Anger of the Atheists

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Responses to an essay say much to a writer. Sometimes they reveal flaws in the essayist’s assumptions or reasoning, provide a different perspective or are otherwise enlightening. Other times they reveal something more about the responders.

Back in May, I wrote an article about atheism. It was inspired by an earlier op-ed by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in The New York Times, extolling “the dignity of atheism.” I titled my own essay “The Indignity of Atheism” and made one simple and obvious point: One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here can have no reason to believe in objective categories of good and evil.

I took pains to stress that I was not contending that atheists are bad people, and certainly not that religious people are necessarily good. I was not judging anyone, rather stating a self-evident philosophical truism: If our perception that some deeds are good and others are not is but a quirk of natural selection, none of us need feel any commitment to morality or ethics.

The piece appeared in The Providence Journal and a number of Jewish weeklies. Soon enough, it was posted on a multitude of atheist weblogs, along with rebuttals – or screeds presented as such.

I had always imagined atheists as a misguided but relatively civil and intelligent bunch. But much of the reaction on the blogs was simple umbrage heavily laced with anger and even threats, born of my contention that atheists are bad people – although I had written no such thing, and indeed had clearly stated otherwise.

Perhaps the writers misinterpreted my invocation of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as examples of non-religious sorts who were responsible for countless deaths of innocents. But that was only to counter Mr. Zizek’s contention that the world’s evils derive overwhelmingly from religion. (A few of the umbrage-takers insisted that Hitler was a religious Roman Catholic; I’m skeptical, but, just to keep the complainers on-topic, they can replace him with Caligula, Mao, Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jung Il.)

Other reactions (from the more careful readers, no doubt) consisted entirely of adolescent snideness over the idea of G-d, and harsh invective toward me, much of it of a strikingly personal nature and in language more suited to a locker room than an intellectual salon. Revealing, indeed.

As to the essence of my argument, though, there was no credible counter-argument whatsoever, no claim that right and wrong can somehow have inherent meaning without recourse to Something Higher than ourselves. That, too, was telling – of the truth that atheism, in the end, cannot assign any more meaning to right and wrong than to right and left.

What brings the edifying experience to mind is the pair of current best-sellers attempting to make the case for atheism. In one of them, Darwinist devotee Richard Dawkins declares that to be an atheist is a “brave and splendid” thing, and that to believe that there is Something to Whom we owe obeisance is a “pernicious” thought. Writer Sam Harris, meanwhile, in his own book, characterizes religion as “obscene” and “utterly repellent.”

The two authors avoid the sailor-language favored by the bloggers and their blogophants, and they make a valiant effort to present what they claim is the case for atheism, but in their instances, too, more illuminating than their arguments is their anger.

Sure, it is easy to deny G-d. We can’t see Him and can (at least some of us, with prodigious effort and illimitable imagination) imagine life evolving entirely on its own, and yes, there is evil in the world that seems to go unpunished. But belief in G-d has always gone hand in hand with belief in both His hiddenness, and his inscrutability. The “arguments” from invisibility, evolution and the existence of evil are, in the end, convincing only to those already convinced.

More informative is the atheists’ anger. I think it derives from the realization of where their declared convictions perforce must lead. That would be – as per my original essay – a place where the very concepts of morality and ethics are rendered meaningless, a worldview in which a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is no less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. (In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former is probably better positioned to impart advantages to the gene pool.)

It is a thought so discomfiting to an honest atheist that all it can yield him is fury.

Some atheists, no doubt, are not infuriated at all by the implications of their denial of a human calling higher than nature. They revel in the knowledge that whatever they wish to do is fine, as long as they manage not to run afoul of the man-made (and themselves inherently meaningless) laws of society. If skillful enough, they can carefully lift items from the local store, surreptitiously violate others’ rights or privacy, and covertly bring harm to those they dislike or who stand in the way of their wants.

Most atheists, though – and they, I contend, are the angry ones – would never dream of doing such things. Because they know that there is right and there is wrong.

Wrong?

Is it “wrong” when a dog steals a bone from his fellow canine, or when a mantis eats her mate? Of course not. But when a human being steals or hurts or kills another, it’s qualitatively different. Deep down we know we are answerable to Something beyond our own natures.

That knowledge gives thoughtful atheists hives. Which is why, hopelessly conflicted by the irreconcilability of their unspeakable realization and their trumpeted posture, they can only fume.

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49 Responses

  1. David says:

    ‘Ori: No. This is like an Atheist who comes to the conclusion that 2+2=4. S/he is right. If anybody comes to a different conclusion, then that person is wrong. Rationalism means that morality can be deduced rationally, not that any conclusion is moral.’

    Ori, 2+2=4 is not a moral decision. I think even an atheist would agree that his/her own moral decisions aren’t binding on anyone else. In other words everything is relative. And that’s exactly the problem.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    David: Atheists who subsribe to rationalism are always moral! (in their eyes). This is because they thought about a particular moral dilemna (no minimum length of time necessary), came to a conclusion and ipso facto, the conclusion is moral. If anybody comes to a different conclusion, that’s fine, as that’s also moral.

    Ori: No. This is like an Atheist who comes to the conclusion that 2+2=4. S/he is right. If anybody comes to a different conclusion, then that person is wrong. Rationalism means that morality can be deduced rationally, not that any conclusion is moral.

    My problem with Atheism, and the reason I ditched it once I figured (or was shown) the philosophical problem of car seats, is that Atheism does not allow for free will.

  3. hp says:

    Rabbi Shafran,

    Let me just say I admire your patience as you view comment after comment that may say interesting things, but bear only faint relation to your post. It would be helpful if commentors would take the time to read your post, well, including your subsequent comments.

