Article

The Rabbi Is Confused

Every now and then I come across an article about atheism from a theistic perspective that really gets the point makes me want to puke. Written by some smug theist wielding the same old bag of dirty tricks (fallacies like atheism = moral relativism, etc.), these pieces always pander to constituents of the ‘any faith is better than no faith’ cultural movement.

Today brings me a case in point, written by Rabbi Avi Shafran. This article is by no means unique, perhaps not even worthy of refutation (as the points herein have been made and refuted a billion times over), but can hopefully serve as a timeless example and retro-referential index of the fallacies theists perennially utilize in their misappraisals of atheism. He starts off:

Back on March 12, a paean to “the dignity of atheism” appeared on The New York Times op-ed page. It was penned by celebrated philosopher Slavoj Zizek who, had he consulted the same periodical’s obituary page a mere three days earlier, would have come face to image with the late Richard Kuklinski.

Oh, the implications!

Mr. Kuklinski, who was retired from life at the age of 70, claimed, utterly without remorse, to have killed more than 100 people as a Mafia enforcer; his favored methods included ice picks, crossbows, chain saws and a cyanide solution administered with a nasal-spray bottle….the notion that there is no higher authority than nature is precisely what enables people like Mr. Kuklinski – and the vast majority of the killers, rapists and thieves who populate the nightly news.

That’s funny, because I didn’t find anything about his lack of respect for incorporeal authority while reading his biography, but maybe by his ‘notion that there is no higher authority than nature,’ the Rabbi was actually referring to Richard’s attendance in his youth to Catholic grammar school and his service as an altar boy. As always, the theist is utterly immaculate in his lack of respect for the facts. Moving on:

What it is to say, though, is that atheism qua atheism presents no compelling objection to such behavior – nor, for that matter, any convincing defense of the very concepts of ethics and morality themselves.

Fortunately, theism has a solution. Morality is defined by God’s opinion. I mean, the capital G says it all, no doubt.

The reason is not abstruse. One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here is ultimately bound only by his wants.

Uh, not quite Rabbi, although the reason behind why you’d call natural processes random seems quite abstruse to me. To put it succinctly though: First, I can try to want my way across the freeway during rush hour, but I’m going to necessarily find that there are much more binding arbiters than want in the world. Extrapolating this, we come easily to practical moralities such as reciprocal altruism, mutual deterrence, universality, etc. and so forth. I plan on writing a detailed post on morality in the near future, in which I’ll cover these points further.

With no imperative beyond the biological, a true atheist, pressed hard enough by circumstances toward unethical or immoral behavior, cannot feel compelled to resist.

I guess I’m not a ‘true atheist’ then. Nice try though, with the: ‘Help! I’m trapped and theism is my only way out!’

In his view, a purposeless process of evolution [1] has brought us to where we stand, and our feeling that there are good deeds and evil ones is but a utilitarian quirk of natural selection – like our proclivity to eat more than we need when food is available [2]. And so, just as we might choose to forego a second helping of pizza if we harbor an urge to lose weight, so may we choose, for personal gain (of desires, not pounds), to loosen our embrace of a moral, ethical life [3].

[1] First of all, not all atheists are evolutionists, but that’s fine – he’s not really attacking atheism per se, but objectivists and people who have evidence to back up their worldview (but take note of how he’s trying to confuse the situation). Not understanding that atheism is a corollary of critical thought (the kind used in evolutionary biology), he instead commits an associative fallacy, assuming that atheists are evolutionists (read: critical thinkers) instead of the other way around, which panders to the idea that evolution is a doctrine of the Religion of Atheism. Read: dumb-ass.

[2] Sure, the innate human tendency towards reciprocal altruism is not a philosophical stronghold in and of itself, but bolstered up through further moral inquiry becomes a very strong base from which to argue ethical modalities. He obviously doesn’t understand objective morality too well.

[3] We objectivists try to show that personal gain and morality are synonymous, and produce the best societies as a corollary (rendering the very purpose – from a morally utilitarian standpoint – of collectivist religions like Judaism and Christianity as outmoded by comparison). Framed in this manner, the Rabbi has no argument.

Atheism, in the end, is a belief system in its own right [4], one in which there can be no claim that a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is any less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist[5].

