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The Indignity of Atheism

The Indignity of Atheism

One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here is ultimately bound only by his wants.


Back on March 12, a paean to "the dignity of atheism" appeared on The New York Times op-ed page. It was penned by celebrated philosopher Slavoj Zizek who, had he consulted the same periodical's obituary page a mere three days earlier, would have come face to image with the late Richard Kuklinski.

Mr. Kuklinski, who was retired from life at the age of 70, claimed, utterly without remorse, to have killed more than 100 people as a Mafia enforcer; his favored methods included ice picks, crossbows, chain saws and a cyanide solution administered with a nasal-spray bottle.

The happy hit man's example might not have given pause to Professor Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities. But it should have.

Because 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.

The reason is not abstruse. One who sees only random forces behind why we humans find ourselves here is ultimately bound only by his wants. With no imperative beyond the biological, a true atheist, pressed hard enough by circumstances toward unethical or immoral behavior, cannot feel compelled to resist. Why should he?

To a true atheist, there can be no more ultimate meaning to good and bad actions than to good or bad weather.

In his view, a purposeless process of evolution has brought us to where we stand, and our feeling that there are good deeds and evil ones is but a utilitarian quirk of natural selection -- like our proclivity to eat more than we need when food is available. And so, just as we might choose to forego a second helping of pizza if we harbor an urge to lose weight, so may we choose, for personal gain (of desires, not pounds), to loosen our embrace of a moral, ethical life. Biological advantages, after all, are not moral imperatives.

Atheism, in the end, is a belief system in its own right, one in which there can be no claim that a thieving, philandering, serial murdering cannibal is any less commendable a member of the species than a selfless, hard-working philanthropist. In fact, from an evolutionist perspective, the former may well have the advantage.

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.

Proponents of atheism bristle when confronted by the implications of their belief, that morality and ethics are mere figments of our evolutionary imagination. But, for all their umbrage, they cannot articulate any way there can really ever be, as one writer has put it, "good without God."

The bristlers are not liars, only inconsistent; some well-hidden part of their minds well recognizes that humans have a higher calling than hyenas. But while the cognitive dissonance shifts to overdrive, the stubborn logic remains: The game is zero-sum. Either there is no meaningful mandate for human beings; or there is. And if there is, there must be a Mandator.

What inspired Professor Zizek to celebrate atheism as "perhaps our only chance for peace" in the world was the unarguably dismal example set by some people who are motivated by religion. He is certainly correct that much modern mayhem is deeply rooted in claims of religious rectitude. What he forgets, though, is that the world has also seen unimaginable evil -- perhaps its greatest share – from men who professed no belief in divinity at all, whose motivations were entirely secular in nature. Adolph Hitler was no believer in God. Nor was Joseph Stalin. Nor Pol Pot. Together, though, the trio was responsible for the murders of tens of millions of human beings. They pursued their dreams as atheists with no less relish than Osama Bin Laden pursues his as an Islamist. Evil is evil, whether expressed through faithlessness or misguided faith. But only a belief in a Higher Being has the potential -- realized or not -- of reining in the darker elements that haunt human souls.

Some of my best friends -- okay, one or two -- are atheists. Stranded on a desert island, I would prefer the company of any of them to Osama's.

But if my choice of island partner were between two strangers about whom I know only that one believes there is no higher reason for human life and the other that there is, I know which one I'd choose.

And I think Professor Zizek might make the same choice.


May 13, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 27

(23) James, March 4, 2008 12:09 PM

I disagree...

I have to disagree. To say atheism leads to having no reason to act morally is to ignore every single ethical theory that does not rely God.
Compassion is held by people of all kinds, theist or atheist. The bill of human rights makes no refferance to God. How about the ideas of Bentham and mill?
I personally base my actions on freedom. Actions such as violence or theft and lying is an infringement on peoples freedom from coercion. I do not need the prospect of judgement after death to influence by actions. Atheists aren't merely well behaved for the sake of it, but because they often have reasoned or otherwise come to the conclusion that behaving this way is better. Perhaps you're saying that 'better' just means better for them. The same can be said for theists, as the only difference
in deciding their behavior is the prospect of judgement, which means they are considering what will result in a better outcome for themselves after they die.

Being either theist or atheist has no necessary influence on behaviour. Atheists can choose to act in a manner that benefits other or not, just as a theist can decide whether their God favours actions that benefit others or not.
Even the golden rule of christianity is not dependent on God. Do to others as you would have done unto yourself. Nothing to do with God.

I also agree that the beliefs of the Nazi or soviets did not depend on religious beliefs or the lack there of(though for the record, Hitler was religious, and the Nazis drew crucial support from christian groups and from centuries of christian anti-semitism). The deaths under those regimes was the result of unquestioning dogmatism, where the moral flaws of the authority is not challenged by those underneath it. However, it is religion, which includes a belief in obeying a higher being which is more predisposed to dogmatism, where as atheism commonly encourages the use of one's own reason and judgement, the only tools against blind obediance we have.

(22) Joe Lewis, December 20, 2007 12:47 PM

Absolute or relative morality?

This article does a decent job of expounding the notion that atheistic moral positions are relative and that those of the theist are absolute.

I should be noted that it matters not whether G-d actually exists for the above statement to be correct. It is simply the case that both world views construct their notions of morality on very different conceptual foundations.

I agree with the writer in many respects, but I disagree with his finale, stating that on average the company of theists is better than that of an atheist when trapped on an island. This statement implies that in practice, theists are more moral (and even pleasant) a set of people than atheists.

In my experience this is simply not the case. Moral positions based on humanistic paradigms abound and regardless of whether someone has a belief in G-d, most have been socialised into a theistic culture. This is evident when we consider how our laws in the west have been shaped by scriptural principals.

I wonder then, how many atheists are in possession of an unconscious belief, or perhaps fear, of trans-physiological post-incarnation consequences and an omnipotent creator of the universe?

(21) LuisA.Veguilla-Berdecia, October 25, 2006 5:32 PM

The Golden Rule

As an agnostic in the original meaning of the word (Huxley) and as a Jew I congratulate all believers if their beliefs make them better human beings. Follow the Golden Rule. It antedates Christ by quite a few centuries. Hillel thought highly of it. I do not need God or gods in order to behave myself.

Stephen, December 3, 2011 11:25 AM

Why Golden?

You may not need God to behave yourself; but you need God to know what "behaving yourself" means.

(20) Mark, June 9, 2006 12:00 AM

I enjoyed reading this article...

I felt this article is very well written. In fact, I work with an athiest. His personality is "draining". It is much easier to work with people in love with the G-d of Yisrael than it is to work with an athiest.

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