Friday, October 27, 2006

in defense of atheism (no, I have not gone insane)

"As to the essence of my argument, though, there was no credible counter-argument whatsoever, no claim that right and wrong can somehow have inherent meaning without recourse to Something Higher than ourselves." (Avi Shafran, here )
It is truly a shame that such spurious arguments are conjured up for the sake of defending religious faith, as they provide more fodder for those who are disbelievers. I often joke with my wife that I should attend some kiruv seminars to help argue the side of the skeptics. I think religious faith is fully reasonable (though perhaps neither empirically provable or demonstrable in the way a math equation is, as discussed in the past), but I cannot bear a sloppily reasoned thesis even in defense of a proper cause.
The notion that a theory of ethics presupposes religious faith is belied by opening any basic philosophy textbook. History is filled with theories of ethics that seek to define good vs. evil (and even those terms need to be made more precise - do we mean good character or good actions?) without resorting to religion. As early as Aristotle there was a concept of "virtue" in the sense of perfection of character, which has nothing to do with carrying out the moral imperatives of a deity. More modern thinkers argue in favor of consequentialist ethics, where good and evil is a matter of anticipating what will produce the best outcome for the individual or group. The man of faith may argue that this is not the same as "inherent" goodness, but that simply begs the question of how we know there is such a thing as inherent goodness in the first place. Even if one claims that ethics must resort to Something Higher, who says that Something must be a capitalized deity? If one defines ethics as that which helps mankind realize the greatest Freedom, the greatest degree of Rational Behavior, or some other grand higher Something, doesn't that also fit the bill?
To declare that atheism leads to "a place where the very concepts of morality and ethics are rendered meaningless, a worldview in which a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is no less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist," is both wrong and poorly reasoned.
The Ishbitza in Mei haShiloach teaches that the keshes(bow) hidden in the clouds shown to Noach represents the strength to defend the convictions behind a person's hidden innermost beliefs (yirah). Arrows shot blindly from that keshes in defense of faith not only miss their intended mark, but rebound and cause even greater harm to that which lies close to our hearts.


  1. Anonymous3:12 PM

    Good post. I also posted a rebutal, his arguments were very flawed from multiple angles, and this kind of silly thinking absolutely does hurt peoples emunah (mine for sure). Its also somewhat ironic that the most visible defenders of religion (Cross Currents), and the most visible defenders of Atheism (Dawkins & Harris) both do their respective causes no favors by making spurious arguments.

    Avi Shafran also believes he has proof of Judaism:

    "I do indeed have what I consider overwhelming evidence that my “particular brand” of religion is the one true one"

    I do wish he would share it, I would feel much better.

  2. yehuda12:21 PM

    I'm not getting involved in the question of wheter certain arguments have merit or not but I do feel strongly that the fact secular society does not produce tzadikim like frum society is a major indication of the divinty of Torah.e.g. Who is the secular or cathlic version of the chofetz chaim this centery?Where can I find his influence in the day to day life of my nonjewish coworkers?What is the secular concept of a 'ben aliyah'?.Why have I never met one?etc.

  3. I would suggest that truly consistent atheism must hold to a morality that is totally egoistical, and at best pragmatic, or else admit to the existence of Something Higher. Many atheists say that they base their morality on truth (that is, integrity and honesty in all situations) or reason or some other value. But in recognizing that value as fundamental, they admit there is something that transcends themselves--and therefore, even if they deny it the name of Deity, they admit the existence of Deity.

  4. Yehuda: How about Martin Luther King, Jr. for starters? He was instrumental in convincing almost an entire nation that to be racist was a bad thing. I think that compares with writing a book on lashon hara.

    There's many more, the fact that you haven't heard of them means absolutely NOTHING.

    Does the fact that our frum society produces scumbags as well affect your faith, or are you only swayed by the good, and not the bad?

  5. anon19:17 AM

    By no means do I claim to be "holding" in the universe of secular/atheistic philosophy and I understand what you are saying and the point you are trying to make -- but I still don't get it. I remember having this discussion/argument with my criminal law professor in my first semester of law school, in which I asked him -- isn't any system of ethics not based on some religious/absolute value simply pragmatics? It's not practical for people to kill and steal and rape so we as a society preclude it. But without something infusing a higher value to it, I don't see as being ethically imperative. His answer to me (as an atheist) was basically, in hachi nami -- I call social pragmatism by the name ethics. I am almost scared to get into this because I know the philosophers of the past and today have spent much time discussing it. To me, at least, it seems like semantics to give pragmatics the title of "ethics." And if that's what the discussion is, the question then doesn't bother me.

    Yehuda, they do exist -- you havent met them or read about them. That's not to say that the Torah isn't the best method to reach moral perfection, but throughout history (and even today) righteous people -- even if not motivated by the Torah or some other religion -- do exist. The significane of their motivations matter is a whole other discussion.

  6. I do feel strongly that the fact secular society does not produce tzadikim like frum society is a major indication of the divinty of Torah.e.g. Who is the secular or cathlic version of the chofetz chaim this centery?

