Tony graced us with his explanation of why he’s an atheist and a defense of atheism in general. Now it’s time for me to slightly-rebut and explain why I’m a theist. Brace yourself for action!
Okay, now that I have my brace on, it’s time to begin. Now, at the beginning, I too was actually an atheist. Not of the thinking variety (as Tony is), but rather of the unthinking variety: I never really thought about it one way or the other but instead just decided that I didn’t really care about religion. In my household, my parents were irreligious. My mom is an irreligious Jew, and my dad an irreligious Catholic. They raised four roughly irreligious children who went very different ways—my younger brother is a hardcore atheist, my sister a Buddhist, my older brother some type of tree-worshiper (last I checked, though I’m probably being a bit harsh…), and me, the Orthodox Jew. Funny how that works out sometimes…
Anyhow, I decided roughly at the age of 16 that I would become Jewish. This decision was, in part, because I wanted to take the road less traveled, but I didn’t want to be the kind of kid who “takes the road less traveled” by taking the road traveled by every single teenager and built by 40-year-old advertising executives with ponytails. But even after my decision to become Jewish (and to start practicing after I left for college), I would not say that I actually believed in a higher power. Even after I started reading Torah sections each week, I still didn’t really _believe_. I thought that some were interesting stories—and that other parts, like the census, were incredibly boring—but stories nevertheless. John Derbyshire wrote an article or blog post or something once in which he talked about faith, and I agreed with him entirely. Effectively, he argued (if I remember it correctly) that there really is not that strong of a tension between faith and reason, and they don’t actually fight against each other all that much. Instead, the difference between religious and irreligious people is actually the existence of faith. Faith exists outside the realm of reason, which means that you cannot will yourself to have faith or develop it through logical explanation. Either you have it or you don’t, and Derbyshire pointed out that he, sadly, did not. He has never known what it is like to experience legitimate faith, so even though he was an Anglican who would go to church each week, it was never truly a religious experience, but rather a social one. Derbyshire rationally understood the social benefits of believing in a higher power (or at least acting like it)—generally better behavior from individuals and another connection to other people as actual people rather than abstract trading partners—but was never really certain the actual existence of one. That pretty much sums up my thoughts as well: I wanted to believe in G-d, to believe that what I was reading is the truth, but I entirely lacked faith.
This changed somewhat after reading Witness by Whitaker Chambers. Those who have heard of the book generally know it as the story of taking down Communist spy Alger Hiss, but when I read it, there was something much more important. Even better than reveling in the experiences of convicting a legitimate enemy of the republic was something profound which Chambers wrote concerning Communists and faith. Now, a fair number of scholars and many non-scholarly types have pointed out that Communism acts as an ersatz religion, but I think that Chambers was the first person I read to elaborate upon something even more powerful: when you lack faith in G-d, you generally tend toward a faith in man, as happened in Communism. People need an ideal or a concept of perfection in which to believe, and when you put all of your faith in man, you envision a perfect type of man* (New Soviet Man being a great example of this). When real man fails to live up to this standard of perfection, there are two things you can do: either lose your faith in man or decide to “remove the impediments” keeping man from being perfect. Chambers took the first strategy and ended up developing a real faith in G-d in his later years, but most Communists took the second tack, blaming the kulaks and the international bourgeois conspiracy and sundry other “external forces” for man’s flaws.
After thinking a lot about this, it pushed me on the first steps toward having some sort of faith. As I said, I don’t believe that you can actually rationally develop faith, but I do believe that you can hide latent faith using reason, and I believe that this is what I was doing. Even though I was always of the “original sin” style of thought regarding man, recognizing that man is inherently flawed and could never attain perfection of any sort, this did not directly translate into religious belief, but after reading Witness, I did want to give it a try. In my senior year of college, I had the opportunity and started going to an orthodox synagogue, and the funny thing here was the mixture of people who attended. I think that I wasn’t the only one who was going the orthodox route to try to see if there’s some way to develop faith, as there were a couple of people there who seemed like they were struggling to be religious. As a result of all of this, I was able to honestly say that I believe in G-d although my level of faith was still, well, quite limited.
In fact, even to this day, I would not consider myself to have a particularly high level of faith in G-d. I sometimes go into “suspension of disbelief” mode when I’m reading some religious texts and I sometimes have my strong doubts about the unknowable—the afterlife, the future, and even the past to an extent. But I have gone through enough experiences to have some amount of faith. None of these experiences have been the mind-shattering miracles that some people have, but rather are a combination of many small things and a desire to believe that man is something more than a long chain of mutations coming about from a freak accident. So, is this proof of the existence of a deity? Of course not, and for me to claim otherwise would be to contradict myself. As I said before, I don’t believe that you can actually _prove_ the existence or non-existence of a deity, due to the fact that you can’t use reason to prove or deny faith, as they are separate entities. Every logical proof to attempt to show the existence or non-existence of G-d fundamentally hinges on the idea of faith, and you can’t get around it. This is not to say that religious people lack rational belief—trust me, nobody who has read a significant amount of Rabbinical works could possibly believe this. Rather, it is to say that we should not be talking about the tensions between faith and reason, but rather the orthogonal nature of faith and reason.
