A slightly edited version of the letter below appears in the January 4 edition of the NYT Book Review.
In reviewing “Living the Secular Life,” Susan Jacoby misunderstands the argument of those who maintain that the idea that there can be “good without God” is absurd.
The question isn’t whether an atheist can live an ethical life; of course she can. And believers can do profoundly unethical things. But an atheist has no reason to choose an ethical life. “Good deed” or “bad deed” can have no more true meaning for him than good weather and bad weather; right and wrong, no more import than right and left. If we are mere evolved apes, even if evolution has bequeathed us a gut feeling that an ethical life is preferred, we have no more compelling reason to embrace that evolutionary artifact than we are to capitulate to others, like overeating in times of plenty. If dieting isn’t immoral, neither is ignoring the small voice telling us that whacking our neighbor on the head and stealing his dog is wrong.
Only a psychopath, Ms. Jacoby contends, could disagree with the Golden Rule. The evidence presented by the large number of people convicted each year of thievery, assault, murder and rape (not to mention the even larger number of litigants in most civil lawsuits) would seem to argue otherwise. No, being willing to do unto others what one would not want done to himself isn’t a sign of psychopathy. It is a part of human nature. And only the conviction that there is an Ultimate Arbiter of right and wrong, and that we are created in the image of that God, can give us pause when we consider expressing the darker facets of our natures.
Rabbi Avi Shafran
New York, NY