    Research in linguists has demonstrated that the hearer or reader’s linguistic and personal bias, which is structured as a mental script or schema, may color what they hear/read accordingly, resulting in an altered version of the original communication.

    So it’s not you, and it’s not your readers, it’s a linguistic reality.

  4. Rabbi Zvi says:

    The problem is that being a theist does not make one inherently better.

    I believe that your article is misplaced in time. There was a time when atheists were trying to push their ideas by proclaiming that a country not tainted by religious fervor would be superior ethically. This was debunked by the results of Nazism and refuted with many of your arguments.

    Current events, as they are, leave your article hanging and people are hard pressed to place it in the proper perspective. We are now suffering from the evil actions of theists not atheists.

  5. moshe says:

    David Said:
    “…Judaism says that the penalty for murder of a helpless mentally disabled person is the same as for the Godol Hador.”

    David,

    An atheist would counter that the killing of a person for gathering wood on the sabbath, even if done by a court of law, is just as morally depraved as murdering a helpless mentally disabled person, or a Gadol Hador.

    Morality depends on what perspective you are comimg from.

  6. Avi Shafran says:

    Dear Sarah,

    I fear you misunderstand my article (don’t feel bad, you’re clearly not alone). I did not (as I noted above, several times) negate the self-consistency of an atheistic philosophy, and fully acknowledge that a truly thoughtful atheist considers those of us who believe in a Creator to be deluded. I have no problem with that. To be sure, I believe him to be the deluded one, but he is entitled to his opinion.

    My point – my entire one – was simply that armchair atheists need to follow the logic of that approach to its full conclusion. If indeed we humans are but accidents of evolution, then we do not really have free will (we are, rather, puppets of our needs, desires and evolution-bred delusions of morality and ethics), our senses of right and wrong are just evolutionary baggage and nothing we do is more meaningful in a transcendent sense than the actions of a cat, or an amoeba. If an atheist is truly willing to concede all that (and thereby render terms like “morality” and “ethics” meaningless as well), then he is consistent But if he is not so willing, then he is not consistent. And I believe that the vast majority of self-described “atheists” are indeed unwilling to abandon their deep feeling that there is right and there is wrong – in an ultimately meaningful sense. My essay was intended to get them to think.

    Your empathy and the smiles it elicits are, to me as to you, wonderful things. But to Jeffrey Dahmer, killing and eating other people are the equivalent of your empathy, and what bring a smile to his face. To a true proponent of random evolution, none of us can judge him as a lesser person than either of us.

  7. David says:

    Thinking about this subject the past few days has led me to this conclusion. Atheists who subsribe to rationalism are always moral! (in their eyes). This is because they thought about a particular moral dilemna (no minimum length of time necessary), came to a conclusion and ipso facto, the conclusion is moral. If anybody comes to a different conclusion, that’s fine, as that’s also moral. So if someone, for example, decides that mentally disabled people have no use and don’t contribute to society, or their elderly parent is no longer useful and is using up all the family’s money, who is tell him that’s it’s not moral to do away with them? Judaism says that the penalty for murder of a helpless mentally disabled person is the same as for the Godol Hador.

  8. Sarah M says:

    Avi,
    I understand that God-centered morality appeals to you for its “ultimate meaning”
    From your perspective, it seems that the options are, as you state “G-d-sourced and meaningful or nature-centered and meaningless.” the choice is a no-brainer.
    From a skeptic’s perspective, there are two options: God-sourced-and-therefore-based-on-delusions and therefore ultimately meaningless, and nature-centered and meaningless. This choice, funny enough, is also a no-brainer.

    That being said, I would say that “God-based morality as ultimately meaningful” vs. “God-less morality is meaningless” is a false dichotemy. meaning doesn’t have to be “ultimate” to be meaningful.
    Even if my actions have only the meaning that I give them, that’s enough for me. If the empathy wired into my system propells me to help another person, and the resulting smile makes the world a slightly brighter place, that’s meaningful to me.

  9. mike says:

    Rabbi Shafran wrote:
    “I am using the dictionary definition of atheism…”

    From Wikipedia:
    “…Throughout its history, opponents of atheism have frequently associated atheism with immorality and evil, often characterizing it as a willful and malicious repudiation of God or gods. This, in fact, is the original definition and sense of the word, but changing sensibilities and the normalization of non-religious viewpoints have caused the term to lose most of its pejorative connotations in general parlance.”

    Rabbi Shafran,

    You reject the rationalistic basis for morality.
    I reject the theistic basis for morality.

    Many people believe as you believe, and many people believe as I do.

    So… Which one of us is correct?

  10. Avi Shafran says:

    Just a few more comments (I hope you will all forgive me)

    Mike: I am using the dictionary definition of atheism, the belief that there is no Higher Authority beyond nature, and that all life is the product of random evolution. And there is indeed no way to square that conviction with the concepts of right and wrong (as transcendent, truly meaningful categories; obviously one can decide to arbitrarily label things “right” and “wrong” by whim). And the question is not whether there can be good, morally-acting atheists, but rather whether, when push comes to shove, an atheist has any reason to put some arbitrary concept of right or good above what will most benefit him personally.

    Perhaps a thought experiment can best illustrates my essay’s point (from which things here have far disgressed).

    Imagine a crime against another person that one can get away with easily, without the person even knowing he’s been wronged. Example: Reading someone’s diary or otherwise invading his privacy for personal gratification. Or shoplifting from a store that has insurance to cover the loss. A more troubling example: giving a comatose patient a fatal dose of a drug because one is certain that the patient will be better off dead. A more troubling example still: Killing someone whom one hates, someone with no relatives or friends and who seems without any redeeming social value.

    A believer in a higher code of right and wrong will have Yir’as Shamayim and at least a fighting chance at overcoming his desire to do the act – born of his conviction that the act is inherently wrong. Someone who believes that we are mere accidents of evolution, while he might also choose to refrain from the act, has no compelling reason to do so.

