Atheists Can Answer; and So I Do

Michael Gerson wants to know, and evidently the increasingly contemptible WaPo felt obliged to give him precious column inches in the A section to ponder, “If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?” One might reasonably judge by the title of his piece, What Atheists Can’t Answer, that he’s not really asking atheists to answer his query, but fixing to tell us what he’s quite certain is wrong with them. And one would be correct.

Gerson starts to answer his own question thusly:

If God were dethroned as the arbiter of moral truth, it would not, of course, mean that everyone joins the Crips or reports to the Playboy mansion.

What a nifty caveat! Except, here’s the problem with it: Crips aren’t necessarily, and probably not even mostly, atheists. In fact, religious imagery features quite prominently in lots of Crips’ tattoos, many of whom don’t shed their belief in God even as they send men to meet Him.

And many visitors to the Playboy mansion, of both the female and male persuasions, are believers in God—as is its proprietor, Hef himself. Raising these inconvenient truths with Gerson might produce nothing more than an eyeroll or a sigh, accompanied by an exasperated or long-suffering exhortation to, “Come on—you know what I mean.” And of course I do. What he means is that people who are amoral are atheistic. But that’s kind of the whole point I’m making: He’s wrong.

And he’s wrong, too, when he goes on to raise the tired old specter of a moral void were atheists suddenly put in charge, because atheism offers no real reason, no carrot dangling off the end of a stick, for people to be good.

Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.

So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma.

I need to interrupt Gerson here for a moment, because I’m quite tired, frankly, of the notion that “atheism” is charged with providing an answer to anything, as if atheism were some collective belief system, as if atheists replaced the Bible and church and hymns on Sunday with rules and rituals of their own. Many of the people who find fit to criticize atheism seemingly can’t resist treating it like a religion-substitute, failing wholly to acknowledge that even individuals who subscribe to religion devise their own ethical paradigms in which they choose to operate, and they are often quite independent from religion. That is, after all, what allows some religious people to murder on behalf of a God who strictly forbids it, and allows others to have guilt-free extramarital sex despite its prohibition, and allows others to eat bacon cheeseburgers even on Yom Kippur, and still consider themselves good people.

It’s not really moral relativism, or picking and choosing what one wants from a religious menu—although there might be elements of both. It’s just that everyone designs her or his own ethics, and religion is, at most, only a part of that construction, even if it’s a big part. Perhaps because that was never meant to be part of the plan for most religions, it’s best ignored—but nonetheless, it’s willful blindness to presume that individual ethics don’t exist within each of us. Atheists are no different, except, perhaps, in that religion plays very little part or no part at all in their ethical designs.

Anyway, carry on, Gerson.

Atheism provides no answer to this dilemma. It cannot reply: “Obey your evolutionary instincts” because those instincts are conflicted. “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either. It would be perfectly rational for someone to respond: “To hell with my wiring and your socialization, I’m going to do whatever I please.” C.S. Lewis put the argument this way: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

Notice, here, that “I want to be kind to others” is quite evidently not considered an option.

It’s tiring arguing atheism v. belief with people who have such dim views (perhaps because they know themselves) of human nature, who plainly ignore (or, frighteningly, have never had) any urge within themselves to do something kind or generous or selfless or good with no ulterior motive, with nothing to gain from it personally. Gerson seems to be a philosophical relative of the conservative who insists we need to ban gay marriage lest people willy-nilly start marrying their dogs. (It’s always their dogs, isn’t it? I weep for the dog population of conservative owners.) No—most people are not not marrying their house pets because it’s illegal. Most people don’t need goodness legislated to them. Most of us are just trying to get along, and we recognize that in each other, and even try to help one another on that fumbling journey when we can.

And, if you think about it, we nonbelievers have a bigger stake in living a good life while we’re here, because we know this is all we’ve got. While Gerson argues that the absence of the promise (or threat) of eternal life (or damnation) frees us to shit all over everyone to take what we want, presumably even by criminal means, in practice, that’s not at all how any of the atheists I’ve ever known view their lives, in no small part because we believe that life is finite for everyone else, too. I believe this is all we get; it’s so short, so precious. My interest is not in making that all-too-brief gift a misery for other people, but better, richer, fuller for us all. People like Gerson get it all backwards. I value life more than many of the religious people I’ve met, who view this mortal coil like an entrance exam to eternity in Heaven State or Hell U, precisely because I do believe it’s all I’ve been given—and there’s no “get out jail free” card waiting for me at its end. Dead is dead, with or without repentance.

Back to Gerson:

Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests — a fear of bad consequences — will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

Ugh. That’s so tired. The presumption that a lack of belief in God inspires within humans less regard for other humans is patently absurd. In evidence, always, is the great Red Menace, definitive proof that godlessness begets cruelty, devalues the individual and human life itself—which might be a fine example were there not cultures rife with godfulness in which cruelty and dehumanization (or simple apathy) also flourish, or godless people with a fervent passion for the elevation of all humankind. But there are.

Humans, it turns out, can be reverent or disdainful of one other, irrespective of a belief in God. Perhaps because believing in God does not inform believing in one another, the way people like Gerson pretend that it does.

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65 Comments

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65 responses to “Atheists Can Answer; and So I Do

  1. People like Gerson are a waste of time when it comes to this kind of crap, so much so that I don’t even bother. Anyone who takes his argument seriously is the kind of person I don’t want any dealings with, at all.

