I have seen this meme passed around a whole lot by certain types of atheist whose primary source of comfort is how much smarter they are than Christians because they can face the truth. Allow me, therefore, in the name of truth, to point out the first little problem with it:
That’s right. Marcus Aurelius never said it in the first place. The whole meme is a lie. There’s a quote that it may be loosely based on, but we’ll review that at a more appropriate time. Still, I’m sure that there are those who will claim that, regardless of the source of the quote, it’s still a good message. So let’s examine the whole thing and see what parts stand up to any rational interpretation of “good.”
1) “If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by.”
First, does anyone else wonder what the original author meant by “devout?” The people who pass this around probably don’t because the first rule of Meme Club is that you DO NOT talk about what memes MEAN. Memes are self-congratulation masquerading as critical thought. They work by giving the reader the illusion of having had an insight. They are philosophical porn. So in the absence of any definition I’m, going to guess that “devout” means how much you sing, dance, pray, sacrifice and wear cheap T-shirts extolling your deity, because this is the behavior atheists enjoy mocking.
The funny part is that Jesus rather enjoyed mocking it, too: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our forefathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding of the blood of the prophets… Therefore I am sending you prophets and wise men and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.” (Matthew 23:29-31, 34). The fact is that even if Marcus Aurelius had said this, Jesus would have anticipated him by nearly a century. Jesus and the Jewish prophets agree wholeheartedly with the spirit of the quote. “He hath shown thee, O man, what is good; and what the LORD doth require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Micah 6:8). Further, “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27).
What the atheists and the “spiritual-not-religious” folk are missing here is that we all fail miserably at doing these things. They fail to consider what it might mean to be judged by a just God “on the virtues you have lived by.” The whole reason for “devoutness” is an acknowledgement by us that we have indeed failed to practice these virtues, time and time again. God’s standards are higher than ours. They have to be. If God’s standards are not better than our own, He has no claim to be God at all. This is why Jesus said, “You give a tenth of your spices… But you have neglected the more important matters of the law–justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matthew 23:23-25). Devotion is part of the virtue God expects, and what a Christian must mean by “devout” is something more — not less and not other — than living virtuously.
On to part 2 of the “quote:”
2) “If there are gods but unjust, you should not want to worship them.” This is the easiest part of the quote to agree with. But the inherent assumption here is that you know exactly what justice is. Even among good people there are disagreements about this. In the real world, the circumstances in which we find ourselves can not only make living justly a good way to get yourself killed, it can make justice literally impossible. And sometimes, people can be conditioned to think that behavior that would horrify most of us is perfectly normal. Men in prison have a strict code: don’t bump into each other. Don’t pick up another man’s matches. Don’t sit in another man’s chair. “Justice” for these infractions, in that context, can mean a beating or stabbing.
Are we so sure we are different? Killing for honor is still considered justice in many parts of the world. But we call it unjust in my part. If we call God unjust… how are we certain we are right?
And now for the biggest and most subtle lie of all:
3) “If there are no gods: then you will be gone. But you will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” Except that’s a lie. The only true part is the first: “You will be gone.” From your perspective, the story ends here, if there are no gods. Now, your loved ones, they will live on. But you will not know it. They could all be put to death by torture the second you cease to breathe, and you would not care. You could not care. This is one of the greatest lies that atheist thought believes, that there is a state called having lived. That state does not exist in any meaningful fashion. Nonexistence is at the root of it. You will be gone. You will be as utterly gone as if you had never been. Nothing will matter, because you will not exist for it to matter TO. In that nonexistence, the greatest saints and sinners are equal to each other, because they are equal to nothing.
There are only two ways to get around this, and in my experience, most atheists will not do it: admit that morality is a complete and utter illusion, because there is no evidence anything aside from human preference for certain behaviors exist, or admit the existence of something resembling an afterlife (or at least an afterthought), which must be taken on faith.
I cannot live in a universe that is governed by the former admission. And I do not greatly care, for reasons that should be obvious by now, for anyone who impugns my reason or intellect for refusing so to live. Why should I care what that person thinks? By their own admission, they will shortly not exist, and their moral judgments are but present constructs of taste and fashion. I will shortly not exist, and will care for nothing.
This is why I will continue to live by faith. For only if there are gods, and they are just, is life possible. This is why I will raise my voice with Peter, saying, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68).
I will leave you with some actual words of Marcus Aurelius, who did know better than this. Ironically, this may be the quote on which the above drivel is based:
“But to go away from among men, if there are gods, is not a thing to be afraid of, for the gods will not involve thee in evil; but if indeed they do not exist, or if they have no concern about human affairs, what is it to me to live in a universe devoid of gods or devoid of Providence? But Gods there are, undoubtedly, and they regard human affairs; and have put it wholly in our power, that we should not fall into what is truly evil. “
I’m a lot closer to agreeing with that.