Rabbi Avi Shafran

There is no more reverent way to wake to a fine Sunday morning than to discover another religious zealot punching himself in the face. Repeatedly. The Rabbi Avi Shafran is waxing indignant in a syndicated article that is popping up all over the place, in which he tries to denounce Zizek’s most excellent article on the virtues of atheism. The best he can do, though, is whimper at length that atheists are just plain bad people—it’s an argument to appeal to bigots who already have a prejudiced view of those who don’t share their religion, but it’s not very persuasive to people who can think.

It is fun to shred, though.

Back on March 12, a paean to “the dignity of atheism” appeared on The New York Times op-ed page. It was penned by celebrated philosopher Slavoj Zizek who, had he consulted the same periodical’s obituary page a mere three days earlier, would have come face to image with the late Richard Kuklinski.

Mr. Kuklinski, who was retired from life at the age of 70, claimed, utterly without remorse, to have killed more than 100 people as a Mafia enforcer; his favored methods included ice picks, crossbows, chain saws and a cyanide solution administered with a nasal-spray bottle.

The happy hit man’s example might not have given pause to Professor Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. But it should have.

Mr Kuklinski was brought up as a Catholic, and sent his kids to a Catholic school, and he was affiliated with the Mafia, whose members are often (but not necessarily, of course) Catholic. I can’t find anything to suggest he was an atheist. He was certainly a despicable character, but I don’t see why he would be brought up as an example of the corrupting influence of godlessness. It would be easier, and just as fallacious, to use him as an example of the moral bankruptcy of Catholicism.

Because the notion that there is no higher authority than nature is precisely what enables people like Mr. Kuklinski — and the vast majority of the killers, rapists and thieves who populate the nightly news.

The majority of killers, rapists, and thieves don’t believe in any gods? That’s amazing, because only about 0.2% of the prison population are atheists. The godless criminals must possess such diabolical cunning that they are almost never caught. I am forced to conclude that religion makes criminals stupid and easy to catch (which would constitute a utilitarian reason for promoting religion, I suppose, but Rabbi Shafran does not seem to be arguing here that the virtue of religion is that it makes the population sheeplike and easier to control).

No, no, of course that is not to say that most atheists engage in amoral or unethical behavior. What it is to say, though, is that atheism qua atheism presents no compelling objection to such behavior — nor, for that matter, any convincing defense of the very concepts of ethics and morality themselves.

The reason is not abstruse. One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here is ultimately bound only by his wants. With no imperative beyond the biological, a true atheist, pressed hard enough by circumstances toward unethical or immoral behavior, cannot feel compelled to resist. Why should he?

He admits that most atheists don’t engage in amoral behavior. Hmmm. I wonder what’s keeping me from wandering off to rape some little old lady on my way to knocking over the gas station? At a guess, it’s that good parenting brought me up to value the stability and prosperity of a civil society, and to appreciate the rewards of good behavior. It’s also the possession of empathy, and a recognition that other human beings value their lives and well-being as much as I do mine, so that harming my neighbor or seeing him in distress pains me. None of these genuine motivations for moral behavior require the imposition of a higher authority. In fact, we tend to think that people who would harm others were it not for an artificial restriction by a watchful authority to have a lesser sense of morality.

I’d also have to say that religion qua religion not only has few strictures against evil behavior, but often condones and encourages it. The rabbi might want to look up the Hittites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites in his holy books—you know, the people that God’s Chosen People™ were told it was OK to murder, rape, and sell into slavery. Religion, especially the monotheistic ones that demand obeisance to a single imaginary being, is very good at fostering divisions between people and demanding destruction on the basis of differing superstitions.

In his view, a purposeless process of evolution has brought us to where we stand, and our feeling that there are good deeds and evil ones is but a utilitarian quirk of natural selection — like our proclivity to eat more than we need when food is available. And so, just as we might choose to forego a second helping of pizza if we harbor an urge to lose weight, so may we choose, for personal gain (of desires, not pounds), to loosen our embrace of a moral, ethical life. Biological advantages, after all, are not moral imperatives.

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.

I knew he’d come around to ranting against evolution sooner or later.

Evolution is very good at cobbling up functional systems; it isn’t entirely purposeless, in that it favors elements that promote survival. Not going on murderous rampages seems to enhance one’s chances at reproducing and surviving, so sure, utilitarianism seems to be promoting some things that are good. But he’s right in one thing: biology is not a moral imperative. Morality is more of an emergent property of social systems. The fact that we evolved doesn’t dictate our social behavior, nor does it assign a ranking value on certain classes of behavior. We do that.