    I mean, if Gerson really wants to throw down on this discussion, we’ll get into the whole issue of God allowing incalculable evil for no other reason, apparently, than that he gets off on it. I wouldn’t worship a God like Gerson describes-I’d curse him to his very face.

  2. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others.

    Virtually all, good bible thumping Christains. And being a student of history I would like to ask this asshole Gerson just who it was who though up that little amusement known as the Inquisition? And what for?

    What a dipshit! This coming from a life long athiest who has never ripped anyone off in all my 73 years.

  3. Chromosome Crawl

    Another excellent post, Ms. M!

    I wish that Gerson & his ilk would run out of straw for their straw men – I always get sore hands from clenching my fists when I read shite like the WaPo piece.

  4. eastsidekate

    Not that I expect Gerson to listen to someone wearing mixed fibers, but for the one zillionth time: do you mean to tell me that those Christians that are nice to others are only doing it ’cause God says so? In my book, that’s kinda jerky.

  5. L

    Gerson needs to read The God Complex.

  6. An old man approached me outside of a department store to give me a tract and tell me about how God is the only answer, etc. I asked him if he met God, and he said no. I told him that I hoped he was right… for his sake.

    Because that must be a really, really shitty final moment. You’ve devoted your whole life to this thing, this promise, and then- nothing. I’d say I’m prepared for it as an atheist, or not afraid of it, but that’d be such a lie. But for someone to so wholly devote themselves to a deity, to essentially sacrifice their lives, and blind themselves to the beauty of life and the world around them and how fucking great all of this could be, and how devastating it must be for there to be no gold at the end of the rainbow.

    I feel that atheists can be fairly well prepared for any post-death scenario. The basis of most religions, aside from the dogma, seems to be “don’t be an asshole”. I think that people can live decently enough (of their own free will) that if there is some bizarre magical afterlife they won’t necessarily be ineligible because they didn’t try to talk to the magic goddess in the sky or believe in the right fairy tales. But I think the chance of anything like that happening is about one in a trillion. I can’t begin to comprehend the mindset that views the possibility of an afterlife being more likely than the inevitability of an end, let alone that an afterlife is unquestionably assured (which is why I’m wary of Christians that seem to be far more imposing heteropatriarchal dominance and regulating the lives of others than anything else).

    And of course we’ll never have atheist political leadership in my lifetime.

  7. Another excellent post, Ms. M!

    Thanks, CC. 😉

  8. L

    I totally meant The God Delusion. Funny faux pas that.

  9. So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.

    This is such an impoverished view of religion. The point has never been to just hand out commandments, but to offer help in our efforts to live well with one another.

    Further, I’m surprised that a Wheaton grad would be so Pelagian in his anthropology. “We should cultivate the better angels of our nature?” Classic Reformed/Anabaptist theology says that because of the Fall, there aren’t any “better angels of our nature,” and whatever goodness that’s cultivated in us is a work of God only.

    BTW, as a good Arminian, I don’t believe that way. That’s why the Calvinists declared us heretics; we’re just too Pelagian.

  10. I hate the “Nyah, nyah, I’m a better person than you are!” smug phrasing of his argument, especially since I’ve heard this kind of conceit before. I’d rather he just -actually- love and support his fellow human and skip the comparison of how many gold stars someone has.

    And maybe I’m just a simple and unenlightened kind of gal, but I’ve always found making someone’s life better NOW as a much more fulfilling practice than the idea I might get to float around on a cloud after I die.

  11. Kate217

    Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

  12. eastsidekate

    And hopefully on topic, WTF is up with the WaPo lately? Doooodz, you used to be cool, it used to be all about the music.

  13. Atheism is a religion like not collecting stamps is a hobby.

    Totally, lol!

  14. Of course, religious beliefs do not stop Gerson from supporting the amoral Iraq War.

    From a religious perspective, the problem with the utilitarian argument is that it reduces religious belief to a tool rather than something desirable or inspiring. It also leaves unanswered the question of whether it is better for someone who does not believe in God to profess that unbelief openly or pay lip service to the dominant religion. Either way, Gerson’s arguments against atheism would come into play. Utilitarian arguments are not going to persuade people to believe.

  15. tomeck

    As a practicing Catholic, I’ve never understood the arguement that lacking a god, then anything goes. Certain behaviors are moral and good whether or not God exists. Certain behaviors are bad, whether or not God exists.

    And unlike Gerson and other so-called religious people, if I were presented a proof that there is no god, it wouldn’t change my sense of right and wrong.

    I trust atheists more to have a valid sense of good and evil than a tired old Nazi who goes about proclaiming that we Catholics are the “one, true church.”

    Nice post, Shakes.

  16. Why is it, by the way, that Gerson gets to write all these op-eds anyway? He was George Bush’s speechwriter, now he’s all the sudden some kind of pundit?

    I’m so sick of our nation’s media outlets.

  17. I tried here to respond to the column, but succumbed to my amoral atheistic desires and started dropping some choice verbiage on the head of Micheal “Axis of Evil” Gerson.

  18. Sycorax

    This sort of theist seems deeply uncomfortable with the idea of morals that aren’t handed down by some kind of authority. It doesn’t surprise me that there’s a correlation between religious belief and authoritarianism.

  19. oddjob

    “Respect your brain chemistry” or “follow your mental wiring” don’t seem very compelling either.

    Actually Joseph Campbell once encountered a Hindu text that asserted that doing the above was a path to enlightenment. That’s where Campbell got “Follow your bliss” from.

