Jacoby on Atheism

Writing for The Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby offers a typically muddled argument against atheism. The column’s title: “Atheism’s Bleak Alternative”. Most of the column describes various atrocities perpetrated by secularists against religious people, particularly in England. But it’s the last three paragraphs that really merit a response:

What is at stake in all this isn’t just angels on Christmas cards. What society loses when it discards Judeo-Christian faith and belief in God is something far more difficult to replace: the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and sustain a decent society. That is because without God, the difference between good and evil becomes purely subjective. What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong, but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: “Thou shalt not murder.” What makes kindness to others inherently right is not that human reason says so, but that God does: “Love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Lord.”


We begin with the obvious: Jacoby has no basis for his assertion that Judeo-Christian faith and belief in God lead to the value system most likely to promote ethical behavior and a decent society. Certainly England competes well with the United States in those areas, yet, as Jacoby hinself reports, England is majority non-religious.

But the real issue here is the old moral relativism canard. What could Jacoby have in mind in saying that murder is wrong because a God to whom we are answerable says that it is wrong? One possibility is that he means that God will punish us severely in the afterlife for our transgressions. I would agree that that is a persuasive practical reason for following God’s law. But if that is the inspiring alternative Jacoby places in contrast to bleak atheism, then I think I’d prefer the bleak. Incidentally, if fear of punishment is to be accepted as a legitimate argument in moral reasoning, then we may as well say that murder is wrong because the state will punish you for doing it.

If he doesn’t mean that, then his allegedly objective system of morality is quickly seen to be nothing of the kind. In reality, it is premised not merely on the assumption that God exists, but that the Bible really is His word, that we have a solid grasp on what the Bible is telling us to do, and that this God is genuinely a God worth following. I don’t believe he can defend any of these assertions with reasonable arguments. He certainly can’t defend them with arguments that will convince the majority of people in the world (most of whom aren’t Christian, after all.)

And what does he mean by murder? He doesn’t mean simple killing, for just about everyone would agree that there are situations where killing is justified. Presumably he means the unjustified taking of a human life. But then we have to decide what constitutes a justification. On this point, religious people do not agree. For example, the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty. Many Protestant sects endorse it. Both read from the same Bible, yet they have not managed to come to an agreement on whether this sort of killing is wrong. Apparently Judeo-Christian theism does not provide quite as much moral guidance as Jacoby seems to think.

As an atheist, I say murder is wrong because humans have certain rights and that one of them is the right not to be killed for no reason. That seems obvious to me. If you ask me to defend that in terms of something simpler I doubt I could do it. If it doesn’t seem obvious to you, and you think that murder is wrong solely because God said so, then I’m very glad you have your religious faith to keep you from killing people. I would point out, however, that the fundamental principles of my morality are, in fact, shared by most of the people in the world, regardless of their religion. That represents a big improvement over morality based on Christian theism.

And at the risk of being juvenile, someone needs to point out to Jacoby that his simple-minded reasoning would force us to conclude that if tomorrow God decides to remove his prohibition against murder, then murder would cease to be wrong. Is that really a position he wants to endorse?

Jacoby continues:

Obviously this doesn’t mean that religious people are always good, or that religion itself cannot lead to cruelty. Nor does it mean that atheists cannot be beautiful, ethical human beings. Belief in God alone does not guarantee goodness. But belief tethered to clear ethical values — Judeo-Christian monotheism — is society’s best bet for restraining our worst moral impulses and encouraging our best ones.

The atheist alternative is a world in which right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion, and in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves. That is anything but a tiding of comfort and joy.

Right and wrong are ultimately matters of opinion regardless of whether or not God exists. You don’t get to say, “You believe in fundamental human rights. That’s arbitrary and relativistic. I believe that God exists and the Bible is His word. So my morality is objective.” The fact is that any moral system must ultimately be based on assertions that can not be proved. As a practical matter we can only hope to base society on principles that most people are willing to live by.

Jacoby tells us that it is belief tethered to clear ethical values, and not belief alone that is our best bet for promoting moral behavior. One wonders what role the “belief” is playing there. It is the clear ethical values that matter, and Jacoby concedes that atheists can have those just as surely as religious people can. Jacoby’s argument would only make sense if he could show that people without belief in God find it more difficult to maintain their clear standards than people with such belief. He can show nothing of the kind, of course.