    Caliban Darklock (what a mellifluous name!): The “free market” of ideas does not necessarily yield (and seldom yields) moral truth — any more than the free market in economics yields the valuing of what is truly, inherently valuable (in contrast to what people consider valuable).

    Steve Brizel: You are simply, straightly, and concisely correct.

    Sarah M.: As I noted in my previous comment, I do not claim that our sense of good and bad cannot be explained by random evolution, and that humans can be seen as mere animals (who, like elephants their trunks and skunks their stink, evolved our perception of right and wrong). There will always be two ways to look at the world: G-d-sourced and meaningful or nature-centered and meaningless.

    My point is simply that a true and honest atheist, who takes the second approach, must admit that his definition of good and bad is itself, like everything, devoid of any larger meaning. He thus cannot condemn a rapist-murderer-cannibal (who is just doing his evolutionary “duty” to the species), nor does he have any true reason to not steal his neighbor’s car or wife or credit card if he wants them and can get away with it. He might refrain from doing so, but that restraint calls into question whether he truly believes what he professes to believe.

    The question, though, is not what atheists – or believers in G-d – do or don’t do, will or will not do. It is: In what world-view can there be ultimate, beyond-the-here-and-now, meaning to our actions? And the answer is: Only in a world-view in which there is a Higher Authority than ourselves.

  11. Sarah M says:

    looking fora source of morality other than God?
    try our genetic code:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2006/10/31/health/psychology/31book.html

  12. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “Are you telling me that the only basis a theist has of rejecting crime and naziism is that god told the theist that its wrong? The theist can not be relied upon to arrive at the conclusion by using his brain?”

    Rabbi Shafran, if I understand correctly, points out that atheists or humanists recognize “something unique” about humans, and this deep down, is contradictory to atheism. I agree, however, with you that rationalism can indeed practically and philosophically be a basis not to murder, even if atheists realize some conflict because ultimately, they are merely animals(the extent depending on how exactly they view humanism).

    Regarding the point Re: R’ Elchanon in Berlin and fear of G-d as a deterrent, R Shafran quotes parrying of some bloggers that Hitler had religious leanings, and refers to other tyrants instead(I’ve seen secular humanists argue this as well); however, what about secular people? Why couldn’t German philosophers, and secular humanism prevent the Nazis?

    Perhaps, the social and political forces of economic depression, nationalism, and imperialism were extremely strong, that mere rationalism couldn’t serve as a deterrent. That is the point, I think of R. Elchanon, as R Shafran also mentioned. Perhaps had the Nazis(and collaborators) been genuinely religious people(not under influence of religious Jew-hatred), the “fear of G-d” could have prevented what rationalism wasn’t able to prevent. Perhaps someone who knows the history of the Third Reich and Weimar government can develop this further(see link below).

    http://experts.about.com/e/n/na/nazism.htm

  13. Sammy Finkelman says:

    Gershon Josephs> Your argument fails on an obvious point. Radical Islam believe passionately in God, yet their God based morality justifies killing innocents….

    This general argument, which appears frequently, conflates two separate problems.

    The first of the 10 Commandments says “I am the Lord your God”
    The second is “You shall have no other Gods before me” Both are necessary.

    It is not only NO RELIGION which is no good, it is also the WRONG RELIGION which is no good.

    I think the Rambam described what kind of religion is no good and must be actively opposed. It is a religion which goes against the 7 Mitzvos B’nai Noach. Of cours a religion which says that God rewards what any normal person would understand as wanton murder is wrong.

    As to which is worse, possibly no religion is worse. Because no religion really has no room for the whole concept of morality. A person with the wrong morality at least has some kind of a beginning and also may be led back by logic to something better. And the wrong morality has all sorts of arbitrary restruictions, which gives hope.

    As to the general point, theer is a lot of “moral capital” in the world.
    Someone in Austria in 1938, I think, observed that Germany was using uop its moral capital (from Nazi principles, for instance, maybe crime shouldn’t be punished, at leats niot in all cases uin which it was – theer should not be any help to the poor, or worker protection laws or what have you. There was a lot of moral capital built into the workings of society and it was only slowly gotten rid of. Some of it, like the geneva Convention for some foreign POWs ouitlasted the entire Nazi regime)

    And on an individuallevel there is habit.

    A lack of belief in God – or traditional morality – may not cause a person to reject morality – the morlaity that he is already observing. It is in the second and third generation that you get this effect. This is what happened in Germany. Religion (and the impetus toward morality that goes with it) was detached from everyday life. A different set of values governed people. The rot really started in the mid-1800’s but it took till 1914 and especially the 1930’s to take full effect. There was little or no principled opposition to murder in Germany.

    >> So why begrudge anyone his will to discard the “excess baggage” of ethical behavior?

    This is exactkly what Hitler wanted to do – to remove from the world – and he blamed the Jews for the existence of morality. I think an article in Atlantic two or three years maybe showed that.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/prem/200305/ryback

    The Atlantic Monthly | May 2003 Hitler’s Forgotten Library

  14. YM says:

    Many of the posts above make no sense. It is obvious that any judgement about any human behavior is nothing more than an opinion. You can enforce the opinion with the power of the law; it can be an opinion that most people agree with. It may even be something that “everyone” knows is true. But it is still an opinion. It takes the Torah to define “good” and “evil”, “right” and “wrong”.

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    IMO, one point that should be considered is that any man-made ethical construct can be revoked or curtailed when it becomes inconvenient , etc. A Divinely revealed, imposed and legislated ethical code has no such built in limitations.