    WEV………

  20. I’ve always been baffled by the move that atheist ethics must be utilitarian or relativist. Sort of overlooks that Aristotle guy with his virtues, rights-based approaches, and 1970-80s style feminist care-based ethics. And that’s not to mention my favorites, the pluralists like Isaiah Berlin. The odd false dichotomy between duty-based ethics and utilitarianism is so blatantly false that it seems odd to be so ubiquitous. And if atheists really wanted a duty-based ethic, it really wouldn’t be that hard to work out — pack moral goodness inside the act as a primary quality ala Moore. It does indeed seem to be a bit of question begging language here — atheists can’t answer this challenge because they can’t.

  21. Actually Joseph Campbell once encountered a Hindu text that asserted that doing the above was a path to enlightenment. That’s where Campbell got “Follow your bliss” from.

    Well remembered, Oddjob.

    Sort of overlooks that Aristotle guy with his virtues, rights-based approaches, and 1970-80s style feminist care-based ethics.

    Not to mention my oft-muttered “My rights end where yours begin,” which is so not something I was the first to say, and has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. (Though it is clearly not incompatible; it’s essentially a secular interpretation of “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”)

  22. Again, I think Gerson’s article is the right wing projection machine at work (for a people so skeptical of psychiatry it is a wonder how Freudian they all are). He is projecting his own values onto atheists.

    It was the rise of monotheism and the belief in one true way of believing that has wreaked havoc for the last 7,000 years and the three religions of Abraham are the most at fault for failing to live up to the tenets of their faith.

    I was raised not to believe in God, I was raised believing that religion has done more harm than good, yet somehow I found, that for me, I need faith as a piece of my existence. Despite no God to threaten me into compliance, I remained a “good” child, because I was raised with a belief the inherent dignity and equality of all human beings.

    The religious right does not truly hold this belief with the threat of damnation hanging over their heads and so they cannot imagine that atheists could truly believe this in the absence of that same threat. They will always want to be MORE equal than their neighbor, and this idea is not a tenet of Christianity, it is instead a human flaw, a failing of the individual, not of the religion in which they profess belief.

    So, even with all this, I consider myself a Christian, though I recognize no version of Christianity that Christ taught has ever been practiced in the subsequent 2,000 years.

    I am one of those people who cherry pick from Christianity (luckily, the Episcopalians have already done most of it for me) what I find useful and good and abandon the rest.

  23. They will always want to be MORE equal than their neighbor

    Well said. 🙂

  24. k

    I’m always mystified by claims like these, and I’ve a notion I would be even were I a theist. After all, “do not murder” isn’t exactly a revelation (if you will) of jurisprudence. Forgetting for a moment that theism has only existed for a minute blip on the homo timeline, and forgetting that theists haven’t always dominated the planet, doesn’t simple logic dictate that societies only function if certain common rules remain intact? The K!ung of Africa have existed for thousands of years without theism, relatively happy, and decidedly civilized. But why stop there? What of China, Japan, India, Indonesia… all of these places have remained comparatively “moral” and at least stable for longer than Christendom. Non-theists to a one, they, and yet without mention.

    No, arguments like these always smack to me of a colonizer’s mindset. The unwashed of the world simply deny themselves not only God, but also civilization, since the two are synonymous. Atheists of the West, therefore, are the traitors of Christendom, like the kin of conquistadors who nonetheless partake in godless native dances. Considering the source in this case, that sounds about right.

  25. Fritz

    Dead is dead, with or without repentance.

    I’m more comfortable with “Who the fuck knows?”

    Time is not absolute. It may be that you’re trapped in a infinite loop. If so, it would certainly be a good idea to live a moral life — rather than repeat wrong choices over and over again for eternity. We could all very well be creating our own heaven or hell.

  26. We could all very well be creating our own heaven or hell.

    “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make heaven of Hell, and a hell of Heaven.” Milton, Paradise Lost

  27. oddjob

    Well remembered, Oddjob.

    More like “never forgotten”! When I heard him say that to Moyers (back in ’86 during the “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” interviews) it was for me a quite powerful revelation.

  28. As an atheist I have to say I have always been profoundly uncomfortable with religious people requiring the threat or reward of some deity in order to behave in a particular way.

    Because, under such an argument, if their deity tells them to do something that previously had been considered horrible, then they are expected to do so. In fact, the christian text is rife with such examples.

    Atheists tend to come to their moral and ethical basis through a combination of a number of things, such as basic socialisation, thinking about the world around them, thinking each position through (particularly so for me using Melissa’s wonderful “my rights end where yours begin” with a little bit of individual rights being subsumed beneath those of the collective).

    I am sure that there are some horrible atheists out there doing things that I find utterly reprehensible and inhuman. But, in my experience, it’s been the religious folk that have tended to do the most damage, both to other people and the world around them, fully with the thought that they’ll get to heaven regardless.

    I was allowed to figure out religion on my own growing up, never encouraged one way or the other. My sister similarly. And we ended up atheist and agnostic respectively. To me, honestly, the world would be better if there were no religion in it at all (though I am sure they’ll find something else to fight over, but at least it’ll be one less thing to).

    I do think it is sad though to see some people devote themselves utterly to some religion, as I have to think what a waste that is. But then, it’s their decision, not mine … a moral position from an atheist.

  29. Fritz

    I wonder what percentage of those serving time in prison are atheist.

