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Adolf Grunbaum Poverty

The Poverty of Theistic Morality

Adolf Grünbaum

University of Pittsburgh


[This essay was originally published in Science, Mind and Art: Essays on Science and the Humanistic Understanding in Art, Epistemology, Religion and Ethics, in Honor of Robert S. Cohen. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, vol. 165. Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995, pp. 203-242.]


Throughout his career, Bobby Cohen has been a staunch, articulate advocate of secular humanism. Being a fellow champion of philosophical naturalism, I wish to honor him by defending here a view of the world that is dear to both of our hearts (cf. A. Grünbaum, Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1993, chap. 7: “Psychoanalysis and Theism.” Incidentally, I should point out in the present Festschrift that this Validation book of mine bears the following dedication: “To Robert Sonné Cohen with affectionate gratitude for fifty years of devoted friendship”).

During a period of considerable strife and moral turmoil in society, there is a perennial tendency in some quarters to offer ethical nostrums. Often we are told that the theistic creeds permit the resolution of our moral perplexities, whereas secular humanism only exacerbates them, leaving moral decay and the decline of our civilization in its wake. These claims have also been turned into a political gospel in the United States. Gravely, William A. Rusher, the former editor of the National Review, has blamed secular humanism for producing an amoral sort of human being in our inner cities:

What is happening to us, and what can be done? Simply put, the secular humanists have been gnawing away at the foundations of Western civilization (God, morality, the family) for two centuries, and have finally succeeded in producing, especially in our inner cities, an almost totally amoral kind of human being–a sort of human pit bull. Our country will recover, if at all, only by discovering and recommitting itself to the great salvific truths on which our civilization was founded (Las Vegas Review Journal, May 5, 1992, p. 7B).

Indeed, as we shall see, our culture is rife with smug and politically coercive proclamations of the moral superiority of theism over secular humanism as follows:

(i) Theism is normatively indispensable for the acceptability of moral imperatives;

(ii) Religious belief in theism is motivationally necessary, as a matter of psychological fact, to assure such adherence to moral standards as there is in society at large;

(iii) “Secular humanism is brain dead” (Irving Kristol);

(iv) “The taking away of God dissolves all. Every text becomes pretext, every interpretation misinterpretation, and every oath a deceit” (Richard John Neuhaus). In the same vein, Dostoyevsky had told us earlier that “If God does not exist, all things are permissible.” Just such theses are also espoused in the recent Jewish journal Ultimate Issues (e.g., in the special issue “The Case for Ethical Monotheism,” vol. 7, no. 3, 1991).

More recently, at the Republican National Convention in Houston in August 1992, Pat Buchanan and Pat Robertson declared a religious war on secularism in our society. And George Bush, standing before a sign “GOD,” tried demagogically to secure electoral advantage by complaining that the word “God” was absent from the election platform of the Democratic Party! Even the philosophically trained William Bennett, one-time Secretary of Education and anti-drug czar, pugnaciously intoned the purported religious foundations of democracy.

Alarmed by these untutored, if not malicious attacks on secular humanism, I shall examine the conceptual relations between the theological and moral components of the relevant religious creeds, and enlist my conclusions in the defense of secular humanism.

In a free society, the purveyors of religious nostrums have, of course, every right to preach to their own faithful, and indeed to make all others aware of their moral injunctions. Thus, the Pope is entitled to condemn the use of so-called “artificial” birth control, as distinct from the “rhythm method.” Yet secular humanists claim entitlement to consider that prohibition barbaric, not only sexually but also demographically, if only because it contributes to the population explosion and concomitant ecological ravages, especially in the third world countries of Latin America and Africa. Alas, in the current Pope’s new encyclical Veritatis Splendor, John Paul II reaffirms opposition to artificial birth control (and to divorce). But, he turns a deaf ear to the plight of the Catholic families for whom the observance of so-called infertile times fails for biological reasons (see A. J. DeBethune, “Catholics in Exile,” Letter-to-the-Editor, The New York Times, October 14, 1993).

As has been documented by the Nobelist M. F. Perutz from Pope Pius’s 1930 Casti Connubii and from Pope Paul VI’s 1965 Humanae Vitae, “successive popes have ordained that married couples sharing a bed must practice strict chastity unless they desire a child, with the reluctantly conceded exception of the woman’s short infertile period before and after menstruation” (Letter-to-the-Editor, The New York Review of Books, February 11, 1993, pp. 45-46). And Perutz concludes: “Such inhuman demands could only have been conceived in the minds of celibate old men who mistook their own envy of happily married couples for the voice of God.” Refreshingly, the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, went to see Pope John Paul II before the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit to urge that the Catholic ban on birth control is bad for the planet and must be abandoned. Carey also blamed “the dominant dogma of the Catholic Church” for excluding population control from the 160-nation summit’s agenda (see Secular Humanist Bulletin, vol.8, no. 3, Fall 1992, p. 9). Thus, significantly, even within orthodox Christendom, God hardly speaks with a single voice on the morality of artificial birth control.

Yet undaunted, nowadays theistic moral advocacy is again readily turned into political intimidation, designed to browbeat into conformity or silence those who share Sidney Hook’s perception: “Whatever is wrong with Western culture, there are no religious remedies for it, for they have all been tried” (“Solzhenitsyn Attacks Secular Humanism,” The Humanist, Nov./Dec. 1978, p. 6). Such coercive attempts are being made in our society by both Christians and Jews.

The centerpiece of the religious creeds that are purported to be essential to both private morality and good citizenship is theism: The belief in the existence of an omnibenevolent, omnipotent, and omniscient God to whose will the universe owes its existence at all times, and who is distinct as well as independent from His creation. We learn that this theistic doctrine is normatively indispensable as the source of meaningful ethical prescriptions, although the combined attributes of omnipotence and omnibenevolence are impugned with the abundant existence of moral evil in the world, which includes evil that is not man-made. Thus, in the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant argued that the realizability of morality, as construed by him, requires the God of theism and indeed human immortality as its underwriter. To boot, often we are also told, without the slightest attempt to supply supporting statistics, that at least for the vast majority of people, such religious belief is actually motivationally necessary, in point of empirical fact, to assure such adherence to moral standards as is found in society. In short, the theistic nostrum is that its species of religious belief is normatively, and typically also motivationally, indispensable to moral conduct and good citizenship in our society. My stated concerns here do not, of course, include dealing with the tenets of a completely atheistic yet avowedly religious humanism, as exemplified by classical Buddhism and certain versions, perhaps, of some other Far Eastern religions. Suffice it to say that these tenets are cognate to secular humanism and therefore pose no issues here.

I should call attention to various modifications or purported reconstructions of the classical theism outlined above. Thus, on one reading of the Book of Genesis, it contains no attributions of omnipotence and omnibenevolence to God. And explicit denials of these attributions have been issued by modern religious thinkers such as Hermann Cohen (of the Marburg School), who was the dominant influence in German Jewish philosophy after the turn of the century, and by the American Protestant theologians Edgar Brightman and Charles Hartshorne, for example. On some of these construals, God is powerful but not the “Almighty,” and good but not morally perfect. In this way, God’s responsibility for the world is considerably curtailed.

Yet if so, then these theists do not give us an inventory of what God can or cannot do, nor of what virtues he possesses or lacks. For instance, can God cure otherwise fatally ill people, whose loved ones address petitionary prayers to Him for their recovery? If not, are such prayers not a snare and a delusion? And why have the “anti-omni” theists not issued a sobering caveat to the faithful who say petitionary prayers? It would seem that their modification of classical theism effects an escapist immunizing maneuver. It serves as an asylum ignorantiae in the face of the challenge to a theodicy to reconcile the existence of moral evil with the joint divine attributes of omnipotence and omnibenevolence.

