“Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason”

Why does the Washington Post give Michael Gerson editorial-page space to parade his theological ignorance?

Why does the Washington Post give Michael Gerson space on its editorial pages to prove he wasn’t paying attention in Philosophy 101? Gerson’s sophomoric essay against atheism has been written by tens of thousands of sophomores before him.

No atheist, says Gerson, can give a coherent account of morality. (Dostoyevsky summed it up: “If God is dead, everything is permitted.”) And therefore, Gerson says, it would be A Bad Thing if people stopped believing in God, because then they’d do terrible things (unlike Torquemada or Osama bin Laden, for example). He quotes C.S. Lewis: “When all that says ‘it is good’ has been debunked, what says ‘I want’ remains.”

“Atheists can be good people,” says Gerson (How generous of him!); “they just have no objective way to judge the conduct of those who are not.” To which I can only say, “Huh? Howzat again?”

Presumably Gerson isn’t familiar with the elegant demonstrations by Plato’s Socrates (in the Euthyphro) and by Kant (in the Groundwork) that theism isn’t a logically coherent basis for morality; how, in the absence of some moral principle we have already consented to, could we know that we ought to obey God? He seems vaguely to be aware that he isn’t making an actual argument for the existence of a deity; instead, he’s arguing that without that belief human life wouldn’t be worth living.

But only in a hyper-Pragmatist mood does that count as a good reason for believing something. Surely no theist with any intellectual self-respect says to himself, “I think I’ll believe in God because that belief would make me happier,” or “Let me try to convince other people of God’s existence because it will make them better.” (Atheists, from Benjamin Franklin to Leo Strauss, have made exactly the latter argument.)

Lewis himself would never have stooped to such a pseudo-argument. Indeed, he recognized it as a devilish snare. As Screwtape says to his nephew Wormwood,

Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that “only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilizations.” You see the little rift? “Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.” That’s the game.

So with Gerson, who writes:

Atheists and theists seem to agree that human beings have an innate desire for morality and purpose. For the theist, this is perfectly understandable: We long for love, harmony and sympathy because we are intended by a Creator to find them. In a world without God, however, this desire for love and purpose is a cruel joke of nature &#8212 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.

Gerson wants us to believe in a deity (apparently any deity will do), not because there are good grounds for such a belief but because otherwise the world would be a scary place. Perhaps he needs someone to remind him that in the list of the seven cardinal virtues “courage” comes before “faith.”

The religion-bashers Gerson attacks &#8212 Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins &#8212 can perhaps be forgiven for for understanding so poorly a way of thinking they hate and despise. What’s Gerson’s excuse? And shouldn’t an omnipotent God have been able to craft a less fatuous worshipper?

Update Employing Hilzoy’s massive mind and professional philosophical training to criticize Michael Gerson’s ramblings is a little bit like swatting a fly with a tactical nuclear weapon, but, boy oh boy is it fun to watch. By the time she’s done, there’s nothing left of Gerson but a little spot of grease.

Hilzoy makes an important general point: on some topics, especially technical ones, newspaper editors recognize expertise, somewhat limiting the depth of nonsense they’ll allow in print. But on other topics, they act as if all opinions were equally valid. That is an error.

Second update I understand bigoted believers. But what’s with bigoted atheists? Haven’t they ever heard of metaphor?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com