Monthly Archives: November 2010

On Atheist Morality

Jeff Jacoby asks a particularly pertinent question in his latest op-ed, Created by God to be good,” on Atheist “humanism” (as embodied in the American Humanist Society) and its hostility to biblical (or quranic) morality.

It brings to mind the argument made by Kwame Appiah’s book, The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen: that moral revolutions do not so much occur as a result of people who do the “right thing” for the “right reason” (practitioners of Kant’s categorical imperative), as they do because there’s a fundamental shift in the peer-group’s view of what’s moral: slavery, dueling, foot binding all go out when the dominant attitude disapproved of such behavior. If you duel to the death and win (as did Aaron Burr), and it’s a career-ender because your peers take you as a hot-headed fool, dueling will not last long.

Jacoby challenges the the core message of the American Humanist Association: “that God and the Judeo-Christian tradition are not necessary for the preservation of moral values and that human reason is a better guide to goodness than Bible-based religion.”

Can people be decent and moral without believing in a God who commands us to be good? Sure. There have always been kind and ethical nonbelievers. But how many of them reason their way to kindness and ethics, and how many simply reflect the moral expectations of the society in which they were raised?

In our culture, even the most passionate atheist cannot help having been influenced by the Judeo-Christian worldview that shaped Western civilization. “We know that you can be good without God,” Speckhardt tells CNN. He can be confident of that only because he lives in a society so steeped in Judeo-Christian values that he takes those values for granted. But a society bereft of that religious heritage is a society not even Speckhardt would want to live in.

This is the key point. Humanists are, in fact, free riders. They come along after centuries of hard work in prime divider societies where the zero-sum dominating imperative ruled social and political relations. In those long and painful years, some people, driven to by a sense of divine authority, systematically, and at great personal cost (sometimes one’s very life) pursued the generous impulses of positive-sum interactions. Now that we’re raised in a civil society, where we’re trained from childhood to cooperate, to eschew violence, to seek the positive-sum interaction, such behavior comes much more easily.

The Society can put up billboards reading: “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake.”

But in a world where it’s “rule or be ruled,” where the nice guy is a sucker who’ll predictably get the short end of the stick, where alpha males use violence with impunity to dominate others, “for goodness’ sake” doesn’t cut much ice. Indeed, it’s quite risible.

Solidarity: Integrity vs. Honor Styles

I recently had an exchange with a Muslim Dartmouth student who came to a talk I gave. I had made the point that American Muslims, rather than complain that Americans were treating them with suspicion after 9-11, should rather have explored what is wrong with Islam that it could produce people who, in its name, and believing themselves to be (the only) “true” Muslims, would do such a deed.

He responded by commenting that, as a Muslim, he feels no obligation to do anything of the sort. For him, these men had not behaved as Muslims should and that was the end of it. I found this attitude remarkable, especially given the sense of solidarity (asabiyya) that Muslims are enjoined to feel towards each other.

In thinking about this, I’m struck by what one might call the difference between integrity and honor in the matter of solidarity. A person driven by integrity feels solidarity with his group in matters of morality, and breaches of that morality concern him or her. In some senses, the behavior of self-degrading Jews exemplifies an extreme version of this, in which the immoral behavior of other Jews so dishonors them that they must denounce it in the most ferocious terms.

A person driven by honor (in the tribal sense), feels solidarity with his group in matters of survival, self-defense, power. In the doctrine of Walla wa bara, love [for fellow Muslims], hate [for the enemies of Islam], we find a large array of attitudes that enjoin such solidarity – my side right or wrong – that a Muslim is not to help an infidel against a fellow Muslim, even if that Muslim is a criminal.

Thus, for helping convict five Muslims who were plotting to kill American soldiers in the Fort Dix terrorism trial, Mahmoud Omar has been ostracized by the Muslim community. Why? Because “in a twisted way…their [the terrorists’] actions are understandable in the Muslim community.” Omar adds, “For Muslims, we are all brothers, and I betrayed a brother”— echoing Muhammad’s injunction: “A Muslim is the brother of a Muslim.”

I’m not sure my interlocutor at Dartmouth has thought these matters through. I did not get the sense he was a demopath so much as genuinely unreflective. But I do think that, unconsciously, he reflected an attitude which needs to concern Muslims and infidels alike. In this sense, the Obama administration’s attitude – that to even speak of radical Islam is an insult to Muslims – enables and empowers this attitude. Rather than worry about “insulting” Muslims who insist that their religion is one of peace and thus zealots who use violence in the name of Islam are not “true Muslims,” we should be worrying about why Muslims don’t agonize over these men who – if we had the moral courage to assert the proper response – actually shame Islam.

It’s as if we were embarrassed about shaming Islam even when it deserves to be shamed.

I remember a dialogue session during the height of suicide bombing in 2002. I stated that suicide terrorism was morally repugnant. A Palestinian, a very nice and sincere man, objected that I was “dehumanizing” his people. It never occurred to him that his own people were dehumanizing themselves. And all the Jews in the group told me to shut up and stop provoking the Arabs in the group.

Self-Degrading Jews

Self-Degrading Jews

In preparing for a lecture in my honor-shame class, I was thinking about about the nature of the accusation that Israel is like the Nazis. This obviously doesn’t have anything to do with reality. There’s nothing that the Israelis and the Nazis have both done that every other sovereign entity in recorded history has not done. On the contrary, any study of Jenin 2002 will reveal that the Israeli army is, militarily speaking, the opposite of Nazism on a scale of what is humanly possible. To accuse Israel of acting like the Nazis is an act of moral sadism, the worst insult you can hurl at a Jew.

So it’s not about reality, it’s a shouting match… the kind so common to honor-shame cultures, in which verbal provocations, degradations, and violence are paired in the struggle for dominance. Your mother wears army boots writ large.

So what are Jews doing calling fellow Jews Nazis? And doing it publicly, before eager audiences of non-Jews, indeed, anti-Zionists? These Jewish anti-Zionists, people like Norman Finkelstein, who go out of their way to identify as Jewish and then side with the people who are dumping on their people.

They are self-degrading. Such a designation for Jews whom some call self-hating, the alter-Juifs, the  scourges, gets at a key element of their behavior. Rather than identify their driving emotion – self-hatred, self-loathing, messianic masochism – this designation gets at their actions, and the framework in which they have meaning.

For an example of a group of Jews who make this self-degradation a matter of urgent principle, see this about a group called Independent Jewish Voices, who insist that anti-Semitism is overblown, and people like Irwin Cotler are just trying to prevent the legitimate criticism of Israel.

Honor Killing and Self-Degrading Jews

When I was preparing my talk for Yale it occurred to me that those whom I then called scourges (Anthony Julius’ term) were engaged in a peculiarly Jewish form of honor-killing. Israel, because of the terrible image that she has in the MSNM, has shamed liberal and progressive Jews, humiliated them in front of their colleagues and friends on the left. The most horrified of these, has adopted the Palestinian narrative – Israel is born in sin and must be destroyed – as a way of killing the member that has shamed the family.

As with Arab honor-killings of daughters, it doesn’t matter whether Israel has actually done the things she’s accused of. (In Jordan, for example, the family kills the daughter suspected of having been in an illicit affair, then the autopsy determines whether she was a virgin. If yes, it stops there; if no, they go after the suspected male lover.) Just the fact that she has such a bad reputation is sufficient to make her worthy of elimination.

Anything to save face.