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‘Some say’ atheists are morose, amoral sociopaths

March 24, 2011

It has the look of an easy target, this latest rabbi-rant from Huffington Post. Where do they get these people? It begins, typically, with a list of points on which the fellow agrees with Sam Harris, a skeptic who claims that science can answer some moral questions.

Feh. Enough with the oleaginous prattle. At this point, the rabbi goes off the deep end.

The average atheist makes certain basic assumptions about reality: that we all exist as a result of blind and purposeless happenstance, that free will is illusory, that there is no conscious “self” and that there is no objective right or wrong.

So right off the bat the rabbi fails to comprehend ‘the average atheist.’ Well, that’s charitable. Honestly, it is a straw man that he then bashes for the remainder of the article. Since he goes after this perceived ‘average’ he doesn’t have to come up with any specific example. He does offer a quote, but it fails to match up with his supposed ‘average.’

As Dr. Will Provine has said, “[as an atheist] you give up hope that there is an imminent morality … you can’t hope for there being any free will [and there is] … no ultimate foundation for ethics.”

These are not assumptions, of course, but simply what is evident. ‘Giving up hope’ is not even the same thing as an assumption. Lacking a belief is not a belief in the opposite: lack of belief in gods does not imply a solid belief in no-god. Old ground for me, I suppose, been over this misconception…or, perhaps, deception…before. I have trouble with the sincerity of the rabbi, so I’ll go with that. Deception.

So with those false presuppositions under his belt, the rabbi feels free to question why the skeptic judges much of anyone or anything at all.

The case he tries to make is that morality is somehow scientifically built into reality and when done correctly results in what he calls “human thriving.” But surely the objective listener must recognize that the notion of “thriving” itself is utterly subjective. The Taliban might very well believe that they are the pinnacle of human civilization…

The problem here, is that Harris puts forth some ways to measure human well-being, that it would seem we could all agree on. I suppose the Taliban might not. I’ll let the fellow speak for himself.

Afghan women have a 12% literacy rate and a life expectancy of 44 years. Afghanistan has nearly the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the world. It also has one of the highest birthrates. Consequently, it is one of the best places on earth to watch women and infants die. And Afghanistan’s GDP is currently lower than the world’s average was in the year 1820.  It is safe to say that the optimal response to this dire situation—that is to say, the most moral response—is not to throw battery acid in the faces of little girls for the crime of learning to read. This may seem like common sense to us—and it is—but I am saying that it is also, at bottom, a claim about biology, psychology, sociology, and economics.

The rabbi, OTOH, paints this as ‘somehow scientific’ and is purposefully vague about Harris’ claims, making them easier to attack. Moving on from this, the rabbi then holds forth on meaninglessness and amorality.

Either way, why exactly does he care? What difference could it possibly make what one random collection of electrons does to another? He harbors some subjective notion that things ought not be done that way? Well tough darts.

This was answered nicely in the comments on the article: it’s what we’re programmed to do. If holding the door open for somebody makes me feel good, I might as well do it. And I don’t need some galactic peeping tom with delusions of lechery to convince me to do it.

Oh, but he’s not done…

In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way.

It is amusing to contemplate these ideas, since it took a rabbi to come up with these silly crimes – dare I suggest that he’s considered a few rolls in the hay, robbing a few blind men? Eh, sure. Dare. But it’s also amusing to see what he can’t imagine. That some basic idea like reciprocity, that makes so much sense it pops up in societies all over the world, didn’t require divine intervention to conceive of it. In fact, it’s not hard to discover it in ancient history where the notion of Jesus or the judeo-christian god-concept had nothing to do with it.

One might go further and consider the idea that the ‘Golden Rule’ was not a creation of the Abrahamic religions or their god-concept, but one it borrowed from elsewhere, from earlier societies. More on that later, when the rabbi trots out atheism stealing its morality from xianity.

Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes?

Pointed out in the comments again, the answer is ‘no’. It is not that selfishness is programmed into us by genes, but that the genes themselves are selfish; that was the point of The Selfish Gene. Their selfish goal is to reproduce, and to do it the most. But this isn’t enough. He has to return fire on Dawkins, for The God Delusion, I suspect.

