Rabbi Avi Shafran is a columnist who, to my mind, represents the very worst of religious dogma. He often writes about “morality”, bemoaning the horrid state of godlessness, but his morality is little more than the rote obedience of the dogmatically orthodox. His usual complaint is that atheism removes the moral compass provided by a god — that one can believe that any arbitrary thing is good if you’re an atheist.
Now he has written another bogus argument that shows the exact opposite: if you use religion, you can justify anything. It’s a very strange piece, a study in contrasts.
On the one hand, Bernie Madoff: a scoundrel and swindler who used a Ponzi scheme to enrich himself and bilk investors of an estimated 65 billion dollars. He was also a dedicated philanthropist who skimmed off a little of his ill-gotten riches and donated to primarily Jewish charities.
On the other hand, Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot whose competence made for a safe emergency water landing a few months ago. He has been fairly quiet, and has not made a big issue of the event; he also hasn’t given any credit to a deity for the landing.
Guess which one Shafran thinks is the good guy? Since he’s using religious logic, it’s a safe bet to guess the one that makes the least sense.
That’s right, Shafran thinks Bernie Madoff is admirable. Why? Because he owned up to his crime, and didn’t flee the country, and also because Shafran imagines that he begin his investment firm with good intent. Never mind that, at some point long ago, Madoff knew he was ripping people off, that he was building an unsupportably rickety pyramid of promises that he couldn’t keep, and he didn’t own up then — he just kept robbing people. And then, of course, even after he was caught out, he was frantically trying to hide his assets. He’s a crook. Shafran is impressed because he said he was sorry after he was caught.
And what about Sullenberger?
No such sublimity of spirit [the "sublimity of spirit" refers to Bernie Madoff], though, was in evidence in any of the public acts or words of Mr. Sullenberger. He saved 155 lives, no doubt about it, and is certainly owed the hakoras hatov of those he saved, and of their families and friends. And he executed tremendous skill.
But no moral choice was involved in his act. He was on the plane too, after all; his own life depended on undertaking his feat no less than the lives of others. He did what anyone in terrible circumstances would do: try to stay alive. He was fortunate (as were his passengers) that he possessed the talents requisite to the task, but that’s a tribute to his training, and to the One Who instilled such astounding abilities in His creations (and Whose help the captain was not quoted as acknowledging).
I suspect that lack of acknowledgment is what really chafes Shafran.
Here is the difference between religious and secular morality written in boldfaced crayon. The religious claim to have an absolute, a god, who has dictated an unquestionable standard for what is good, and the role of the mere human individual is to be obedient to that standard, to follow the hierarchy of leaders who exist to translate and explain their deity’s rules. I can see where this certainly has some advantages to a society — it’s a tool to promote and enforce service to the state or church — but it’s not morality. It’s rationalized slavery.
We godless lack that certainty, and we know the world is a complex place that requires compromise and is not ruled by a moral force — virtue is subject to negotiation, and is found in working together with others to find mutually satisfactory solutions. Good is not absolute, it is an emergent property that arises from successful networks of individuals. It is also something that is measured by evidence: we look at the good that people do, not the promises that they make and never keep, or the lies that dovetail nicely into dogma. Competence is a virtue. Intent is meaningless without action.
We also know that goodness is not a state of being, but a process that requires constant effort and continuous assessment against its effects in the real world. Blind adherence to a presupposition without adjustment to fit the facts of execution is a formula for doing great harm.
My short summary of the difference between religious and secular morality is this: will you obey, or will you strive? Rabbi Shafran’s answer is that you must obey.