Worse still, some proposed reconstructions of theism turn its doctrines into babble. Thus, what is one to make of Paul Tillich’s view that the assertion of the existence of God is meaningless, rather than false, and of Martin Buber’s incoherent claim that God does not exist per se but only in the I-Thou context of human beings? Buber seems to make God a mere figment of the human imagination à la Feuerbach. Indeed, at the hands of Karl Barth’s “wholly other” God, and of Moses Maimonides’s denial that any humanly conceivable properties at all can be predicated of God (the via negativa), all the inveterate contorted God-talk becomes at best a vast circumlocutory sham, if not just gibberish.

What, for example, has thus become of God the creator of the universe in the opening sentence of Genesis? And why should we not regard such a purported reconstruction of the Old and New Testaments as a case of linguistically misleading social engineering or regimentation of the “masses” of the faithful, if not as bordering on thought-pathology? Those beset by doubts about the Biblical God who turn to Maimonides’s Guide for the Perplexed for reassurance find their expectations harshly dashed by false advertising. As Freud wrote aptly in another context in The Future of an Illusion (Standard Edition. 1927, 21: 32):

Philosophers … give the name of “God” to some vague abstraction which they have created for themselves; having done so they can pose before all the world as deists, as believers in God, and they can even boast that they have recognized a higher, purer concept of God, notwithstanding that their God is now nothing more than an insubstantial shadow and no longer the mighty personality of religious doctrines.

For example, Paul Tillich is seen as a Lutheran, even though for him “God” is just a shorthand for a set of human “ultimate” concerns.

Why then not drop all the Biblical discourse about a single or trinitarian personal God “above naming,” who is the creator of the universe and of man, cares for His creation and intervenes in history? And why not just preserve a code of social justice as in the prophetic Judaism of the admirable Isaiah? Such “coming clean” would, of course, amount to embracing secular humanism. Just that challenge prompts some theists in each of the main line denominations to distance themselves explicitly even from “religious humanism.” Thus, in an advertisement “Why Are Catholics Afraid To Be Catholics?” (The New Republic, February 21, 1994), the lay Catholic editors of the New Oxford Review wrote:

The Vatican thunders against abortion, tyrants, illicit sex, consumerism, dissenting theologians, disobedient priests and nuns, and more. But walk into your average parish. Where’s the beef? We get crumbs–and platitudes. We don’t hear much, if anything, about the Church’s teachings on abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, pre-marital sex, pornography, the indissolubility of marriage–“too controversial.” Birth control and Hell are taboo subjects. Pop psychology and feel-good theology are “in.” Sin is “out,” prompting one to wonder why Christ bothered to get crucified.

We at the New Oxford Review, a monthly magazine edited by lay Catholics, say: Enough!

We refuse to turn the wine of Catholicism into the water of religious humanism.

Alas, secular humanism has again become a major target, if not the object of outright slander, by self-declared classical theists. I shall therefore hereafter ignore the merely nominal theists who have no quarrel with philosophical naturalism and atheism.

In just the latter vein, Henry Grunwald, a former editor-in-chief of Time and one-time U.S. ambassador to Austria opined (Time, March 30, 1992, p. 75): “Secular humanism (a respectable term even though it became a right-wing swearword) stubbornly insisted that morality need not be based on the supernatural. But it gradually became clear that ethics without the sanction of some higher authority simply were not compelling.” And to emphasize the alleged moral anarchy ensuing from secular humanism, Grunwald approvingly quotes Chesterton’s dictum “When men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” A like note of moral self-congratulation for theism is struck by Irving Kristol, as we shall see, who opined that “Secular rationalism has been unable to produce a compelling, self-justifying moral code” (Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 1992), whereas theism allegedly had done so.

This pejorative attitude toward atheism is even codified in the ethically derogatory secondary meaning of the term “atheist” given in the unabridged Webster’s Dictionary: “A godless person; one who lives immorally as if disbelieving in God.”

Furthermore, as reported in an article on “America’s Holy War” (Time, vol. 138, no. 23, December 9, 1991), it is now being argued that the separation of church and state in the U.S. has gone too far: “A nation’s identity is informed by morality, and morality by faith” (p. 62), “faith” being faith in the God of the mainline theistic religions. This “accommodationist” position is epitomized by Chief Justice Rehnquist of the U.S. Supreme Court, who declared that the wall of separation between church and state is “based on bad history … It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned” (p. 63, caption). It is also espoused by the Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter who claimed that this separation was designed “to protect religion from the state, not the state from religion” (The Culture of Disbelief. New York: Basic Books, 1993, p. 229). Relatedly, many devout parents see evil as instantiated alike by “sex, drugs or secular humanism” (p. 65).

Indeed, as Time tells us further “such families also believe that faith is central to serious intellectual activity and should not be relegated to Sunday school” (p. 65). One must wonder at once how intellectual titans like Bertrand Russell or Einstein, who rejected theism, ever managed to make their contributions! Fear of the alleged dire consequences of secular humanism may well also animate creationist opposition to the theory of biological evolution, which many creationists see as abetting secular humanism (see Christopher P. Tourney’s review of The Creationist Movement in Modern America by R. A. Eve and F. B. Harrold, American Scientist, vol. 80, May-June 1992, p. 292).

For brevity and style, here let the terms “religious” or “religion” refer to the theistic species of religion, i.e., to theism. This usage is indeed the primary one given in Webster’s Dictionary. The theistic religions are usually held to comprise Judaism, which is unequivocally monotheistic, trinitarian Christianity, and Islam. Christianity and Islam were successor religions of Judaism.

Yet the term “religion” is employed very ambiguously. For example, John Dewey’s notion of “religion” is far wider than the doctrine of theism. Sometimes the term is meant to refer to the historical phenomenon of an institutionalized form of social communion involving participation in a set of ritualistic practices, in abstraction from any doctrines that may provide the rationale for them. Yet none other than a Hebrew prophet like Isaiah hailed righteous conduct as far superior to the fulfillment of the traditional rituals, and issued a fervent plea for social justice.

The theistic creeds feature claims about the existence of God, His nature, including His causal relations to the world, as well as ethical teachings that are held to codify the divine moral order of the world within the framework of the theological tenets. Yet the appraisal of the complaints made by theists against secular humanism and of the moral worth they avow for theism requires that we distinguish the theological from the moral components of their creeds in order to clarify the conceptual relations between them.

One vital lesson of that analysis will be that, contrary to the widespread claims of moral asymmetry between theism and atheism, neither theism nor atheism as such permit the logical deduction of any judgments of moral value or of any ethical rules of conduct. Moral codes turn out to be logically extraneous to each of these competing philosophical theories alike. And if such a code is to be integrated with either of them in a wider system, the ethical component must be imported from elsewhere.

In the case of theism, it will emerge that neither the attribution of omnibenevolence to God nor the invocation of divine commandments enables its theology to give a cogent justification for any particular actionable moral code. Theism, no less than atheism, is itself morally sterile: Concrete ethical codes are autonomous with respect to either of them.

Just as a system of morals can be tacked onto theism, so also atheism may be embedded in a secular humanism in which concrete principles of humane rights and wrongs are supplied on other grounds. Though atheism itself is devoid of any specific moral precepts, secular humanism evidently need not be. By the same token, a suitably articulated form of secular humanism can rule out some modes of conduct while enjoining others, no less than a religious code in which concrete ethical injunctions have been externally adjoined to theism (e.g., “do not covet thy neighbor’s wife”).

Therefore, it should hardly occasion surprise that theism is not logically necessary as one of the premisses of a systematic moral code, any more than it is sufficient. And this failure of logical indispensability patently discredits Dostoyevsky’s affirmation of it via Smerdyakov’s dictum in The Brothers Karamazov: “If God doesn’t exist, all things are permissible.” Indeed, Smerdyakov’s epigram boomerangs: Since atheism and theism are alike ethically barren, neither doctrine itself imposes any concrete moral prohibitions on human conduct.

