The God of conservative Christianity asks that I first believe in him before he initiates a relationship with me. Why this prerequisite? Not only does he set this as a requirement, but he also holds accountable those who do not believe in him. According to conservative Christianity, a mass murderer who has accepted Jesus will go to heaven, but a person who has a lived a moral life caring for others, but who has not accepted the Gospel, will go to hell (John 20:29 and John 3:16). It makes no sense to me why the personal, mundane and victimless action of belief (or unbelief) is such a big deal to the creator of the universe.
As Richard Dawkins writes in The God Delusion (page 104):
But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? Isn’t it just as likely that God would reward kindness, or generosity, or humility? Or sincerity?
Martin Luther King, Jr., in his great speech in Washington, DC, on 28 August 1963, spelt out his dream of a land where his children would not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character. He realised, as many of us do, how unjust it is to use skin colour, over and above character, as a way to measure a person. Isn’t it just as unjust to judge someone by the thoughts that they hold, over and above what they are as individuals? This was one of the great stumbling blocks that I faced as a struggling Christian: I couldn’t understand why believing in stuff like the cross, Jesus, and the Trinity was so important to salvation, seemingly more important than goodness, kindness or honesty. God may not be a racist, but he certainly seems to discriminate along lines of belief.
Richard Carrier, also concerned by this aspect of conservative Christian theology, writes in Sense and Goodness without God (page 17):
The good judge others by their character, not by their beliefs, and punish deeds, not thoughts, and punish only to teach, not to torture.
I’m with Carrier here: when I left Christianity, I decided that thoughts are not as important as deeds; that when I meet a person for the first time, I should evaluate that person according to who they are as individuals, and how they treat other people – not according to their skin colour, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs.
Why doesn’t God do the same?