What Atheism Answers

Michael Gerson, an elegant writer for the Washington Post, has made yet another of those ironically unsuccessful attempts to the claim that “atheism” must fail to provide a rational motivation for Good behavior amongst us silly humans.

In today’s column, titled “What Atheists Can’t Answer”, Gerson has a question to ask of those of us who see no reason to believe in a creator of the universe. “If the atheists are right, what would be the effect on human morality?” In his attempt to frame our response, he reuses an ancient claim that because theism offers an ideal of Good in the form of “God”, it necessarily supersedes any merely rational explanation for the phenomenon of our species’ more benevolent, magnanimous or even altruistic activities. He does so using the most absurd of the many canards typically used by the faithful: that it’s absurd to imagine there are rational reasons to be Good.
Some argue that a careful determination of our long-term interests -- a fear of bad consequences -- will constrain our selfishness. But this is particularly absurd. Some people are very good at the self-centered exploitation of others. Many get away with it their whole lives. By exercising the will to power, they are maximizing one element of their human nature. In a purely material universe, what possible moral basis could exist to condemn them? Atheists can be good people; they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.

And there-in lies the irony. THE argument against religion or the very existence of a god, the one which is most Noticed by believers, is that such self-centered exploitation takes place All The Time in the name of deities, whether of the Judaeo-Christian-Muslim variety or from any other regionally evolved conceptualization of deific pantheons. It is never reasonable to resort to violence against thinking beings except as a Last Resort which immediacy recommends in order to stave off death.

There have always been rational explanations for monstrously abominable actions, both personal and political. Their problem has always been that of being based upon a False Premise. The Germans loved and heiled Hitler because they believed that “expelling” Jewery from der Faterland was a Good thing and moral. The Roman Catholic Pope’s occasionally utilized such Good methods of rooting out Evil as the auto de fey, and the oh so holy Inquisitions for the “good of the Church” because they believed that their God would approve and even require them to go to any lengths in order to cleanse His flock of infidels and blasphemers.

If we now accept those premises as truly Good and Desirable for the whole of our species and our planet, would we not have to admit that the only tragedy is that neither of them succeeded in their goals?

But of course we reject those premises as the self-serving and disingenuous lies and ignoramia which they empirically are.

At least he didn’t trivialize the possibility of a universe without a sentient, much less anthropomorphic, creator or stoop to running out the ol’ “Founding Fathers were theists” gamb... Oops…
The death of God has greater consequences than expanded golf time on Sunday mornings. And it is not simply religious fundamentalists who have recognized it. America's Founders embraced public neutrality on matters of religion, but they were not indifferent to the existence of religious faith. George Washington warned against the "supposition that morality can be maintained without religion." The Founders generally believed that the virtues necessary for self-government -- self-sacrifice, honesty, public spirit -- were strengthened by religious beliefs and institutions.
Well, if anything can be said about Washington’s attitude towards religion, the most likely thing is that he felt that whatever worked for an individual in order to live their life well, even should they be atheist, was all that was important. Old George may indeed have counted himself amongst the deists of his day, though even that bit of biographical information about our first President’s beliefs is unavailable to us today. Why? Because Washington apparently practiced precisely what today’s leading atheist voices espouse and recommend; One’s Beliefs mean NOTHING to anyone but that one, unless, of course, that one wishes to proselytize in order to gain a following, i.e., for Political reasons.

Here is the bottom-line failure of Gerson and the theists’ argument that belief in Gods provides the only true motivation to Good Behavior for human beings: As with every horrific act ever committed in the name of “Good”, such belief requires a false premise. At BEST, and this is ironic part, it requires a proposition supported by only the word of someone who claims to have Good intentions. It is a premise which can not be tested.

Atheism as a concept shares this drawback of being, ultimately, untestable. The difference between Theists and Atheists, where the former claim supernatural knowledge to be their proof, is that the latter point to the complete lack of any evidence for a creator. Evidence which is the Only thing which every individual, theist and atheist alike, can look at in the same light, from the same perspective, and with the same tools and all see the same thing.

In the final analysis, Reason will always have one major advantage over Faith. Faith requires that the original premise, no matter how faulty and devastatingly wrong it turns out to be, must always be maintained and adhered to.

Reason is always self-checking, reevaluating and asserting updated premises. This is the only way to ascertain the actual, empirical truth of an idea, and it is the bane of religion and at the core of all Good behavior.


