When I commented that Michael Gerson is full of wrong ideas, I didn’t expect him to so quickly be the gift that keeps giving, this time with a ramble about questions unanswerable by atheists. I am not an atheist, so Mr. Gerson’s nonsense isn’t directed at people like me. Many of his assumptions are, because the questions answered by belief in Mr. Gerson’s god rely on irrationality. For example:
But there is a problem. Human nature, in other circumstances, is also clearly constructed for cruel exploitation, uncontrollable rage, icy selfishness and a range of other less desirable traits.
So the dilemma is this: How do we choose between good and bad instincts? Theism, for several millennia, has given one answer: We should cultivate the better angels of our nature because the God we love and respect requires it. While many of us fall tragically short, the ideal remains.
How do we choose? This is a trick question, right? How about we use our subjective reasoning to decide what we value most. I could be cruel to someone weaker than me. The opportunity presents itself and it’s in human nature to act on that. Why not act on it?
Mr. Gerson knows the answers, of course, although he only offers one option for the atheist (and non-religious).
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.
It’s not particularly absurd to claim that a fear of bad consequences influences our behavior. If a person has a marginal appreciation for what we consider ethics and morals, however and from wherever they derive, the fear of bad consequences will matter. If that person values something, but is unconcerned with taking from another to acquire it, the threat of prison looms. (Except for politicians, of course.) So he makes a choice. Society responds accordingly, if he chooses what it prohibits.
But that’s not all there is, of course. Mr. Gerson seems compelled to believe that God put in many wonderful features in human nature, yet he implicitly dismisses any concept that atheists might value these features more than the opportunity to cruelly exploit, rage uncontrollably, and so on. If atheists understand that such negatives exist, even if they believe them to be a result of evolution, surely they are capable of understanding and acting on the positives. Such evaluations are subjective. Without God, the evaluation is not doomed to embrace Lord of the Flies.
All of this leads Mr. Gerson to conclude that atheists and theists alike agree that humans “have an innate desire for morality and purpose”. Right, because it’s human nature. This is complicated? But theists are somehow acting rationally because they believe that God is in control of this. Atheists?
In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature — imprinted by evolution, but destined for disappointment, just as we are destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire before the sun grows dim and cold.
Do atheists never find love? Purpose? Meaning? The evidence doesn’t hold up, of course, because there are more than enough atheists to disprove Mr. Gerson’s ridiculous assumption. But it’s pleasant to know that believing in a loving god who has us all “destined for oblivion, on a planet that will be consumed by fire” because we cave to the negative temptations of human nature he presumably gave us is the only reasonable and justifiable position.
Mr. Gerson makes this statement as parenthetical aside in his column, so I didn’t include it in my primary focus. Still, it’s worth mentioning because Mr. Gerson has made this error before.
… An irreverent trinity — Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins — has sold a lot of books accusing theism of fostering hatred, repressing sexuality and mutilating children (Hitchens doesn’t approve of male circumcision). Every miracle is a fraud. Every mystic is a madman. And this atheism is presented as a war of liberation against centuries of spiritual tyranny.
Forced genital cutting without medical indication is genital mutilation. Forget spiritual tyranny. It is physical tyranny. Mr. Gerson can advocate for the circumcision of male children as often as he likes, and dress it up with as many biblical references as he pleases to justify such mutilation. He will be wrong every time. The medical facts do not support him, but what he implicitly argues here, that circumcision is acceptable because people attach religious meaning to perpetuating it upon male infants, is irrelevant. We live in a civil society of guaranteed, inherent rights. The right to remain free of medically-unnecessary surgery without explicit consent is among those rights.
I will repeat myself as often as necessary. Any god who would demand such an abomination is not a god who deserves respect or allegiance.