One major conclusion that will emerge from the application of Socrates’s insight in the Euthyphro is the following: In regard to the theoretical foundation of any and all specific, concrete norms of conduct, all ethical injunctions, whether their auspices be theistic or secular, have an extra-theological, mundane and socio-cultural inspiration in particular historical contexts. Thus, this moral will be seen to hold, even when the statement of the ethical code and/or its de facto social inculcation invokes the fear or love of God or employs theological language and imagery.

My arguments will also undermine the rather strident attacks leveled against secular humanism in 1991 by Irving Kristol and Richard John Neuhaus, as well as those delivered earlier by Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

Some twentieth century theists articulated the notion of divine omnibenevolence with a view to reconciling it with what most civilized people would surely regard as great moral and natural evil. Theological apologetics–or so-called “theodicy”–is designed to vindicate the justice and omnibenevolence of an omnipotent and omniscient God in a world of rampant evil. The pronouncements of some prominent orthodox rabbis will illustrate that the notion of divine omnibenevolence is shockingly permissive morally, to the point of sanctioning the justice of the Holocaust. True enough, as we shall see, there are indeed other theists who would reject these fundamentalist biblical theodicies. Yet I shall argue in detail that precisely their divergence will itself be evidence for the moral hollowness of theism and for the ubiquitous inter-denominational and intra-sectarian ethical discord among theists!


The problem of acknowledged moral evil has perennially bedeviled those who believe in the governance of the world by a just, or even omnibenevolent God. No wonder, therefore, that the influential twentieth century Jewish theologian Martin Buber saw the Nazi Holocaust as a particularly acute challenge to the doctrine of divine justice. Bewailing the horrors of Auschwitz, Buber acknowledges its moral challenge:

One asks again and again: how is a Jewish life still possible after Auschwitz? I would like to frame this question more correctly: how is a life with God still possible in a time in which there is an Auschwitz? The estrangement has become too cruel, the hiddenness too deep. … Dare we recommend to the survivors of Auschwitz, the Job of the gas chambers: “Give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good; for His mercy endureth forever”? (Quoted in Paul Edwards and Arthur Pap, A Modern Introduction to Philosophy, 3d ed. New York: The Free Press, 1973, pp. 394-395 from Buber’s paper “The Dialogue Between Heaven and Earth”).

Paul Edwards explains (“Buber, Fackenheim and the Appeal to Biblical Faith,” in Edwards and Pap, op. cit., 1973, pp. 394-395):

Phenomena like Auschwitz, according to Buber, do not show that there is no God but rather that there are periods when God is in eclipse. It is not just that modern men, because of their absorption in technology and material progress, have become incapable of hearing God’s voice. God himself is silent in our age and this is the real reason why his voice has not been heard.

Actually in an attempt to come to terms with the acute challenge posed by monstrous moral evil to the notion of divine righteousness and omnibenevolence, Buber offers two distinct versions of an “eclipse of God” doctrine, one of which is theocentric, while the other is anthropocentrically phenomenological: Citing Isaiah (45: 15), Martin Buber tells us that, according to the Hebrew Bible, “the living God is not only a self-revealing but also a self-concealing God” (Eclipse of God. New York: Harper, 1952, p. 66; see also pp. 105-106). Indeed, he asks rhetorically (1952, p. 66):

. . . whether it may not be literally true that God formerly spoke to us and is now silent, and whether this is not to be understood as the Hebrew Bible understands it, namely, that the living God is not only a self-revealing but also a self-concealing God [reference omitted]. Let us realize what it means to live in the age of such a concealment, such a divine silence . . .

Buber (p. 105) speaks of this self-concealing God as possessing “unlimited power and knowledge.” And he also tells us that the “righteousness” of the “God of Israel” is “the confirmation of what is just and the overcoming of what is unjust” (pp. 103-104). Yet the self-concealment of such a God is simply frivolous. As Edwards goes on to explain, according to Buber’s theocentric version of the eclipse-of-God doctrine, “Men cannot in our times find God, not or not just because they have become incapable of I-Thou relationships, but rather because God has turned his back on the world. This ‘divine silence,’ in [Buber’s disciple] Fackenheim’s words, ‘persists no matter how devoutly we listen'” (see Paul Edwards’s 1969 Lindley Lecture “Buber & Buberism,” p. 34, copyright 1970 by the Department of Philosophy, University of Kansas).

Indeed, the theocentric version of the eclipse theory, which focuses on God’s self-concealment from the world in our age is, “as Buber rightly observes, … clearly implied in various passages in the Bible.” But this doctrine of the deus absconditus is also espoused by such Christians as Martin Luther. Yet what of the merits of Buber’s hypothesis that though God is always very much alive, there are periods when he conceals Himself by withdrawing into silence and inaction? Edwards’s devastating reply is right on the mark (1973, p. 395):

The obvious retort to it is that God’s self-concealment is inconsistent with his perfect goodness or indeed with any kind of goodness on his part. If a child is in terrible trouble and his father knows about it and could come to the child’s help but refuses to do so, i.e., begins to “conceal” himself, this would not, surely, be the mark of a perfectly good father. On the contrary, we would regard him as a monster. It is difficult to see what other response could be justified toward a deity behaving in this fashion. If a Jew in Auschwitz desperately needs God’s assistance, if God knows about the Jew’s need (and he must know it since he is omniscient), if God furthermore is capable of coming to the Jew’s assistance (since he is omnipotent he can do this) and if he nevertheless refuses to do so but instead “conceals himself,” then this is not simply a deity falling short of complete goodness but a monstrous deity in comparison with whom, as Bertrand Russell once put it, Nero would have to be regarded as a saint.

William Safire is completely unmoved by such considerations in his article “God Bless Us.” Thus, Safire opines à propos of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

God is not in moral bondage to man. His design is not for us to discern. As the biblical Job learned, God does not have to do justice on earth–nor need He explain the suffering of innocent babes in Somalia, Bosnia or Kurdistan (The New York Times, August 27, 1992, Op-Ed page).

Emil Fackenheim gave an elaboration of Buber’s view, and offered a defense of the theocentric version of Buber’s eclipse doctrine (“On the Eclipse of God” in Edwards and Pap, op. cit., 1973, pt. V, §44, pp. 523-533. (Fackenheim’s paper appeared earlier in Commentary, 1964 and in his book In Quest for Past and Future, Indiana University Press, 1968). Paul Edwards takes issue with Fackenheim in Edwards’s aforecited 1969 Lindley Lecture (op. cit., pp. 44-49; see also Edwards, 1973, p. 395). As Edwards shows there, Fackenheim even elevates the escapist and evasive role of the eclipse-doctrine into an epistemological virtue: As Fackenheim sees it, whereas the goodness in the world does verify the benevolence of God, the evils of the world do not refute it, because the faith of the true believer will not be psychologically shaken by the horrors of this world. But, as we know, characteristically the delusions of paranoiacs and of fanatics are likewise not dislodged by adverse evidence! Such is Fackenheim’s deplorable slide from epistemological reasoning to the cognitive devices familiar from psychotic behavior: Heads I win, tails you lose.

The upshot of Fackenheim’s Buberian stratagem of rendering Judaic theology irrefutable is this: In Fackenheim’s view, all that follows from the rampancy of evil is that “God’s ways are unintelligible, not that there are no ways of God. … God was even more inscrutable than had hitherto been thought, and His revelations even more ambiguous and intermittent” (quoted in Edwards, 1973, p. 395). In short, Fackenheim parries the refuting import of the problem of evil by the twin devices of (i) attributing morally irresponsible absenteeism to God, and (ii) declaring the reason for this irresponsibility to be unfathomable.

