Reich gets reamed

My response to this odious essay by Dale Reich was, well, terse. He wrote a very silly editorial in which he claimed to have doffed the mantle of his faith to see what the life of an atheist was like, and found it empty and hateful…and his conclusion was to insist that we atheists need to start living up to our philosophy and be mean and brutal and cruel.

The heartening thing is that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, where it was published, now has an editorial in reply and a set of letters from readers that unanimously condemn Reich’s ignorance. It’s good to see reason winning a popularity contest.


  1. afarensis says

    Sounded to me like he actually knows nothing about atheists and instead made up a stereotypical picture of what he thought atheism is about.

  2. prometheus says

    “I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion is anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it.”

    –Bertrand Russell

  3. lt.kizhe says

    I finally got intrigued enough to enter a bunch of made-up data into the JS registration page. Reich’s article is interesting for two points:

    1) He pretty much starts out by admitting he clings to his faith for the personal comfort it gives him — but fails to recognize that there’s no reason for anyone else to consider his warm fuzzies as an argument.

    2) He never tried being an atheist — he tried being his stereotype of an atheist. Trying to get inside the mindset of someone who disagrees with you is a good exercise, but you have to spend a fair bit of time honestly and sympathetically listening to their position first. Otherwise, you just erect a strawman. Did Reich actually try reading any of the unbelieving literature? (Say, Bertrand Russell?) Did he so much as survey the various theories of morality, before concluding that only his (unexamined one) was any good? Doesn’t sound like it.

    There are some points I disagree with in the letters, but none worth picking apart (especially given the limitations of letters-page brevity).

  4. Timothy Chase says

    I really liked the letter from Sean Courtney, at least as far as the good samaritan was concerned. I ran across a letter similar to Reich’s, but I am not sure that it was the same one.

    With regard to helping others, I generally begin with the assumption that they are similar to myself, facing the world with the same basic questions, whoever they are, and assuming it isn’t obvious that they are responsible for their plight in some fairly crucial way, I want to reach out and help, and oftentimes will. Back at the University of Iowa, I remember a pretty well-built kid on a bicycle, maybe a freshman. There were three guys about to beat him up because of some racial slur which he presumably made. I figured that if he got beat-up, there was a good chance that things would become alot more difficult for a lot of people. I didn’t want him to get injured, I didn’t want to see those guys go to prison, and I didn’t want the tensions in the local community.

    So I jumped in and did my best Ghandi impersonation. My black leather jacket got a little ripped from my getting knocked down a two or three times, but the kid saw his opportunity at one point, then burned rubber. While three who had wanted to beat him up were watching him get away, I ran to the nearest business and stood outside the door. One of the guys nodded to me — and they walked off. It was only later that day that I discovered someone else had gotten stabbed only a couple of weeks before. That didn’t take any belief in a god — just a simple recognition of the humanity I saw in others.

    (For some reason, my wife wants me to stay out of that sort of thing from now on.)

  5. Timothy Chase says

    PS Sorry — “Ghandi” should have been in quotes. But basically, I just mean doing my best to defuse the situation while refusing to get violent even while receiving a few punches myself.

  6. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says

    Sounded to me like he actually knows nothing about atheists and instead made up a stereotypical picture of what he thought atheism is about.

    Uh-huh. He claims to have actual atheist friends (at least until they read his column), but is disappointed and upset that the data do not fit his theories of how things should be. The obvious solution to that is to ignore the data, right?

  7. Christopher says

    These “I used to be an atheist/liberal” stories always ring false to me because the participants never really seem to have had any atheist/liberal friends or known much if anything about atheism /liberalism.

    I mean, humans are psychologically designed to work together and empathize which each other. Really, deciding that god exists because of this is a bit like deciding that god exists because we somehow “know” when to eat.

  8. msf says

    I followed the link to it and read it. One point he tries to make is that if you don’t have god telling you what is right or wrong, you may as well not believe in right and wrong. In other words, atheists are by definition lacking morals, since they deny the giver and definer or morality. This is a stupid argument, of course; most atheists as moral as anybody else.

    More interesting is that his claim that morals (ie, “the good”, right and wrong) are defined by the gods was shot down over 2000 years ago by Socrates/Plato in the Euthyphro dialog.

    Socrates asks Euthyphro whether the pious and holy (“the good”) is loved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is loved by the gods. Euthyphro answers “because it is holy”. Socrates can then point out that, if what Euthyphro says is right, “holiness” (“the good”) thus cannot derive wholly from the fact that it is loved (ie, due to the authority) of the gods. Had Euthyphro answered “because it is loved by the gods”, Socrates could have made the point that the gods could then be capricious, and the good becomes arbitrary. Socrates has shown that there must be a good outside of that proclaimed by the gods.