It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day. Freud summed this up well when he said, “the moment a man questions the meaning and value of life he is sick, since objectively neither has any existence.”

Again I have to chuckle at the commenters – one points out that, since this expected behavior is not observed, the rabbi might conclude that his assumptions are wrong. But no; better to get some use out of that straw man. He’s not done bashing atheism. His next idea is that atheists should be racists.

Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do to their creation in the “image of God.”

This presumes (naturally, presumptions are involved) that we could identify such beneficial mutations, and that they wouldn’t spread through the population, as beneficial mutations ought to do. It’s not as if beneficial mutations have to be big and obvious. We expect them, based on our scientific understanding, to be small and gradual.

Of course, the rabbi also pointedly ignores the history of religiously-inspired racism, as if religion were some sort of vaccine against bad thoughts. Our country’s history provides ample evidence against this nonsense. Slavery and discrimination have been defended via religion – and also opposed via religion – since before the Civil War.

Incidentally, if he’d hoped to present the judeo-xian POV as that ‘objective morality’ he thinks he needs, that’s enough to shoot it down right there, as I’ve mentioned before. Cue the rabbi…

I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic. I have not yet found an atheist who is willing to follow his or her convictions through to their logical conclusions (outside of sociopaths like Jeffrey Dahmer…

Ah, of course. He went for it! So if you were wondering where my subject line came from, there you have it. The rabbi wonders how the skeptic can bother to get up in the morning, he quotes Freud to hint that we’re mentally ill, and compares us to a serial killer.

So again I wonder what fun could be had deriving what religious beliefs and principles judaism and xianity drew from the societies and religions that preceded them. Just to point out how this ‘Judeo-Christian ethic’ isn’t quite the special snowflake it’s made out to be. Could be my next project.

After claiming to know and have conversations with atheists he thinks are ‘good people,’ because they supposedly don’t buy into the ‘logical’ amorality and steal xian values, he nevertheless concludes with an imperative to STFU. I consider his ‘private conversations with atheists’ to be in the time-honored trope of ‘some of my best friends are…’ and about as trustworthy a claim as the rest of this drek. After all, he never seems to take on board anything that the skeptical commenters mention in response to his articles. It’s just oh, they’re good people, so they must be good for the reasons that suit me.

You can’t have it both ways. If one has embraced the worldview that embraces amorality, then it would be logical to admit that one’s personal morality is based on subjective preferences and comforting fiction or to recuse oneself from discussions (and lectures) on the topic.

He uses a quote by ‘Dr. Joel Marks’ to back this up, and of course it’s not sourced, it’s cut up from something, and I can’t even find this guy:

As Dr. Joel Marks said, “the long and short of it is that I became convinced that atheism implies amorality; and since I am an atheist, I must therefore embrace amorality…”

I suppose a rabbi could be excused for the mistake of trying arguments from authority, being so used to the ‘god did it’ backup answer for everything. But I don’t buy this quote, I have no reason to accept it just because you found a ‘Dr.’ to say it, or because he claims to be an atheist. He could be an atheist and wrong. And it will take more than a quote to build that authority.

In the end, I understand that the rabbi’s sense of morality is as subjective as mine; no religious morality based on the bible has been objective AFAIK. Whether it’s a set of rules that the people in the book break, and the god-concept itself breaks…or a set of rules with some ‘divine command theory’ backing them up, where the standard of good is ‘whatever god says just then’…they’re not objective. They’re subjective, and often, repulsive. Much like a rabbi who paints a picture of me as some depressed, deranged psychopath.

I often see this argument, though, even presented by believers as what they think they would be without their religion. Without their god-rules, they sometimes say, what would stop them from theft, rape and murder? Not that their supposed ‘objective morality’ does stop them consistently, anyway. Believers are completely unremarkable in terms of their behavior. If anything, I could point to prison statistics that suggest more prisoners are believers, proportionally. But it’s not necessary. It is enough to see that their religious beliefs do not make them in any way special. However much they might claim to be.

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