Rabbi Avi Shafran wants to argue

I’ve received a personal email from Rabbi Avi Shafran—the fellow whose graceless and ignorant opinion piece I criticized a while back. It’s a peculiar thing: he wrote a public editorial, I criticized it publicly, and now he asks that we have a private discussion on the matter. I won’t post his whole email, but I will put up the main point, what he plainly says is the main point and a restatement of the thesis of his original editorial, and address that here.

If Rabbi Avi Shafran wants to continue the discussion, he should do it publicly. I’m not going to convert him, and he’s not going to convert me, so a private conversation would be futile—let’s let the readers see our arguments and make up their own minds.

Here’s the nub of his assertion:

My point was simply that if one takes the approach that we humans, and all living things, are mere accidents of random evolution, then our convictions about “good” and “bad,” strong as they may be, cannot be more meaningful or compelling than feelings engendered by any other evolutionary development. Thus, there can be no substantive argument or judgment (in anything other than a “societal compact” sense) of a person who acts in an immoral or unethical way. He has every right to claim that his urges and desires should be as respected — or more respected — than yours or mine. His actions are as “good” as any.

This is simply a logical fallacy; he’s making an appeal to adverse consequences, suggesting that if X is true, then bad things will happen. This kind of statement is not an argument for the truth or falsehood of X, and he really should know better.

I would have to suggest to the rabbi that if his moral code is so weak that it collapses if certain truths are confirmed, then the problem here is with his morality…that, at least, is more easily adjusted than is reality. Perhaps he should throw away his religious texts, which are in a state of failure, and consult more robust secular sources for guidance.

His implication of adverse consequences is also simply false. Atheists aren’t plagued with problems of their fellows turning around and knifing them and cannibalizing their corpses; somehow, they manage to do as well and possibly even better than theists in behaving in civil, ethical ways. We also don’t sit around thinking that these hypothetical knife-wielding cannibal atheists would be just as “good” as the usual non-homicidal tea-and-cookie-serving atheists. Shouldn’t the fact that the conclusions drawn from a premise are 180° reversed from reality alert you that something is wrong with your thinking? (Perhaps not. This is what religion does to your brain: it tells you that reality doesn’t matter.)

The rabbi is rather dismissive of a “societal compact” sense of morality, and I don’t understand why. I think it’s a far better justification for moral behavior than a myth about divine laws, or mere obeisance to religious figures waving about eternal extortion threats. I follow reasonable ethical standards because that’s part of a society I like living in—I can do so for entirely selfish reasons. In my original criticisms, I also mentioned empathy and that good old simple, primitive golden rule: I do not kill and eat my neighbors because I would not like to be killed and eaten, and as a psychologically healthy individual I can understand the pain I would inflict on others, and am repelled by even the idea of it.

In the conclusion to his letter he assures me that he did not intend to characterize atheists negatively. I’m not convinced of the sincerity of that statement: recall that his editorial opened with what he represented as an example of the consequences of atheist thought: a thoroughly contemptible serial killer (one who also, it seems, may not have been an atheist at all.) Without the orders of a god, with no worry about passing the entrance exams for an afterlife, confident in the evidence for evolution, my personal moral beliefs tell me that the urges and desires of serial killers should not be respected, nor are they good.


  1. #1 Sastra
    May 30, 2006

    I’ve really enjoyed a lot of the thoughtful comments on this thread, and will add the following:

    Like many other theists, Rabbi Shafran simply uses religion as a narrative which has already inserted meaning (God is a good, loving parent) into a factual claim (God exists). Belief in the factual claim automatically entails the meaning part – just as it does in a story. Since a naturalistic view of the facts of the world doesn’t come as a nicely packaged story, he assumes that people without religion have no justification for claiming any top-down story elements like right and wrong, good and evil, better and worse, etc. Like only comes from like. We get life from a life source, mind from a mind source, meaning from a meaning source, morals from a moral source, etc. So tell a story where you start out with the morals and meaning and you have the “right” to use them.

    If there is no God, he thinks we have to justify Good. But as others have pointed out, that’s the wrong way around. If there IS a God, justify why it is good. Justify how we can know it is good. Justify how we can check it is good in all cases, and not just some. And all the motions they have to go through to justify a common understanding of Good are the same under theism as atheism – with the additional problem that matters of faith are far more subjective and relative than those things we can objectively point to in the world.

    But of course, in a story, you don’t need to “justify” the background facts the narrator gives you. “Once upon a time there was a good God.” The work is done.

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.