And that’s where I come from in the existence department. I have a wholly different take in the desirability of belief department, however. In this case, I would consider it a benefit to have a religious society over an irreligious society. As Tony pointed out, religion has been the excuse for much evil. But in contrast, atheistic societies have been devastating—take a look at the death tolls in Communist countries and, if you’re feeling particularly plucky, Nazi Germany as well (Nazi Germany is a much more difficult case to make, considering that a portion of Hitler’s support came from the Catholic south and he had to placate them to an extent, but if I remember correctly, it is fair to say that he was himself an atheist who believed at most in pagan spirits, and many of his top advisers and leaders were not exactly religious men).
Tony says that [his] “environment, education, and upbringing” are the foundations of his morality, but this just pushes the problem back one step. Environment, education, and upbringing are dependent upon others, and also upon the moral codes of others, so where did they get theirs? These are not natural constructs; there are no morality trees whose fruits we pluck to gain notions of honesty and fair dealing. Nor are they entirely the conscious products of men; no man has deliberately created a moral system worth a hoot in hell (I’m feeling Pattonesque today). In fact, when people try to develop moral systems as rational exercises, there is a major risk that it will devolve into murdering all those who do not live up to the perfections of the system. The reason is that most people who attempt to craft such systems fall into the “faith in man” category of things, and when man is perfectable, flaws must be man-made and therefore punished. There is no chance for redemption because there was no acceptable reason for failure. So a totally artificial system of morals, aside from being useless (because no mind could ever comprehend, much less encode, the entire gamut of proclamations concerning what would be moral and what immoral), also tends toward dangerous paths.
A moral system must instead come from one of two logically independent sources: either of divine origin or developed as a matter of custom (or perhaps both, as one does not necessarily preclude the other). Arguing that morals come from divine origins would send you down the faith track once more, as somebody who lacks faith naturally would insist that morality could not come from a non-existent figure, so instead I shall focus on custom. In this case, it is the slow, potentially-unconscious change in the sets of ideas that individuals in a society have over time that would cause a development and a change in a moral system. This system can be —and most likely will be—incomplete, but the flaws will tend to work themselves out in one way or another over time, either by conscious, rational actions (such as Rabbinical arguments in Judaism or members of the Catholic bureaucracy coming together and deciding on a particular statement and track to follow) or by the daily actions of individuals (which may contradict the rational actions of higher moral authorities). In either event, these changes are piecemeal and modest, taking a fair amount of time to fully diffuse through a population and for the implications of this moral change to take place.
But I guess I’ve gone off on too much of a digression by explaining this (or have I? Yeah, maybe I have). Getting back to the point at hand, even if you are an atheist who lives within a set of moral rules, it does not mean that the level of morality present in a society (regardless if it is high or low) would be the same if this society were entirely atheistic. In fact, I would argue that it would be lower, and that, in countries such as the United States, atheists actually free-ride off of Judeo-Christian moral capital which has been built up over the past centuries. I have two reasons for this belief, and they both hinge upon the idea that immoral behavior (including but not limited to lying, cheating, stealing, rape, murder, and unfairly destroying the reputations of others) has a personal advantage but a social disadvantage. In other words, we are stuck in a prisoner’s dilemma, which implies that the dominant strategy is to engage in immoral behavior**. After all, if I gain more from cheating you than by fair dealing, I will cheat. And if cheating can limit the damage done to me if you cheat, then I will cheat as well. So basically, both people find it in their best interests to cheat. So you should think of the issue here as a PD game, and the goal of moral rules is to get people to cooperate instead of defect, to be honest rather than lie, to be fair instead of cheating, etc., etc.
So given this, why do I think that a G-d-fearing audience would be more likely to follow moral rules than one which doesn’t believe in G-d at all? As I said, there are two reasons. The first one, something which you should not discount, is the fairly simple concept, “because G-d will punish you.” Even if you don’t get caught by the mortal authorities—even if you _can’t_ get caught—you still have a fear that you will be punished for it later by this supernatural authority. For somebody who really believes in and fears G-d, that could be enough to cooperate, and I would say that the number of people who go from immoral to moral behavior would be far greater than the number of people who would be moral but then decide to engage in immoral behavior just because they want to spite G-d. That is reason number one.