Personally, I prefer the company of philanthropists to that of cannibals. I also don’t operate under a moral code that says the crimes of cannibals are forgiven if they believe in Jesus or have been properly circumcised. Remember, biology is not morality: I freely evaluate the worth of an individual’s behavior irrespective of their status as conspecifics…or co-religionists.

To a true atheist, there can be no more ultimate meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left. To be sure, rationales might be conceived for establishing societal norms, but social contracts are practical tools, not moral imperatives; they are, in the end, artificial. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes.

Proponents of atheism bristle when confronted by the implications of their belief, that morality and ethics are mere figments of our evolutionary imagination. But, for all their umbrage, they cannot articulate any way there can really ever be, as one writer has put it, “good without God.”

What are they teaching the kids in rabbinical schools nowadays? In my charitable moments, I think of theologians as scholars, poring over a wide range of books in philosophy, ethics, and religion, sampling the diversity of thought in those disciplines. Rabbi Shafran seems to have missed all that, and thinks that the only reason to be good is because there’s a cosmic policeman glaring at him.

One doesn’t have to agree entirely with Kohlberg or Piaget to be able to admit that they did articulate the development of moral behavior without reference to any gods—it arose naturally out of social interactions. There are utilitarian reasons to be good, as already mentioned. Heck, there are bucketloads of philosophers writing about the mechanisms of morality all the time, but as a mere biologist with no formal training in philosophy or ethics, I’m not really competent to go on about them.

The weird thing is, though, that I seem to be more familiar with these other ideas than Rabbi Shafran.

The bristlers are not liars, only inconsistent; some well-hidden part of their minds well recognizes that humans have a higher calling than hyenas. But while the cognitive dissonance shifts to overdrive, the stubborn logic remains: The game is zero-sum. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

First he disses mosquitos, now hyenas. Those are really nifty animals, but the reason we don’t consider them in discussions of morality isn’t that they should be regarded as lesser beings, but because they are not members of our social compact (although, of course, there is growing interest in widening our views to encompass a larger part of the world; hyenas and mosqitos are not, unfortunately, at all interested in participating in the discussion).

I don’t believe in a Mandator or a Mandate. I think we humans are truly and completely free to choose—Nature has generated us, and now we stand here, a product of our world and bound by nothing but natural law, with the capacity to shape our own lives by conscious decision. That is the highest and most awful form of morality; not mere blind obedience to authority, but taking independent responsibility here and now and seeing the consequences of our actions played out in the people around us. We have no mandate but the liberty of our conscience. Will you better the world, or will you waste your life in a vain pursuit of some non-existent post-mortem redemption?

I think it is a nobler and more enriching view of humanity to consider us free agents, able to choose our fate, than as lackeys to an imaginary being who regards our servility as our chief virtue. The higher morality is found in using our liberty well, rather than in shackling ourselves to superstition.

What inspired Professor Zizek to celebrate atheism as “perhaps our only chance for peace” in the world was the unarguably dismal example set by some people who are motivated by religion. He is certainly correct that much modern mayhem is deeply rooted in claims of religious rectitude. What he forgets, though, is that the world has also seen unimaginable evil — perhaps its greatest share – from men who professed no belief in divinity at all, whose motivations were entirely secular in nature. Adolph Hitler was no believer in God. Nor was Joseph Stalin. Nor Pol Pot. Together, though, the trio was responsible for the murders of tens of millions of human beings. They pursued their dreams as atheists with no less relish than Osama Bin Laden pursues his as an Islamist. Evil is evil, whether expressed through faithlessness or misguided faith. But only a belief in a Higher Being has the potential — realized or not — of reining in the darker elements that haunt human souls.

The Hitler who said, “I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so”? Some might say he wasn’t a very good Catholic (although the pope at the time didn’t seem to have any major objections) and was just playing to the crowd, but it’s interesting that he turned to religion when he needed to appeal to the people to support his agenda. Stalin and Pol Pot were professed atheists, of course, but I don’t think it was a sense of random purposelessness that motivated them to murder millions of Russians and Cambodians. Genocide takes discipline and purpose and hard work, yet Rabbi Shafran has been telling us throughout this article that the hallmark of atheism is a sense of meaningless futility. Instead, it seems to me that it takes an ideology to drive people to commit truly horrible, world-class evil. Sometimes that ideology can be a godless philosophy like communism, sometimes it’s religion.

Some of my best friends — okay, one or two — are atheists. Stranded on a desert island, I would prefer the company of any of them to Osama’s.

But if my choice of island partner were between two strangers about whom I know only that one believes there is no higher reason for human life and the other that there is, I know which one I’d choose.

And I think Professor Zizek might make the same choice.

