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"Response to Michael Gerson"

by Michael Rosch


Dear Mr. Gerson,

I am an agnostic atheist activist and was troubled by your recent editorial concerning atheists with regards to morality. It doesn't seem to have been thought out very carefully. Now being a writer for The Washington Post, I'm sure you're an intelligent person, and so I think you can do a much better job than this.

First you say, "Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas." This seems like a silly statement considering Aquinas failed to do so given millions of words and an entire lifetime of attempts. Then you say, "And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn." This is convenient argument to make considering you and I both know it's an untestable hypothesis since it's not likely to happen. It's also a cowardly argument as it attempts to gloss over the reality that no evidence whatsoever has been found for the existence of any god, let alone the Abrahamic one. So you've created a straw man argument where you make up hypothetical rock-solid evidence, which does not really exist, and in doing so, you shift the discussion away from the poorness of the actual evidence, and turn it into an unwarranted accusation that atheists are unreasonable. But if we must play this game, I'll state that if a squadron of angels landed on my front lawn and showed sufficient proof of the Abrahamic god, I'd accept that such a being exists. I'd still probably not become a follower of that being, considering he'd have much to answer for, but I'd at least accept that he exists. Now God knows exactly what he can do to make me accept his existence. Where's my squadron of angels?

Then in your next paragraph, do you really think violent gang members and partying at the Playboy mansion are morally comparable? Really?

Now we get into the crux (no pun intended) of the discussion: theists' views of morality and theists' misrepresentation of atheists' views of morality vs. atheists' actual view of morality. First, you presuppose that atheists claim a position. Few atheists I know do. Atheism is a belief like not collecting stamps is a hobby. In other words, atheists lack belief and make no claims to be proven wrong. Most atheists won't say there's no god; we'd likely say the claims of a god made by religion lack the evidence necessary to convince us such a god exists. If a god did turn out to exist, I don't feel as though the position I'd defended as an agnostic atheist would have been wrong. It would have be the only position I feel I could honestly take given the lack of evidence. But this is currently a moot point since such evidence still does not exist despite how certain people with no greater understanding of the universe than I claim to be that it does. And as always, the burden of proof remains with the claimant.

But it seems to me that the moral dilemma actually falls on the Christian. First, there's the obvious Euthyphro Dilemma. Does the morality come from God or does God simply enforce it because it's simply moral? Christians tend to refer to him as "the lawgiver." But clearly the God of The Bible makes seemingly arbitrary moral demands, one's which no rational person takes seriously today (stoning your disobedient children; no worshiping of graven images like crosses or Bibles, etc; sell your daughters into slavery; kill everyone who works on the Sabbath; don't wear clothes with mixed fabric; men with long hair are an abomination; it's okay to slaughter entire cities and take the virgin girls to be unwilling brides; etc.).

Of course the party line is always "That's out of context" (which it's not) or "That's just the Old Testament and Jesus fulfilled the law." Of course, these statements are usually made by people who insist that Leviticus 18:21 is still valid as well as the whole Ten Commandments, which appears in Exodus, where most of these absurd moral doctrines reside. The point is, you don't get your morality from The Bible anymore than I do. Morality mostly comes from continually shifting societal standards that are re-examined in every age. And in every age Christians come along and attempt to re-interpret The Bible so that it appears to have held the new moral standards all along. A classic example is slavery. Slaveholders notoriously used The Bible to justify their behavior. And a little known fact is that many of the leading members of the unpopular abolitionist movement were actually atheists. You and I likely share similar views of morality. I think it's safe to say we both despise torture, murder, rape, slavery, genocide, etc. Clearly then, our morality doesn't come from God.

But exactly how do you believe inventing a god helps us to choose between good and bad instincts? You seem to make the general claim that believing in a higher power solves the problem of morality. Of course it doesn't. Belief in a higher power simply adds a level of arbitrary abstraction to your moral decisions. You are no less likely to commit acts of atrocity, but if you did, you'd be free to attribute your behavior to the deity of your choice. Instead of picking your morals, you are picking your god, as well as your interpretation of what that god wants.