We atheists are constantly being lectured about the beauty and subtlety of religious thought. When we go fulminating about some bit of popular theistic silliness, we are told that such folks represent only a small minority of religious believers and that we really must read the work of some obscure theologian or other before we can comment authoritatively.

Well, I’m sorry, but it just isn’t so. People like Jacoby, with their flabby, ill-considered arguments, represent the mainstream of religious thought. It is the theologians who are doing it wrong.

Comments

  1. #1 J. J. Ramsey
    December 15, 2006

    “As an atheist, I say murder is wrong because humans have certain rights and that one of them is the right not to be killed for no reason.”

    Careful here. One could ask how you justify the existence of those rights. I would think that for an atheist, a roughly utilitarian approach would make more sense, i.e. we have morality so that we can mutually support each other instead of being at each other’s throats.

  2. #2 Blake Stacey
    December 15, 2006

    Well, I’m sorry, but it just isn’t so. People like Jacoby, with their flabby, ill-considered arguments, represent the mainstream of religious thought. It is the theologians who are doing it wrong.

    Speak it to ‘em!

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 15, 2006

    J.J. Ramsey-

    That was precisely my point. Utilitarianism is all well and good, but it would just force you to defend why you think maximizing utility is a good thing. All moral claims have to be based on something that is simply accepted without proof. That is just as true for theistic sytems of morality as it is for atheistic ones. As a practical matter all you can do is hope to find basic principles that most people will agree to live under.

  4. #4 Gerard Harbison
    December 15, 2006

    The real irony is that the two main modern systems of ethics – Kantian, and utilitarian – are both atheistic. The Bible simply doesn’t provide an objectively defensible ethical system; it’s far too dependent on one’s subjective interpretation of frequently contradictory maxims.

  5. #5 Elijah
    December 15, 2006

    “Well, I’m sorry, but it just isn’t so. People like Jacoby, with their flabby, ill-considered arguments, represent the mainstream of religious thought. It is the theologians who are doing it wrong.”

    Haha. So true.

  6. #6 JoeC
    December 15, 2006

    It infuriates me when theists say, “Well, without religion, it’s all just someone’s opinion.” Yeah, right. Like religious laws AREN’T just someone’s fucking opinion. Give me a break, please. It’s all just someone’s opinion, especially if it’s about what some supposedly omniscient supernatural being says is right. How can people be so stupid?

    Sorry, you touched a nerve with that one, Jason.

  7. #7 cuetio
    December 15, 2006

    Morality is a mental short-cut for the lazy minds who cannot be bothered to think each individual cases through. Every ‘moral’ question must be though through on a case-by-case basis on its merits. Killing a person is not always wrong, all kinds of religion authorize killing in specific circumstances. Moral-Relativism is not a point of view, it is the very characteristic of morality itself. Jacoby is repudiating his personal responsibility for the choice he makes if he resorts to religious morality for everything. As I understand it, the myth of God includes that he gave us ‘free will’. In reality we make decisions based on social norms and personal self-interest. There is nothing evil about this, nor does it lead to evil. Self-interest in a structured society could mean following certain modes of behavior which are inline with religious morals, but need not be so. Jacoby is a coward. He is also illogical and willfully ignorant.
    What we should focus on is not the contents of his arguments but why he is making them. Examinations of religious preachings always reveal much about the preacher.

  8. #8 Russell Blackford
    December 15, 2006

    Right are just as mysterious as deities. I often wonder why people who want to reject deities and other supernatural beings (fair enough, though it’s be nice to have a few nymphs and hobgoblins around) still want to hold on to strange entities such as “rights”. (They often also want to hold on to a spooky libertarian concept of free will, which is just as mysterious.)

    Nonsense on stilts!

    Murder is not “objectively” wrong, whatever that might mean. It would be no more so if it were enjoined by a deity (one only has to think about Plato’s dialogue, The Euthyphro). However, beings like us need to have moral norms that enjoin things like murder. You’ll find such norms endorsed, with variations, in any human society.