I don’t know about Zizek, but if I were given a choice between exile with a god-bothering fool and a godless heathen, and if that were all I knew about them, there’s no question: I’d pick the latter. After all, if atheists are smart enough to escape jail despite committing the majority of crimes, between the two of us we’d certainly be able to figure out how to escape that desert island.


  1. #1 Sastra
    May 21, 2006

    I suspect that the Rabbi’s inability to reconcile atheism with morality comes from the very common human tendency to classify anything which is not a material object which can be held and measured scientifically — a category which includes such things as abstractions, values, and thoughts — as something which is somehow “above” nature, non-material, and therefore legitimately closed off to the atheist. Nature is what you can hold in your hand. You can’t hold “love” or “right and wrong” in your hand. Therefore, atheists, if they are “true” to atheism, shouldn’t believe in either. After all, this is just like believing in God — which also can’t be held in a hand, which is why atheists reject it.

    It’s a bit like thinking as a child might. The subtle recognition of levels of abstraction and emergence requires some thought and sophistication; “Like Comes From Like” is intuitive. From what I can tell, many people seem to automatically see the world in terms of discontinuous hierarchies. Top-down thinkers get to start off with high ideas. Bottom-up thinkers never get off the ground.

    This may be an underlying reason why a large part of the public seems to assume that atheists are simplistic reductionists who can’t think “”above” solid objects and basic animal instincts. It might account for the widespread bewilderment over how atheists can claim to have a *basis* for morality as much as that habit of conflating ethics with commands.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 21, 2006


    “This may be an underlying reason why a large part of the public seems to assume that atheists are simplistic reductionists who can’t think “”above” solid objects and basic animal instincts.

    Either you are making a very funny observation or I don’t get the rational part. Are you saying that some people think atheists can’t think abstractly because *they* can’t think abstractly?

    “Well they obviously weren’t being very good Objectivists – I thought their central tenet was to screw the worthless masses over?”

    That is another saying about objectivists or libertarians I don’t get. They seem to object to protectionism and taxes.

    It is true that any trade hurts poorer people relatively more. (They can easier go bankrupt.)

    But statistically free trade without protectionism and taxes has in absolute terms elevated the poorest conditions fastest, or so I have been told repeatedly. In combination with democracy, I think. Not incidentally, I think they say the amount of corruption is lower too, since that ‘market’ is minimized.

    So I would be very supicious about protectionism and unneccessary taxation too.

    If anyone could give me some reasonable arguments why libertarianism is to be considered a religion or have horrendous economics, I would appreciate it.

  3. #3 Sastra
    May 22, 2006

    Torbjörn Larsson wrote:

    “This may be an underlying reason why a large part of the public seems to assume that atheists are simplistic reductionists who can’t think “”above” solid objects and basic animal instincts.
    Either you are making a very funny observation or I don’t get the rational part. Are you saying that some people think atheists can’t think abstractly because *they* can’t think abstractly?

    No, I’m trying to say that some people apparently believe that while atheists *can* think abstractly, just like theists can, the atheist really has no basis or explanation for doing so because abstractions are not material. If they’re not material, then they must somehow be “above” nature. Atheists aren’t supposed to go “above” nature. Intuitive folk psychology and folk physics are being used to help nontheists figure out how atheists must think – and it’s messing them up terribly.

    When it comes to the loose way people classify different kinds of stuff, it looks like the solid objects we can easily sense are on one side, and everything else — thoughts, values, abstractions, emotions, meaning, gods, magic, and spirits — is on the other side. Since the average person interprets Naturalism or Materialism in the most clunky, simplistic, mad-dog reductionist terms possible, this means they tend to see atheists who believe in morals, ideals, values – and even minds – as somehow being self-contradictory. Those things aren’t physical. In our eagerness to deny God, we’ve ended up denying them, too. Or so they see it.

    If you reread the rabbi’s essay — and think over the implications of those many many arguments for God which compare believing in God to believing in Love or to loving your mother – I think there’s a strong case that the problem isn’t just that they think we can’t be moral because we have no authority to obey. They apparently believe that the entire realm of abstractions and emotions and meaning are on a “higher” plane than the physical … and therefore must be as foreign and closed to us as spiritual realms.

  4. #4 Torbjörn Larsson
    May 22, 2006

    Good to hear!


    The usual argument is the authority argument, that moral thoughts must be given by a god, or inspired by believing in a god. But you are probably correct, they could also mean that moral thought is impossible. Perhaps they are even conflating these ideas. (I haven’t been able to tease out exactly what they say.) Theism is a melange of different dualisms and the mind/soul idea is alive in there, or at least the soul part.

    Their view would be analogous to the impression nontheists get, that some theists (by no means all) have a problem to think abstractly and that is why theism is appealing to them.

    So I still see a joke, but on a different level now.

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