  16. Caliban Darklock says:

    R. Shafran, I take issue with your assertion.

    I think the disagreement atheists are expressing is not so much on the question of whether they have an idea of good and bad, but whether that idea is intended to be objective. It can’t be, so it isn’t. They have no illusions about that. I believe the atheist perspective is directed toward what amounts to a free market economics of morality: just get out of the way and let the market handle it.

    I don’t have a problem with this idea, because if you let the market handle it, what emerges is eventually the truth. There is no need to fear the truth unless you are trying to lie.

  17. mike says:

    David,

    I believe that what you are saying is that rationalism does not automatically lead one to live a moral life. If this is what you are saying, then I agree with you. There are good people in this world, and then there are the jerks. I believe Shakespeare said that there is nothing either right or wrong, but thinking makes it so. Yes, the people who behave properly as well as the people who do not behave properly both use the thought process to guide their behaviors.

    Please understand, David, that the same can be said about religion. Belief in the divine also does not automatically lead one to behave properly. How many people are there in the world today who profess to believe in God, and then use that belief to justify doing terrible things?

    There are many good, moral people who are theists, and there are many good, moral people who happen to be atheists. The theists use revelation as their source of morality, while the atheists use reason as their source of morality. Both revelation and reason can be (and is) used to justify what you and I agree to be bad behavior.

    Who decides…? People do. You and I. We do not need God for us to make this decision. We do not need God to tell us that the nazis were reprehensible people. God depends on us to make the right decisions. He gave us the tools. Use them.

  18. David says:

    Mike,
    OK, I looked it up, but you are missing my point. There are plenty of people back in Nazi Germany, and plenty of people around nowadays who think that the Nazis were very rational. My question to you is what right do you have to call the Nazis ‘irrational’? Who decides what’s rational?

  19. mike says:

    David (of comment #27),

    The answer to your questions, is, in a word, rationalism. Please look up the definition of rationalism in wikipedia. An atheist is capable of being repulsed by naziism by method of using his brain as a guide as to what is right and wrong.

    Are you telling me that the only basis a theist has of rejecting crime and naziism is that god told the theist that its wrong? The theist can not be relied upon to arrive at the conclusion by using his brain?

    Again, before answering these questions, look up rationalism.

  20. Jeff Courter says:

    If you will allow a Gentile to comment here, I would like to add something. I find your comments highly illuminating.

    I am Protestant by faith, but we also follow what we call the Old Testament (much like the Jewish Torah), which comprises the vast majority of our Bible. So we, too, value the writings of your faith.

    While your comments have been limited to “good” and “evil”, what has been overlooked are other similar categories: “beautiful”, “loving”, etc. In a mechanistic world without any external reality, how can we believe in beauty? or love? They become mere personal preferences, like the preference not to be killed and eaten for lunch. There is no real meaning outside subjectivism.

    In this deterministic world, the genius of Mozart becomes random sounds, mere noise. The selfless sacrifice of Mahatma Ghandi or Mother Theresa becomes stupidity. All that is logically left is nihilism, or subjective existentialism, where meaning is created by competing individuals and their self-interests.

    Even if G-d cannot be proved, I much prefer to live in a world filled with beauty and love, created by a Creator, than to abandon hope and embrace existential despair. The rewards to my own spirit are much larger, even just in this life.

    We “theists” value human life and possessions of others because we see humans as being special creatures, made unique by G-d, different than animals. While we can argue about the details of moral behavior, it is the Source which makes the argument possible. And ultimately, arguing about morals becomes arguing about the character of G-d, for our understanding about G-d’s character will inform our beliefs about right and ethical behavior. While theists can have this argument, and thereby derive some basis for moral rules for living, atheists cannot.

  21. mike says:

    Avi Shafran said:
    “…atheists (not agnostics but rather committed deniers of G-d’s existence) cannot claim that some behaviors are inherently good and others bad – and that if they do assert some such judgments, they are contradicting their claimed belief (or, better, disbelief).”

    There is nothing inherent in atheism which precludes the possibility that some behaviors are inherently good and others bad. You are making up your own definition of atheism.

  22. Larry Lennhoff says:

    OK, we all know that you, the atheist, are a really good person. But what right do you have to protest against anybody else’s behavior? A crook who runs off with an old lady’s Social Security money is just following the rule of survival of the fittest. So maybe you yourself wouldn’t do such a thing, but what moral basis do you have to call that other person wrong? What moral basis do you have to call the Nazis wrong?

    If I were an atheist, I would answer that surely my right to protect the old lady’s money is at least as strong as the crook’s right to run off with it. In a universe which simply does not care, much of humanity has found that the best way to maximize happiness is to be moral. A life in which only the strong survive runs up against two problems – that even the strongest eventually weaken, and that the united might of many weak people can be greater than a single strong person. One of the best features of (some) atheisms, in my experience, is that it makes the atheist reluctant to impose their will without a good reason. An atheist may chase after the thief becaue they know one day they too will be old, but they will be unlikely to punish people for what they eat. “I think this is right but I might be wrong’ is a more modest position to hold than ‘The universe and/or its creator endorse what I say as true’.

  23. David says:

    I think the main point that the atheists are missing, besides getting all upset when someone points out that there are some really bad atheists out there, is this.
    OK, we all know that you, the atheist, are a really good person. But what right do you have to protest against anybody else’s behavior? A crook who runs off with an old lady’s Social Security money is just following the rule of survival of the fittest. So maybe you yourself wouldn’t do such a thing, but what moral basis do you have to call that other person wrong? What moral basis do you have to call the Nazis wrong?

  24. Avram Mizrahi says:

    As a believer ,my faith is that man should worry about the other fellow being, I see as the principal message of Torah and Talmud . Worry about
    the well being of the Other is the best way of worship of G-d.

    In this context nothing shuold come first, no religious places,relics or items,which are in a way signs of getting close to Avodah Zara.