The anthropocentric, phenomenological version of Buber’s eclipse doctrine pertains to a decline in man’s receptivity to the light from God. This formulation makes God’s elusiveness into a human artifact. As given on some pages of Buber’s Eclipse of God (1952, pp. 127 and 129), it states, in Edwards’s words (1970, p. 33): “Modern man, in Buber’s terminology, is so absorbed in I-It dealings that he has lost the capacity for the I-Thou relationship; and this has made it impossible for him to find God.” As Edwards notes (p. 34), this phenomenological version is hardly original with Buber. Besides having been held by other theologians, it even resembles “Heidegger’s claim that modern man, because of his immersion in beings and his excessive concern with technology, has ‘forgotten Being’ [whatever THAT is]” (p. 33). In short, the phenomenological version is that “God is not deliberately hiding himself from men–it is they who have become incapable of seeing Him” (Edwards, 1970, p. 34).

For my part, it boggles the mind how Buber’s theocentric and Biblical doctrine of God as self-concealing can be compatible at all with his anthropocentric version, which blames God’s elusiveness on us, unless the two versions are restricted as pertaining to different times, or are qualified in some other way. In any case, Buber felt driven to conclude that God temporarily goes into eclipse during such periods as that of the Holocaust. But just why a benevolent God would go into eclipse to accommodate the likes of Adolf Hitler, Buber left glaringly unexplained. After all, as Paul Edwards noted eloquently and cogently, going into such an eclipse would seem to be a case of morally irresponsible absenteeism on God’s part. Indeed, if Buber is to be believed, and if one looks at the history of the societies that have embraced theism in one form or another, it is difficult to find any time at all when God was not at least partially in eclipse.

Buber does not offer a vindication or theodicy of the Holocaust as such. Yet his theocentric eclipse-of-God doctrine is, in effect, a shabby, lame and evasive gambit, serving to immunize the notion of divine benevolence and righteousness against outright refutation by the perennial existence of evil, including not only the Holocaust but also much natural evil that is not man-made!

Worse, some recent apologias for the Holocaust from some Jewish religious quarters have been nothing less than obscene. In a 1987 article (The London Times, May 9, 1987), Lord Immanuel Jakobovitz, the Chief Orthodox Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, asserted that the Nazi Holocaust was divine punishment for the apostasy of the German Jews who founded assimilationist Reform Judaism. “This idol of individual assimilation,” he wrote almost gleefully, “exploded in the very country in which it was invented, to be eventually melted down and incinerated in the crematoria of Auschwitz.”

Now, when the S.S. men who implemented the “final solution” had their reunions, they could say –on the authority of none other than the Chief Orthodox Rabbi of the United Kingdom–that they were merely the instruments of the God of Moses. Indeed, if Rabbi Jakobovitz is to be believed, the wrath of God is so indiscriminate that it prompted the Nazis to incinerate devoutly orthodox Jews from all over Central Europe, no less than the supposedly wicked reform Jews of Germany. Moreover, the vindictiveness of this God is such that the punishment for the doctrinal deviance of reform Jews, even within a Mosaic theistic framework, had to be nothing short of live incineration, rather than some lesser reversible misfortune. Far from being just, a God who indiscriminately assigns wholesale lethal punishment and allows babies to be killed in front of their mothers by S.S. guards at extermination camps is a sadistic, satanic monster deserving of cosmic loathing rather than worship and love.

Rabbi Jakobovitz is hardly alone in the view that the Holocaust was divinely sanctioned. As reported by the noted Israeli scholar Amos Funkenstein, the ultra-orthodox Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum–who lives in Jerusalem but regards the Jewish secular state and government in Israel as sinful–sees the Holocaust as God’s punishment for the Zionist founding of a Jewish state in advance of the promised arrival of the purported new Messiah. As Avishai Margalit just pointed out (“The Uses of the Holocaust,” The New York Review of Books, vol. XLI, no. 4, February 17, 1994, p. 7):

The ultra-Orthodox did not experience any crisis of faith or of theology when confronted with the absolute evil of the Holocaust. Their … response to the Holocaust … was directed, then, not at God for having allowed the Jews to be murdered but at the Zionists. … According to the prominent Orthodox rabbi Moshe Scheinfeld … The Zionist leaders … were “the criminals of the Holocaust who contributed their part to the destruction.”

Evidently, the ultra-orthodox (“haredim“) also regard God’s justice as morally indiscriminate. After all, many of the European Jews who perished in the crematoria were not even Zionists, let alone participating citizens of the state of Israel. And it seems to have been lost on all three of the rabbis that the principle of wholesale, collective guilt and justice is invoked by Islamic terrorists who attack Israeli citizens no less than others.

Not to be outdone by Rabbis Jakobovitz and Teitelbaum, the ultra-orthodox Brooklyn Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who was even hailed as the new Messiah by his disciples, gave his own twist to the vindication of the Holocaust. In his 1980 book Faith and Science (Emunah v’ Madah), this revered sage of orthodoxy opined that, in permitting the Holocaust, God cut off the gangrenous arm of the Jewish people. On this basis, this man of God concludes, the Holocaust was a good thing, because without it, the entire Jewish people would have perished. Just why that should have happened is left unclear (cited by Michael J. Prival, Washington Society for Humanistic Judaism, Free Inquiry, Spring 1988, p. 3). The zealots who proclaim Schneerson to be the new Messiah suggest that the wonders he will enact are imminent. Yet we can be sure that when these miracles fail to materialize, we will be treated to other, soothing prophecies on the model of the “Barnum statements” found in astrological forecasts or Chinese fortune cookies. Indeed, Schneerson died uneventfully.

Donald J. Dietrich, chairman of the Department of Theology at the Jesuit Boston College, in his 1994 book God and Humanity at Auschwitz, Jewish-Christian Relations and Sanctioned Murder, illuminatingly calls attention to those religious factors which created a climate that permitted the Holocaust by being theologically enculturated.

Sidney Hook explained why he rejects theism, including Judaism, the religion of his ancestors, in favor of atheism. In a response, the orthodox Chicago Rabbi Yaakov Homnick (Free Inquiry, Fall 1987) indicted Hook’s rejection of his heritage as “a far greater tragedy than all of the physically maimed children in the world.” Indeed, Rabbi Homnick goes Buber, as well as Rabbis Jakobovitz, Teitelbaum, and Scheinfeld one better in his discernment of the hand of God, which he deems patent in the Holocaust: “Yes, without a doubt, the guidance of history by G-d is perceptible even to our limited gaze. The sense of justice … is palpable … Especially is the Holocaust a proof of G-d’s justice, coming as a climax of a century in which the vast majority of Jews, after thousands of years of loyalty in exile, decided to cast off the yoke of the Torah.”

The rabbi’s deletion of the letter “o” from the spelling of “God” is intended to convey reverence, as if the word “God” were God’s true, hallowed name. No wonder that, in their prayers, the orthodox ask “May His name be blessed” in the manner of word magic, although it boggles the mind just what would happen to His “true” name Yahweh (Jehovah), if the blessing were effective! No wonder that the kabbalah of Jewish mysticism is replete with abracadabra and numerology.

Rabbi Homnick’s veritable paean to divine retribution prompted Sidney Hook (Free Inquiry, Fall 1987, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 29-31) to reply: “All apologists, whether Christian or Jewish, for the divine inspiration of the Bible end up justifying … actions that in ordinary moral discourse we should regard as wicked or evil. This would be evidence enough that, in our discussions with them, we are not using terms like good and bad, right and wrong in the same sense.” After all, Hook points out, these apologists “cannot really share with us a common universe of moral discourse, since they claim that every event inspired or approved by Jehovah [–such as the Holocaust–] is morally good.”

