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.