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Belief In Good, Not God
Slavoj Zizek sets the record straight about atheism in The New York TImes.No, I don't believe in god, but this doesn't mean I'm without ethics. Quite the contrary. I'd say I have a stronger ethical framework than most god-believers, plus it's my own, not a prefab one that I let some guy wearing some variation on a bathrobe jam down my craw. Zizek writes:

FOR centuries, we have been told that without religion we are no more than egotistic animals fighting for our share, our only morality that of a pack of wolves; only religion, it is said, can elevate us to a higher spiritual level. Today, when religion is emerging as the wellspring of murderous violence around the world, assurances that Christian or Muslim or Hindu fundamentalists are only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual messages of their creeds ring increasingly hollow. What about restoring the dignity of atheism, one of Europe's greatest legacies and perhaps our only chance for peace?

More than a century ago, in "The Brothers Karamazov" and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn't exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher André Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky's critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, "Dostoyevsky in Manhattan," suggests.

This argument couldn't have been more wrong: the lesson of today's terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations. In short, fundamentalists have become no different than the "godless" Stalinist Communists, to whom everything was permitted since they perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress Toward Communism.

During the Seventh Crusade, led by St. Louis, Yves le Breton reported how he once encountered an old woman who wandered down the street with a dish full of fire in her right hand and a bowl full of water in her left hand. Asked why she carried the two bowls, she answered that with the fire she would burn up Paradise until nothing remained of it, and with the water she would put out the fires of Hell until nothing remained of them: "Because I want no one to do good in order to receive the reward of Paradise, or from fear of Hell; but solely out of love for God." Today, this properly Christian ethical stance survives mostly in atheism.

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God's will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God's favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God's existence.

Posted by aalkon at March 14, 2006 8:29 AM

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Comments

One quibble that I have with your personal definition of morality is that people are wonderful at rationalizing their crummy behavior.

Posted by: nash at March 14, 2006 2:20 AM

I wonder what would happen if you brought this argument to Kirk Cameron and his "Are You a Good Person?" quiz. It would probably scramble his brain.

Posted by: Sheila at March 14, 2006 5:24 AM

True enough, nash. But at least atheists don't have a handy mythological template to amp up personally crummy behavior.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at March 14, 2006 7:32 AM

Jody, most religions have some sort of clergy (priests, rabbis, dali lama or whatever) to help the laity interpret the scripture and avoid making errors based on self-deception or whatnot.

Posted by: nash at March 14, 2006 8:04 AM

And therein springs several problems which even the western Reformation couldn't settle, as you obviously know, Nash.

Chiefly: the selective interpretation by some influential priests (to use "priests" generically) of complex texts, and the impulse of the laity to accept, reject, or distort those interpretations as they see fit, in the pursuit of plausibly rationalizing crummy behavior.

Posted by: Jody Tresidder at March 14, 2006 9:10 AM

Nash - clergy ... avoid making errors based on self-deception or whatnot - what do you think the priests base their judgements on? It's not on god's will, 'cos there ain't none. So it's either on their own moral sense, perhaps strengthened by study of the subject, or it's on random firing of their neurons being interpreted as "the still small voice" of their god. Either way any sense they may have to offer then gets distorted by the existing religious hierarchy that has to be placated or confronted but can't be ignored. I don't think this leads to the avoidance of errors. On the contrary all their moral judgements must be subordinate to the perpetuation of the church and its priests - otherwise they won't survive for long.

Posted by: Norman at March 14, 2006 2:59 PM

Nice strawman argument (both ways).

Good deeds done because they're good? Are values, like good and bad, scientifically verifiable or are they axiomatic?

Posted by: Fritz at March 14, 2006 3:53 PM

Compare our constitutional system of government to a dictatorship. Our system of law is based on a set of founding documents, much like scripture. A dictatorship is based upon the beliefs of a single individual. Which one is more stable over time? Which one is more dangerous? Which would you rather live in?

I'd much rather live in a constitutional democracy than either a pure democracy or a dictatorship, since I'm much more likely to be harmed by the whims of a pure democracy or dictatorship than an error in interpreting the law by a constitutional democracy.

Posted by: nash at March 14, 2006 4:58 PM

Compare our constitutional system of government to a dictatorship. Our system of law is based on a set of founding documents, much like scripture. A dictatorship is based upon the beliefs of a single individual. Which one is more stable over time? Which one is more dangerous? Which would you rather live in?

I'd much rather live in a constitutional democracy than either a pure democracy or a dictatorship, since I'm much more likely to be harmed by the whims of a pure democracy or dictatorship than an error in interpreting the law by a constitutional democracy.

Your personal code of morality has the same dangers as a pure democracy or a dictatorship.