  1. Good grief, that idea that people must have religion to have some kind of moral center drives me batshit insane, esp. given that we have so very much evidence that Christianity and morality are NOT synonymous.

    My problem is I live in the Bible belt, so I'm terribly cynical about (and sick of?) fundamentalist Christians (oxymoron?).

    I remember in college, one professor (of Ancient History) who considered himself a devout Christian used to say that more blood had been shed in the name of Christianity than for any other single cause in human history; therefore, Christians had a special obligation to do good in the world."

  2. That Prof's sentiment is nice. Too bad religion really does appear to be such a worthless motivational force for the majority of its ostensible adherents.

    And I dig the Bible Belt thing. I bought me a nice "Evolve" Fish but, liking my car and all, I refuse to put it on my bumper. Who knows who might rip it off or worse.

  3. I admire you for writing such a solid response to this column (did you send it to the paper?) because my response to this sort of thing is just to jab a pencil in my eye -- or better yet the writer's.

  4. Bird and i had a conversation about this last night and your name did indeed come up. Interesting post. Michael.

  5. your best post in ages.

    the one that always puzzles me about this argument is that in the deists beliefs the reason for treating people nicely is that if you don't you will burn in hell forever

    does that not seem a rather selfish reason?

  6. I can relate, especially lately, Kevin. That's how I've been feeling 'bout all Bu$hCo's continued B$; AND the Dems so far lacking any inclination to do ANYthing about it all.

    What did "I" say, Stever? Hope it wasn't too out there. Hmmm, or maybe my hope is that it was. {-;

    Hey, thanks a lot, Michael. This is how I imagined myself bloggin' when I first began. All kinds o' personal shit came up and went down in the interim though, so silliness became my primary modus operandi of survival; and not just in the blogosphere.

    Ya know, I get a WaPo Headlines email, and when I saw that title, I knew I wouldn't like what he'd have to say. I figured WTF though, and am glad I did. Guess my head is clearing up pretty nicely.

    And, yeah, it's about as freakin' selfish as it gets. Understandably so, too. Like it has frequently been repeated; Religions make some pretty good Metaphorical sense. As long as we remember their Relative contexts.

    Everything is, after all, Absolutely Relative, eh. :)

  7. Given that half the population of the U.S. does not believe in God (statistics someplace on the net), it's the half that doesn't believe in God who are not molesting children and not frequenting brothels while supporting traditional marriage. I think we would all be better off if the God people stowed it for awhile.

  8. Dig it. Of course, to True Believers that "fact" is merely atheistic propaganda. To so many of the Faithful, there's no such thing as an atheist; just people who believe in some other thing.


    I keep trying to think of a way to make God belief make sense any more, and only ignorance and wanton ignorance continue to come up as reasons.

  9. I for one amd sick of people acting like you MUST believe in god in order to be a good person and to raise moral, upstanding children. I get to personally see and hear their children talking about how you have to go to church to have any morals or to teach your children morals. makes me want to vomit.

  10. I don't have a problem with the kinds of believers who don't run around shoving it on other people. MOst of my friends and family are pretty thinking people when it comes to whatever it is they believe in. And regardless of what they believe, I still love them. But y'all are right, it's the people whose "faith" does nothing to guide them toward compassion, generosity, or otherwise just being good people, that makes me livid. People have their minds on spending eternity with an imaginary friend in the sky rather than focusing on what they can do to make the world a better place right now.

    Crank crank crank. Sorry.

  11. Is all good, MM. I do have a wee problem with folks believing what they know is highly unlikely or simply ridiculous & absurd. The more who do so for "tradition's sake" or "diversity's", the more encouragement and, yes, even incitement to prosyletising and evangelising have teh crazies.

    I've learned what it means to respect their right/and the act of their beliefs though. Having my own - what I consider - crazy personal problems, I know that folks have their reasons. By "respect" I mean that I've learned not to challenge people who unless they enjoy the debate/conversation.

    Crank it out, mi amiga! :-}

  12. People have their minds on spending eternity with an imaginary friend in the sky rather than focusing on what they can do to make the world a better place right now.

    Very cool observation.

  13. Ahh, great take on it.

    Humanity is what's important. And humanity isn't just achieved by religion, look how many people do inhumane things in the name of religion.