Finally, one last point: let's consider the issue of death. Christians hold the viewpoint that death is a positive thing so long as you're on Jesus' saved list, since now you're with God in paradise. But if this is the case, why do Christians respond to death and tragedy as if they're a bad thing, the same way an atheist would? I morn the deaths of loved ones and view events like 9/11 as bad things because I believe that I'll never see these loved ones again and these lives are lost forever. Christians, on the other hand, believe they'll see their fellow Christians again and that they're going to a better place. So why don't they react the same to death as they would if they were simply moving away and not going to see these people again for just a few years? Why do Christians even bother to go to the hospital when they're sick if they believe death will take them to a better place?

Christians still haven't satisfactorily answered this paradox. Hypothetically, why don't Christians kill other Christians just so that they can get to heaven faster? If the only reason is it violates the 10 commandments, is that really the most moral reason? According to this supposed system of belief, it seems like you'd be doing people a favor. And if you're a Catholic, then you no longer believe in limbo, which means souls are saved by default, and therefore have a sure thing in heaven unless they screw up during their life. So wouldn't a moral Christian risk his own soul to kill babies so that they don't have to run the risk of screwing up the salvation of their soul in life? Why do Christians then oppose abortion? If life is just God's waiting room and you view a fetus as a life, why not abort fetuses? If life is but a joke, why not spare already saved people from living it?

But the biggest inconsistency is that if your interpretation of god is anything like that of Ray Comfort's, then once you've been "saved," you have a get out of Hell free pass, where hypothetically you could be Hitler and still get into heaven, while Hitler's Jewish victims would still wind up in Hell. For all the absurd arguments I hear that try to show atheists live in a morally-free zone or have flexible morals not grounded in the absolute, it seems far more effective and just than this Christian view of morality.

Your friendly neighborhood atheist,



Washington Post

What Atheists Can't Answer

By Michael Gerson


Friday, July 13, 2007; A17

British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. "If anyone doubts this," he wrote, "let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor."

By the evidence of the New York Times bestseller list, God has recently been bathed in such tributes. An irreverent trinity — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — has sold a lot of books accusing theism of fostering hatred, repressing sexuality and mutilating children (Hitchens doesn't approve of male circumcision). Every miracle is a fraud. Every mystic is a madman. And this atheism is presented as a war of liberation against centuries of spiritual tyranny.

Proving God's existence in 750 words or fewer would daunt even Thomas Aquinas. And I suspect that a certain kind of skeptic would remain skeptical even after a squadron of angels landed on his front lawn. So I merely want to pose a question: If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion. On evidence found in every culture, human beings can be good without God. And Hitchens is himself part of the proof. I know him to be intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind, when not ruthlessly flaying opponents for taking minor exception to his arguments. There is something innate about morality that is distinct from theological conviction. This instinct may result from evolutionary biology, early childhood socialization or the chemistry of the brain, but human nature is somehow constructed for sympathy and cooperative purpose.

But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: "Obey your evolutionary instincts" because those instincts are conflicted. "Respect your brain chemistry" or "follow your mental wiring" don't seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: "To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I'm going to do whatever I please." C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: "When all that says 'it is good' has been debunked, what says 'I want' remains."

Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

The death of God has greater consequences than expanded golf time on Sunday mornings. And it is not simply religious fundamentalists who have recognized it. America's Founders embraced public neutrality on matters of religion, but they were not indifferent to the existence of religious faith. George Washington warned against the "supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." The Founders generally believed that the virtues necessary for self-government — self-sacrifice, honesty, public spirit — were strengthened by religious beliefs and institutions.

None of this amounts to proof of God's existence. But it clarifies a point of agreement — which reveals an even deeper division. Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.

This form of "liberation" is like liberating a plant from the soil or a whale from the ocean. In this kind of freedom, something dies.

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