    Morality is grounded in social necessity and in certain widespread human needs, fears, values, and sympathies – nothing more, but nothing less. If this realisation mskes us less morally fanatical, that’s all to the good, at least from my subjective viewpoint. Fanatical, narrow-minded moralising is far from being an unmixed boon.

  9. #9 Tyler DiPietro
    December 16, 2006

    As I’ve said before, theistic morality all boils down to an “if X, then Y” proposition where the proponent abdicates all responsibility for demonstrating X because, in his subjective opinion, Y is like totally not-cool.

    As Jason himself has said, all moral claims are based on propositions that are not demonstrable. I would go even further, stating that all moral claims are purely subjective. Morals are simply aesthetic preferences. There is no “real morality” for the same reason there is no “real music.”

  10. #10 Barron
    December 16, 2006

    What frustrates me about a lot of writing by religious people is that it reads like fanboy adoration. Just replace “my faith” with “my favorite tv show” or whatever and the depth is the same. Which is a shame because there are very interesting, thoughtful religious people. But the fanboys seem to have the greatest urge to write.

  11. #11 trrll
    December 16, 2006

    Leaving aside the question of the existence of God, to simply accept what God wants as good is to abdicate one’s moral responsibility. Without a moral compass of one’s own, how can one know whether God is good? And even if one accepts as given the notion that God defines good, how can one recognize God without some independent notion of what constitutes good? After all, even the Bible seems to be saying that there are entities who will masquerade as God.

  12. #12 Karl
    December 16, 2006

    Jacoby says: “What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong, but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: “Thou shalt not murder.” What makes kindness to others inherently right is not that human reason says so, but that God does: “Love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Lord.””
    What bugs me is how anyone can say that God is the answer to the question of how to justify morality. The entire history of civilization is filled with stories of genocides and mass killings in the name of “God” Do I even need to list them? the Mayans, the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and on and on and on, and now Irag. How many more can you list? Does God take long vacations?

  13. #13 Dan S.
    December 16, 2006

    “What frustrates me about a lot of writing by religious people is that it reads like fanboy adoration”

    One of the relatively-recent Point of Inquiry podcasts had a bit suggesting that the bible could basically be seen as fanfic . . . .

    Moses/Pharaoh slash, perhaps?

  14. #14 Rakel
    December 16, 2006

    My “atheist” reason for not killing other people is that I classify myself as a “human being”. I do not want to be killed, oppressed etc. so I assume that other things that can be classified as “human beings” feel same about these things. So, in order to protect myself I have to protect others. Basically this is what Christians summarise in the Golden Rule and what other religious and non-religious philosophers have said through millennia.

  15. #15 SLC
    December 16, 2006

    Rather interesting that Jacoby refers to the Hebrew bible, particularly the commandment against murder, as the source of his morality. I would refer him to the incident of King Saul visiting the witch at Endor who raised up the prophet Samuel. Samuel informs Saul that god is displeased that he did not follow the latters instuctions to kill the Amalekites and that therefore Saul and his sons would leave the battlefield the following day feet first. Not exactly a good lesson in morality.

  16. #16 J. J. Ramsey
    December 16, 2006

    “Utilitarianism is all well and good, but it would just force you to defend why you think maximizing utility is a good thing.”

    True, but that’s why I called what I was suggesting “roughly utilitarian.” People may disagree about what “maximizing utility” in some vague general sense is supposed to be good for, but most people would agree that a social contract that makes their lives less nasty, less brutish, and less short is a good thing.

  17. #17 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 16, 2006

    goodman-

    I deleted your comment. I’d appreciate it if you would make your comments substantive. Leave the vulgarity and the personal attacks at home, please.

  18. #18 David Tisdale
    December 16, 2006

    Monkeys, bison, ants and codfish; they all have well-developed and useful social systems and none of them read the Bible. This notion that we must be either Jesus or John Gacey is just a resurrection of an ancient strawman.

  19. #19 Blake Stacey
    December 16, 2006

    The more I think about Jacoby’s article, the more foolish it sounds. If I had any inkling of religious faith, I would feel ashamed that a member of my cohort was defending that faith so poorly.