    Let’s Google it. Hum…

    Catholic 29267 39.164%
    Protestant 26162 35.008%
    Muslim 5435 7.273%
    American Indian 2408 3.222%
    Nation 1734 2.320%
    Rasta 1485 1.987%
    Jewish 1325 1.773%
    Church of Christ 1303 1.744%
    Pentecostal 1093 1.463%
    Moorish 1066 1.426%
    Buddhist 882 1.180%
    Jehovah Witness 665 0.890%
    Adventist 621 0.831%
    Orthodox 375 0.502%
    Mormon 298 0.399%
    Scientology 190 0.254%
    Atheist 156 0.209%
    Hindu 119 0.159%
    Santeria 117 0.157%
    Sikh 14 0.019%
    Bahai 9 0.012%
    Krishna 7 0.009%
    —————————- ——–
    Total Known Responses 74731 100.001% (rounding to 3 digits does this)

    http://www.holysmoke.org/icr-pri.htm

  30. Sam Harris tackles the notion of atheists lacking an “objective basis” to judge morality in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. For Harris, whether or not one’s actions have the effect of tending to increase or decrease human suffering (on either a micro or macro scale) is a pretty good barometer of their morality. Works for this non-stamp-collector.

  31. Pingback: “If God were dethroned” « Notes from Evil Bender

  32. From a previous post I did on being an atheist:

    I categorically reject the idea that a life lived in hope of eternal reward or in fear of damnation is “moral.” Morality imposed from without strips a human being of his or her moral agency. Blind obedience to rules may be commanded of a dog through the inducement of a cookie or the threat of a scolding. We rightly do not consider a well-behaved dog to be acting “morally.” In the same way, the religious person who obeys not out of love and respect for other people, but in response to the promise of Paradise or the specter of Hell, acts not as an independent, moral person. He is merely a trained animal seeking to please an unseen master.

  33. Fritz

    In the same way, the religious person who obeys not out of love and respect for other people, but in response to the promise of Paradise or the specter of Hell, acts not as an independent, moral person. He is merely a trained animal seeking to please an unseen master.

    Personally, the reason I’m not out robbing banks for easy money is that I don’t want to go to prison.

    The fact that there are EARTHLY consequences is what forces most people to obey the law.

    Currently, there are very few consquences for adultry. That’s why over half of all married men cheat on their wives. If they faced the possibility of public stoning, they’d keep their marriage vows.

    I am willing to bet that very few people obey the law for religious reasons.

  34. segmentation fault

    it takes religion to kill many people by way of destroying things like gay nightclubs, abortion clinics, and the world trade center. it takes religion to enslave and eliminate entire civilizations such as the aztecs. it takes religion to discriminate and opress others for simply being something different.

    this guy compeltely misses the fact that, in attempts to glorify ones god(s) and to express their faith in said god(s), they will do absolutely anything, including things that said god(s) would probably frown upon (if he/she/them wouldnt, they arent gods worth worshipping).

    personally, i believe atheism is a moral necessity.

    i think murder is wrong because i empathize. id feel pretty bad if i ended someones life. i also fear the legal consequences for doing so, but even if there was no law, something inside me just tells me its wrong. if you ask me, im being a little more sincere about it than someone who believes murder is wrong because a magical father figure in the sky says so.

  35. Gerson’s article is exhibit A of what Greenwald is talking about in Tragic Legacy. It’s a Manichean mindset, that on the one hand is Good, which comes from God, and on the other is Evil, which is everything else. Because atheists deny God and do not serve God, they are cut off from Good and are therefore Evil. They cannot be moral, because morality is judgements of Good vs. Evil which by definition atheists cannot comprehend.

    Bush’s speechwriter is a perfect exponent of Bush’s beliefs. This is who is running this country.

  36. segmentation fault

    also, how are atheists any more selfish than the religious? is it NOT selfish to help others because god will send YOU to heaven? its all about YOU going to heaven, not helping others.

  37. Tom in Iowa

    Excellent post Melissa!

    If I’m to understand correctly it is only the fear of eternal damnation that keeps a Christian from murdering me and taking my wallet. And if after sincere repentance the sin of the murder will be forgiven, and the damnation waived…well, now I’m really nervous.

  38. Michelle the Red

    I was always told by my parents that we were not Christians because we have ethics and morals. My dad is Cherokee, my family has seen enough Christian “goodness”.

  39. Jay

    How is God an “objective” source of morality, in this life?

    “Objective” would seem to mean that we can all see it and know that we see what everyone else sees. God certainly doesn’t fit this definition.

    In other words, the members of my neighborhood church believe in the God of Abraham. Islamic terrorists also believe in the God of Abraham. Yet these two groups each have a different consensus on key moral issues.

  40. Taking Divine Command Theory (which is what theism is, put into an ethical context) to its logical core, what is defined as good is “obeying the Divine” and what is bad as “disobeying the Divine”. There’s really nothing else to distinguish individual actions as good or bad if there is no evidence for what the Divine wills, or, that something is evil, despite horrific outcomes, if the Divine, as it is revealed, wills it.

    I wrote about this, sort of, in an ethical light a while back.

  41. Benjamin

    I’ve little time at the keys, but this merits an immediate (if brief) reply.

    At the risk of spilling the beans (or peeing in the Cheerios, depending on perspective), I’m a Christian and I spend a great deal of time wondering what sort of God rhetoricists like Gerson are talking about. Specifically, I wonder if he knows where his particular spin on the character of God and human nature came from.