    After reading Rabbi Shafran’s article ,I would like to emphasize that I ‘d prefer a non believer who cares first about how to get along peacefully with any man than a believer who fulfills every requirement of his religion’s praying ritual.

    Rab Nahman of Bratzlav once said:

    “worry about the other person’s belly and your own soul and not about the other person’s soul and your own belly”

    the faith in the Almighty fills us with humility and obliges us to behave with responsibility G-dly since we are created in his image.

    as Simeon the Just in Pirkey Avot wisely put:…be rather like servants who serve their master without the intention of receiving reward…

    a good comment and philosophy for believer and non believer who arrived to the awareness of being obliged for the Other.

    W

  25. Avi Shafran says:

    I am deeply impressed with the amount of comment here (a tribute to Cross-Currents and its readers) elicited by my recent essay about atheism and atheists. Much of it is erudite, thoughtful and interesting. I fear, though, that many readers seem to have assumed that I was attempting to prove one or another of a number of things I did not address at all.

    To be as clear as I can: I did not argue that human beings’ sense that some things are right and others wrong proves that Judaism is the true faith, or that our sense is a reliable identifier of all that is good and bad. Nor was I arguing that the sense of good and bad proves the existence of G-d. I was not arguing that atheists are bad people (or even more likely to be bad people than theists) or that theists are necessarily good. I was not arguing that our sense of good and bad cannot be explained by random evolution, or that atheists cannot formulate justifications for ethical systems, or that social contracts are not useful constructs.

    I was making a very simple and limited point, and not trying to “prove” anything at all. The point? That true, committed, honest atheists (not agnostics but rather committed deniers of G-d’s existence) cannot claim that some behaviors are inherently good and others bad – and that if they do assert some such judgments, they are contradicting their claimed belief (or, better, disbelief).

    It is a point as straightforward as it is unarguable. If we are mere products of random evolution, than any repugnance we feel at, for examples, incest, child-molestation, stealing or murder is meaningless (no, not less meaningful but meaningless). Just as we don’t think to judge non-human animals through a moral lens, no true atheist has any justification to judge fellow humans through one (any one).

    If an atheist replies “That is true; so what?” then I have nothing more to say; he or she is carrying his or her belief to its logical conclusion and entirely consistent. But if the atheist squirms and reserves the right to condemn incest (particularly between consenting fathers and daughters or mothers and sons) or thievery (particularly when the particular act is “victimless,” as in the case of shoplifting from an insured store or cheating on income tax) or sexual exploitation (especially of infants, where there aren’t even any psychological scars), then said atheist is, simply put, hypocritical.

    To be sure, I certainly mean to challenge those atheists who are not ready to relinquish their abhorrence of things unethical or immoral, to push them to the point of either forcing themselves to abandon their evolution-fueled morality-baggage or (I hope) recognize that there is indeed good and bad and that for such concepts to exist there must be recourse to Something outside of the nature we experience physically. I did not attempt to identify that Something or His will, only to raise the issue of His necessity for any claim that there are inherently good and evil acts.

    If an atheist chooses to deny, along with G-d, the idea of inherent good and bad, then I have no argument whatsoever to convince him or her otherwise, and never claimed to have one. Such people are honest, if amoral. I may not want to share a desert island with them, but inconsistency is not one of their sins. Those, though, who want to have their atheism and meaningful morality too are the ones I described as being able only to fume at the challenge. And their angry, insulting reactions, I believe, say it all.

    I have much to say about distinctions among believers in G-d, and about Judaism as the authentic faith. But that was not my topic here, and, should I ever endeavor to treat it properly one day, it will have to be in a book-length project, not a short essay.

    Again, my thanks to all who shared their thoughts here.

  26. Baruch Horowitz says:

    Humanists, like religious people of all faiths, may emphasize many values that would lead to ethical behavior.

    Humanistic psychology speaks of human self-fulfillment, compassion, and “emphasizes the independent dignity and worth of human beings and their conscious capacity to develop personal competence and self respect”(Association for Humanistic Psychology).

    Secular humanist ethicists maintains that “it is possible for human beings to lead meaningful and wholesome lives for themselves and in service to their fellow human beings without the need of religious commandments or the benefit of clergy”(Declaration of Council for Secular Humanisim).

    Philosophically, evolutionary biologists and extreme animal rights activists who stress that a person is no different than an ape clearly have an ethical weakness. Animal rights lawyer and Harvard Law School lecturer Steve Wise, has famously said that “at least legally, and probably morally, the only time I believe one should be able to use a chimpanzee in research is a situation where one would also use a four-year-old human child.”

    However, even those that don’t go that far, have a weakness insofar as they don’t recognize an inherent reason to be moral. If a person has no soul, how can morality be inherent? A religious person, however, believes in a Divine soul, as well as in the Divine capacity to choose, and he or she therefore has an inherent reason to be moral.

    There could therefore be two advantages to inherent, religious ethics:

    (1) There would be differences regarding finer, more abstract decisions. A religious person would support the sanctity of life in abortion or euthanasia debates.

    (2) A religious person can develop him or herself to a moral and ethical level not attainable by someone without an inherent reason for morality(the opposite is true as well; violence has been committed in the name of religion). Faced with the same extreme level of temptation, the one with an inherent reason would overcome the ethical conflict.

    When R. Elchanon Wasserman Zt’l spoke in Germany before the Second World War at the Hildesheimer Rabbinical Seminary in Berlin, he made the point that fear of God is the ultimate deterrent from committing evil. While the Biblical society of Avimelech or twentieth century Germany may be educated and cultured, they can descend to the level of murder and other terrible crimes without an inherent fear of God(even if Hitler was indeed somewhat influenced by his conception of religion, it certainly wasn’t a genuine spiritual experience).

  27. mike says:

    For the theist, there is a divine source for objective morality. The theist would reject the doctrine of rationalism.