Reason number two is similar, but not quite the same: because G-d allows for some kind of transcendent authority whose laws you are to follow and give an answer to the question, “Who says?” To understand the significance of this, I have to go back to the prisoner’s dilemma. In this case, there is a particular theorem called the Folk Theorem, which states that, in an infinite-horizon game (i.e., you don’t know when you’re going to die or stop dealing with this other person), all agents might find it in their best interests to cooperate rather than defect. This, I think, is the wellspring of custom-driven morality. Because I believe that people are generally fairly rational, I would say that a good number of people could realize these potential gains and act in a way to obtain them. And others will find that the rules that they adopt lead to more successful outcomes and imitation from others, even if nobody knows exactly why this success occurs. But because I do not believe that people are entirely rational or able to follow long logical argments, I would say that there are a number of people who would not realize the potential gain here and would continue to defect just beause they do not know any better. And there are some people who, even after explanations, will never really understand it. In this case, some of these people can be persuaded to go along by invoking an argument to authority. When G-d exists, He can be the authority—and as G-d told Moses, do X, Y, and Z. But when G-d doesn’t exist, you’re basically left with the government as the big authority here, and that leads to potential problems as described above.
Now, I realize that there is a potential for abuse here. In fact, religious figures certainly have abused individuals in the past, do so today, and will do so in the future. People are flawed, corrupt, and some are power-hungry. Religious figures are, all in all, no different. But even if people are not inherently corrupt or power-hungry, it can still be in their self-interest to act in abusive ways. The public choice branch in economics has gone a long way toward describing why government officials do bad things, and they do not start from the premise that government officials are evil; rather, they begin with the idea that government officials are just like everybody else, no better and no worse. So because I do not see any inherent reason as to why it would be different, I would extend it to religious figures as well. But I would also extend it to every group of individuals, so I do not consider it a direct knock on religion, due to the fact that, even without religion, there would still be the same individuals clamoring for the same authority, just in different spheres. Again, in a society without religion, government tends to take over a lot of authority that was previously held by religious figures. And to be honest, I’d prefer that power be fairly diffuse in a society, so this would be a separate reason for wanting religion to exist, and for it to exist independent of the government.
Okay, so having said all of this, and having argued that atheists are free-riders and that an atheistic society would, by missing some tools to entice people to stay in line without entering into direct punishment, be less moral than a religious society, I should say now that I’m not anti-atheist. In my years of knowing Tony, I’ve never tried to convince him to become religious—in fact, one of the things I like most about Judaism is that it is an anti-proselytizing religion, which fits me rather well as an anti-proselytizing person. So on the contrary, I am tolerant of atheists and some of my intellectual heroes were atheists (David Hume being superstar example #1). I do not consider an avowed lack of faith to be some form of evil, and all those who happen to have decided that there is no G-d, that is your own way. [Richard Dawkins is one of the few atheists who I genuinely dislike on account of his atheism, just because he's got all of the holier-than-thou fervor of a born-again Baptist preacher trying to save souls, as it strikes me as annoying.] But at the same time, I would not want to live in an atheistic society. I do not believe that a society without G-d could develop, in the long run, appropriate morals for its survival and it would also run a much higher risk of collapse into authoritarianism and horrors that do not plague theistic societies to nearly the same extent. Instead, my idea of what works best is a pluralistic society founded on Judeo-Christian beliefs (and infused with Anglo-Saxon notions of law, life, and liberty, and I believe that the latter depends in good part upon the former). And if you take a look at migration patterns, you would see that such societies appear to be popular destinations for folks, which implies that they are superior to the other types that exist.
I look forward to hearing Mr. Gudorf explain his side of things, as he would round this bit out with a strongly theistic explanation, as that’s the kind of diversity 36 Chambers promotes. That and we’re going to fire Tony and replace him with a black lesbian in a wheelchair, just to knock off four categories right there.
* – I would consider the Stoic ideal of man to be an interesting case here. In this case, there is an idea of a “perfect” man, as embodied by the mythical Socrates in Stoic writings. Every Stoic philosopher, however, understood that no man could ever be a true Stoic, and so when man failed to live up to expectations, it was because of man’s flaws, and these flaws are inborn and irreparable, meaning it would be stupid and even against the nature of Stoicism to punish a man for his failings in this department. So in this case, it would be possible to have an entirely irreligious philosophical outlook with a form of perfection that does not really involve man as such. But then again, a fair number of Stoics were also Jewish and the two have a lot of common ground, so at the same time, Stoicism need not be irreligious. Anyhow, that’s a nugget to ponder a bit over…
** – Think of a truly sociopathic individual.