Posted by: nash at March 14, 2006 4:59 PM

Interesting comments, but Zizek is definitely not the standard-bearer for "rationality" (which he, I'm sure, always puts in quotes). He's a "Leninist" post-modernist Kierkegaardian critic of culture and capitalism, who advocates "Truth" without "reason" and suggests that people must commit to their politics by way of a leap of faith. Yes, he's an atheist, in the technical sense, but he's also a loon.

Posted by: Artemis at March 14, 2006 7:30 PM

Are values, like good and bad, scientifically verifiable or are they axiomatic?


We've come to think these are abstract absolutes that have some kind of independent existence. They don't. When your mother said, "Eat your greens because they're good for you," she wasn't worried about whether "good" was axiomatic or whatever. She knew what "good" meant. She meant "eating your greens will tend to increase your chances of a healthy and fecund life." Conversely "bad" decreases your chances. Good and evil don't exist any more than "big" and "small" exist. What makes it all difficult is that moral choices depend on second-guessing the lifetime effects of our actions. Also, what's good for you may not be good for me, but since we are social animals, what's good for you may indirectly be good for me.


It's also great for rationalizing crummy behaviour, which is why we do it so well!

Posted by: Norman at March 15, 2006 1:04 AM

Norman,

It's turtles all the way down, or, you missed my point.

Is the good or bad of eating my greens for some end axiomatic or scientifically verifiable or an arbitrary decision on the part of my mother conntected to nothing other than her unsupported opinion?

Are values, like doing "good" real or arbitrary? We can imagine, and perhaps point out societies, where the "good" points to something we identify as "bad". Are they just values, or is there something inherently good or bad about things in the world?

Do I choose my good or bad and can I choose a different good or bad?

Posted by: Fritz at March 15, 2006 8:36 AM

The false dichotomy that believers cannot be altruistic because they have some reward always in the background, but nonbelievers' good acts must be altruistic because they have none, is not a new argument. Nor is it particularly convincing. Reward comes in many forms, including indentification with a culture, subjective sense of well-being, looking like an admirable person, etc. The Ayn Randians delight it countering whatever claim of altruism one might make by pointing out some reward that the person gets from it.

But if we approach the problem from the back, the solution emerges. We can often discern when someone has worse motives. If we are honest, we include ourselves in this, knowing that our motives are sometimes baser, sometimes better.

For example, I sense that Zizek and some commenters here get a nice warm feeling from pointing out how real their goodness is, as opposed to Those Others.

Motives are always mixed, but that does not mean they are always contemptible. And ultimately, it is the act itself that matters. Starving populations, given the choice between receiving one ton of food from purity of heart and joy, or ten tons of food brought in by guilt, would undoubtedly say "We'll take that deal that brings in the ten tons." So should we all.

If nonbelievers find the self-congratulation of believers annoying -- as they well might -- then that works in the other direction as well.

My Romanian friends who run the orphanage and medical clinic would flatly contradict the suggestion that anyone other than American Christians ever comes to help. That is perhaps extreme, as I know a few western Europeans who have done good work there. But it is still mostly accurate.

BTW, Fritz is right that it's turtles all the way down. Any concept of Good and Evil has to ultimately have some basis, some foundation, some standard. Once identified and examined in our most cynical moments, they all look pretty ephemeral -- religious and nonreligious alike. To believe in good at all, you ultimately have to believe in something behind it, or good merely becomes "what I like."

It's a long distance from some thing to Some One, but there is enough connection that contempt is unwarranted.

Posted by: Assistant Village Idiot at March 15, 2006 4:17 PM

My carefully crafted and superbly argued post has disappeared! Are we being censored?

Posted by: Norman at March 16, 2006 4:16 AM

Oh no...absolutely not. I'm getting huge volumes of spam since I switched to MT 3.2 (it no longer has MT blacklist), and it's likely either Gregg or I accidentally picked it up in a spam sweep. (Sometimes I get 75-100 at a time, and it looks like they're all spam.) I've been being super-careful, but I guess I wasn't careful enough. There's a possibility it's in my spam folder, not deleted. I'll go look for it. Please accept my sincere apologies and, I'm so sorry to ask you this, but please consider reposting it. I really feel terrible about this. -Amy

(Sorry - just looked in my spam folder - not there...I'm really, really sorry - please forgive me.)

Posted by: Amy Alkon at March 16, 2006 6:53 AM

Sorry Amy - I haven't the energy to try to recreate it all. It's been a hard week. Just be assured it was absolutlely top-class and would have pushed your site onto the front page of all the dailies. The moving finger has moved on; not piety nor wit but a bug has lured it back to cancel out what was written.

Posted by: Norman at March 19, 2006 4:10 AM

Well, again, my apologies -- will wait a week now each week to delete spam from my spam folder so this doesn't happen again.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at March 19, 2006 9:15 AM

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