    This theology is built on the foundation of “absolute depravity”, the idea that human nature is entirely evil and sadistic, and that the only source of good, compassion, and appreciation for a slice of apple pie comes from God interceding and effectively suspending our character so that another can be instilled. There are a lot of problems with this concept, but for the sake of brevity we’ll keep to the history.

    The grossly oversimplified version:

    The majority of the Christian theology we find in the U.S. is based, however loosely, on the writing of John Calvin, whose work is loosely based on the writings of Martin Luther, whose work is loosely based on Augustine of Hippo, whose work is alternately based on either the writings of Paul or how pissed off he was at Pelagus, a contemporary of his.

    Now lets start at the beginning of that chain.

    The aspect of the writings of Paul that I find most interesting is their development. We see the evidence of growth, an increasing degree of sophistication and mastery of concept, as we move through Paul’s writings chronologically (much as we would with the work of any philosopher). Some concepts that are cut and dried in Romans are described with more nuance in the Thessalonians letters, for example. The man *changed* during the course of his career, and his epistles provide rich material for the study of that change. Between this and his love of procedural argument (i.e. propose a point so that he may disprove it), Paul is very difficult to quote appropriately. There are few phrases he wrote which retain their meaning when plucked from their context, and even those passages that aren’t part of his usual argument style often have a complicated cultural context (his comments on the homosexual practices of his Greek contemporaries, for example) that makes meaning difficult to construe.

    To wit, should someone say “It’s perfectly simple. It’s right here in the Bible” and point you to a passage written by Paul, you’re more than welcome to gently chide them. Paul’s writing is rarely simple.

    From here we jump to Augustine of Hippo, scouring the Bible for ammunition in the 4th century equivalent of a flamewar. Much of Augustine’s writing was a response to or commentary on the theology of Pelagus, a Northern European monk who he viewed as Christianity’s greatest threat. His crusade is ironic in that the attention he brought to the “Pelagian Heresy” likely extended its life and reach far beyond what it would have had otherwise. Augustine overextended his position in the context of these arguments, to such a degree that most of his late-life writing is concerned with clarification and retraction of points he made while arguing with Pelagus. Chief among these points is the concept of absolute depravity, a phrase he coined (and explained above). While Augustine later retracted this idea as unsound, his retractions are less frequently cited than his original presentation of the idea.

    The Catholic Church officially supported his retraction in the second council of Trent, where absolute depravity was ruled anathema (heresy). We would likely live in a very different theological landscape had this occurred BEFORE the Reformation of Luther. Luther’s theology is heavily contingent on an early Augustinian interpretation on the writings of Paul, and preserves Absolute Depravity in its entirety. Luther, however, had a utilitarian reason for including it in his doctrine (much as Augustine had for introducing it in the firstplace), as it was central to his argument for sola scriptura and the individual being responsible for their own theological education.

    This context is largely abandoned by Calvin, and A.D. is used instead as a context itself for his commentaries on human nature and the effective elimination of conscience as theologically sustainable. Toss in a little bit of apocalyptic emphasis in the late 19th century and you’ve got the train-wreck we’re all too familiar with.

    The Trent ruling, the later Augustinian writing, and their implications on a human nature NOT completely defined by evil doesn’t get reintroduced to the Protestant world as orthodox until the post- renaissance Anglican church, and doesn’t gain much traction until Wesley. Even today this is a minority position in the western world, one of the reasons why many Indian and Korean Christian theologians consider America a prime location to send missionaries.

    The real point here is that Christianity, as it’s generally represented in the United States, is a relatively small percentage of the theological picture of the modern Christian world which is, itself, a relatively small percentage of Christian history. I often scratch my head when I find people presenting ANY aspect of history as if it were a single sequence of bullet-point events, much more so when even a hint of the esoteric is involved.

    Sorry to ramble: it’s difficult to discuss these issues without imagining a blackboard behind me 😛
    I hope that all this provides a bit of context on where Gerson is coming from, and why many Christians feel quite differently.
    P.S.: Fans of Aristotle may find something to appreciate in Aquinas.

  42. P.S.: Fans of Aristotle may find something to appreciate in Aquinas.

    Well, I actually like Aquinas, but he is far too attached to circular reasoning to make the existence of God irrefutable for my taste. Then again, Aristotle was a complete misogynist, like most of the Greeks of his time.

    His ethical system, however, can be derived without this stupidity in it if we don’t rely solely on one voice to create our ethical systems. Which is a roundabout way of saying, good points, Benjamin!

  43. I hope that all this provides a bit of context on where Gerson is coming from

    B, I was raised Missouri Synod Lutheran at the knee of Luther himself by two devout Christians who firmly believe God has a sense of humor. Then I went to a Jesuit University where I minored in Christian theology and conjured Aquinas while smoking weed with seminarians. I came out the other end agnostic, and from there lapsed into atheism, with a fierce humanist streak and a love of Jesus in that old-but-not-forgotten friend kind of way. And that should provide a bit of context on where I’m coming from, for whatever that’s worth, lol. 😉

  44. good points, Benjamin!

    Seconded.