[4] Nope. It’s a corollary of logic and critical thought. And moreover, it is characterized by a lack of belief and thus cannot be a belief system. If one chooses atheism solely because of emotional reasons (anti-establishment, childhood trauma, etc.), then their worldview is in the same boat as a religious worldview (that is, the ‘worldview based on emotional appeals and faith’ boat). But the atheist to whom he seems to be referring sounds more like an objectivist to me. He must be confused.

[5] Bullshit. In modern society, the cannibal is about as anti-individualist as you can get. Notice how he also frames morality as though it were a collectivist endeavor when he says ‘…is any less commendable member of the species than…’ as though the individual should be subverted for the good of the species, the state, and/or god. And earlier he was calling us utilitarian!

Society already has in place laws and social codes that clearly punish the cannibal and reward the philanthropist. These structures are human universals, and pre-date religion.

To a true atheist, there can be no more ultimate meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather; no more import to right and wrong than to right and left [6]. To be sure, rationales might be conceived for establishing societal norms, but social contracts are practical tools, not moral imperatives; they are, in the end, artificial[7]. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes[8].

[6] Translation: ‘Because heaven and hell make divine the deterrence incentives, it logically follows that good and bad are made meaningful by them – namely because I’m a moron.’

[7] OK?!? If individuals are kept at peace by means ‘artificial,’ then what use have individuals for means ‘natural’?

[8] I thought the fact that humans are conscious and emotive entities axiomatically places them on a plane above that of mosquitoes. Even so, the implication is that we should believe in a Creator regardless of whether or not one exists – we should believe because it feels good or imparts meaning. The sheer irony is ludicrous: that he would believe in an invented God and then call rationalist morality artificial. What a dick.

Anyways you guys get the point. He goes on to talk about the famous secular despots of the 20th century as if them being atheists holds implications for the entire worldview, and tries to further equate atheism and religion, apparently forgetting the following:

The Bible legitimizes monstrous immoralities. The Koran says: ‘Kill the infidels.’ Atheism says…oh yeah, NOTHING!


Comments (9 comments)

Aaron Kinney / May 24th, 2006, 1:30 pm / #1

Excellent analysis. Your commentary was insightful and entertaining.

Its funny that the good Rabbi tried to use a specific example (Kuklinski) as evidence for the alleged immorality of atheism, considering that a quick search revealed that Kuklinski was raised a Catholic. I get the feeling that Kuklinski would say “yes” if asked if he believed in God.

And when it comes to overall evidence, the Rabbi is on the losing side. He should be more careful of the arguments he uses. Federal Prison System statistics show that atheists are underrepresented among prison populations. When mothers kill their children (thats been happening alot lately), religious reasons are cited. Crime tends to be higher in states with more religious belief. Not to mention that Godless Europe has arguably the best behaved, least criminal society in the world.

And why does the birthplace of Abrahamic religion (Israel) experience more explosions on a daily basis than any given movie starring the Governator?

We got theists licked on the evidence game.

a / May 24th, 2006, 6:10 pm / #2

Easy pickins’. That Rabbi caricatured the atheism position big time. A monkey with highschool critical thinking skills could find the logical fallacies in this.

My bullshit detector started going off when he started mixing up ToE and atheism as if one entails the other.

Funny shit..

Jeffrey Monts / May 25th, 2006, 11:08 am / #3

Aaron – unfortunately (as you probably know), Europe is being overrun by Muslim immigrants who want nothing to do with its secular culture. Instead of appreciating their new found pluralistic freedom, we see them (in instances such as the cartoon controversy) intimidating the press into abondoning its journalistic principles, and then prominent vocalists of unrestrained multiculturalism blame free speech instead of religious irrationalism for the violence.

Anyways, glad you guys enjoyed the commentary. I should have a few more posts up in the coming days.

brandon / May 26th, 2006, 12:51 am / #4

are you quite sure that you have atheist morals really fleshed out? especially as a world view?

The accusation that atheism turns to nihilism is quite true here i think. Atheism crumbles at ethics on a world view.

“recprical altruism”? what!?

Sorry, but even Hobbes was wrong on this, this doesn’t exist. Their is no reason to believe in reciprocal altruism at all.

