Michael Gerson takes note of our heavily-publicized unholy triumvirate, which has been selling books like hotcakes lately (link requires registration):
British author G.K. Chesterton argued that every act of blasphemy is a kind of tribute to God, because it is based on belief. “If anyone doubts this,” he wrote, “let him sit down seriously and try to think blasphemous thoughts about Thor.”
By the evidence of the New York Times bestseller list, God has recently been bathed in such tributes. An irreverent trinity — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — has sold a lot of books accusing theism of fostering hatred, repressing sexuality and mutilating children (Hitchens doesn’t approve of male circumcision). Every miracle is a fraud. Every mystic is a madman. And this atheism is presented as a war of liberation against centuries of spiritual tyranny.
Funny thing about atheists. Having a blog that nobody actually reads, I’m in a position to know certain things because it can be a highly educational experience. What I’ve learned, is this: Atheists are brittle. They make the most irrational and neurotic man-bashing feminist look like a sturdy, flexible oak tree by comparison. TRUST me. I can sit here and type in some nonsense to the effect of “there’s no way childbirth can possibly hurt as much as a kick in the nuts,” and I’ll never hear a peep about it. Say that out loud on a crowded city bus, next to a chubby goth chick with eyebrow piercings and a whale tail…you’ll probably hear a “peep.”
But if I type in “the trouble with those atheists, is they don’t know the difference between right and wrong” — my mailbox is full within a day or two.
See, it isn’t just that atheists must always get the last word, even on some blog nobody ever reads…although that is true. No, the situation is that atheists are “on patrol.” They look for stuff like this. At least that’s been my experience. Let it never be said that you need God to construct a priesthood, for they surely have one, and the priesthood has commanded them to jump on this stuff. To protest, night and day, that atheists have just as much a moral code as anybody else. They do! They do! They do!
They’ve sailed straight past the Shakespearean buoy at which too much has been protested. They’re past that point…and gaining speed.
Case in point, Hitchens waited only hours to — yeah, you got it. Make sure he got in the last word about morality. Well, I can be Johnny-on-the-spot picking things up, too. So quote I shall. And, since he’s requesting me to do so, I’ll also reply.
It’s uncommonly generous of Michael Gerson to refer to me as “intellectually courageous and unfailingly kind”…However, it is his own supposedly kindly religion that prevents him from seeing how insulting is the latent suggestion of his position: the appalling insinuation that I would not know right from wrong if I was not supernaturally guided by a celestial dictatorship, which could read and condemn my thoughts and which could also consign me to eternal worshipful bliss (a somewhat hellish idea) or to an actual hell.
Here is my challenge. Let Gerson name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge. Can any reader of this column think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not? The first — I have been asking it for some time — awaits a convincing reply.
Hitch, I’ll field that one. But I’m pretty far from an authority on history, philosophy, theology or anthropology. I know my answer satisfies your criteria, so there must have been some sleight-of-hand going on here if your challenge has really survived “some time” without being met. The answer is pretty obvious.
A believer can define and promulgate a moral code without imposing his personal system of beliefs on his peers. Atheists are incapable of doing this, and it is impossible to construct a free society without doing this.
Let’s take an example, Hitch. You and I live in a wild frontier, in which there is no society, free or otherwise. There are no laws. We come across a really big man kicking the crap out of an old lady who is rolling around helplessly on the ground. You and I agree on a great deal in the Iraq issue, and so we probably agree it is wrong for the man to kick the old lady. We don’t need laws to tell us this is wrong, it simply is; you know it, and I know it. It is so wrong that, having an opportunity to stop it, should we fail to do so, we’ll be accessories to the crime. The crime that isn’t actually a crime, since the land is lawless.
But my point isn’t that there are merits to kicking little old ladies. My point is — this wrongness, this “ought not be done”-ness, is a matter of opinion. You and I share the opinion, true. But it’s still opinion. In fact, searching for someone who would contest it, we probably need look no further than the guy doing the kicking. We are going to stop him — the question is, by what authority do we do this?
As a believer, I can answer this. I take it as simply an article of faith, that we all were put here by someone or something more important than ourselves. I can’t prove it; I’ve simply made a personal decision that this is the case, and I only have so much to say to someone who wishes to assert the opposite. Contrary to popular belief, that’s a valid tactic of limited debate. It’s right in our Declaration of Independence, in a passage I’m positive has been paraded under your skeptical eyes many times before: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” [emphasis mine] Holding truths to be self-evident. That’s quite alright, you know…as long as there are no empirically-observed facts directly contradicting these truths you hold to be self-evident.
