I remember Professor Leszek Kolakowski, one of the great Polish intellectual dissidents from the Stalinist period, saying that when he debated with apologists for the system, he often found himself almost on the losing side. This was because the arguments of his opponents were so antiquated that he’d forgotten what the original refutations were. (Another way in which he phrased this was to compare the experience to sitting through a boring movie and the sense of relief of being able to leave early upon realizing that one had seen it before and already knew the ending.)
Trudging around the country and debating various representatives of the faithful has sometimes made me feel the same way. I lack Kolakowski’s intellectual history and authority, but I recognize a stale and worn-out debating point when I see it and am occasionally able to reach through the fog of boredom and recall the counterargument. In fact, I am thinking of doing a handy series of briefings on just this.
My first exhibit might be the belief, often attributed to Dostoyevsky and certainly put in the mouth of Smerdyakov, one of the characters in The Brothers Karamazov, that without God all things are possible. In other words, in a godless world, people would feel free to behave exactly as they choose and would award themselves permission for any selfishness or excess. “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”—this, I have read, is the credo of the Satanists.
Well, for starters, it can’t be said that the Satanists don’t believe in a supernatural authority. But if we step over that obvious point, we find that the rest of the argument is either very feeble or very revealing. To begin with, what are the believers telling us about themselves? Are they saying that if they did not fear hellfire or desire paradise they would indulge in rape, theft, pillage, and perjury? If so, then they are telling us something worth knowing about “faith-based” morality. Examine your own conscience, reader of this secular humanist magazine. What really inhibits you from abusing your children, stealing from your neighbors, or lying to your colleagues? Is it a belief in a supreme being who can convict you of thought-crimes for your sinful private desires? Or is it some notion of human solidarity and the vague yet distinct idea that we have a common interest in behaving as well as we can toward one another?
Maintaining that the second choice is far more realistic and based on a much higher degree of probability, one might also add that the first choice is even less “moral” than it looks. Don’t we frequently find, when considering the most horrible, self-destructive, and antisocial crimes, that they are committed by those who are listening to divine instructions? Smerdyakov was wrong, or at least he was very gravely one-sided. It is only with God that certain otherwise unthinkable cruelties are possible.
We don’t seem to know of many godless despots and conquerors in antiquity, but suppose there to have been such; one might imagine a despot deciding to slaughter all the civilians in a town that had just fallen. Brute self-interest might dictate such a policy or the setting of such an example. However, just picture the scene in that town once the papal envoy has said, as was said of the city that sheltered the Albigensian heretics: “Kill them all. God will know his own.” The massacre would at once cease to be utilitarian and become hysterical. An unbeliever might well torture an enemy in order to get him to say where the treasure is buried, but torture really becomes exorbitant when the authorities have convinced themselves that they are saving the soul of the tortured one. Then, there are no limits. I have heard several times from Iranian oppositionists that Islam forbids the execution of a virgin. Very well, then, a guilty virgin will first be raped by Mr. Ahmadinejad’s pious “Revolutionary Guards” and, only when they are done with her, handed over to the hangman. Once you have God on your side, there is no crime you cannot commit and no cruelty you cannot self-righteously devise.
The genital mutilation lobby is exclusively religious. The suicide-bombing “community” is almost exclusively religious. The “end of days” and eschatological movements, which gleefully hope for the utter destruction of the only world we know or will ever know, are religious by definition. Not to make a cheap point, but the serial-killer and “voices told me to do it” community is hardly a secular or atheist one. So, once again, we discover that it is not just logically impossible to derive ethics and morals from the supernatural; it is actually much less likely that we get our moral precepts from the sky than it is that we get them—or may hope to get them—from an examination of our common human condition. Those who argue the contrary are refusing to face the role of religion and superstition, not just in failing to make people behave better but in positively inciting them to behave worse.