05/20/2006 03:18 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rabbi v. Reality

Over the bagel and coffee this morning, I opened my copy of The Florida Jewish News and was spit-take stunned to find out I'd missed my calling. Apparently atheists like m'self are cut out to be hit men for the Mafia. And I don't even own an abandoned warehouse! What in God's name was I thinking?!

Possibly aspiring to pre-empt altar girl Ann Coulter's book "Godless," (to be released on 6/6/6, as astute Huffington Post readers know) Rabbi Avi Shafran became my guiding light in this ridiculous revelation. His column "The Indignity of Atheism" uses one such Mafia whacker's obit as an excuse to preach utterly hateful prejudice... in God's name, of course.

His thesis: "...the notion that there is no higher authority than nature is precisely what enables ... the vast majority of the killers, rapists and thieves who populate the nightly news." My thesis: "That's bullshit."

Leaving out the whole Meyer Lansky connection between the good Rabbi's chosen belief system and Mafia murderers, anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the nightly news can see that faith in magical, invisible superheroes (i.e. "religion") murders infinitely more people than faith in reality.

Sure, reality itself will kill you eventually; religion aims to kill you right now. Because of your skin color. Because of where you live. Because of who you sleep with. Because of your religion, or your parents' religion, or your president's religion. If we're hunting for killers, whether we want to stop them or create them, our most fertile fields are the mosque, the temple, and the mega-church.

The underlying assumption in all these usually-right-wing, authoritarian epistles is that people can't think unless we turn off our brains. That everyone wants, deep down, to murder and rape and torture, and it's only The Divine Radiance that keeps us from expressing this brutality. The Rabbi makes this explicit (not the "turn off the brain" part):

"Atheism, in the end, is a belief system in its own right, one in which there can be no claim that a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is any less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former may well have the advantage."

Wow, does this guy need to read him some Dawkins.

But I'm actually not trying to set up a false choice between evolution and religion. Evolution is not a belief system; it's a line of scientific inquiry. The good Rabbi is perfectly right in saying that there is no moral component in evolution itself. Amoebas don't thrive or die because they're good or bad amoebas, but rather because their environment is right for them to grow or decline. It's the same with trees and tarantulas and triceratopses and Texans.

The difference between the "environment" of a presumably un-thinking hedgehog (one of our ancestors, according to current evolution maps -- at least that's what Stephen Fry said on "QI") and a presumably thinking human is that we've developed the idea of morality. The commonest example: because most of us agree that killing one another is immoral (harmful to our social environment, among other things) we proscribe that action and punish people who choose it. If the Rabbi and similar were correct in thinking that we were all desperate to start killing each other (and I hope I'm not the only one who lacks that blood lust -- am I?), the society we've created would, rightly, pressure us to quell that urge.

How does society express its moral preferences and thereby assure its survival? Through laws, through peer pressures, and through religion. (Yes, Blessed Virginia, religion is an evolutionary tactic.) Of course, we're still the unconquerable brute with whom these religious folks are obsessed. So we brutishly (and counter-productively) extend our laws, peer pressures, and especially religion to promote certain bizarre notions and prohibit certain other harmless preferences and practices. Perhaps confusingly, religion is also invoked for evolutionary purposes.

The Kosher table, for example, is presented as a moral path, but is commonly understood to be based on a real evolutionary factor: survival in a pre-antibiotic age. Trichinosis, bacteria, etc. See one Dr. Morton Linder's neat precis in a letter to the editor here. So now that only between 10 and 30 percent of this country's Jews observe Kosher rules, are they all selfishly (and shellfishly) defying their god? Or has reality overtaken religion, yet again, and given people more freedom to enjoy their harmless preferences?

If we all turned into LevitiCops and started busting each other over what's written in the ancient texts, we'd be killing (yes, ending the lives of) anybody caught in the moral trespasses of charging interest on loans (see-ya, Citibank) or smarting off to one's parents (read Leviticus 20 -- it's a hoot). While some parents may appreciate that holy decree, my society would lock you up for following it. And those of us who may have accidentally smarted off to our parents from time to time can thank societal evolution for that.

Times change. Religion evolves. Reality eats away at superstition. Not quickly enough for some of us, but inevitably.

Rabbi Shafran, in calling my way of life every evil name he can think of, ends with one of those stuck-on-a-desert-island-with-just-one-other-person parables. He says if he knew nothing else about Osama bin Oil-money than that he had faith in a divine somethingorother, the Rabbi would choose to live out his days with him rather than an atheist. There's a name for that kind of blind, unthinking prejudice for gods over reality: suicide.