    Have you ever even bothered to investigate this or are you just assuming that they do not have such people? There are, in fact, tremendously ethical non-Jewish and non-religious people. It just astonishes me that you can even ask that question, especially when it comes to Catholics. Have you never heard of Mother Theresa? Do you think she's the only one? There are missionaries who spend their lives trying to help (and convert) people in third-world countries. What frum ever give up all of his personal ambitions in order to literally feed and heal people in need?

  7. Anon1 - it seems to me that this is simply begging the question. You can't start by defining ethics as something other than social prgamatics (or a social contract) and then argue that only religion fits the bill. There are other competing definitions. Also, you are not at all forced to prgamatism or consequentialism as your only solution - Aristotle spoke of virtue without religion, and Kant certainly thought one could have a categorical imperative w/o resorting to G-d.
    But all this is besides the point. Whether you are convinced by the answers of the many philosophers who have dealt with this issue or not is a personal matter. But to not at least acknowledge that others have found meaningful answers outside religion and to accuse those who are atheists of being 'hopelessly conflicted by the irreconcilability of their unspeakable realization and their trumpeted posture' is to express sheer ignorance of the history and culture of western civilization and the way it has addresses this issue. Shafran's approach reinforces the stereotype of religious belief as simplistic and one dimensional.

  8. Chaim,

    you and Gil are right that one should not write a post that like that and pretend that no one else has thought the question, when in truth many others over the millenia have addressed it explicitly. And I wasn't trying to disagree with that point. I think you are right if you venture into that field you should at least be educated as to what the lay of the land is. Personally, whether it be pragmatism or a philosophical system that believes in "inherent" values without a belief in G-d, I have never really understood those positions and why one is compelled to follow such value systems. Can't tell you that I looked very hard and far (and hence I am also yet to write publicly about my views on those positions). But you're right that public discourse should be done with those educated in the field.

  9. yehuda1:17 PM

    Greg-MLK was known to have cheated on his wife.Scumbags arn't 'produced' by society-it's more like as the Gem says 'Bney Aliyah' are always the minorty.:Gil and Greg-I was waiting to hear about Mother Thresha etc(1)I see no comparsion between her and the CC.Was every word she said worthy of learning from?Why don't any of my WORKING day to day non missinary cathlic coworkers emulate her or have any moral rolemodels that influenced them in their day to day life?Anon1- If they do exsist please name them for me.Till then I remain I remain with the conviction that Torah being divine is the only system capble of producing a CC and his day to day influence on the mundane world.

  10. Anonymous9:52 PM

    >Have you ever even bothered to investigate this or are you just assuming that they do not have such people? There are, in fact, tremendously ethical non-Jewish and non-religious people.

    Gil, what do you do with "chesed l'umim chatas"?

  11. Gil, what do you do with "chesed l'umim chatas"?

    Either it's talking about rov or some other interpretation (see the Gemara).

  12. Why don't any of my WORKING day to day non missinary cathlic coworkers emulate her or have any moral rolemodels that influenced them in their day to day life?

    I once worked with a girl from a Catholic family who was a drunk and very promiscuous. She was the black sheep of the family who had moved to NY, but many of her brothers and sisters (I think 9 of them) were nuns and priests. She once mentioned how her brothers had to stay in seminary for Xmas. I responded in surprise and another Catholic colleague said that it was unseemly to spend the holiest day of the year in such a commercialized atmosphere. It had never occurred to me before that they actually have people who take their holidays seriously and are concerned with spirituality. I guess living in NY and only dealing with people in a business environment only exposes me to people on the fringe, or at least not at the core. I've just never met their priests, nuns and ministers (nor do I have any interest in doing so).

    Have you ever met a frum person in business whose every word is deserving of study? Did the Chofetz Chaim - or any rosh yeshiva - ever work in a corporate environment?

  13. yehuda1:02 PM

    The Chofetz Chaim did not work in a corprate envirment but unlike Mother Theresha he did work (he kept the books in his wife grocery since she couldn't read) and was self supporting.The CCs son in his hesped said that a gadlus of the CC we can all relate to is that even the corrupt antisemitic Polish postal authority far away from Radin knew that When the CC sent out seforim daily they didn't have to weigh the package as the CC wouldn't of estimated and ended up putting on insufficent postage due to chases gezel.Most of my office is Irish Cathlics.We were once discussing 'do you know anyone who would give up his job and face an uncertain future rather then prepare a misleading financial statement on a one time basis'While they all said probally not I can say my brother in law did!

  14. My point was that if there was a righteous Christian who kept the books in his little store, you wouldn't know about it. Just like the Chofetz Chaim didn't work in a corporate environment, you wouldn't expect any sort of equivalent that may or may not exist to work there either.

  15. Anonymous5:51 PM

    >Have you ever met a frum person in business whose every word is deserving of study?

    Yes, quite a few.

    (I never met him but Irving Bunim comes to mind as well.)

  16. Anonymous6:27 PM

    When I said quite a few, I didn't mean that EVERY word is deserving of study, I think that there a very few people period of such caliber.

    Rather, I meant to say that I have met quite a number of frum tzadikim who are in business and who are worthy of emulation.

  17. Is that fact that on a practical level the masses do not live up to the Christian ideals their religion may advocate or even to the standards of secular humanism any more of an indication that these philosophies are wrong than the fact that the overwhelming masses of even Orthodox Jews do not fully live up to the standards of the Chafeitz Chaim, if that is your role model of ethical behavior?