  45. Benjamin

    As long as we’re sharing personal context:
    I was born on the campus of Asbury Seminary, and my fathers co-grads continue to be a sort of “extended family”. Both my folks were folksy (in the “Woodie Guthrie should be recognized as an Apostle” sense) Jesus-lovin hippies expressing their belief on all three counts in ministry. Though pa’s since become a school teacher and ma’s a therapist, they’re still really folksy, pretty hippy (and definitely hip :-P), and still involved in ministry. Suffice to say, our household, friends, and faith-life were culturally and theologically atypical. Wesley, Buber, Lewis, and the song writing of Harry Chapin were primary influences (i.e. the musical adaptation of Clarence Jordan’s Cottonpatch Gospel).
    It wasn’t until I wandered far afield and wound up coming back to Christianity through a study of western philosophy (epistema-centric) that I found out exactly how atypical my religious upbringing was.
    How atypical, and where am I now? That’s best answered in telling ya exactly what I think your background and conclusions are worth:
    I think that actions pleasing to God are more important than a declaration of faith. I’m more concerned (and I think scripture supports that God is more concerned) with a persons actions and how they treat their fellow human beings than ones personal cosmological viewpoints.
    I think I have more in common, and certainly more important things, with an atheist who genuinely cares about the wellbeing of both the people they personally know and the people they don’t know than I do with someone who uses faith as an excuse to stop listening, pidgeon-hole, and dehumanize those with whom they disagree.
    I think God’s got plenty of room for the compassionate agnostic, and I know that I do. I married one.

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  48. Wonderful essay. However I would like to point out that Atheism is not at all inconsistent with the Eternal nature of Life. Just because you don’t recognize the existence of a diety, it has nothing to do with whether or not you can experience your own eternal nature.

    New technologies have already been developed that will make the attainment of higher states of awareness on a global scale as easy as playing an interactive video game. This de-mystifies the Bliss process and removes it from demagogues who “Bar the door and suffer not the willing to enter in.”

    Just because one is and atheist doesn’t mean they aren’t Eternal.

  49. b fearn

    Americans as well as people everywhere believe what they believe due to the beliefs they have been exposed to. This has nothing to do with the truth. Official statistics regarding the number of believers are false because the pressure to be part of the religious ‘majority’ is intense.
    Like the evidence for god, the evidence that being an atheist is damaging is non-existent.

  50. If they faced the possibility of public stoning, they’d keep their marriage vows.

    Uh, reality does not bear this out.

    ………………………

    Here is an exerpt of an article from The New Yorker, about how science is answering this question:

    Morality: 2012 ~ The New Yorker

    The e-mail came from the next room.

    “You gotta see this!” Jorge Moll had written. Moll and Jordan Grafman, neuroscientists at the National Institutes of Health, had been scanning the brains of volunteers as they were asked to think about a scenario involving either donating a sum of money to charity or keeping it for themselves.

    As Grafman read the e-mail, Moll came bursting in. The scientists stared at each other. Grafman was thinking, “Whoa — wait a minute!”

    The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

    Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

    Grafman and others are using brain imaging and psychological experiments to study whether the brain has a built-in moral compass. The results — many of them published just in recent months — are showing, unexpectedly, that many aspects of morality appear to be hard-wired in the brain, most likely the result of evolutionary processes that began in other species.

    No one can say whether giraffes and lions experience moral qualms in the same way people do because no one has been inside a giraffe’s head, but it is known that animals can sacrifice their own interests: One experiment found that if each time a rat is given food, its neighbor receives an electric shock, the first rat will eventually forgo eating.

    What the new research is showing is that morality has biological roots — such as the reward center in the brain that lit up in Grafman’s experiment — that have been around for a very long time.

    The more researchers learn, the more it appears that the foundation of morality is empathy. Being able to recognize — even experience vicariously — what another creature is going through was an important leap in the evolution of social behavior. And it is only a short step from this
    awareness to many human notions of right and wrong, says Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago.
    …………………………….
    Being good is not only pleasurable, it’s hardwired, so – the question becomes “What’s wrong with them that they need a daddy figure for the duration of their lives, to tell them in their head every time they do something wrong?

  51. What’s wrong with them that they need a daddy figure for the duration of their lives, to tell them in their head every time they do something wrong?

    Or, you can look at it this way. We already have a “daddy figure” in our heads. The primitive way to explain this seemingly outside force is the invention of God.

  52. Meowser

    I wonder what percentage of those serving time in prison are atheist.

    Let’s Google it. Hum… [snip list by religious category]

    No Quakers? No Wiccans? No Sufis? Eeeenteresting.

    Obviously the bozo referenced in the OP is a complete tool. You don’t have to “fear” big-G God to have some kind of spiritual practice, and spiritual practice does not equal morality.

    But do we have to make this about “anyone with a spiritual life is stupid and morally bankrupt”? I know that’s not what you’re saying, Melissa, but you know, neo-pagans like me get it from all sides, and it makes me a bit testy. It’s not aberrant to have some kind of spiritual yearning, any more than it’s aberrant not to have it.

  53. But do we have to make this about “anyone with a spiritual life is stupid and morally bankrupt”? I know that’s not what you’re saying, Melissa

    Sure isn’t. I know plenty of spiritual atheists, too.

  54. Benjamin

    I don’t think Melissa is supporting the line that “all theists are morally and intellectually bankrupt” so much as she is responding to a particular theist who is both.

    You hit the nail on the head, Meowser:
    Responding to an ill-informed bozo or development in neurophysiological research do *not* provide justification for a different sort of brow-beating. If anything, they provide new material to support the idea that respect is an absolute prerequisite for dialogue (and a self-validating criteria for behavior).