Atheists like yourself do that all the time. It’s the very essence of atheism. “Can’t prove there’s a God, can’t prove there isn’t one, so it’s up to my personal preferences, and my personal preference is that there is none.” You could be right, no proof existing to the contrary…so you simply decide that you are.
So I do that. I say, we were put here…by a Higher Power who watches over us, expecting us to do things that keep the whole experiment from collapsing into a jumbled heap of silliness and futility. You say — we weren’t put here, which must mean we grew here. Nobody watching us. All our zoological features, we acquired through a prolonged process of natural selection and survival of the fittest.
The problem that comes up, is this: The guy kicking the old woman, is more “fit” than the old woman. In joining me as I stop him from kicking her, you are therefore interfering with an atrocity that, from your perspective, is not an atrocity at all. Quite to the contrary: It is the very building block of the world and the creatures in it — as you see it. It is far more innocent than a lioness chasing down a gazelle, and stripping the flesh from his ribs while he’s still alive. At least, that’s my idea. It could be argued that I’m wrong…the lioness is feeding her cubs, the brute kicking the woman is in it — well, just for kicks.
And so it is “wrong”…
…but in the mind of whom? This stuff is all negotiable. Who gets the deciding vote?
Well, there’s just no getting around this point. You have manufactured a moral absolute where one previously did not exist. Your explanation for how we got here, has to be painstakingly erected without any regard for any moral code at all other than “might makes right” — a dictum you are about to violate, by helping me to thwart the will of the mighty.
You may say “there was no law that said this was wrong a minute ago, but Morgan Freeberg and I are about to make one because there are two of us and one of him.” You would be using democracy, then, to declare us correct and derive the moral authority needed to stop the brute from kicking the old woman. Fair enough. But that’s still imposing our ethics on someone else who doesn’t subscribe to them. We’re just using votes instead of force. The goal is the same.
At this point, you’re out of options. You can walk on without interfering; you can impose your beliefs through violence; you can impose them through a ballot box. There is no fourth option.
But I can do something you can’t. I can say — in the classic spirit of 1776 — I hold the truth to be self-evident that we are all endowed by our Creator with a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Because if I’m the Creator, logically, it would be awfully silly of me to create living things like these and not so endow them, right? That would be…constructing an ant farm. An ant farm with carnivorous ants.
I’m holding the truth to be self-evident that we were put here, and we weren’t put here to just run around and bump into each other. There is a certain logic to this. Homo Sapiens is a relatively young species, and there have been other things that can run around and bump into each other, long before we got here. Salmon being put here to feed bears, I can see; it’s ridiculous to think little old ladies were put here so ruffians can knock them down and kick them.
So, in harmony with the moral sensibilities of my “sky fairy” as you atheists sometimes like to call Him — His system of values, which He logically must have, and not yours or mine — we stop the ruffian. We save the little old lady. We will probably go pretty far in this. We will probably take the extraordinary step of saying “If we are all meant to be free, this guy must be the exception, since while he has freedom, others do not.” And we deprive him of what we contend the Creator intended for the species as a whole. But unlike you, once that’s done, I can cease and desist from imposing my own personal system of beliefs in other situations…since, unlike you, I never got started in that.
The following day, for example, I meet the guy who invented “Shopper in Training” grocery carts. I let him live. If I were in the habit of carrying out my personal sense of ethics wherever I could, this would not be the case.
I trust this answers your challenge. A believer can stand up for what is ethical, according to a system of beliefs that was not cooked up by him personally. I said you can’t construct a free society without this. The operative word is “free.” You can construct societies all day and night, allowing man & man alone to run around declaring this thing to be ethical, and that thing to be not. But the question you run into, is — which man?
And so, as a consequence of man intruding into a domain that is not his, those societies never end up free. Even if they have something to do with democracy. Because then, as questions arise that are much more complicated than “is it alright to kick old women in the gut,” what’s “right” and what’s “wrong” ends up being defined according to who stands to profit & who stands to suffer, according to tomorrow’s definition of right and wrong.
Freedom ends up in a healthier state if we just assume we were put here, and we’re supposed to be better than a pack of wild dogs. It’s an unprovable axiom. But we end up being better people, and freer people, if we just assume it to be true.
And that’s why the founders of my nation, they day they extracted themselves from yours, made it their first order of business to assume exactly that.
Thing I Know #174. Being an atheist; maintaining a distinction between right and wrong; respecting the viewpoints of others. You may have two of those. Max.