Leviticus 11:12), no matter how morally upstanding he may be otherwise, to be one incapable of judging the actions of a murderer or perhaps a child rapist. Notwithstanding the obvious lack of judgment in regards to the habitualization of child rape among institutions so obvious they do not need naming, the verse, initially seems to serve as a basis for Yahweh being the only being capable of moral judgement. After a few inept theological pronouncements from one of the group members I moved on with my day but found that the verse stuck with me for some time after the encounter. It was just this past weekend when I found myself formulating the argument with which I hope to convince you that, provided you grant me some innocuous assumptions, that it is in fact only the atheist who is capable of “throwing stones” however you may interpret the phrasing.
The ﬁrst assumption you must grant me is that for a sin to be committed the agent engaging in that action must be aware that the action they partake in is indeed a sin. If you ascribe to the ludicrously idiotic doctrine of original sin then I doubt that this argument will convince you and I must say I’m quite surprised you’re reading this in the ﬁrst place. For now we will take the account of sin believed in much of contemporary theology that a sin is an act that willingly violates the relationship between God and the agent though I will provide some justiﬁcation for this assumption later on. I will avoid wasting both your time and my own in attempts to provide theological grounding for this claim as they are inevitably met with the “context” objection and I despise that sort of mysterianism on every level. Instead I ask you to appeal to your own cognitive faculties and consider the following, “would it be just to hold someone morally accountable for an action they had no understanding was wrong?”.
Imagine for a moment that you are in a foreign country, a place in which you are unfamiliar with much of the legal custom and regulations. You find yourself after a short jog, to be the victim of a case of unlaced shoes and sit down to rectify the situation. Shortly after you finish re-securing your footwear you are grabbed suddenly by the local police and told that not only are you guilty of a crime, but in fact you are to be held accountable for a moral wrongdoing. After a bewildering conversation you eventually discover that in this country when tying one’s shoes not only is it a legal requirement to tie the left shoe first, it’s a sign of vulgarity and insult to do the opposite. I don’t imagine you would feel the police justified in holding you morally accountable and I think should further find their right to hold you legally accountable vacuous as well though that is a discussion for another time.
The question remains why it is that you feel you would not be morally accountable and I think the answer lies in our ﬁrst assumption. You are culpable in a wrongdoing only in so far as you were aware that was wrong, for without the consequent you were unable to choose to do otherwise on the grounds of its moral standing. Though it may be true that you were faced with a circumstance that you could have done otherwise, you were not faced with a moral choice and as such lacked the capability of choosing morally and therefore are immune to moral judgement. In much a similar situation with sin I ﬁnd it not unreasonable or theologically contradictory to think that any god worth worshiping would not be one that would ﬁnd ﬁnite beings responsible for moral choices they were unaware of making.
The second and, in so far as I see it, only other assumption you must grant me is that sin is not necessarily tied with moral wrongdoing. Were we to limit our considerations of sin only to the scope of The New Testament we would still be left with quite a long list of sins that are at a minimum morally permissible under almost all reﬂective views of morality that includes but is not limited to:
- Arguing – Tim 2:23
- Being Anxious – Phili 4:6
- Judging God’s Servants – Ro 14:4
- Not Beating a Disobedient Child – Pv 13:24
- Drinking – Tim 4:1
I don’t think it necessary to do much arguing towards showing that these actions are not wrong, if not only for the fact that by this list arguing to this effect would be a sin and both myself and others are on empty ground to argue that the beating of a child is acceptable for mere disobedience. This list could go on ad nauseam but I think you, by now get the point. Much of what is considered to be sin are actions that lead one on a path that is away from God’s will or to be put another way actions that hurt or hinder your relationship with God. Provided that we have that belief in what sin is, I think you’ll ﬁnd that we inevitably follow the reasoning of our initially mentioned verse to the conclusion that only atheists are sinless.
At least for the sake of consideration we ﬁnd ourselves now, hopefully in agreement that a sin is an action that is against God’s will and that you are only guilty of committing a sin in so far as you are aware that it is in fact a sin. There are many things people claim to be a sin, there are many things that are described as sin but provided we take the worldview of an atheist there is no actualized sin. With your memory being as remarkable as I assume it is you’ll remember that sin is an action that violates the will of a deity, it follows that for there to be any actualized sin there must be an actualized deity to bring it about.
Were that to be our only assumption than the atheist is still on the hook for sinning as the atheist could unknowingly violate the will of an an unknown actualized god. But you, clever as you are, have already remembered the ﬁrst assumption, that for an action to be a sin, the agent engaging in that action must be aware that it’s a sin. The corollary of these two assumptions, is that since an atheist does not believe there is any actualized deity they further do not believe that there is any actualized sin and in fact for them there isn’t any actualized sin as that would require a belief in sin. This brings us full circle back to John 8:7, “So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him ﬁrst cast a stone.” Now you see why I think it can be argued and not entirely sarcastically that it is in fact only atheists that can “cast stones”.
Though in large part the preceding was merely a cognitive exercise it’s an entertaining reminder on this Easter day that there is in fact fun to be had in religious discussion that doesn’t require insult or injury, though keep in mind that it may be you that has to cast the ﬁrst stone in the discussion.
What do you think? We’d love to hear you sound off with your thoughts in the comments below!