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The Anger of the Atheists

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Avi Shafran

If morality and ethics are rendered meaningless, how's a principled atheist supposed to respond to injustice?

Responses to an essay say much to a writer. Sometimes they reveal flaws in the essayist's assumptions or reasoning, provide a different perspective or are otherwise enlightening. Other times they reveal something more about the responders.

Back in May, I wrote an article about atheism. It was inspired by an earlier op-ed by philosopher Slavoj Zizek in The New York Times, extolling "the dignity of atheism." I titled my own essay "The Indignity of Atheism" and made one simple and obvious point: One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here can have no reason to believe in objective categories of good and evil.

I took pains to stress that I was not contending that atheists are bad people, and certainly not that religious people are necessarily good. I was not judging anyone, rather stating a self-evident philosophical truism: If our perception that some deeds are good and others are not is but a quirk of natural selection, none of us need feel any commitment to morality or ethics.

The piece appeared in The Providence Journal and a number of Jewish weeklies. Soon enough, it was posted on a multitude of atheist weblogs, along with rebuttals -- or screeds presented as such.

I had always imagined atheists as a misguided but relatively civil and intelligent bunch. But much of the reaction on the blogs was simple umbrage heavily laced with anger and even threats, born of my contention that atheists are bad people -- although I had written no such thing, and indeed had clearly stated otherwise.

Perhaps the writers misinterpreted my invocation of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot as examples of non-religious sorts who were responsible for countless deaths of innocents. But that was only to counter Mr. Zizek's contention that the world's evils derive overwhelmingly from religion. (A few of the umbrage-takers insisted that Hitler was a religious Roman Catholic; I'm skeptical, but, just to keep the complainers on-topic, they can replace him with Caligula, Mao, Saddam Hussein, or Kim Jung Il.)

There was no credible counter-argument whatsoever, no claim that right and wrong can somehow have inherent meaning without recourse to Something Higher than ourselves.

Other reactions (from the more careful readers, no doubt) consisted entirely of adolescent snideness over the idea of God, and harsh invective toward me, much of it of a strikingly personal nature and in language more suited to a locker room than an intellectual salon. Revealing, indeed.

As to the essence of my argument, though, there was no credible counter-argument whatsoever, no claim that right and wrong can somehow have inherent meaning without recourse to Something Higher than ourselves. That, too, was telling -- of the truth that atheism, in the end, cannot assign any more meaning to right and wrong than to right and left.

What brings the edifying experience to mind is the pair of current best-sellers attempting to make the case for atheism. In one of them, Darwinist devotee Richard Dawkins declares that to be an atheist is a "brave and splendid" thing, and that to believe that there is Something to Whom we owe obeisance is a "pernicious" thought. Writer Sam Harris, meanwhile, in his own book, characterizes religion as "obscene" and "utterly repellent."

The two authors avoid the sailor-language favored by the bloggers and their blogophants, and they make a valiant effort to present what they claim is the case for atheism, but in their instances, too, more illuminating than their arguments is their anger.

Sure, it is easy to deny God. We can't see Him and can (at least some of us, with prodigious effort and illimitable imagination) imagine life evolving entirely on its own, and yes, there is evil in the world that seems to go unpunished. But belief in God has always gone hand in hand with belief in both His hiddenness, and his inscrutability. The "arguments" from invisibility, evolution and the existence of evil are, in the end, convincing only to those already convinced.

More informative is the atheists' anger. I think it derives from the realization of where their declared convictions perforce must lead. That would be -- as per my original essay -- a place where the very concepts of morality and ethics are rendered meaningless, a worldview in which a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is no less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. (In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former is probably better positioned to impart advantages to the gene pool.)

It is a thought so discomfiting to an honest atheist that all it can yield him is fury.

Some atheists, no doubt, are not infuriated at all by the implications of their denial of a human calling higher than nature. They revel in the knowledge that whatever they wish to do is fine, as long as they manage not to run afoul of the man-made (and themselves inherently meaningless) laws of society. If skillful enough, they can carefully lift items from the local store, surreptitiously violate others' rights or privacy, and covertly bring harm to those they dislike or who stand in the way of their wants.

Most atheists, though -- and they, I contend, are the angry ones --would never dream of doing such things. Because they know that there is right and there is wrong.


Is it "wrong" when a dog steals a bone from his fellow canine, or when a mantis eats her mate? Of course not. But when a human being steals or hurts or kills another, it's qualitatively different. Deep down we know we are answerable to Something beyond our own natures.

That knowledge gives thoughtful atheists hives. Which is why, hopelessly conflicted by the irreconcilability of their unspeakable realization and their trumpeted posture, they can only fume.


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