Religion’s Odd Relationship with Atheism

Published by timdean on

It almost beggars belief that many self-proclaimed so-called moral experts of the modern world – men and women of cloth, such as rabbi Adam Jacobs – exhibit such a shocking ignorance of modern ethical and evolutionary theory.

Jacobs penned a piece for the Huffington Post recently that could serve as a template for the gross misunderstanding of how atheism and morality are related. Quoth Jacobs:

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

Sigh. He might as well be saying “because there’s no edict from God over the rules of cricket, you can just give yourself a century and refuse to leave if you’re caught out.”

Just because it isn’t written in the bible, doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules to cricket (cricket nihilism). And it doesn’t mean you can play by whatever rules you choose (cricket egoism).

Once you’ve chosen to play, you’re obliged to play by the rules, or you face the consequences. You’re thrown out of the game or, if your transgression wasn’t so obscene, you’re politely censured and threatened that if you do it again, you’re no longer welcome on the pitch.

Morality is a game, not unlike cricket in this respect. The only thing is, playing the game is to everyone’s advantage; playing the game advances our interests, both biological (selfish gene theory) and psychological (preference utilitarianism).

And it’s a matter of empirical fact that virtually everyone already wants to play the game. In fact, the whole point that Dawkins was trying to make with the selfish gene theory is that playing nice is a form of self-interest, and evolution has already primed us to play nice.

The only subjective element is that we’re not bound – logically or by divine will – to play the game. We can rationally choose not to. But if we do, we suffer the consequences and are censured by all those who do play nice.

So it’s actually not in our long-term interests to do “whatever one’s heart desires at any moment” because in such a society, I wouldn’t get much of what I desire at all. Instead, it’s far more in my interests to play nice.

This has all been said before many, many times. It’s disappointing that pontificating individuals like rabbi Jacobs haven’t read or understood it. And it’s even more disappointing that they spread misinformation about atheism and secular morality.

And then he says stuff like this:

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine.

In fact, he has it entirely backwards. He has his philosophy because of the evolved moral proclivities we’re already equipped with. Evolution and moral naturalism can explain everything, even why people might mistakenly believe in moral super- or non-naturalism.

I don’t mind people disagreeing with the details of how morality works, or arguing over the nuances of evolution or anti-realism. But I do mind people getting on their high horse and dismissing those poor deluded atheists based on uninformed and vacuous arguments.


Tom of the Sweetwater Sea · 27th March 2011 at 3:49 am

The Rabbi does what god says or the Rabbi goes to hell (or some other punishment). That doesn’t sound particularly “moral” to me.

James Gray · 27th March 2011 at 8:48 am

Again, there has to be more to be said on this issue. The idea that punishment and reward is the only motivation to morality doesn’t seem to capture actual motivation of people nor is it a philosophically satisfying answer. There’s the fact we care for others to the very least.

Mark Sloan · 28th March 2011 at 10:35 am

I had read Rabbi Jacobs piece the day it was posted but decided the responses of others were adequate. Checking back today, I see no evidence of any recanting and his chief apologist, moshe averick (who has written a book on the subject!), is still spouting non-sense.

Today, I was motivated to reply and, for your amusement, here it is:

“Adam and moshe, you both make the claim that atheists have morality only because they ‘borrowed’ it, mainly from Judeo-Christianity.

This is both nonsensical and insulting to atheists.

I will match my atheist morality against yours any time and the only question in my mind (if I assume intellectual honesty on your part) is how long it will take for you to cry ‘uncle’.

If your religion is the source of all morality, you should have no trouble answering these simple, practical questions about morality:

When is immoral to follow the Golden Rule?

Why are both the Greek ‘pagan’ moral virtues courage, leadership, beauty, and magnanimity considered moral simultaneously with the almost opposite ‘Christian’ moral virtues humility, chastity, and temperance?

Why do people variously believe it is immoral to eat pork, trim beards, not be uncircumcised, and to do other random things with no obvious connection to morality? If you are going to say, because God said so, I’ll ask why did God say so? The difference between our moralities is I expect you cannot really answer any question about why a God (if there was one) might have made such strange moral rules. I can explain exactly why and those reasons are found entirely in the natural world, specifically in the mathematics of game theory.

What justifies people accepting the burdens of acting morally? If it is to avoid supernatural punishment, that is not a morality of a mature mind where one is moral for the good effects of being moral (good for the sake of goodness), but is a morality suitable for the unsophisticated mind of a child.

My morality based in science and rational thought can immediately and conclusive answer all of the above questions. I don’t see that your religious morality is even remotely competitive.

My morality can be stated as “Self denying acts that increase the benefits of cooperation in groups are moral.” It is all that is I need for a basis of secular morality that immediately answers the above questions and any other question about morality I have ever had.

John · 22nd May 2011 at 12:25 pm

It could be said that the recent Avatar film was a necessary parable for our time.
Most of those on the right side of the culture wars divide abhorred the film, this included right-wing so called conservative religionists. And of course benighted Randian “objectivists”.

At a very basic level the film was about the “culture” of death versus the culture of life.

The technocratic barbarian invaders, having already “created” a dying planet, just like we inevitably have, were impelled by the inexorable logic of their “culture” to invade and conquer “virgin” territories, just like we always have – “exterminate the brutes”

By contrast he Navi lived in a world in which it was both implicitly and explicitly understood that every thing and all sentient beings were part of an interdependent indivisible unity.
Which of course is precisely the intrinsic condition of planet Earth

Which by the way was and is the understanding of most people in most times and places on this planet. It is still very much the case for shamanistic based tribal cultures or those that have not yet been destroyed by the technological Mega-machine (an accurate descriptive word originally used by Lewis Mumford)

Which is to say that all of the right-wing culture war warriors came out very loudly in support of the “culture” of death.

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