    I thought we were supposed to be Christian because Jesus is the one true way to Heaven, that we must let Him into our hearts to be forgiven and accept the embrace of God’s love, John 3:16 and all that. If the best argument he can put for “Judeo-Christian monotheism” is that it keeps people acting nice, well, sort of, at least some of the time, then we have to drop that monotheism once we have a better way of keeping our fellow children from running with scissors. And guess what? Our pluralistic, secular society, which flourishes on the fruits of science even though it has not fully accepted the methods of science, is the first in which a child can expect to live the full “threescore years and ten.” We didn’t do that by following the diet prohibitions of Leviticus; instead, we eat our vitamins and vaccinate against disease.

    In attempting to defend Christianity, Jacoby has in fact provided a rationale for abandoning it.

  20. #20 Fred
    December 16, 2006

    Fantastic article, Jason!

    I agree with Rakel, that to me, almost all of morality comes down to simply “the golden rule,” which is not a religious thing. I choose to be a good person because, well, that’s it, I CHOOSE to; I’m not doing it to earn brownie points with some mysterious phantom.

    As for murder being wrong because God says so, well I don’t see how that’s any better than murder being wrong because man-made law says so. In fact, I’d bet than anyone considering murder is more likely to abandon the idea for fear of getting caught by the police, rather than fear of God.

    But basically, if you can point to a zillion examples of religious people doing evil things, and a zillion examples of atheists doing evil things, then how can someone possibly say that religion is better?

  21. #21 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    December 16, 2006

    Jacoby on Atheism

    I did a doubletake at that headline. Susan Jacoby is the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, which I recommend highly.

  22. #22 Tim Blanchard
    December 17, 2006

    The comments by Rakel and David Tisdale above come closest to an explanation of fundamental moral behavior of any I’ve seen so far. Surprisingly, given the title at the head of the page, evolution was given rather short shrift in this discussion. As a social species we are descended from an almost certainly long line of prior (and in some cases, possibly still extant) social species. They, including the early versions of generic us, managed to behave morally (cooperatively) among themselves without ever wondering why they acted the way they did. Selection figured it out for them. We may have invented the concept of the social contract but we didn’t invent it’s mechanics. We’re born moral; the devil is in the details, courtesy of the “why” asking machine that came with the inherited package. Self-interest and empathy (both touched on by Rakel – the golden rule), along with consensus, all come into play here, and all can be observed in other social species. Thanks to our mighty brains we can conceptualize (and name) these behaviors and question or reject them, either on a point by point basis or in broadly philosophical terms. And we do. So the question is not where morality came from, but what we’re going to do with the bloody thing.

  23. #23 Dan S.
    December 17, 2006

    The Globe printed some responses in its Letters column yesterday, including one by Daniel Dennett. Nothing amazing, but hey . . .

    And at the risk of being juvenile, someone needs to point out to Jacoby that his simple-minded reasoning would force us to conclude that if tomorrow God decides to remove his prohibition against murder, then murder would cease to be wrong. Is that really a position he wants to endorse?

    For folks who haven’t come across it yet, what’s being touched on here is what’s famously known as the Euthyphro dilemma, from Plato’s Euthyphro dialogue. Jacoby’s making an argument that was . . . well, not debunked, but shown to be extremely problematical . . . over 2000 years ago. No surprise there. I wonder if he even knows?

    Also amusing is the part about how “But belief tethered to clear ethical values — Judeo-Christian monotheism — is society’s best bet . . .” (emphasis added). How he comes to the conclusion that this specific tradition is the “best bet,” what justifies his implicit insinuation that all other varieties of belief are not tethered to clear ethical values (or at least less so than J-C mono) . .. . nada. I doubt he could explain if we asked him.

    But back to: “ What makes murder inherently wrong is not that it feels wrong, but that a transcendent Creator to whom we are answerable commands: “Thou shalt not murder.” What makes kindness to others inherently right is not that human reason says so, but that God does: “Love thy neighbor as thyself; I am the Lord.” [See Divine command theory].

    Such a horrible view, and how drastically limited/immature/retarded (can’t find quite the right word), both morally and intellectually . . . such an apparent absence of empathy . . . (And as pointed out, how utterly uninformed by modern research on morality and moral behavior). I wonder if he can offer any other explanation as to why murder is wrong and kindness to others right?