  9. says

    msf, that’s not far different from my take on the situation. I don’t pretend to lay claim to whether there is a god or not; if he exists, he’s like a chair, and doesn’t need me to believe in him; if he doesn’t, i’ve saved some time. Either way, here’s my beef, and it’s sort of tangential to yours: if people do what is right because god tells them to do it, and not because it is important to do “right” things in the first place, then they have no true moral compass, and are merely lemmings. Right and wrong must be reached at on our own. Even in the Bible it says so: God forbade Adam and Eve to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Why? I’ve always thought that was an excellent parable for “Figure it out yourselves; if you can’t, you don’t really deserve to be let out of the playpen.”

  10. Phil says

    I wonder just exactly how far into one’s own navel one has to crawl to come up with an argument like Reich did originally concerning helping a stranded motorist — that the atheist would be unlikely to do so, or to justify their reason for doing so, because they “wouldn’t get anything out of it.”

    Newsflash, St. Francis: Christians aren’t supposed to “get anything out of it” either! They’re supposed to do it because they love their neighbors as themselves, which is an admirable goal whether deities exist or not. Christians who help other people in the expectation of “getting something out of it” are, er, doing it wrong.

  11. Dave says

    it seems to me that the real sociopath is someone who can’t understand why someone would help someone else without an external punishment/reward system making them do it.

  12. Bill says

    Richard Dawkins did a couple shows on religion titled “The Root of all Evil?” where he had a very interesting quote that went something like:

    We are all atheists in relation to the vast majority of deities that mankind has had since the beginning of time. Some of us have simply added one more deity to the list.

    I’m glad I heard that.

  13. says

    What Reich is missing is a good understanding of why anyone would be ethical. In his view, ethical behavior is mandated by a god and enforced by threat of Hell–that is the Christian rationale for ethics in his view. If God removed the enforcement (no Hell), Reich’s take on Christian ethics reduces to his take on atheist ethics: why should a Christian be ethical if there is no punishment associated with being unethical? He might say, “to please God,” but why should one care about pleasing God if it doesn’t buy one anything? He should honestly admit his take on Christian ethics is mercenary.

    What he is missing is the other reason for being ethical: because for many people being ethical is more enjoyable. It is common to feel good after helping someone, and to feel guilty after harming someone. The basis of atheist ethics, then, are an extension of our preferences; David Hume had it right. Statements such as “it is just objectively wrong to do x” are meaningless, or if anything are just a code for saying, “I find it unpleasant to consider the act x and wish it to be prohibited.” These altruistic preferences are probably a result of biology and socialization into society. And yes, they don’t always get seated in a person, and that’s why we have criminals and just plain jerks.

    But I think this sort of discussion is way above Reich’s head.

  14. Jeff Schmidt says

    “Dear Penthouse: I’d never thought it would happen to me, but I tried being an atheist yesterday!” Intellectual pornography, that’s all Reich’s article is. All the salacious “good stuff” to make a narrow-minded believer feel good, without any substance.

    I guess it goes to show that an asshole “believer” makes an asshole “atheist”. I hope he never really loses his faith — by his reasoning it’s the only thing keeping him from turning into a raging sociopath. God, please save us from your followers.

  15. CJ says

    I’m not sure about popularity but I think these folks might agree with your recent deity assignation.

  16. says

    A theist cannot pretend to be an atheist. That is patently ridiculous, and your previous comment is really all that needs to be said on the matter… with the possible addition of him being an idiot to boot.

  17. Tara Mobley says

    I hope nobody here minds the opinion of a silly theist. Then again, I’m a weak theist, and my husband is convinced I’m actually agnostic and won’t fully admit it.

    I don’t understand it when theists claim that if someone doesn’t believe in God, that person can’t be moral. I always figured most humans were moral due to a combination of empathy, societal norms, and evolutionary necessity. If I were to spend a day playing atheist, it would probably be just like my normal day sans the silent prayers I sometimes do in response to news or stress. I’d see the world as having the same amount of beauty and joy, just without the spiritual attachments and meanings I assign to it.

    Am I close, or still way off?

  18. Timothy Chase says

    Tara Mobley wrote:

    If I were to spend a day playing atheist, it would probably be just like my normal day sans the silent prayers I sometimes do in response to news or stress. I’d see the world as having the same amount of beauty and joy, just without the spiritual attachments and meanings I assign to it.

    Am I close, or still way off?

    I don’t think you are that far off. At the same time, just as can be a great many differences between people who are religious, there can be a great many differences between people who are non-religious. The difference between someone who believes in a god and someone who does not is one premise. It is a fairly important premise, but for any given individual, there will be a great deal more to their personal worldview. And whatever their worldview is will tend to invest meanings or at least significance in the world they seem around them.