    For the rationalist atheist, human’s ability to reason is the source of morality. Thus the atheist could reject the notion of the divine, and still have a basis for morality.

    Pick your choice.

  28. Yoel Ben-Avraham says:

    As for the non-believers source of rational for “Right” and “Wrong”, I’ve always thought that the “Contract Social” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau was just that! “Right” or “Good” is such because the human collective agrees it is and vis-versa. The inherent flaw in this being that a “collective” could decide it being the greater good to destroy retarded individuals or Jews & Gypsys.

    The other point I’d like to make is the distinction between Judaism (Torah) and other “revealed” religions. Unfortunately the name of the book and author escapes me, but I read a very powerful critique of Betrand Russells critique of religion. In the book I can’t remember, the author demonstrates that what Russell is criticising is not Torah but Christianity (and by implication Islam). All the criticisms Russell gives, if applied to Torah would only demonstrate Torah as a religion of “reason”. What I’d like to suggest is that it is difficult to lump Torah together with religions that claim to be revealed but are really political tools in the hands of pagans trying to take advantage of the truths in Torah while retaining the attractiveness and control over the lives of their adherents (Christianity & Islam).

  29. Avigdor M'Bawlmawr says:

    At least religious believers can make the _claim_ of objectivity and morality. The basis of that claim is the matter of dispute. To what does the atheist attribute morality in a random, meaningless world? Don’t tell me about your social contract, or intuition, or any philosophical system at all. At best, it is a clever construct by a speaking animal, at worst, sentimentalism.

    Good policy, not stealing or killing, does not equal any claim on morality, unless you collapse the distinctions between the two. Heck, “good” policy can’t even exist, because I have no basis for judging outside of preferences, my own or the group’s.

  30. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Both systems appear arbitrary from the outside.

    For believers, atheists appear to just make their own rules when they try to decide what they should do. Atheists believe their morality comes from logical inference from observed facts.

    For atheists, believers appear to follow arbitrary rules based on a man-made “revelation”. Even ignoring the issue of interpretation, there are multiple religion, each claiming to be the one true revelation. The choice of religion appears arbitrary from the outside, based on upbringing more than on logic.

  31. Yaakov Menken says:

    Gershon, my point was that any of those is a more objective standard than relying upon one’s own conscience. This applies, of course, only if one uses the document as the source teaching morality rather than for validation of one’s own opinion. When one is convinced of the overall correctness of any of these sources, one is forced to accept all of its teachings — even those one finds contrary to previously-held opinions.

    When a religion preaches violence, we can (and in my opinion, should) talk about something being wrong with the religion and its clerics, but it remains more objective than “every man for himself” morality.

    When a religion’s teachings are non-violent and beneficial (or at least innocuous), the practitioner of that religion will feel more bound to moral behavior than the atheist, because he or she believes that the compunction to act in a moral fashion is externally imposed by a force greater than him- or herself.

  32. Rudy Wagner says:

    The article is based on two logical mistakes.

    1. If you believe (like I do) that the Jewish religion is Divine and other religions are man made, your arguments works only if made to Jewish people. Being exposed mostly to Christian religion and to Islamic suicide bombers, a non-Jewish western atheist audience will answer (correctly) that he believes that religion is man made and he prefers his own morality (correctly).

    2. If you are speaking to a Jewish audience, subjective vs objective morality is a powerful (kiruv) tool to make people think. But to reduce religion to morality and argue with intelligent and learned atheist is a mistake. Morality is at most a by-product of religion. I don’t think keeping Shabes, Davening, Eating Kosher are moral acts per se. An atheist will always be able to answer that stealing is stealing both in breach of an atheist based social contract as well as in terms of Divine comandments. Also he will always correctly say that there are plenty of self defining atheist who are more moral than many (jewish and non-jewish) self defining religious people. Belief in the Creator, purpose of life, life after death, existence of the soul are the real differences.

  33. Gershon Josephs says:

    “It is obvious that the Torah is a more objective basis for morality than one’s own imaginings.”

    No, it isn’t obvious at all. Any document could be held up as the basis for an ‘objective’ morality – the Torah, the Koran, The New Testament – anything document. What makes the Torah objective? Only your faith that it is the word of God (or maybe like R Shafran above you think you have proof). So this entire argument about morality reduces to an argument about whether the Torah is the word of God or not. It’s not a question of ‘objective’ vs ‘subjective.’

  34. Yaakov Menken says:

    Jewish Atheist,

    The converse of your statement is proven by the fact that you need to resort to the ravings of lunatics and half-truths in order to affirm it. That any document can be distorted doesn’t tell you whether it provides an objective source for the sane. And I have never heard someone say that it is acceptable to torture suspected terrorists for the fun of it — similar to the way terrorists torture those they kidnap. It is a question of the best way to save lives.

    It is obvious that the Torah is a more objective basis for morality than one’s own imaginings. Kant had no trouble admitting the same; he just thought man’s individual conscience would do better. Man spent the next 200 years proving him wrong.

  35. Bruce Adelstein says:

    One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here can have no reason to believe in objective categories of good and evil.

    I’m certainly not an atheist, but I don’t think R. Shafran’s argument ultimately prevails. I’ll respectfully offer the following counter-argument. (In these discussions, I usually find it easier to think about badness rather than goodness, but my argument applies to goodness as well, with some minor adjustments.)

    We can separate cases based on the so-called “Euthyphro dilemma”: is some action bad because God said it was bad, or did God say it is bad because it is bad for some independent reason.

    If the former, then R. Shafran’s argument is definitionally true, but not very helpful. The badness of action is simply another way of saying God said do not do it, for no other reason than God said not to do it, and it means nothing more. While much can be said of this position, it suffices here to say that an atheist obviously cannot believe in this definition of badness, but would correctly respond “so what?”

