Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Email to Jeff Jacoby

Dear Mr. Jacoby,

I have only started reading your columns consistently for several months (I only recently moved to Brandeis), but I find them interesting and thought-provoking. I must say though, I was disappointed and disturbed by your recent "Created by God to be Good" column. Clearly, we don't get our ethics from the Bible. You accuse the American Humanist Association of cherrypicking some grim verses, but you seem to be cherrypicking in choosing "Thou Shalt Not Murder." The Bible condones genocide and tells us to kill witches. The Bible (including the New Testament) gets the big questions like slavery wrong. We get our morality not from the Bible or the West's Roman Catholic roots, but from developed skeptical, secular thought. "Moderate religion" is simply religion influenced by that thought. Your point about Stalin and Mao is brought up in every debate with Christopher Hitchens and as he always notes, these were people who replaced religion with a faith-based system of their own. As Bertrand Russell once noted: "In our day, a new dogmatic religion, namely, communism, has arisen. To this, as to other systems of dogma, the agnostic is opposed. The persecuting character of present day communism is exactly like the persecuting character of Christianity in earlier centuries." Skepticism of faith-based claims and thoughtful considerations of what will best better the future for all of humanity is what we need. Economic and foreign policy issues require the attention which many wish to divert to their faith-based political claims.
Baruch Pelta


  1. I too saw Jacoby's column yesterday. Excellent reply. I suggest you send it to the Boston Globe.

  2. "We get our morality not from the Bible or the West's Roman Catholic roots, but from developed skeptical, secular thought."

    How does one get morality from skeptical thought?
    It seems like you are just picking what appeals to you from religious morality and rejecting what you don't. How does skeptical, secular thought take credit for that?
    What precisely is it about secular and atheist philosophies which promotes goodness instead of evil?

  3. David: We try to take a look at what hurts or helps real live people. For example, there is nothing inherently wrong with same-gender intimate relationships among consenting adults. It is only considered wrong because a book says so, and says to stone those people to death. Someone not influenced by religion would find it wrong to condemn gays to a life of loneliness and shunning or to stoning if they act on their inate orientation.

  4. "How does one get morality from skeptical thought?"

    How does one get it from any other source?

    If religious ethical teachings were our only guide to moral action, how can we feel sure that they aren't the brainchild of some demonically evil deity who derives perverse satisfaction from tripping us up into performing really evil actions that only seem noble to us because we have no independent grounds for evaluating them?

    If you hadn't drunk the kool-aid, it would be glaringly obvious to you that religious morality
    gains its validation from our naturally evolved sense of right and wrong, not the other way around.

  5. No one answered Dovid's question though: How does one get morality from skeptical thought? How does one get morality from aethism?

  6. Thank you, Josh and Anonymous. Seeing comments on my blog from fellow thinking non-frum people is a breath of fresh air, a great way to start off my morning!

  7. Baruch, I am just curious, how does one find morality in atheism?

  8. ^how does one find morality in atheism?

    One doesn't. There is no shortcut to morality, according to any honest worldview. It is religion that makes that highly ridiculous, irresponsible claim.

  9. >>"One doesn't. There is no shortcut to morality, according to any honest worldview. It is religion that makes that highly ridiculous, irresponsible claim.<<

    Religion says you must choose good over evil. That much is undeniable. How is that ridiculous or irresponsible?
    (we'll leave out what defines good and evil for now. Let's grant for arguments' sake that it's human intuition and it changes over time)

    But where does atheism provide the basic imperative to choose good over evil?
    Is good inherently preferable to evil in the atheistic philosophy? If so, how does it convey that? Does it leave it entirely up to you?
    It's a simple question.

  10. If you've granted that human intuition defines good and evil, I see no reason not to grant that human intuition tells us to do good and not evil. In which case religion is redundant. Keep in mind that while most religions can hardly agree on anything, they all agree on the golden rule. I wonder why that is.

  11. So you are conceding that there is nothing inherent in atheism which provides an imperative to do good and not evil?

    If so, that scores one for religion over atheism. It's not redundant. We often need external pressures/motivations to actually do and even sacrifice for we know to be the right thing and overcome natural laziness/selfishness.

    But it seems that atheism is completely indefferent to the goodness vs. selfishness struggle within man.
    That's a big minus.

  12. Dovid:
    Please either comment as Dovid Kornreich or comment as Freelance Kiruv Maniac, don't pretend you're more than one person.

  13. Sorry, I'm not pretending, I'm just posting comments in my current log-in at the time.
    I change from time to time to post on my two blogs and check my two gmail accounts.
    So please don't let this prevent you from responding.

  14. Well, actually, you are pretending. As of right now, on one of your blogs, you write in your subtitle of there being multiple authors -- referring to Dovid Kornreich and FKM. Just when you post here, post as one or the other, please.

    So please don't let this prevent you from responding.
    With due respect Dovid, when somebody bandies about a libel accusation and an accusation of purposeful truth-obfuscation, and then a couple weeks later comes to my blog for my insights, I might not be inclined to answer all of his questions. Particularly if, after bandying about said accusations and always going about to various non-haredi blogs for the purpose of promoting haredi POV, I might suspect he's not here on this blog for my insights but he's here to promote frumkeit.

    (sorry if you saw an earlier draft of this comment, had trouble getting out what I wanted to say)

  15. >So you are conceding that there is nothing inherent in atheism which provides an imperative to do good and not evil?


    But hold your horses. First, I'd like to know where religion says to be good. Second, I'd like evidence that religious people tend to follow that imperative (this suggests otherwise).

    I think people can be moral. Ideas much less so. No one would claim that science or medicine or politics is moral or immoral. They are for the most part amoral in that their focus is not on morals, but reality and that sort of thing. In that light, atheism is not moral or immoral, it is simply amoral. Even the study of ethics or the Bible (not to conflate the two) tends to be amoral, to differing degrees. For example, creating a document that is widely considered moral, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is arguably moral to an extent, while the ordinary drafting of, say, tax laws, I think we would agree is neither moral or immoral.

    The irony of course is Jacoby himself says, "Religion has often been put to evil purposes or invoked to justify shocking cruelty. Then again, the same is true of every area of human endeavor, from medicine to journalism to philosophy to the law." He seems to be conceding the point right off the bat that religion, like medicine and law, is an amoral pursuit. After which he immediately claims that religion is necessary for morality. Typical theist logic.

    Thoguh there is one part of the article I take issue with (not that I agree with any of the rest of it): "human reason is a better guide to goodness than Bible-based religion." Excuse me, sir, one doesn't need to appeal to *reason* for a superior alternative to biblical morality. Heck, just about anything will do. Say, even Mein Kampf will do in a jam.

  16. Alright, that's about 5 comments in response to Dovid's question, from OTD, Josh, and Anon. There's also one book on why we should be moral without religion which I've been hawking, it's called The Moral Landscape. So because I don't want this conversation to turn into a tit-for-tat escalation (Dovid once told me he hates those) and Dovid's already responded to OTD's answers twice with his perspective qua religious apologist (somehow I had a feeling no answers would be satisfying) and as we just hit Godwin's Law (no offense OTD, I liked the rest of your comment), I'm closing the thread.