So if I hold the door open for someone. it is in the hopes that they will hold one open for me? That if i give money to a bum, i’ll see that money again? Or that if lend my freind money, he will lend me money in the future? That is wishfull thinking.

Their is no reason to give back to anyone when they give you something. For atheism, their isn’t any reason to try and leach off of everyone, and laugh as you run away with your wealth. You started in nothing, will end in nothing, if robbing, killing, backstabbing will make you happy, nothing should logically stop you. Especially when we return to nothing, our life having no objective value, purpose, meaning at all.

If we make our lives have value, and make morals up ourselves subjectivly with no outside standards, they don’t really mean anything do they? Would they even exist?In all reality in a godless world, we are alone with no right or wrong, no reason why killing the next guy should ever be a problem, pondering our subjectiviy and ultimate aloness while we await a meaningless death.

BlackSun / May 26th, 2006, 11:54 am / #5

brandon–

“The accusation that atheism turns to nihilism is quite true here i think. Atheism crumbles at ethics on a world view.”

You coudn’t be more wrong. You are assuming that only with a deity can there be any absolutes. In fact, human nature and the conditions of the environment (physical and social) make up the natural underpinnings of morality.

Reciprocal altruism holds true because those who steal and then laugh about it are eventually caught–or at the very least shunned by others. Detection of deception is one of the most fundamental skills of human intuition. Reputation is an important barometer of trustworthiness for humans.

Brandon, this is basic stuff that I’ve discussed ad nauseam. I suggest you bone up on evolutionary psychology. It would answer a lot of your objections.

Death IS meaningless–it is our life that has meaning, and only the meaning we create ourselves.

I think Jeffrey’s points are well taken. Human laws and socially enforced codes deter aggression. Fuzzy and variable religious ‘moralities’ are worse than useless. It is religion and the practice of holding unsupported beliefs that paradoxically invokes nihilism (since all beliefs are subjective, one is as valid as another).

Jeffrey Monts / May 26th, 2006, 1:36 pm / #6

While I love that you’re critiquing this post as if it proposed a moral system, it’s only meant to be a highlighting of the common misconceptions that are utilized against secularism in general. As I said, I’ll be writing a much longer post on morality sometime soon.


are you quite sure that you have atheist morals really fleshed out? especially as a world view?

The accusation that atheism turns to nihilism is quite true here i think. Atheism crumbles at ethics on a world view.

Thank you, for that well reasoned point you just made. Worldview change commencing.


“recprical altruism”? what!?

Sorry, but even Hobbes was wrong on this, this doesn’t exist. Their is no reason to believe in reciprocal altruism at all.

Oh man…it’s not a belief. Reciprocal altruism explicated is the idea that multiple people can work together and that the product of their work will be ‘more than the sum of its parts,’ so to speak. This is what allows a society to function to the benefit of all individuals therein.

Let me break it down for you:

Suppose that I’m alive c. 10000 BCE, I haven’t eaten in a week, and I see a large lone bird sitting in a tree nearby. I decide that it looks very tasty, so I pick up a rock, throw it at the bird, and with my fantastic aim (I’m awesome in any century), kill it. I reflect for a moment on this amazing feat of coordination (or maybe not, if I’m neanderthallic), but then realize that the bird is stuck in the tree (and on an unreachable branch, no less). This particular tree is impossible to climb, and so I move on, likely to an untimely death after a few more weeks without food.

If, however, I had had a tall companion, I potentially could have bargained the use of his shoulders for a share of my bird-meat, and reached that individually unattainable branch. Although I’d have to give up some of the meat, I’d have none without his help, and so I’d agree. Although my weight on his shoulders might possibly put a strain on his back, if he’s with me then he likely wouldn’t have eaten in a week either, so he’d agree. And thus you have reciprocal altruism.

Now in a society, an individual grows up depending on the labor of others. One might study quantum physics his whole life, but he wouldn’t be doing so if he wasn’t sure that he would be able to purchase the essentials such as food and shelter with the fruits of his study. And because there are companies that compose and manufacture sustenance, he can exchange his money for their products, products which in a much more primative existence he’d have to focus his entirety towards in order to survive.