    The more interesting case is the latter. If the theist asserts that there is basis for an action being bad other that (and in addition to) God having said not to do it, than that basis itself provides a reason for it being bad, and one that a atheist could adopt.

    Take stealing for example. We can all think of lots of reasons (in addition to God’s command not to do it) why stealing is bad. Take one: it harms other people, and one generally ought not to harm other people. Both an atheist and a theist could believe in this principal — regardless of any divine command — and be persuaded that stealing is wrong.

    The theist might argue that the atheist might not actually believe in this principle, but might instead believe in some other principle that permits stealing. This is certainly true, but a theist has the identical problem. Unless the theist is to retreat back to the first category (that badness consists soley and definitionally of what God prohibits), the theist must come up with some independent reason for stealing to be bad. And if the theist can do that, then the atheist can as well.

    The theist might offer several other responses, but I think they all come up short. Rather than going through every bad argument I can think of, I’ll stop here and see what others think.

    My challenge would be for a someone (1) to identify what makes stealing wrong other than (and in addition to) God having commanded not to do it, and (2) to explain why an atheist could not also believe in this principle.

    There are many good reasons not to be an atheist, but I think this argument just is not one of them.

  36. JewishAtheist says:

    Ahron:

    JewishAtheist,

    I think the key question is: how do you know that such things are wrong?

    We each have to come up with our own sense of morality. Personally, I base mine on empathy and reason. You may base yours on the Torah, but to claim that it’s somehow more objective because of that basis is absurd — others who believe in the same Torah have different morals than you do. One Orthodox Jew thought it was moral to murder Yitzchak Rabin. Another thought it moral to bomb a mosque. Others still think it’s moral to torture suspected terrorists.

    If there is an objective morality, it doesn’t help, because nobody knows what it is.

  37. Ahron says:

    The basic existential question is: Is solipsism meaningful? Our own thoughts is valuable to each of us. That does not make those thoughts meaningful to anyone outside of us. An existence without the validation of an outside Creator is essentially solipsistic. It may matter to the people who are stuck inside it but that is a quirk of fate and protons, and not absolutely meaningful–anymore than the internal metabolism of an isolated bacterium is meaningful to anything outside of the bacterium. In our world, that metabolism is meaningful–but only because the bacterium is not isolated, and its existence fits into a larger outside web (we call it the ecosystem) that validates its role.

    Without the input from outside, its existence does not posses meaning and any attempt for the bacterium to define “rules” to live by is similarly without meaning–an essentially arbitrary expression of current preferences. There’s more to say on the issue–for example, Avraham’s discussion with God regarding the fate of S’dom, in which Avraham as the representative of a sovereign humanity speaks to God about his own conception of justice. But even that seems only meaningful in the larger context of a Dialogue about the concept of grand justice in the world. Again, without an outside Validator how could Avraham’s conception of justice have any true significance? His conception of justice was valid–in the context of a Dialogue. The challenge for a truthful atheist is to stare down the meaninglessness (and the concomitant amorality (…not immorality…)) that is necessitated by their conception of reality.

  38. Gershon Josephs says:

    “that, between the basic life-approaches of “man as animal” and “man as servant of Something larger”, moral behavior (of whatever sort, well-sourced or misguided) can only be a meaningful concept in the orbit of the latter.”

    Depends on how you define ‘meaningful’. Obviously atheists make up their own meaning, and don’t base it on God. You can only find meaning in God. Who is right? Depends on your attitude. Your argument would only have value if you could show that atheists were generally more immoral than theists. Since everyone seems to have at least some innate morality (either because of evolution or because we are all tzelem elokim) you probably can’t show that.

    “It is remarkable how those who disagree with him refuse to present a thoughtful answer to Rabbi Shafran’s simple question: What is the origin and role of morality in a world without God?”

    That has been discussed in countless books. The origin is evolutionary. Of course it doesn’t seem as meaningful as God based morality, in fact life as a whole (for most people) doesn’t seem as meaningful without God. It may even seem very depressing. Is this a good reason to believe in God? Very possibly, but it doesn’t make it true, just more meaningful and less depressing.

  39. JZ says:

    A wonderful article by Rabbi Shafran. It is remarkable how those who disagree with him refuse to present a thoughtful answer to Rabbi Shafran’s simple question: What is the origin and role of morality in a world without God?

  40. joel rich says:

    On the question of whether good defines God or God defines good (and the associated philosophical problems with each approach) may I suggest listening to a series on KMTT (only the 1st one is up but it sounds very promising ) http://kmtt.libsyn.com/index.php?post_id=144102.

    Kudos to Yeshivat Har Etzion for its efforts to broadcast high quality Torah through the web.

    KT

  41. YM says:

    Rabbi Shafran showed that, just as easily as Dawkins or Harris can make lists of supposedly religious people who have committed notorious atrocities, he can make a similar list of admittedly athiestic people who have committed atrocities as well. Therefore, he is saying to athiests, don’t blame religion, as a general concept, for atrocities. Also, athiests should answer his question: if there is no G-d, how can we judge human behavior differently that we would judge the same behavior in animals?

  42. Avi Shafran says:

    Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments. Perhaps I failed to make more clear what I assumed was self-evident from the piece: I was not stating that any religious belief is good (many, of course, including but not limited to avodah zarah, are plagues on mankind) but rather something much more limited and basic: that, between the basic life-approaches of “man as animal” and “man as servant of Something larger”, moral behavior (of whatever sort, well-sourced or misguided) can only be a meaningful concept in the orbit of the latter.