    I don’t see Kate thumping theism, even while she *is* giving a particular theist a good and well-deserved cuffing. I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how positive the majority of this thread has been: proposing different ideas and discussing them on their own merits, and many of these ideas are well worth consideration.

    It’s important to understand that there IS a school of atheist discourse that holds to the notion that contempt is the only way to respond to a theist. The main problem I have with this is the reliance on definition through conflict.

    I’m a theist because I think it is true, not because of any conclusion on the nature of atheism. I have known many intelligent, compassionate, and interesting atheists. I have also known many atheists whose “debate” style consisted of little more than flinging their feces and screeching. My belief in the existence of God is not a function of objection to the latter, and is not a slight on the former, but a thing unto itself.

    I would hope the same could be said for the atheist: that they hold to the idea because they believe it to be true, not because they object to their experienced behavior of theists and wish to differentiate themselves.

    The problems with definition through opposition are myriad, but the greatest of them is that it robs your position of self-definition. It also implies further qualities of contrast, and this is where ideas like those Gerson is espousing come into play. Perhaps more troublesome is that this method of understanding lends one a good understanding of what one is not, but little understanding of what one is.

    This is a game played by members of both sides of any argument: some support a position or idea because they believe it has merit, others support it because they hate the opposition. It’s pretty easy to spot the people who are standing where they are for the sake of conflict, since their rhetoric is almost identical no matter what side they’re on. The whithering disdain of the faithful for the athiest and the withering disdain of the athiest for the theist are distinguishable only by the rote rhetoric they cite: the form and tone of the arguments are interchangable.

    The phrase “Faith is a conversation stopper” has gotten a lot of traffic of late, and it does reflect some truth. A believer who refuses to explain their belief, or to explore it conversationally in a way with which they may be unfamiliar, has effectively shut down communication. Someone who is willing to address questions, exposit, and work through the process of discussing dependant concepts in increasing detail, however, is not making faith the end, but rather the beginning, of effective dialogue. Faith certainly CAN be a conversation stopper, but it doesn’t have to be. So:

    Faith CAN be a conversation stopper, but nothing stops conversation like contempt.

  55. Benjamin

    Ack…. the danger of writing two things at once.
    Replace “Kate” with “Melissa”.
    Look! A distraction!

  56. Dear Ms. McEwen,

    As a retired United Methodist clergy, I found your response to the Gerson op ed piece wonderful. I liked it so much I passed it on to the best lay theologian I know, Barbara Wendland. She has a degree in theology from SMU but has not chosen to become clergy. Rather, she goes to church, is a good citizen, and writes a monthly newsletter which challenges a lot of the hypocrisy of the organized church. But she also reviews books that she thinks would help people mature spiritually.

    In Barbara’s most recent CONNECTIONS (contact her at BCWENDLAND@aol.com), she discussed Karen Armstrong’s book, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION: THE BEGINNING OF OUR RELIGIOUS TRADITIONS. Armstrong, a former nun, examined a time in history when major strides were made in understanding human experience. Philosophers and religious geniuses between 900 and 200 BCE came to amazingly similar conclusions, conclusions I see in your article and in the more thoughtful responses you’ve gotten!

    I believe each of you would find the other most interesting and worth knowing.

    Respectfully,

    Rev. Jerry Eckert

  57. E Pleb Neesta

    First of all one thing that bothers me is the word atheist itself. Its very essence says “there is a god but some don’t believe in it.” I’ve never heard of an “a-big-footist”, or an “a-elfist” or an “a-bush-has-morals-ist.” Why does this one form of [dis]belief have a name?

    One of my exercises to to reflect a question:

    Q: If the theists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?

    And a better question to me is:
    Q: What would be the effect if the believers acted like their religious
    texts say they should.
    *ALL* of the teachings. Not cherry picked bits like the xians (I’ve yet to
    meet a “true christian(tm)”, or even a “>= 20% christian”) do.
    Lots of cherry picked Leviticus:

    “No fags.” “Eye for an eye.” but no “a woman is unclean during her period
    and for a week after.”

    But almost NO christian teachings:
    The Beatitudes are pretty much MIA and are actively disobeyed by the xians in congress. F the meek (terrist luvers, “cut-n-runners(R)). But, in all fairness, they do allow the poor to retain their claim on the “kingdom of heavem.” Pure of heart? Not those at dcphonelist.com. Peacemakers. See meek.

    Matt 5:
    32: But I say to you that whoever divorces his wife for any reason except sexual immorality causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a woman who is divorced commits adultery.

    34: But I say to you, do not swear at all: neither by heaven, for it is God’s throne;
    “So help me god,” indeed. Nothing like a bit of sin at your inauguration. So help me god, btw, is NOT in the constitution.

    38: “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39: But I tell you not to resist an evil person. But whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.
    Oooo… DENIED! Take that, leviticus!

    Matt:19:24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye
    of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.
    A new report from DARPA tells of a program to breed a nano-scale camel,
    ostensibly for recon ops in the middle east. It has been funded by the
    office of the vice president.

    I, personally, am not an atheist believing that it takes as much faith to
    believe in no gods as it does one or more. There are currently too many
    unanswerable questions. Where did the matter and energy in the big-bang come
    from? Where did the inflaton field come from and where did it go? It is
    needed to explain the current observations and theories of the origin of the
    universe. But has no Why does a particle only act differently when observed? These things have been described and characterized but not explained.