Of course, you could say that this is a misconstruing of the concept of altruism, which implies selflessness. Not so! Any exchange, especially money loans, must be conducted to some extent in good will on the idea of building a profitable relationship. When you bust the 9-5 every day, your employer’s side of the bargain has not yet been fullfilled, and so you are loaning him your work with the expectation that he will pay on the pre-specified bi-weekly (or whatever) date. An unscrupulous employer might try to skip town when the first bi-weekly comes around, but this is essentially unprofitable in the long run, because (as BlackSun mentioned above) a reputation will be developed and it will follow you everywhere you go, and you’ll be completely shunned. But even so, the employees that you’d screwed over would never have gotten their their hours back. Often times, exchange agreements then have to be made in good will, because an employee can never be absolutely sure that he won’t get screwed by loaning his work out. Obviously a company like Ralphs has a reputation for being pretty good about paying their employes (afaik), but companies not yet off the ground have no reputation, and for these companies to employ workers, the workers have to give them a loan in good will. And that’s essentially altruistic (although you could argue that an employee who’d seek out an unkown employer as opposed to a reputable one is desperate, and so must make the risk, good will having nothing to do with it, but if you want to take it that far then yes, there’s no such thing as reciprocal altruism, but then we’re dealing with a semantical issue, because the term in the sense that I’m using it was coined (I think!) by Richard Dawkins).

Regardless, the idea is that this system of reciprocation can foster ethics is the very foundation of society, and so you claiming that it doesn’t exist is a load of bullshit.

Furthermore, I’d like you to explain to me how the concept of god in any way gives this (unnecessary) ‘higher meaning’ to morality, other than relegating the deterrence incentive to a ‘higher plane of existence.’ You won’t be able to because it doesn’t.

Don’t sin or you’ll go to hell!

Sounds just like:

Don’t break rules or you’ll go to jail!

Don’t be unscrupulous or you’ll be ostracized!

Don’t kill someone else lest you incite the rage of their family!

Seriously dude, your idea of morality is such a load of bogus. It (literally) needs to be brought down to earth.

Anyways, I’ll be writing that post on morality in due time.

Aaron Kinney / May 26th, 2006, 4:01 pm / #7

Brandon,

“Their is no reason to give back to anyone when they give you something. For atheism, their isn’t any reason to try and leach off of everyone, and laugh as you run away with your wealth.”

Thats because atheism is not a moral code. It is merely a negative statement.

“You started in nothing, will end in nothing, if robbing, killing, backstabbing will make you happy, nothing should logically stop you. Especially when we return to nothing, our life having no objective value, purpose, meaning at all.”

Bullshit. See how long you remain happy for when you live a life of killing and backstabbing. You will be backstabbed in return by someone sooner or later. Remember that you arent the only human being that exists, and other human beings are just as capable as you are.

Besides, do coerce someone is to imply that you can be coerced as well, and you dont want to be coerced do you?

“If we make our lives have value, and make morals up ourselves subjectivly with no outside standards, they don’t really mean anything do they?”

Atheism says nothing of morality. If you want morality, you need to look to self-interest and individualism, and those ideologies do indeed have objective standards.

“Would they even exist?In all reality in a godless world, we are alone with no right or wrong, no reason why killing the next guy should ever be a problem, pondering our subjectiviy and ultimate aloness while we await a meaningless death.”

Inserting God into the equation solves nothing, Brandon. Why should you care what God wants? Why should you listen to him? Why do you care if you end up in heaven or hell?

Theism steals from the self-interested objective moral code. It assumes it in its threats of hell and promises of heaven. Why the fuck else would any theist even care what God wants them to do aside from their own self-interest?

Brandon / May 27th, 2006, 4:21 pm / #8

“Inserting God into the equation solves nothing, Brandon. Why should you care what God wants? Why should you listen to him? Why do you care if you end up in heaven or hell?”

This is true, aaron

“Theism steals from the self-interested objective moral code. It assumes it in its threats of hell and promises of heaven. Why the fuck else would any theist even care what God wants them to do aside from their own self-interest? ”

This is also true, and i thank you for putting so well. My argument was not to build up a notion of God, but trying to understand the consequences of one without him.

My question is this, how does secular ethics, as well as theological ethics as explained by Aaron give any meaning and purpose to ones life?