    Once again good ol' common sense is forgotten.

  14. The death of God has PRECISELY the consequence of making more golf time on Sunday morning. In fact, that was God's big mistake. On the seventh day he rested, and while he slept Satan seized the opportunity to create golf.

  15. It seems to me that the notion that aside from belief in God people have no reason to be good evinces a profound cynicism about human nature and even a fundamental (so to speak) underlying immorality on the part of anyone who would seriously hold such a viewpoint.

    Even for those Christians who accept the doctrine of original sin, the position that in ourselves we completely lack the proverbial moral compass renders the Christian's acceptance of God's grace and goodness perfectly unintelligible.

  16. I am so glad that I reached a point in life where I know that my morality, ethics and decisions are made within me and not being made by some mythological creature whose nature can't be comprehended or even agreed upon by two people.

    I was watching this show on the History Channel today about Hell and the Devil and such things. One of the True Believers in God and The Holy Spirit said that a demon had been telling him to stab himself with a large knife -- and that he was glad that God told him not to do that. The real Hell is having all those voices telling you to do stuff, and you don't even think they are YOU. You can blame a demon for something you did. An actual real demon, not a metaphorical one. And people will believe it. Try telling them a space alien told you to do stuff. You'll get a different general reaction.

  17. someone should point him to evilbible.com

    obviously god does not insure nor demand goodness.

  18. I guess they never watched "My Name Is Earl". Karma's bitches, baby.:)

    Ok seriously this post was my favorite here- like you ate your Wheaties. Very well written.

    What is "good" anyway? Good that promotes humanity, good that promotes ourselves, good that is situational and relative? The thing is, good cannot be described by universal rules.

    Murder is bad, unless you are being attacked, etc. All behaviors have varying degrees of "good" or "bad" What about victims who victimize? Products of environments? And so we go around.

    I think it is hard to say that we are all driven by some consequence, or rules. What about conscience?We might perhaps be driven by something but damned, Bains, if I know what the hell that is. I know that there is no monopoly on morality.

    I'm too tired to get all Zarathustra today. Feh!

  19. I've tried to leave comments for the past four nights. Why does your blog hate AG and the Macintosh she HATES!


  20. i've gotta say...i've heard both sides of that same argument before.

    there certainly are two sides to that coin.

    if someone asked me...what motivates people to be "good?" It would seem there are a number of motivaters.

    The big question I'm stumped on is "what motivates most everyone to want to have children? and what makes so many people think they can be good parents?"

    but alas, that question was not covered in the article you addressed.

  21. I would argue that religion is a destroyer of one's personal moral compass. You have to subject your compass to that of the clergyman, and clergymen are notorious for using flocks to achieve personal ends.

    Religion is a disaster, a joke, and a cancer on humanity. That much Marx was most certainly correct about.

  22. Atheism does not answer the increasing question - where have you disappeared, MichaelBains, since posting this one?

    Quite a dramatic post to publish and then fade away...

  23. Been flittin' 'bout the internets and have left a comment here or there, but, despite having a few ideas, nothing's grabbed me by the (insert preferred noun here) and said "post me, dammit!".

    Not sure what's up with that, but I'm not bein' MIA. All's fairly well, actually. (weird! I know.)

    Thanks for checkin', Nava. :))) I did notice that you'd taken a wee break yourself, eh. Though not this long, to be sure.

  24. Excellent post!! I can verify from experience that the minister's kid is always the most f'ed up.

    There's an interesting book by Deepak Chopra called How To Know God. In it he says that you will know God by looking in the mirror. Those who see God as protector view the world as a dangerous place of bare survival, their God is vengeful and based on the fight-or-flight response... sounds like a perfect description of a fundie doesn't it????


  25. Great post Michael...it addressed the necessary. It has always chapped my butt that only Christians...or believers...can be good. Atheists automatically at the back of the bus for that ride to Satan's sanctuary. I would never cheat to become a president...I'd never lie my country into war...I would never lie to the country to their face on TV...I'd never leave Dick Cheney in charge while I go under the butt knife. There's alot of bad things I wouldn't do as an atheist...ever!

  26. that writer is an idiot. it's natural, normal, and appropriate for certain people to be atheists, just like it's natural, normal, and appropriate for most people to believe in some version of god. neither is morally superior. you can be an idiot either way.


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