In fact, the Bible, though called “The Good Book,” features some appalling teachings ranging from genocide in Deuteronomy, to slavery and the inferior status of women in the New Testament. Thus, in a barbaric message to male homosexuals in Leviticus (20: 13), it reads: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Besides, “And if a man take a wife and her mother [sexually], it is wickedness: they shall be burned with fire, both he and they.” A father who has sex with his daughter-in-law “shall be put to death.”

James A. Michener cites these passages and adds that Muslim law requires the stoning-to-death of an adulterous woman, an event he witnessed in Afghanistan in the 1950’s in the presence of a cheering crowd (“God is not a Homophobe,” The New York Times, March 30, 1993, p. A15). Yet Michener points to the utter unruliness of the ancient Hebrews as justification of the harshness of Leviticus. But even if, as he claims oddly in the title of his Op-Ed piece, “God is not a Homophobe,” the biblical proscription is still being invoked nowadays in the service of homophobia. Thus, as reported in The New York Times (February 6, 1994, Book Review Section, p. 37), “A Vatican document on homosexuality [dating from 1986/1987] condemned not only the behavior but also the orientation as a ‘tendency ordered toward an intrinsic moral evil’.” Besides, as Robin Lane Fox has shown (in The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible. New York: Knopf, 1992), the Bible contains massive historical errors and contradictions, which furnish a devastating case against strict biblical fundamentalism.

If theological teachings lend themselves to countenancing the stated enormities, then this unconscionable permissiveness provides strong reason to reject the pertinent creedal systems.

In my 1992 paper “In Defense of Secular Humanism” (Free Inquiry, vol. 12, no. 4, pp. 30-39), I developed some of the above criticisms of the recent rabbinical holocaust theodicies. In an indignant reply, Seymour Cain, a veteran historian of world religions, editor of an anthology on theological responses to the Holocaust, and a Jewish theist, unwittingly supplies further grist to my thesis below of the moral sterility and the glaring ethical ambiguity of theism (Free Inquiry, vol. 14, no. 1, 1993/1994, pp. 55-57). Cain does acknowledge the genuineness of these rabbinical endorsements of the Holocaust as justifying divine punishment of the Jews for religious backsliding.

Yet he goes into high dudgeon, because these apologias are not statistically representative of Jewish theological opinion on the Holocaust. As he puts it (p. 56):

One only has to recall Eliezer Berkovits’s Faith After the Holocaust, which puts the onus for the Holocaust not on backsliding Jews, but on Western civilization and its religion, Christianity. … I assume that this Orthodox theologian was not mentioned either because Grünbaum was ignorant of his work or because it did not suit the needs of the adversarial argument.

Or why not mention [Rabbi] Richard Rubenstein, who [in his After Auschwitz] proclaimed the death of the God who was traditionally believed to be the protector of his chosen people? Rubenstein went acutely to the root of the matter, not merely the general problem of theodicy, but the specific problem of a covenantal God who let his chosen people endure abysmal humiliation, torture, and death–a now absolutely unbelievable God. He even blamed the Chosen People claim for leading ultimately to the Holocaust. Here again Grünbaum makes no mention of an eminent Holocaust theologian who does not blame Jewish backsliding for the cataclysm, again a skewed omission. … We are led to believe that Jakobovitz, Schneerson, and Teitelbaum, who interpret the Holocaust as divine punishment for the modern Jews’ abandonment of Torah belief and observance, are the representative voices of contemporary Jewish theology. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many Jewish theologians have voiced exactly the same rejection of the idea of the killer-God of Auschwitz in practically the same words as Grünbaum … e.g., Eugene Borowitz. Any mention of them would not serve the purpose of Grünbaum’s adversarial argument.

But Cain turns a deaf ear to precisely the damaging fact: It is scandalous that Judaism is sufficiently permissive morally to enable some world-renowned rabbis to offer a Holocaust-theodicy at all with theological impunity: It attests to the moral bankruptcy of the notion of a theological foundation of Jewish ethics. Cain (and other apologists for Judaism) ought to be deeply embarrassed by this situation, instead of offering the witless complaint that the rabbinical Holocaust apologists made “easy targets” for me, like “fish in a barrel.” Rabbi Jacobovitz and Rabbi Schneerson, who both vindicated the Holocaust as divine justice, are world-figures in orthodox Judaism! Clearly, I submit, precisely the statistics on the depth of the cleavage among the moral verdicts of Jewish theologians on so over-arching an occurrence as the Holocaust bespeaks the ethical bankruptcy of their theology. By the same token, Cain’s complaint that I made no allowance for that statistical dispersion boomerangs.

William Safire sounds the same note as Cain but in regard to Islam. Thus, recent attacks by Islamic fundamentalists prompted Safire’s admonition (The New York Times, March 18, 1993, Op-Ed p. A15) that Islam is “one of the world’s great religions,” and that non-Muslims should refrain from “thoughtlessly lumping together the orthodox, the secular and the extremist.” And a lead editorial in The New Republic (March 29, 1993, p. 9) went much further, complaining very implausibly that “the mass media, showing its [sic] habitual contempt for religion, conflated Islam with the most bizarre of modern cults [in Waco, Texas] and treated the two as almost interchangeable.”

No doubt, there are great numbers of Muslims who abhor terrorism and who interpret their religion in a humane way. But Safire’s caveat against lumping the orthodox together with the extremist surely makes insufficient allowance for several stubborn facts: (1) Shiite clerics have loudly claimed the sanction of Islam for meting out death-sentences to apostates for affronts against Allah (God) or against the Prophet. Thus, declaring someone an unbeliever, i.e., to engage in takfir al hakim, provides religious warrant for killing the infidel; (2) Notoriously, the Immam Khomeini in Iran issued a fatwa (religious ruling), making it the religious duty of any Muslim to assassinate Salman Rushdie for blasphemy. To boot, the Immam’s successor, Ayatollah Khomeini (“the leader”), rejected appeals to rescind Rushdie’s death sentence, and actually doubled the $1 million bounty for carrying it out. Besides, President Rafsanjani of Iran reaffirmed the fatwa as irrevocable; (3) Fatwas may also be issued to enjoin a jihad (holy war), or to counteract any perceived threats to Islam.

They have been and are now being used in some Islamic countries to suppress secularism. And even in Egypt, the Ministry of Culture of the secular government is increasingly yielding to the threats from fundamentalists by permitting them to censor books scheduled for publication by the Ministry. Indeed, one of Egypt’s most senior theologians testified in court that secularists are apostates “who should be put to death by the Government” and that “if the Government failed to carry out that ‘duty,’ individuals were free to do so” (“Fundamentalists Impose Culture on Egypt,” The New York Times, February 3, 1994, p. A6).

True enough, some Egyptian Sunni clerics have deemed the fatwa against Rushdie as less than justified. But just this elasticity in the conception of theologically sanctioned moral injunctions demonstrates anew the ethical permissiveness that I deplored in Jewish Holocaust theology. Hence it was misleading on Safire’s part to depict Islam as currently being “under attack from within.” And Cain ought to be deeply embarrassed anew by the murderous fatwas, precisely because–in Safire’s words– “Islam [is] one of the world’s great religions.”


The moral hollowness of the theistic superstructure requires both clarification and argument. Why are theological trappings morally unavailing? It was Socrates who permitted us to realize that if a religious creed is to yield any specific moral prescriptions at all, the ethics must be extraneously imported or tacked on to theism on extra-theological, worldly grounds, being put into the mouth of God by the clergy when asserting His goodness or omnibenevolence. This moral sterility of theism comes into view from the failure of divine omnibenevolence to deal with the challenge posed by a key question from Socrates in Plato’s Euthyphro: Is the conduct approved by the gods right (“pious”), because of properties of its own, or merely because it pleases the gods to value or command it? In the former case, divine omnibenevolence and revelation are at best ethically superfluous, and in the latter, the absolute divine commands fail to provide any reason at all for imposing particular kinds of conduct.