    And yeah, the common reply ‘Well, if he’s only being kind and not murdering because he thinks God said so, I just hope he never becomes an atheist!” is a bit flippant, but really, one has to wonder what’s going on his head. I’ve never seen any of the actual research on the external/internal locus of moral authority stuff that coturnix talks about, but it seems increasingly convincing.

    The atheist alternative is a world . . . in which we are finally accountable to no one but ourselves. That is anything but a tiding of comfort and joy.

    -The (small-d) democratic alternative is a world in which we (the people) are finally accountable to no one but ourselves. This is anything but a tiding of comfort and joy. -
    J. Jacoby-analogue, in 1775. Hey, it’s no coincidence that Thomas Paine wrote both Common Sense & The Rights of Man and The Age of Reason.

    I’d disagree slightly with Jacoby’s formulation – I’d say that our alternative is a world in which we are accountable to ourselves and to everyone else, including future generations – but even if only to ourselves, well, yeah, that’s what being a mature, conscientious, self-regulated adult means.

  24. #24 Dan S.
    December 17, 2006

    Still trying to understand Jacoby’s ‘Bad Stuff is Bad because God said so and we must obey, not because it hurts people and we have empathy, etc.” outburst – is it really all about the Lakoffian ‘Morality is Obedience’ vs. ‘Morality is Empathy’ bit?

  25. #25 Dan S.
    December 17, 2006

    Tim: “As a social species we are descended from an almost certainly long line of prior (and in some cases, possibly still extant) social species.”

    Hang on – what are you saying here?

  26. #26 Dan S.
    December 17, 2006

    Oh, and yes, Freethinkers is quite a good read – in paperback now, too.

  27. #27 Tim Blanchard
    December 17, 2006

    Dan:
    I plead guilty to attempting to cram too many different (and not necessarily germane) thoughts into a single sentence.

    Briefly, I was attempting to argue that the social behaviors ethologists observe in our nearest kin (Chimpanzees, et. al.) are homologous (share a common ancestry) with our own, and that while our own ‘moral’ (co-operative, self-sacrificial) behaviors continued to evolve (be selected for) and ramify and become increasingly intellectualized, they are not fundamentally unique. As physical strength and relative invulnerability were traded off for increasing mental acuity and manual dexterity, so too did social coherence become increasingly important to survival. It also became both more sophisticated and more fraught. Hence, a topic for endless reflection and argument.

    Complex social behaviors (‘morality’, at a stretch) have also evolved apparently independently in many taxonomic groups; a point I failed to make.

    As to the comment about ‘possibly still extant…species’ I was merely (and, in retrospect, rather pointlessly) attempting to mitigate the Lamarkian implications of my use of the term ‘prior’, as in:”If monkeys evolved into us, how come there’s still monkeys?’

    There is much of conjecture and opinion in all of this, but it is not, I think, an entirely unreasonable extrapolation from what little we think that we know about the evolution of moral behavior.

  28. #28 Greta Christina
    December 17, 2006

    Bravo.

    This argument against atheism makes me angrier than almost any other. It’s so insulting — not just to atheists, but to believers. The people I know who are religious believers aren’t moral because they’re afraid of being punished. They’re moral for the same reasons I am — because they have empathy for other people, and a sense of social responsibility. Doing the right thing because you’re afraid of punishment is a child’s reason for morality.

    And as others here have pointed out, if religion is supposed to be the big rein on bad behavior, it’s doing a piss-poor job of it. For centuries the world has been full of religious people behaving horribly — in spite of their beliefs, and in many cases actually inspired by them. (In fact, many religions give people a sort of free pass when it comes to bad behavior. If you feel bad enough about it afterwards, it doesn’t matter how badly you behave.)

    But what really bugs me about this argument is how bigoted and culturally ignorant it is. It completely ignores the existence of different religions with wildly different (and often flat-out opposing) moral strictures. (And it completely ignores the wildly different ways people have interpreted the exact same religious teachings.) It’s like, “Our religion is good because it helps us to be good people — but that other religion is bad because it teaches people to be bad.”