    I am, as Stephen Colbert says, “an atheist without balls”, an agnostic. An Agnostic Quantum Deist. *IF* there is a god, then it put the universe into a singularity (matter/energy/laws of physics/etc), lit the fuse and sat back to watch the show. Possibly with a bunch of buddies with bets on the outcome, beer helmets pizza and chips.
    Or not.

    E Pleb Neesta
    GODISNOWHERE
    Blessed are the cheese makers.

    What’s the difference between Bush and UBL?

    One is a sociopath who lives in a big white house and believes the god of abraham speaks to him and tells him to violently force his beliefs on others regardless of innocents killed, maimed and lives destroyed.

    The other is a sociopath who lives in a cave and believes the god of abraham speaks to him and tells him to violently force his beliefs on others regardless of innocents killed, maimed and lives destroyed.

  58. I liked it so much I passed it on to the best lay theologian I know, Barbara Wendland.

    Thanks very much, Reverent Eckert. 🙂

  59. Faith CAN be a conversation stopper, but nothing stops conversation like contempt.

    FWIW, I’ve discussed before what my personal policy is on that sort of thing, and it’s fairly simple: “When I post something critical or snarky about religion, it has to pass the Mama Shakes Rule. If I think Mama Shakes, who reads this blog, would be offended by something, I don’t post it. Mama Shakes is a Christian whose life nearly revolves around service to her church, but if there’s a picture in the local paper of a cookie people are worshipping because it supposedly looks like the baby Jesus, she’s the first person to email it to me with a giggle–because, ya know, that’s pretty silly. She’s devout, and she’s got a sense of humor. She believes God has one, too.”

    And she doesn’t believe that calling oneself a believer magically transports one to a place free from fair criticism. So I stick to what I think is fair and/or funny, and if I crossed a line into contempt, Mama Shakes would be the first to tell me. 😉

  60. Angelos

    The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

    Their 2006 finding that unselfishness can feel good lends scientific support to the admonitions of spiritual leaders such as Saint Francis of Assisi, who said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” But it is also a dramatic example of the way neuroscience has begun to elbow its way into discussions about morality and has opened up a new window on what it means to be good.

    While my mother-in-law lies in a hospital bed after a bad car accident, her fellow choir-members/church-ladies/bridge-and-pinochle-players have pretty much figured out the schedule for the next two months of visitation/meal-cooking/wheeling-her-around-her-apartment-and-into-the-fresh-air. Beyond, of course, what my wife and I are in for.

    They are Lutheran. They could have been anything. Or nothing, like myself. It just doesn’t matter. This is humanity at its best.

    I don’t begrudge anyone their beliefs, but I sure as hell won’t stand for the assumption that, because I have none, my capacity for empathy and compassion are diminished. That’s the key part of this fight. I don’t need a book of fairy tales to tell me what’s right. I don’t need it to encourage the checks we write, or the man-hours we put in, for charity. I didn’t need a book to tell me to go to my friend and fellow Delta Phi’s house to build a wheel-chair ramp after he fell off a ladder and broke both legs. I didn’t need one to go to another DPhi’s house to help after a pipe freeze-n-burst flooded half his house last winter. I don’t need one to get my ass up at 5AM every Thanksgiving morning to go sell T-Shirts and coffee and hot chocolate at Troy’s Turkey Trot, to raise $2000 or so for Clothe-A-Child. I just do. Why? Well, I got roped in about 16 years ago, and I stayed. It’s a major pain in the ass, let me tell you, because by the time I do that and then drive 2 hours down to the family compound, I’m already ready already for my Thanksgiving nap, and I haven’t even had turkey yet! But I tell myself I just put 80-100 winter coats on kids that need them this winter, kids that don’t have Mom’s 255-acre farm to go to for Thanksgiving dinner. So I STFU, smile, and take two naps if I need to.

    None of this is bragging, btw. It’s just, unfortunately, a necessary self-defense that occasionally needs to be deployed against certain cock-knockers that would tell me I’m somehow less worthy than them because I don’t bow to the same Being In The Sky.

    Fuck that.

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  63. The High School Freshman

    “Time is not absolute. It may be that you’re trapped in a infinite loop. If so, it would certainly be a good idea to live a moral life — rather than repeat wrong choices over and over again for eternity. We could all very well be creating our own heaven or hell.”

    Hmmm….I think I smell a reference Eternal Recurrence. Adopting a kind of “Amor fati” or “love of fate”, because we’d have to live the same lives over, and over, and over again… So, to love our fate, instead of embracing all that is good and bad in our lives and viewing it as something that will lead us to our conclusion, we might as well live like decent human beings now as not to repeat mistakes an incomprehesible and unfathomable amount of times.

    Hehe. Have you read Nietzsche, perchance?

    Anyways, back to the topic: I am an Athiest, and I always have been, I guess, without knowing what it was at first. And, I’d like to point out, that I have never stolen anything or killed anybody. I’ve never even name called, but instead, was always the one being called names. (And by folks who went to church, too!) I think it’s safe to say I’m a fairly moral human being, donchya think? And with no religion to boot! Hell, I had no knowledge of the contents of the bible or the ten commandments until I was 11. When a classmate decided she didn’t want me to be a “heathen” anymore, she preached to me and crammed my head so full of Christian crap than I knew what to do with. Every turn of the page was another contradiction. When I said I don’t believe what a book tells me and “degraded” it to nothing more than a best-selling novel, she said that I was simply rebellious and would find “truth” and “forgiveness”.

    Then I found out what “Atheist” meant. 😀

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