Sunday, December 19, 2004

Is Atheism Mediocre?

Actually, Scarborough Country was doing the God thing quite a bit last week. On Tuesday's show they did a segment about “The God Gene” that I discussed in several of last week's posts. The transcript is available here. This time the panelists were Catholic League president Bill Donohue, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Ellen Johnson of American Atheists.

That the discussion was incredibly stupid goes without saying. What was interesting, however, was how incredibly vicious Donohue and Boteach were toward Johnson. For example:

BOTEACH: No, because we all agree Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all agree that God is the truth. That man is not self-made, that man must live by a moral code. We all agree on the 10 commandments. God may have spoken to these different faith communities in different languages, but the essentials we all agree on. But to hear Ellen‘s philosophy of life is so sad and so mediocre, that there‘s no capacity within the human consciousness to think above ourselves, to really, to self negation, abrogation of self. Ellen, how could you teach your kids that they are everything, that there‘s nothing that they - no obligations they have to society, that they should help others because it‘s good for them. You teach your kids selfishness? You really think...

Earlier in the segment Ellen Johnson was asked why, as an atheist, she teaches her children to be altruistic towards others. Her answer was that it is good for them to be nice to other people, and that a society in which people were consistently mean to each other would not be one worth living in. Of course, she was not given any chance to elaborate on that. Nor was she given any opportunity to respond to Boteach's little sermon above. You see, while Boteach and Donohue were allowed to speak in paragraphs, she was only allowed to speak in sentences.

Anyway, Boteach's statement above is an obscene caricature of what Johnson said. Johnson made it perfectly clear that she believes everyone has obligations to society, she just doesn't believe those obligations come from God.

Boteach behaved this way throughout the entire interview (indeed, as he does in all of his television appearances). To get the full effect you have to picture him saying it in his loud, shrill, never-come-up-for-air speaking style. Here's another example:

BOTEACH: By the way Ellen, they do have a place for you in the public schools. There‘s a lot of blank walls, which is what you believe in, absolutely nothing.

Lovely, if you don't believe in God you believe in nothing at all.

Many people have tried to make me ashamed of my atheism. Now it seems I have good reason to be ashamed of my Jewishness.

Boteach's remark that atheism is a sad worldview is one that I have had thrown at me at various times. I can only reply that sadness is in the eye of the beholder, and I for one find Christianity infinitely more depressing than atheism. When I try to view the world as being the product of a kind and loving God, my attention is immediately drawn to all of its misery and suffering. As Bertrand Russell put it, “If I had omnipotence and millions of years in which to experiment, I would not consider humanity much to boast of for my efforts.” When I view the world as the product of purely natural forces, I am immediately struck by the fact that anything good exists at all. Surely a worldview that immediately calls your attention to what is good in the world is more inspiring than one that calls your attention to all that is wrong with it.

Personally, I don't understand people who are inspired by the thought of being slaves to an omnipotent God. Yes, slaves. What else do you call it when disobeying the master is rewarded by an eternal swim in the lake of fire?

And while I'm at it, I wish someone on one of these shows would point out that the issue is not moral relatvism vs. moral absolutism. The issue is how we go about defending moral assertions. Religious people take it for granted that God exists, that he is perfectly good, that we can know his thoughts on moral issues, and that we should obey him in all things. They base their moral claims on this foundation. Atheists take it for granted that human happiness is good and that a just and fair society is the best device for maximizing human happiness.

There is no such thing as moral absolutism. There are only the logical consequences of whatever assumptions you make about the foundation of morality.

Perhaps that's too mathematical an approach for some people. So be it.

Pharyngula has some further comments on this segment here.


At 12:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've had to deal with people my age calling my worldview depressing and meaningless. They just can't tolerate it when someone rejects a human-centered view of the universe, or when someone says that it's possible to be compassionate and loving towards others in the absence of religion and a God.


At 4:15 AM, Blogger Neurode said...

It gets worse yet. Jason writes:

"There is no such thing as moral absolutism. There are only the logical consequences of whatever assumptions you make about the foundation of morality."

It's no secret that moral relativism, which Jason seems to be espousing here, is a patch of philosophical quicksand capable of swallowing entire societies and cultures. It is ridiculously easy to derive logical inconsistencies from it; for example, they include the very scientific, educational, and legal controversies on which Jason is forever sounding off.

One naturally assumes that as a mathematician, Jason should be able to see this. But then he writes:

"Perhaps that's too mathematical an approach for some people. So be it."

At this point, a person trained in mathematics realizes that he really shouldn't expect mathematical insight in this forum. For to anyone with proper training in this field, Jason's philosophical approach falls quite short of being mathematical *enough*.

At 11:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, there are numerous ethical theories which do not depend on the existence of a deity, e.g., various versions of utilitarianism, Kantian deontology, social contract theory, etc. Find an introductory philosophy textbook in ethics or take a class. Or, this is the Internet, after all -- do a Google search!

This is not meant to be a criticism of the original author, but rather to elaborate and to point out that ethics is a complicated and interesting subject. And, I would add, that these are not "atheist" ethical theories -- rather, these are ethical theories that anyone can accept, regardless of whether the person believes in God.

Some believers might recognize the desirability of being able to make an ethical argument that is persuasive to anyone, regardless of religious belief. Or they might recognize the desirability of doing what is right, because it is right, not because of fear of punishment (e.g., going to Hell) or promise of reward (e.g., going to Heaven).

Religion and ethics are sometimes related, but they are not the same!

At 1:59 PM, Blogger Jason said...


Thanks for the comment. Why would I interpret it as being critical of what I wrote initially? I think what you are saying is that ethics and morality can rest upon many different foundations, and a belief in God is only one of those foundations. I cast the discussion in terms of atheism vs. theism only because that is how it was expressed during the television segment I was criticizing.


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