“Death IS meaningless–it is our life that has meaning, and only the meaning we create ourselves”
This is what i’m intersted in right here. How do you attach meaning to life? If our meaning in life is what we make it, and it’s subjective, i sat it doesn’t exist. If you can awnser that objectivly, you’ve solved every problem i’ve ever worried about seriosly.

“If, however, I had had a tall companion, I potentially could have bargained the use of his shoulders for a share of my bird-meat, and reached that individually unattainable branch. Although I’d have to give up some of the meat, I’d have none without his help, and so I’d agree. Although my weight on his shoulders might possibly put a strain on his back, if he’s with me then he likely wouldn’t have eaten in a week either, so he’d agree. And thus you have reciprocal altruism.”

No, this doesn’t make sense. If I could use him as a tool, a device, to get the meat and kill him, and no one is looking why shouldn’t I. Especicially back then if you couldn’t get caught. Recirocal altruism?

This happens all the time in human history. The Spartans ally with the athenians to kill the persians, in just enough time to take over their city for more wealth. Even though they just helped them out. Because who gives a fuck, their spartans, what could any greek nation do, or any any nation in that time frame. Recirocal altruism?

Or how about america. If any poor eastern country doesn’t want to cooperate, or side with us, we will pull wal-mart out of their country and watch as they crumble. Recirocal altruism? Sounds like selfish-selfinterested bullying to me.

Or if i steal a pencil from a kid, who turns around and says “give it back”. Why should I. Because reciprocal altruism says i won’t be happy, or will be scorned by others. Who cares? how does happiness give meaning and value to life? or avoid the ocvlvs malvs (evil eye) from others?

“Would they even exist?In all reality in a godless world, we are alone with no right or wrong, no reason why killing the next guy should ever be a problem, pondering our subjectiviy and ultimate aloness while we await a meaningless death.”

Your reply: “Inserting God into the equation solves nothing, Brandon. Why should you care what God wants? Why should you listen to him? Why do you care if you end up in heaven or hell?

your right, but you dodge an interesting question,(sorry forgot my latin fallacy word)
You assumed their is a problem Aaron if you say that “inserting God into the equation solves nothing.” You agree that their is a problem to be solved then. And how does atheism solve that? That is the question two paragraphs up.

my fallacious paragraph: I think that Atheism has emotional consequences that cannot be avoided. Feelings of despair, and existential pain, which many atheists just choose to look over or not acknowledge, and especially can never solve them. Many atheists don’t know much about the ideals that existenialism lays out, which to me is the best for athiests or theists in intellectual honesty.

Jeffrey Monts / May 28th, 2006, 4:07 pm / #9

“No, this doesn’t make sense. If I could use him as a tool, a device, to get the meat and kill him, and no one is looking why shouldn’t I. Especicially back then if you couldn’t get caught. Recirocal altruism?”

That’s retarded. Of course you could do that, but he would fight back, and possibly kill you. The two would certainly be better off working together, as circumstances would further arise that would be better handled with the productivity of two individuals. You obviously missed the point of that whole section I wrote about society. To reiterate, society is the extrapolation of all those cooperative instances where people got together and realized that problems were better solved with the help of others, for the (percieved) mutual benefit of each individual involved. The very fact that societies even EXIST is evidence that throughout recent history, in more cases than not, individuals decided to work together rather than to kill each other. The only time it’s better to fight than to cooperate is when a conflict of interests escalates into an ‘if he gets that food than I die’ type of situation.

“This happens all the time in human history. The Spartans ally with the athenians to kill the persians, in just enough time to take over their city for more wealth. Even though they just helped them out. Because who gives a fuck, their spartans, what could any greek nation do, or any any nation in that time frame. Recirocal altruism?”

Dude, I never claimed that reciprocal altruism is the end-all to ethics. You are throwing these assumptions left and right, and for some reason focusing on this concept that was mentioned only once in my original post.

But as for your argument above, I did mention deterrence in the same sentence that I mentioned reciprocal altruism. I won’t elaborate here though. You’re commiting a big fallacy by comparing the ethics of individuals to the nature of nation-states. Regardless, I’m done with this discussion for now. We can continue it when I explicate my moral system in the future.

-Jeff M.

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