    Additionally, the spectrum between theist, agnostic, and atheist is somewhat oversimplified. There are very different conceptions of god under theism, ranging from fundamentalist views to deism. A deist might, for example, believe in a personal, transcendental god who exists outside of space and time (which would be a somewhat Kantian approach), or alternatively, that all they know about their god is that this god exists.

    Alternatively, there are various pantheist views which in some contexts may be regarded as atheistic inasmuch as they involve an impersonal conception of God. Spinoza, Darwin (apparently), Einstein, and even Hawking take this view, with both Einstein and Hawking explicitly identifying God with the impersonal, lawful nature of reality. At the same time, their have been pantheists who have lived and thought within most major religious traditions.

    In any case, as for myself, I personally don’t believe that whatever happens to be another’s religious views is of particular importance to me. What really matters is their humanity.

  19. says

    msf already touched on this, but it just blows my mind how people like this Reich clown can act as if the entire history of moral philosophy never happened, and as if their silly and juvenile divine command theory is the only conceivable basis for moral or ethical behavior. As msf points out, Socrates disposed of the divine command theory 2000 years ago, and yet these people are still clinging to it. Unbelievable.

  20. Dave says

    This is kind of like how the only thing keeping Vox Day from being a rapist is his fear of God.

  21. Timothy Chase says

    Stephen Stralka wrote:

    … Socrates disposed of the divine command theory 2000 years ago, and yet these people are still clinging to it. Unbelievable.

    Well perhaps Reich and the like are under the impression there is some divine prohibition against reading that anything which might possibly cause them to question the divine command theory. This would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?

  22. says

    Just in the name of accuracy – the Platonic dialogues (except for the Apology) are basically fiction, so Socrates in the Euthyphro is a fictional use of a real person. Whence it is better to attribute the argument to Plato, who (like Socrates) was a theist.

  23. says

    Let’s face it, this whole essay was a cry for help from a man who has finally realised that he has substituted God for the moral and emotional void at the centre of their being. He thinks atheists should be immoral because he himself still needs an authority to tell him what’s right or wrong.

  24. TikiGod says

    There’s another aspect to this, and maybe someone has alredy mentioned it. Reich is probably one of those C. S. Lewis readers who believes no thought or abstraction can exist without God! I remember vaguely something Lewis said about rulers only having the property of ‘straightness’ because God maintains the abstraction of ‘straightness.’ Maybe the same applies to ’roundness’ for tires… That’s why you can always here we Atheists coming when we drive up — our tires are going clunk-clunk-clunk-clunk…

  25. says

    Dear Abby(ss):

    “A few days ago, I took off my religious beliefs and locked them in a closet. Then, in a further act of mental gymnastics, I put on the robes of disbelief. I wanted to see how I looked and felt without my lifelong commitment to Christianity. It was pretty chilling. I didn’t like the emptiness, the disconnectedness, the lack of direction and the prospect of it all ending when I die.”

    “Lack of direction”? Would this be the same closet as the one in which so many fanatics hide their…er, direction? (I’m thinking of a certain priest in Hudson, WI, who murdered two people.)

    “Robes of disbelief”? I have a belly-dancing costume for him. Skepticism is always more fun in spandex.

    Looks like he actually got off on the “emptiness,” since he didn’t want it to end with his death. Isn’t that interesting.

  26. Shirley Knott says

    The fundamental misunderstanding of the theists, and doubtlesly the source of their merciless emotional response to atheism, is their misunderstanding of atheism itself.
    At root, all positive atheism represents a stance of rejection of all theistic arguments.
    Negative atheism is the null case, the foundation for everyone. Some accept the ‘arguments’ of theism, some don’t.
    I am an atheist solely because no on has ever presented a coherent and plausible definition of, and subsequent argument for the existence of, any supernatural entity whatsoever.
    But theists want desparately to pretend that their position is the default (it is not) and that atheism represents an independant set of positive arguments for the non-existence of god.
    What atheism presents is a set of negative arguments refuting and rejecting all positive claims of theology.
    Adopting the beliefs of an atheist, qua atheist, would be rjecting the beliefs and conclusions of theology. This, I submit, is not possible to the theist in the short run. It is a major effort to undertake the process of asking “what if everything I know or believe about X were to be wrong? What would that mean?”

    Of course, equally silly is the notion that when one “abandons” religion [how can one abandon that which one never had?] one must replace it with something?
    I know of no women who ask their surgeon “and what are you going to replace my breat cancer tumors with?”.
    Sadly, religion kills many more, and kills them far more horribly, than any cancer.

    Shirley Knott