Scary, scary people

A repost from the old blog, first published in July, and lightly edited. This is in part a response to critics of my criticism of Richard Dawkins, but also a chance to break the first rule of Fight Club.

Blog Meridian brings us a discussion of Fight Club. John quotes someone quoting a review which says:

Quite honestly, if I didn’t believe in God, I would join Tyler Durden in his philosophy. If God didn’t exist?if Christ didn’t offer salvation?then Tyler would be right [to reject morality and consequences]… and to live otherwise in this mad world would be hypocritical, and a waste of air.

These are the people that scare me. These are the people that think that if they evolved from a primate ancestor, then they might as well tear open people’s chests and feed on their still warm organs. At the first hearing for the new science standards in Kansas City, a person claimed that if his children were taught that their ancestors evolved, they’d grow up to be doctors who would “feel no inhibition to abort life.”

I’m surrounded, walking down the street, at the supermarket, on the highway, by people who think that the only reason not to join Hannibal Lecter and Tyler Durden in a spree of vigilante-ish hooliganism is the implicit threat of death and punishment. These people are literally teetering on the edge, and they seem to genuinely believe that the only thing holding them back is the threat of eternal damnation.

I don’t know if heaven exists, or if hell exists, and I don’t behave any more or less morally than I would otherwise. I don’t know if God will punish me for sins or reward good works or if I’m justified by faith alone, and I don’t worry too much about whether or not there is or isn’t an eternal judge. I don’t really think it matters much.

I think that a morality that exists only because you’re afraid of punishment here or in eternity is an inauthentic morality. I think that people who care more about what a deity thinks about right and wrong than they care about actual right and wrong are very, very scary. Because if they woke up one morning and heard a little voice telling them to kill, they might just do it.

The reviewer is basically building a syllogism and claiming that it proves atheists are really amoral. It goes something like this:

  • We do things because they are good
  • God tells us what’s good
  • Without God, we would not do good things

The implication is then that atheists are only kept from mass slaughter by rigidly enforced laws and what the reviewer refers to as “soft, archaic, religion-inspired morals.”

No, I don’t quite see how he makes that leap, either.

The flaw in the syllogism is with the second point. Even if we grant that point, it need not be exclusive. An atheist ought to have no trouble agreeing that if a god did exist, then it might well be able to help us separate good and evil. I don’t know. I do know that conclusion of the syllogism ought to be “Without God, we’d have to rely on other means of distinguishing right from wrong.” And those exist in spades.

People are good. Helping other people is good. Hurting them is bad. Doing something to someone else that you wouldn’t want them to do is wrong. I don’t need commandments to tell me that. Moses, Jesus, Buddha, Confucius, Plato, Kant, Rawls and most other major religious or philosophical groups all managed to figure out essentially the same formula. Maybe that’s God’s will manifesting itself, or maybe it’s something about the nature of the world. The Golden Rule can be shown to be an evolutionarily stable strategy, given the right social setting. And maybe that expresses some divine desire, an unrecorded “let there be?”. Maybe it doesn’t.

I think this gets to John’s first question:

The Misfit’s dilemma, of course, is that which every believer daily lives/wrestles with: that belief by its very nature is not ultimately confirmed by empirical knowledge. For him–and for Tyler Durden, for that matter–authenticity is defined by that ultimate confirmation. But might there also be another sort of authenticity, one that sees the embracing of the not-empirical as not only possible but as actually (and forgive the oxymoron here) more authentic as a way of living? Surely, implicit somewhere in the believer’s decision to believe is precisely that other notion of authenticity.

I think that belief in a deity cannot be consigned to the universe of testable claims, and that its authenticity must be sought beyond the realm of empirical knowledge. The nature of a supernatural being is to exceed the physical, to be beyond the testable natural world. If it weren’t, it would be neither supernatural nor metaphysical. In this sense, “the name that can be named is not the eternal Name,” and continuing with the Tao Te Ching, “Nothing, and Heaven share the same root.? There are too many laws, when all you have to do is to hold on to the centre.”

Maybe there’s heaven, maybe there’s nothing, but truth and goodness, like falsity and evil, exist either way. Atheists and theists all know that.

Durden, like Flannery O’Connor’s Misfit, find themselves in trouble not because they lack God, but because they lost God after having relied on an external decision-maker as a substitute for their own moral compass. And that’s problematic.

The Discovery Institute’s war on evolution is driven by their fear of “materialism.” The fear is that materialism “portrayed humans not as moral and spiritual beings, but as animals or machines who inhabited a universe ruled by purely impersonal forces,” that it “undermined personal responsibility.” The solution ? their stated goal ? was “To replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and hurnan beings are created by God.”

This all rests on the same shaky assumption that only theistic explanations can possibly offer any moral guidance. And I, like many atheists and many theists, firmly reject that hypothesis.


  1. #1 Bruce
    October 20, 2006

    I always say, “If believing in God is the only thing keeping you from going on a killing spree, then by all means, please keep believing”.

    Of course, this says a lot more about the individual than it does about his/her God.

  2. #2 monkeyhawk
    October 20, 2006

    Clarissa, did the Corinthians ever write back?

  3. #3 Flex
    October 20, 2006

    You can, of course, go deeper into the subject as well.

    I’ve just read, as research material for a class I’m taking, a book about teaching ethics in business school.

    What was astonishing to me were the studies done on Harvard graduate students at their business school.

    A great number of the students had never faced an ethical dilemma in their personal lives. I’m not talking life and death decisions here, one of the interview questions was, paraphrased, “As a manager you will likely at some point in your career be faced with laying workers off who you know have families which depend on them. How will you handle the situation.?”

    A lot of students apparently didn’t have an answer. I’m not suggesting that there is a known, good, answer, but that these types of situations are generally not familiar to students.

    Plenty of the students expressed a great deal of idealism, but felt that they could express that idealism away from the job. They didn’t feel concerned about thinking about the ethical behavior of the companies they will be working for because companies exist only to generate profit.

    So they didn’t see any problem with volunteering their times to pick up litter in the parks on the weekends, and working for an company which dumps it’s effluents in the rivers during the week.

    The authors refer to another researcher, who’s name escapes me at the moment, who suggested that adulthood is really broken into several mental stages. That post-adolescence includes a stage where we are still learning about ideological commitment and about the ideology of the group we associate ourselves with.

    The research also identified a smaller group of students who had gone through some significant ethical dilemma previous to entering the Harvard Business School and their approach to life was a lot more self confident.

    Interestingly, all students when through a course on ethics and the students who hadn’t considered ethical problems in the past all thought the course was worthwhile. The students who had already overcome personal ethical dilemmas didn’t think the course was helpful.

    Of course, reading one book on a subject doesn’t make me an expert.

    But it seems to me, that what we are really talking about when talking about morality is ethics.

    The basic moral questions, like when we should kill and when we shouldn’t, have been examined, at length, in the continuing studies of ethics.

    Theology doesn’t have a lock-hold on ethics. And professing a religion shouldn’t get you a free pass on ethical questions. Further, not professing a religion doesn’t equate to being unethical.

    When a religious text is examined for solutions for ethical questions, rationalisations can be found for any of the outcomes desired. If you want to own slaves, the bible can be used to justify owning slaves. If you want to free slaves, the bible can be used to justify freeing slaves. If you want treat woman as property, strip the land of all it’s resources, or attack your neighbor without warning, you can find a bible verse to justify those actions as moral. You can also find a bible verse to condemn those activities.

    To claim that the bible, or any religion for that matter, is the source of morality, or ethical behaviour, is ludicrous.

    Religion is not another word for morality.