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A rabbi’s odd relationship with morality March 26, 2011

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Ethics, Evolution, Religion.

In The Huffington Post, Rabbi Adam Jacobs proclaims that atheists have no basis for condemning immorality, and he doesn’t understand why they would even care:

In fact, the most sensible and logically consistent outgrowth of the atheist worldview should be permission to get for one’s self whatever one’s heart desires at any moment (assuming that you can get away with it). Why not have that affair? Why not take a few bucks from the Alzheimer victim’s purse — as it can not possibly have any meaning either way. Did not Richard Dawkins teach us that selfishness was built into our very genes? To live a “moral” life, the atheist must choose to live a willful illusion as the true nature of the world contains, as Dawkins suggests, “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” It boggles the mind how anyone with this worldview even bothers to get up in the morning only to suffer through another bleak and meaningless day.

Oh, is that what Richard Dawkins taught us? If Jacobs had actually read The Selfish Gene, he would have come across this:

I am not advocating a morality based on evolution. I am saying how things have evolved… I stress this, because I know I am in danger of being misunderstood by those people, all too numerous, who cannot distinguish a statement of belief in what is the case from an advocacy of what ought to be the case… If you would extract a moral from [this book], read it as a warning. Be warned that if you wish, as I do, to build a society in which individuals cooperate generously and unselfishly towards a common good, you can expect little help from biological nature… Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to.

Some of us, who prefer not to “live a willful illusion,” begin by trying to understand what is true about our world, and then we deal with reality as it is. The rabbi’s feeling that life would be “bleak and meaningless” if we aren’t part of some grand cosmic plan says absolutely nothing about whether such a plan really exists. But why would anyone think that the lack of an ultimate purpose in nature makes our lives meaningless? We are conscious beings, capable of appreciating our amazing good fortune in having the opportunity to live in this awe-inspiring universe. We can cooperate with each other in order to achieve far more than we could on our own, leaving the fruits of our efforts for future generations to enjoy and improve upon. We have the ability to understand the consequences of our actions on the happiness and suffering of ourselves and of others. So what truly boggles the mind is Jacobs’ implying that the only reason to refrain from cheating and stealing is because God said so.

But wait, the rabbi has more conclusions to draw from his deep understanding of biology:

Survival of the fittest does not suggest social harmony. Furthermore, doesn’t Darwinism suggest that certain groups within a given population will develop beneficial mutations, essentially making them “better” than other groups? It would seem that racism would again be a natural conclusion of this worldview — quite unlike the theistic approach which would suggest that people have intrinsic value do [sic] to their creation in the “image of God.”

Again, Jacobs is confusing what natural selection cares about (reproductive fitness) with what we ought to care about. But the irony here is simply breathtaking: it’s the secular worldview that is racist, while the theistic is not!? The Bible repeatedly and unequivocally supports slavery, tribalism and discrimination, and commands the destruction of entire nations including women and children. The idea that all people have intrinsic value and ought to be treated equally — regardless of race, gender, or religion — is a modern, secular value, resisted mightily (to this day) by traditional religion.

Of course, the rabbi realizes that nonreligious people are not in fact more likely to behave immorally than the religious. How does he explain the observation that most of the atheists he has met are actually “very good people”?

At the end of the day, the reason that I can agree with many of the moral assertions that these atheists make is because they are not truly outgrowths of their purported philosophies, but rather of mine. I would suspect that the great majority of the atheistic understanding of morality comes directly or indirectly from what is commonly referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic.

Seriously!? What about all the Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, etc. — how did they ever figure out not to steal and murder without Yahweh telling them so? And what about all those Judeo-Christian pearls of ethical wisdom that the rabbi simply ignores, like executing homosexuals, women who are not virgins on their wedding night, and disobedient children? If Jacobs were not so arrogant and ignorant, he would realize that whatever parts of his own ethics are defensible are products of human rationality and secular thinking. And if he cares more about obeying the purported will of God than about the actual well-being of people in this world, then his morality is a disgrace, and he might stand to learn a few things from some atheists.

(via Butterflies and Wheels)


1. david resnick - March 27, 2011

i think the issue is, “Why bother?” I mean, we can all get together and work for a bright, better future (which will probably just get tsunammied, anyway), but as most people *don’t*, why should *I* be the first (or even the second)?

Ezra Resnick - March 27, 2011

Are you saying that the only reason you can think of for wanting to work together towards a better future is in order to please God!? That’s just sad. And in any case, it’s not an argument for theism: the world is however it is, no matter how you feel about it. But the fact is that most people do care about building a brighter future for themselves and those they care about, for obvious reasons — whether they believe in God or not.

Roel - March 27, 2011

If the issue really is “why bother” then the issue is also: why bother to steal, rape or murder? We might just as well donate money to charities and help old ladies across the street.

The absence of belief simply is no guide in life, neither to the good nor to the bad. We atheists have to find our moral guide elsewhere. And luckily for us and the rest of the world, that guide is not the Bible.

2. Tucker Lieberman - March 27, 2011

Rabbi Jacobs’ article assumes that the existence of God imparts meaning to an otherwise meaningless natural world, and the command of God distinguishes right from wrong.

Replace “God” with the name of your next-door neighbor and you see how nonsensical this is.

The divine command theory of morality, in particular, was demolished in Plato’s “Euthyphro.”

Ezra Resnick - March 27, 2011

Isn’t it peculiar how religious people are so eager to persuade us that if it weren’t for God’s command they’d be out there stealing and raping and murdering? While in fact, the least religious societies on earth are generally the healthiest?

Sol - May 19, 2011

Great article. I have long thought that you don’t need God to be moral, but you really backed it up in a way that it can be presented to religious believers.

Btw, just to play devil’s advocate on your comment . . . the religious folks would probably say that it is not religion that causes problems, it is the ‘wrong’ ones that cause problems.

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