For if God values and enjoins us to do what is desirable in its own right, then ethical rules do not depend for their validity on divine command, and they can then be independently adopted. But, on the other hand, if conduct is good merely because God decrees it, then nowadays we also have the morally insoluble problem of deciding, in a multi-religious world, which one of the conflicting purported divine revelations of ethical commands we are to accept. Indeed, Richard Gale sees the thrust of Plato’s Euthyphro to be the claim that “Ethical propositions are not of the right categorical sort to be made true by anyone’s decision [command], even God’s” (R. M. Gale, On the Nature and Existence of God. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 34).

The plurality of competing revelations is illustrated by those in which Jesus is the Lord and those in which he is not, as in Islam and Judaism. And how are we to resolve theologically the basic ethical disagreements existing even within the clergy of the same religious denomination, such as the debate on pacifism in times of war or the justice of capital punishment for crime? Just these conflicting moral revelations and intra-denominational disagreements spell a cardinal lesson: Even if a person is minded to defer completely to theological authority on moral matters, he or she cannot avoid deciding which one of the conflicting religious authorities is to be his/her ethical guide. Thus, try as they may, people cannot abdicate their own responsibility for deciding by what moral norms they are to live. In just this decision-making sense, man is inescapably the measure of all things, for better or for worse. And it is quite otiose to speak, as Reinhold Niebuhr did, of “God giving us to see the right” (Arthur Schlesinger Jr., “Reinhold Niebuhr’s Long Shadow,” The New York Times, June 22, 1992, Op-Ed p. A13).

True enough, assuming divine omnibenevolence, it presumably follows that all divinely ordained conduct is morally right. But that is unavailing, because this much leaves us wholly in the dark as to which moral directives are binding on us, or what goals are ethically desirable. How, for example, does divine omnibenevolence tell us whether to share or abhor the Reverend Falwell’s and Rabbi Kahane’s claim that a nuclear Armageddon is part of God’s just and loving plan for us, because only the righteous will be resurrected thereafter? In any case, the existence of states of affairs in the world that theists themselves acknowledge to be morally evil, no less than others do, does indeed impugn the purported omnibenevolence of God. And the existence of evil that is not wrought by human volition cannot be explained away by recourse to the so-called “free will defense.” That apologia adduces the value of human freedom to perpetrate evil deeds no less than to do good ones.

The inability of the theological superstructure to yield a moral code also crops out in Kant’s invocation of God (and of personal immortality) as underpinnings of his own system of deontological ethics. His argument for such a theological foundation starts out from his moral doctrine that there is a categorical imperative to act only on principles that everyone could adopt consistently. But Kant avowedly offered only a formula: Alas, it does not tell us which moral directives to adopt from a set of competing ones. Thus, instead of being a source of concrete ethical injunctions, his formula provides only a necessary condition of their acceptability.

Even at that, Kant’s theological underpinning of his ethics loses its force, if only because the required realizability of the highest good is hardly assured. Besides, his case for a divine underwriter founders on its dubious assumption of personal immortality. And his argument becomes baseless in the context of such rival conceptions of ethics as are offered by the teleological or self-realization schools. Indeed, even if the philosophical viability of morality were evidence for the existence of God, as claimed by Kant, the ubiquitous reality of evil in the world would be stronger evidence against theism.

It would seem that Kant’s own special version of a theological foundation for ethics fails, even if one disregards the legitimacy of non-deontological systems of ethics.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1978 Commencement Address at Harvard showed no awareness of the moral sterility of theism:

There is a disaster which is already very much with us. I am referring to the calamity of an autonomous [despiritualized] and irreligious, humanistic consciousness. It has made man the measure of all things on Earth, imperfect man, who is never free of pride, self-interest, envy, vanity, and dozens of other defects … Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?

Prima facie, this declaration may sound ingratiatingly modest. But, as it stands, it is morally hollow and theologically question-begging. Whose revelation, one must ask, is to supplant man as the measure of all things? That of the Czarist Russian Orthodox Church? Or the edicts of the Ayatollah Khomeini, as enforced by his mullahs? Those of the Dutch Reformed Church in apartheid South Africa? Or the teachings of Pope John Paul II, who–amid starvation in Africa–is getting support from the native episcopate for the prohibition of “artificial” birth control? Or yet those of the orthodox rabbinate in Israel, which prohibits autopsies, for example? And, if the latter, which of the two doctrinally competing chief rabbis is to be believed, the ashkenazi, or the sephardic one? If the ethical perplexity of modern man is to be resolved by concrete moral injunctions, Solzhenitsyn’s jeremiad simply replaces secular man by selected clergymen, who become the moral touchstone of everything by claiming revealed truth for their particular ethical directives.

It appears that the moment a theology is to be used to yield ethical prescriptions, these rules of conduct are obtained by deliberations in whose outcome secular aims and thought are every bit as decisive as in the reflections of secular ethicists who deny theism. And the perplexity of moral problems is not lessened by the theological superstructure, which itself leaves us in an ethical quandary.

No wonder that Judaeo-Christian theology has been invoked as a sanction for such diverse ethical doctrines as the divine right of kings; the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; black slavery; “Deutschland über alles;” the social Darwinism of Spencer, and socialism. Indeed, as Sidney Hook has pointed out in his own critique of Solzhenitsyn (The Humanist, Nov./Dec. 1978, p. 5): “Neither Christianity nor Judaism, in principle, ever condemned slavery or feudalism. In their modern forms, they have been humanized in consequence of [the challenge from] the rise of secular humanism.” As the Roman Catholic Judge John T. Noonan Jr. pointed out more specifically most recently (“Development in Moral Theology,” Theological Studies, vol. 54, no. 4, December 1993, pp. 662-677), from the time of St. Paul to well beyond the middle of the nineteenth century, the Catholic Church taught that slavery was morally acceptable. And it was not until 1890 that Pope Leo XIII finally condemned slavery, but “only after the laws of every civilized land [had] eliminated the practice” (p. 675). At last, Pope John Paul II included slavery among intrinsic evils in his latest encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

Furthermore, Noonan explains, for 1200 years, “popes, bishops and theologians regularly and unanimously denied the religious liberty of heretics.” Indeed, “The duty of a good ruler was to extirpate not only heresy but heretics” (p. 667), and the Church did all it could to help. Even when the Church came to acquiesce in religious tolerance after compelling orthodoxy by force, its papal advisors continued to uphold the enforcement of orthodoxy by the state as an ideal (cf. Peter Steinfels, “Beliefs,” The New York Times, February 19, 1994, p. 8).

Some religious sects in India would have us abstain from the surgical excision of cancerous growths in man, and Christian Scientists in the West reach somewhat similar conclusions from rather different premises. Roman Catholics, on the other hand, endorse the medical prevention of death but condemn interference with nature in the form of birth control, a position not shared by leading Protestant and Jewish clergymen. Indeed, both Mahatma Ghandi and Hitler saw themselves as serving God. And divine Providence was a frequent feature of Hitler’s speeches, illustrating anew that religion can also be the last refuge of the scoundrel. Indeed, one believer’s will of God is another’s will of Satan, as illustrated by the exchange between Ayatollah Khomeini and President Carter, a born-again Christian.

Unfortunately, leading opinion-makers in the United States seem unaware not only of the moral sterility of theism, but also of the ethical abominations perpetrated by theocracies, past and present.

