The Celestial Cop

The rabbi has a point. Or part of one anyway.

…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. No, no, of course that is not to say that most atheists engage in amoral or unethical behavior. 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.

Well, first of all, that’s a somewhat tricksy claim, because of course ‘atheism qua atheism’ presents no anything about behavior, since opinions on behavior are not what atheism is. Neither is theism, in and of itself; it’s the superstructure that gets built up on top of it – or, to put it another way, the nature of the deity that people decide to believe in; the way people choose to describe the deity they have decided to believe in, rather than their belief that a deity of some sort does exist, that provide the opinions on behavior and the defense of morality. So it’s no good claiming that theists get to assume that the moral views are inherent in the theism while they are not inherent in atheism; in fact they’re inherent in neither. But just for the sake of argument, let’s let him get away with that. Let’s be generous. And having given him that we might as well let him have the ‘compelling objection’ and the ‘convincing defense’ claims – even though he really chose the wrong adjectives there. He should have chosen something like irrefutable, or decisive, or absolute, or knock-down, because if he meant that atheists are unable to work up a compelling or convincing superstructure of moral ideas, as opposed to an irrefutable one, in the absence of a deity, I think that’s just a silly claim, with mountains of historical evidence (to say nothing of other kinds) to contradict it. But never mind; let him have that too. Let’s look farther.

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. 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. Only an acknowledgement of the Creator can impart true meaning to human life, placing it on a plane above that of mosquitoes.

Of course. Of course social contracts are in the end artificial – but what the rabbi unaccountably fails to notice is that so is what he is saying. It’s exactly as artificial. He’s arguing that theism is a good thing because it compels us to be good – rather than because it’s true. He’s giving a (very old and very familiar) consequentialist argument for the social utility of religion and theist belief. And there is much truth in what he says, but that certainly doesn’t make the whole set-up any less artificial, does it. In fact what’s funny about what the rabbi says (and about these arguments in general, and the way they keep cropping up) is that it could actually undermine religious belief. People could read it and think a little bit and recognize that the rabbi is making a consequentialist argument, which could imply that he doesn’t actually believe in the moral guarantor in the sky himself – oops. Totter, shake, tremble, fall. Consequentialist arguments for actual belief in the real existence of a deity are a tad self-undermining – that’s why one is not supposed to make them in front of the servants. Cicero and Polybius both pointed that out a longish time ago. Oh well – better luck next time, rabbi.

Update: as Don pointed out, PZ has a great post on the rabbi’s thoughts at Pharyngula.

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