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Rabbi Adam Jacobs

Rabbi Adam Jacobs

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Atheism's Odd Relationship with Morality

Posted: 03/24/11 08:24 AM ET

Though expecting to be rather irked by it, I was surprised to find myself almost enjoying (and agreeing) with a lot of what Sam Harris had to say in his TED Talk entitled "Science can Answer Moral Questions." His thinking regarding the balance that needs to be struck between the Taliban's "cloth prison" approach to women's bodies and the over the top exhibitionism of the average corner kiosk seems right on the money to me. I would also agree with him that the statutes of political correctness that prevent us from critiquing these matters do indeed need to be challenged. And though it was not part of his talk, I was pleased to learn that he has been an ardent supporter of the state of Israel and tough critic of its opponents. So far so good.

What I do not yet understand is why he (or any atheist for that matter) makes so many moral proclamations. The average atheist makes certain basic assumptions about reality: that we all exist as a result of blind and purposeless happenstance, that free will is illusory, that there is no conscious "self" and that there is no objective right or wrong. As Dr. Will Provine has said, "[as an atheist] you give up hope that there is an imminent morality ... you can't hope for there being any free will [and there is] ... no ultimate foundation for ethics."

If that's the case, what precisely is Sam Harris doing judging the Taliban or anybody else? The case he tries to make is that morality is somehow scientifically built into reality and when done correctly results in what he calls "human thriving." But surely the objective listener must recognize that the notion of "thriving" itself is utterly subjective. The Taliban might very well believe that they are the pinnacle of human civilization and there has never been any shortage of cultures who's depravities were considered (by them) to be perfectly wonderful things to do. Are we really arrogant enough to suggest that we're so different?

Either way, why exactly does he care? What difference could it possibly make what one random collection of electrons does to another? He harbors some subjective notion that things ought not be done that way? Well tough darts. It boils down to his meaningless assertion vs. their equally meaningless one. Furthermore, if there is no such thing as free will, then what sense does it make to blame anyone for any action whatsoever? "I felt like it" or "I couldn't help myself" should be considered perfectly reasonable defenses to any "wrong-doing." In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one's self whatever one's heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim's purse -- as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes? To live a "moral" life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, "no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference." It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day. Freud summed this up well when he said, "the moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence."

In an '07 lecture at Sewanee University, Christopher Hitchens gave an oxymoronically entitled talk called "The Moral Necessity of Atheism." In it, he argued that racism was illogical due to our common "relationship to ground worms and other creatures." An original case for equality to be sure. In as much as we're all like earthworms we really ought to treat each other well. Strange. Is not Hitchens an ardent supporter of the tenets of Neo-Darwinism that necessitates the perpetual death struggle within all species at all times? Shouldn't he in fact believe the precise opposite of what he claims? Survival of the fittest does not suggest social harmony. Furthermore, doesn't Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them "better" than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview -- quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do to their creation in the "image of God." (Hat tip: Moshe Averick, Nonsense of a High Order) And yet, like Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens is very often engaged in explaining "morality" to the world. What gives?

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic. I have not yet found an atheist who is willing to follow his or her convictions through to their logical conclusions (outside of sociopaths like Jeffrey Dahmer who was at least honest enough to say, "I always believed the theory of evolution as truth that we all just came from the slime ... if a person doesn't think there is a God to be accountable to then what's the point of trying to modify your behavior to keep it within acceptable ranges?"

Through my private conversations with atheists, most of whom I would describe as very good people, I am becoming convinced that they don't really buy the party line when it comes to ethics. Like it or not, they seem to have an objective sense that certain things are "just wrong" and it's almost as if those things are built into the fabric of reality. Objective morality requires an absolute standard by which to judge it. The alternative is amorality. As Dr. Joel Marks said, "the long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality..."

You can't have it both ways. If one has embraced the worldview that embraces amorality, then it would be logical to admit that one's personal morality is based on subjective preferences and comforting fiction or to recuse oneself from discussions (and lectures) on the topic.

 

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