Solzhenitsyn’s charge of moral inadequacy against an irreligious humanistic consciousness is of-a-piece with the point of his rhetorical questions: “Is it true that man is above everything? Is there no Superior Spirit above him?” Surely the assumption that man may well not be above everything hardly requires belief in the existence of God. As we know, NASA has been scanning the skies for signals from extra-terrestrial and indeed extra-solar humanoids, whose intelligence may indeed be super-human. Nor will it do for clergymen to appeal–as they often do when thus challenged by the stated damaging considerations–to the finitude of our minds or to the inscrutability of God, who is said to transcend human understanding. After all, the clergy is in no better position to transcend that finitude than anyone else! Nor, it must be emphasized, do religious apologists have greater expertise than non-believers for discerning the limits of human cognition. Besides, one would expect that the avowed inscrutability of God would induce great modesty in regard to fathoming his purported will and alleged ethical commands.

Those who claim a divine foundation for their otherwise favorite moral code, as against its available rivals, compensate for the ethical emptiness of theism by begging the question: They blithely claim revealed divine sanction for their own moral code. It was Moses, not God, who issued the Ten Commandments. The famous law code of the Babylonian King Hammurabi was purportedly received by him from the sun god Shamash during prayer, a tale similar to the legend of Moses and the revelation of the Decalogue by Yahweh on Mt. Sinai. Indeed, the theological grounding of ethics is so shaky that the craving for it legitimately calls for psychological explanation as part of the psychology of fideist acceptance of theism (cf. A. Grünbaum, Validation in the Clinical Theory of Psychoanalysis. Madison, CT: International Universities Press, 1993, chap. 7: “Psychoanalysis and Theism.” Incidentally, I should point out in the present Festschrift that this Validation book of mine bears the following dedication: “To Robert Sonné Cohen with affectionate gratitude for fifty years of devoted friendship”).

In a recent widely touted plea for the theoretical relevance of religious ethics to U.S. public policy, Yale’s law professor Stephen L. Carter inadvertently undermines his basis for just that plea. In his book The Culture of Disbelief (New York: Basic Books, 1993, p. 229), he writes: “What was wrong with the 1992 Republican convention was not the effort to link the name of God to secular political ends. What was wrong was the choice of secular ends to which the name of God was linked.” Anna Quindlen (“America’s Sleeping Sickness,” The New York Times, October 17, 1993, sec. E, p. 17) quotes this passage after praising Carter’s book as “exceptionally intelligent and provocative.”

But clearly, Stephen Carter makes the linkage to God logically irrelevant precisely by assuming that we must already know, independently of any purported divine commands, which secular political ends are ethically proper and thereby may properly be chosen for linkage to the name of God! Otherwise, any secular political ends can be given such a linkage with theological impunity, as they have been historically and at the 1992 Republican convention, to Carter’s discomfiture.

Thus, George Bush’s avowed belief that Jesus is his Savior understandably did not prevent him from making demagogic use of the God sign, when complaining at the 1992 Houston convention that it was absent from the election platform of the Democratic national convention. Alas, as The New York Times reports (February 4, 1994, p. A11), Bush’s Democratic successor, President Clinton, has predicated U.S. political morality emptily on “Seeking to do God’s will” and “has made several attempts to link religious belief to public and private responsibility, most frequently citing the arguments forwarded [offered] by Stephen L. Carter.” Pray tell, Mr. President, just what is God’s will concretely? Does he sanction capital punishment for example? And is that your reason for favoring it? And where does God stand on abortion? Isn’t your appeal to God’s will just rhetoric?


Irving Kristol (“The Future of American Jewry,” Commentary, vol. 92, no. 2, August 1992, pp. 21-26) deplores the secularization of American Jewry under the influence of secular humanism, which he tendentiously describes as springing from a “new, emergent religious impulse.” As he sees it:

Because secular humanism has, from the very beginning, incorporated the modern scientific view of the universe, it has always felt itself–and today still feels itself–“liberated” from any kind of religious perspective. But secular humanism is more than science, because it proceeds to make all kinds of inferences about the human condition and human possibilities that are not, in any authentic sense, scientific. Those inferences are metaphysical, and in the end theological.

Kristol muddies the waters: Secular humanists are well aware that scientific knowledge does not suffice to warrant all parts of a moral code. But Kristol darkens counsel by designating the motivation for secular humanism as “religious,” and its conception of the human estate as “theological.” In so doing, he ignores that the unabridged Webster’s Dictionary gives the following primary definition of the term “religion”: “The service and adoration of God or a god as expressed in forms of worship, in obedience to divine commands, especially as found in accepted sacred writings….”

Although the term “spiritual” has a supernaturalist tinge, Kristol insists that secular humanism springs from a “new philosophical-spiritual impulse” (p. 23):

What, specifically, were (and are) the teachings of this new philosophical-spiritual impulse? They can be summed up in one phrase: “Man makes himself.” That is to say, the universe is bereft of transcendental meaning, it has no inherent teleology, and it is within the power of humanity to comprehend natural phenomena and to control and manipulate them so as to improve the human estate. Creativity, once a divine prerogative, becomes a distinctly human one….

… Man’s immortal soul has been a victim of progress, replaced by the temporal “self”–which he explores in such sciences as psychology and neurology, as well as in the modern novel, modern poetry, and modern psychology, all of which proceed without benefit of what, in traditional terms, was regarded as a religious dimension.

First, we ought to applaud precisely what Kristol bemoaned when he said: “Creativity, once a divine prerogative, becomes a distinctly human one.” The invocation of a divine creator to provide causal explanations in cosmology or biology suffers from a fundamental defect vis-à-vis scientific explanations of the effects produced by human agents or by diverse events: As we know from two thousand years of theology, the hypothesis of divine creation does not even envision, let alone specify, an appropriate intermediate causal process that would link the will of the supposed divine (causal) agency to the effects which are attributed to it. Nor, it seems, is there any prospect at all that the chronic inscrutability of the putative causal linkage will be removed by new theological developments.

In sharp contrast, the discovery that “an aspirin-a-day” keeps many a heart-attack away has been quickly followed by the quest for a specification of the mode of action that mediates the prophylaxis afforded by this drug against coronary infarcts. Similarly for therapeutic benefits from placebos wrought by the mediation of endorphin-release in the brain and by the secretions of interferon and of steroids. In physics, there is either an actual specification or at least a quest for the mediating causal dynamics linking presumed causes to their effects. In the case of laws of temporal coexistence or simultaneous action-at-a-distance, there is a specification of the concomitant variations of quantified physical attributes by means of functional dependencies (see my “Creation as a Pseudo-Explanation in Current Physical Cosmology,” Erkenntnis 35, July 1991, pp. 233-254).

Indeed, the prominent American Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley makes an important admission as to the hypothesized process of divine creation: “We really do not know how God ‘pulls it off.’ Catholicism has found no great scandal in this admitted ignorance” (“Religion and Science: Paul Davies and John Paul II,” Theological Studies, 51, 1990, p. 314). But if so, the disbelief in divine creativity, which Kristol bewails, incurs no explanatory loss at all.

Kristol also deplores current disbelief in personal immortality of the soul among educated people. Yet, on examination, that tenet is so obscure that it should not be consoling to any reflective person. As Maimonides saw it, the attempt to grasp the nature of eternal bliss in the hereafter while we are alive is akin to the futile effort of a blind person to experience color visually. At any rate, the hypothesis of personal immortality collapses in the face of the vast amount of evidence for the dependence of the very existence of consciousness on adequate brain function, and, moreover, for the dependence of the integrity of our personalities on such function. Witness, for example, the effects of brain tumors, Alzheimer’s disease, and various drugs, such as alcohol or mood-altering medications. (For a fuller discussion, see Paul Edwards, “The Dependence of Consciousness on the Brain,” in Paul Edwards (ed.), Immortality. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1992, pp. 292-307).

But Kristol’s principal thesis is that two fundamental flaws undermine the credibility of secular humanism. The first, we learn, lies in its inability to provide a moral code; the second, which is even more fundamental, is that its vision renders our lives meaningless and has become “brain dead.”