    Thus, to respond to Mr. Josephs, I do indeed have what I consider overwhelming evidence that my “particular brand” of religion is the one true one (although I allow, as per the Rambam’s censored but replaced comment] for the essential salubriousness of some other faiths that have served as conduits for Jewish ideas into other peoples’ consciousnesses). That, though, was simply not within the scope of my essay, which made a simple, basic and – I believe – unassailable point.

    To KT: I have heard treatments like Mr. Rushdie’s and they are perfectly self-consistent. But they make my very point. If we are hard-wired by evolution to be ethical, then no one of us need choose to act in accordance with our wiring. I am, I am told, evolutionarily hard-wired to eat more than I need to (to store fat for difficult times) but no one would begrudge my willful determination to eat less and lose some unneeded pounds. So why begrudge anyone his will to discard the “excess baggage” of ethical behavior?

    Michoel’s observation, as usual, is pithy and, I think, largely true.

    As to JewishAtheist’s point about Osama and company, please see my first paragraph above. Regarding his advice about my remaining religious, I will indeed endeavor to take it (whether or not it is the only curb on my inner marauder). As to how we know that G-d is good, well, yes, believers define good as what the One Who created us wants. Call it good, bad, or guacamole, it is what I want to try to do, in recognition of the wonderful gift of existence He has granted me.

    But by claiming that he “know[s]” that some things are wrong and yet not explaining how, he only strengthens my essays’ point. And, I would further submit, makes his nom de plume inaccurate.

  43. Ahron says:

    Furthermore,

    Noting historical examples of non-theistic evildoers is no more provocative than an atheist’s citation of the many evils perpetrated by religious people in the name of religion. Arguments of this sort almost never avoid the following list of offenses: “The Crusades, the Inquisition, the Dark Ages, burnings at the stake…” etc. etc. Let’s be fully open and examine the list of evils that have been perpetrated by members of both categories.

    To imagine that a theist’s citation of “Pol Pot, Mao…” etc. etc. is somehow meant to impugn you is to impose a totally inappropriate personalization onto a serious argument.

    As for the case of Hitler…. the Nazis were totally enamored of ancient pre-Christian “Teutonic” and “Aryan” myths and mysticism, and actually expended national resources in efforts to prove them. It was the intellectual post-Christianization of Europe, begun by the 19th century, that allowed for Nazi ideology to take hold–Nazism would never have been able to spread without that foundation. The Nazis then simply took advantage of whatever Christian elements they were able to manipulate…and murdered many of the rest.

  44. Ahron says:

    JewishAtheist,

    I think the key question is: how do you know that such things are wrong?

  45. katrina says:

    if the atheists are right the ramifications are horrifying. I mean look at the suffering in the world. Some people take this as evidence that there cannot possibly be a G-d who loves us, otherwise how could G-d allow such suffering and horror?

    I look at the suffering in the world and it makes me hope there is such a thing as G-d and that somehow all the suffering will be worth it- and that there will be a happy ending.

    Atheists don’t like “fairy tales”. Well what’s so courageouse about some fat brat rich european or american believing we “just die and that’s it” — tell it to a 3rd world woman who watched her baby shrivel up and die in her arms. “Hey 3rd world woman I’m a rich atheist who has plenty to eat and who gets to drive cars and travel to places and lives in a nice house whereas you well, you get to live in a war zone face disease pestilence rape death but hey–soon we will both be dead and THAT”S IT” !!!

    Why would anyone choose to think that?

  46. JewishAtheist says:

    One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here can have no reason to believe in objective categories of good and evil.

    This is true of one who believes in God as well. It’s easy to redefine the word “good” to mean “whatever God wants,” but you have to ask yourself how you know God is good in the first place. Even if I were to stipulate that God is good, you’re still left with the problem that if objective morality exists, we don’t know what it is. Osama bin Laden is, by most accounts, a very religious man. In fact, the world would probably be a lot better off if people like him did NOT believe in “objective” morality. We must each make our own subjective calls on what is good and what is evil, theists as much as atheists.

    As for atheists’ supposed anger, maybe we’re just sick of religious people telling us how we’re basically evil. Oh, you’re careful not to say it outright — you just say that “none of us need feel any commitment to morality or ethics” while casually throwing in the names of “Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot.” (As an aside, Hitler may not have been a traditional Roman Catholic, but he was certainly a theist.)

    By all means, if losing your faith means that you would go out raping and pillaging tomorrow, please remain religious. Just be aware that some of us don’t feel the need to believe in some “objective morality” to know that such things are wrong.

  47. Michoel says:

    Although Rabbi Shafran goes to lenghts to not call atheists bad people (true) and to point out that religious people are not necessarily good (also true), the reason for the angry reaction is still rooted in arrogance which, indeed is more common amongst atheists then those who recognize G-d’s existence. (I intentionally avoid the term “believers”). Atheism and anger are both results of arrogance.

  48. joel rich says:

    I watched a discussion with Salman Rushdie on PBS with Bill Moyers (Faith and Reason). While I wished that Mr. Moyers had pressed more on the issues, Mr. Rushdie’s response to something along the lines of your question was iiuc that ethics predates religion; that is that we are “hard wired” to be ethical and that various religions simply were man’s attempt to organize that hard wired predisposition. Of course this raises many interesting questions that weren’t asked.

    BTW Mr. Rushdie expressed a preference for discussing these issues with believers because they require a well thought out response and can press well thought out questions/issues.

    KT

  49. Gershon Josephs says:

    Your argument fails on an obvious point. Radical Islam believe passionately in God, yet their God based morality justifies killing innocents, in fact it apparently encourages it. If people can take God and do that kind of thing, then your argument makes no sense. People can believe in objective morality, yet their own subjective feelings are what creates their own version of the ‘objective morality’. This much is obvious, and applies to everyone. Unless you have some uncontestable evidence that your particular brand of ‘objective morality’ is the ONE true brand, you have nothing, except your own subjective feelings.