    Here’s what it comes down to for me: Any belief system that teaches people to blindly follow a set of moral rules for fear of punishment, instead of teaching the morality that comes out of compassion and social responsibility and that pays attention to what’s needed in any give situation, is going to be seriously problematic — and ultimately isn’t going to be adhered to with any consistency.

  29. #29 Philip T.
    December 17, 2006

    Tisn’t as profound a parsing of the arguement as many others have made above, but here’s my take:
    When believers claim to me that only believers can be moral, I ask them to imagine that tomorrow we found absolute proof that no god exists. (I don’t think we ever will, or could, find such proof – this is just a thought experiment.) Would they, I ask, then run wild, looting, killing, and raping? No? Then in fact a belief in god is not the only thing holding their behaviour in check. Other factors do: empathy, conscience, fear of retalition – any or many of these. And if they acknowledge they’d still basically be “good without god,” they have to admit that I , and other non-believers can be as well.

  30. #30 AJS
    December 19, 2006

    The human body has a “reward mechanism” which rewards “evolutionarily desirable” behaviour with a release of endorphins (the body’s own painkilling chemicals, whose effect is mimicked by opioid drugs such as morphine or heroin).

    All pack-dwelling predators (including rats, wolves and humans) need to have some standards for getting on with one another. We can simplify social interactions to two game types: Rock/Paper/Scissors (constant-scoring: the sum of points awarded to both parties at the end of each round is the same) and Prisoner’s Dilemma (non-constant-scoring: the sum of points awarded to both parties at the end of each round depends upon both players’ moves). Game theory then suggests that a preference for “nice” play in “Prisoner’s Dilemma”-type social interactions between pack members benefits the pack as a survival-unit.

    As predators, living in packs, able to learn from experience and with an expected lifetime of several generations, we are simply hard-wired to behave a certain way by default. Any other tendency would have been selected against, and become extinct. Natural selection says “that which succeeds, proceeds”; and game theory demonstrates that being nice to one another ultimately is more successful than being nasty to one another. The “warm, fuzzy feeling” said to follow a good deed is no more or less than an endorphin rush; and a “pricked conscience” is merely the noticeable absence of an expected endorphin “reward” following undeserving behaviour.

    Note that I don’t feel any the less for this. It’s precisely because we’re human that we can think about things in context and rationalise them. Being human also affords us the ability to go against Nature; but if the product of all those millions of years of evolution is “nice” behaviour, then there must be something in it!

  31. #31 Jon S
    December 19, 2006

    Tim Blanchard- You say we’re descended from a long line of social species, and they managed to behave morally (cooperate), and that we’re born moral.

    Of course social species cooperate, but does it have anything to do with morality, right and wrong? Do they behave the way they do because they want to be treated a certain way, or do they do so because it’s an instinct hard-wired into them? And do humans behave morally due to this same instinct? Even social species murder, steal, and rape. But is it wrong when they do so? Or do we say it’s justified because they’re just doing it to survive? Which of the following would be wrong: If a snake bit and killed a human wandering through the woods, a shark murdering and eating a surfer, a fox killing and eating a rabbit, one nation going to war to defend itself against another attacking nation, a grizzly bear mauling a young girl picking dandelions near a stream, or a human killing another human for their money? If there’s no God, then none of them are really wrong. I’d suggest that if the God of the Bible is real, only one of those scenarios could be wrong. Perhaps the murderer has as much justification for the murderous act as the snake, grizzly or shark. Who are we to judge the murderer? Are we any better if we haven’t murdered? What if we just think or contemplate a murder? Is that wrong? According to the Bible that would be wrong. Would you agree? On what grounds? Would we be violating any laws if we were to think about murdering someone, or would it still be wrong to think about it regardless of any law? Where does atheistic morality begin and end within the animal kingdom, and does it change with man? Lastly, I would suggest we are not born moral. Do you know of anyone who has ever had the need to teach a child to do wrong? Or do we try teaching our children to do what’s right because they have a natural tendancy to do what is wrong?

    Greta Christina- You point out that religion is doing a poor job of stopping bad behavior, and may actually be inspiring bad behavior.

    I suggest this is because both the religious and unreligious are sinners and are all in need of a savior. Religion doesn’t stop bad behavior. But obedience to Christ does.