As to the first, we are told (pp. 24-25):

We have, in recent years, observed two major events that represent turning points in the history of the 20th century. The first is the death of socialism, both as an ideal and a political program, a death that has been duly recorded in our consciousness. The second is the collapse of secular humanism–the religious basis of socialism–as an ideal, but not yet as an ideological program, a way of life. The emphasis is on “not yet,” for as the ideal is withering away, the real will sooner or later follow suit.

. . . This loss of credibility flows from two fundamental flaws in secular humanism.

First, the philosophical rationalism of secular humanism can, at best, provide us with a statement of the necessary assumptions of a moral code, but it cannot deliver any such code itself. Moral codes evolve from the moral experience of communities, and can claim authority over behavior only to the degree that individuals are reared to look respectfully, even reverentially, on the moral traditions of their forefathers. It is the function of religion to instill such respect and reverence. Morality does not belong to a scientific mode of thought, or to a philosophical mode, or even to a theological mode, but to a practical-juridical mode. One accepts a moral code on faith–not on blind faith but on the faith that one’s ancestors, over the generations, were not fools and that we have much to learn from them and their experience. Pure reason can offer a critique of moral beliefs but it cannot engender them.

Elsewhere, Kristol claimed more explicitly: “Secular rationalism has been unable to produce a compelling, self-justifying moral code” (Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 1992).

These assertions call for a series of critical comments, showing that fideist theism has hardly succeeded ethically where secular rationalism has failed:

1. What is Kristol’s evidence for the purported decline in adherence to secular humanism among educated people who, he tells us, had widely accepted secular humanism as an ideal? Indeed, this alleged collapse, and his prediction of its demise as an ideological program of practical action, is born of wishful thinking. Witness the well-documented massive erosion of religious belief and worship in Western Europe, which is publicly lamented by its religious leaders.

Even in the United States, where avowed religiosity is far greater than in Europe, the Roman Catholic Church faces a crisis in the recruitment of young people for the priesthood. Just this scarcity of recruits has lent urgency to the plea that women be ordained as priests. The widespread disregard for the church’s prohibition of “artificial” birth control by American Catholics is likewise well-known. And the pressure to abandon the requirement of celibacy for the priesthood derives practical poignancy from the growing number of lawsuits from practicing Catholics, whose children have been sexually molested by members of the clergy. On the other hand, fundamentalist Protestant evangelism is on the rise and, to the consternation of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, is making considerable inroads in certain segments of its erstwhile faithful. But this headway of fundamentalism is largely confined to the most poorly educated segment of our society. Thus, it is only cold comfort for Kristol.

2. More fundamentally, Kristol erects a straw man when he complains that the philosophical rationalism of secular humanism cannot deliver a moral code. This charge is a red herring for at least two reasons: (i) Theism as such has turned out to be morally sterile no less than atheism or “philosophical rationalism,” taken by themselves; in fact, when Kristol urged that “Morality does not belong to a scientific mode of thought,” he himself conceded that morality also does not belong “even to a theological mode, but to a practical-juridical mode.” (ii) Secular humanism can tack on moral directives to its atheism on the basis of value judgments made by its adherents, just as, in point of actual fact, theists tack on such directives under the purported aegis of inscrutable divine revelation. Yet, unlike revelationist theists, humanists insist on the liability of their moral convictions to criticism. Kristol allowed that “Pure reason can offer a critique of moral beliefs,” but his aim in saying so was not to make a partial concession; instead it was to complete the sentence by saying one-sidedly: “but it cannot engender them.” Nor, as he fails to see, can theism “produce a compelling, self-justifying moral code.”

Kristol draws precisely the wrong lesson from his correct observation that the erosion of belief in theism attenuated the “moral code inherited from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.” For, in his view, it tells against secular humanism that thereupon “we have found ourselves baffled by the Nietzschian challenge: If God is really dead, by what authority do we say [that] any particular practice is prohibited or permitted?” By now, it should be abundantly clear, however, that in answering the question as to the “authority” for concrete moral yeas and nays, we are surely no better off if God is alive than if he is dead! In fact, the threat of moral anarchy or nihilism arises from the erosion of belief in God just because the prevailing moral code had been falsely claimed to derive from Him epistemologically (via revelation), juridically (in the form of divine commandments), and motivationally (from the love or fear of God)!

Evidently, Kristol’s echoing of Nietzsche’s challenge backfires: The bite of the challenge is injurious to the religious, rather than to the secular construal of morality.

3. It is a commonplace that “Moral codes evolve from the moral experience of communities.” But this genesis does not warrant Kristol’s normative and motivational view that such codes “can claim authority over behavior only to the degree that individuals are reared to look respectfully, even reverentially, on the moral traditions of their forefathers.” Surely we ought to winnow the wheat from the chaff in a critical scrutiny of these traditions.

But how, for example, does Kristol’s ethical traditionalism enable him to avoid asking Jews nowadays to look reverentially at the fact that, at the time of biblical Judaism, women–but not men–were stoned to death for adultery, and that the conditions for obtaining a divorce were brutally asymmetrical as between women and men? Political pressure from rabbinical theocrats in Israel has made it impossible for a Jew there nowadays to get a license to marry a Christian (cf. Ian S. Lastick, For the Land and The Lord, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. New York: Council on Foreign Relations, 1988). How does Kristol’s conservative stance allow him to erect safeguards against such totalitarian tyranny?

Again, are present-day Christians to show respect for the fact that other devout Western Christians performed barbaric clitoridectomies in the nineteenth century to suppress the sexuality of young girls? Or are they to feel pious stirrings on learning that, with the clergy on his side, Christopher Columbus could see the holy purpose of initiating slave-trading against the people of the Americas, saying “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves to Europe that can be sold. The eternal God, our Lord, gives victory to those who follow his way over apparent impossibilities”? (quoted in Adolf Grünbaum, “The Place of Secular Humanism: Current American Political Culture,” Vital Speeches of the Day, vol. 54, no. 2, November 1, 1987, p. 43).

If Kristol were to reply that respect for the repository of ancestral injunctions has to be selective, the retort is the one that Sidney Hook gave to Solzhenitsyn: “. . . what besides the methods of reason and intelligence can enable us to make the proper choice between [among] them?” (p. 6). It seems inescapable that all traditional ethical injunctions should be subjected to critical scrutiny and distillation.

Kristol’s formula founders on the neglect of the precept afforded by Socrates’s insight in the Euthyphro: If divinely hallowed injunctions are deserving of adoption, then we must be the ones–in every epoch anew–to find them worthy. And our only means for doing so are our intelligence and our informed feelings. We have nowhere else to go. Yet Kristol concludes that, since our society no longer defers uncritically or even mindlessly to clerical edicts, contemporary parents are “impotent before such questions” as “What moral instruction should we convey to our children?”

Kristol’s application of his traditionalism to contemporary morality features his endorsement, as ancestral divine wisdom, of the inhumane homophobia of biblical Judaism. Referring to the demise of the prohibition of homosexuality as “moral disarray,” he says mournfully:

Reform Judaism has even legitimated homosexuality as “an alternative lifestyle,” and some Conservative Jews are trying desperately to figure out why they should not go along. The biblical prohibition, which is unequivocal, is no longer powerful enough to withstand the “why not?” of secular-humanist inquiry (p. 25).

So much the better for the moral challenge from secular humanism, which produced a humane advance over barbarism and cynical hypocrisy.

But, in Kristol’s view, the inability of secular humanism to deliver a “compelling, self-justifying moral code,” which he employs as a red herring, is only the first of its “two fundamental flaws.” He reserved his supposed coup de grâce for the second:

A second flaw in secular humanism is even more fundamental, since it is the source of a spiritual disarray that is at the root of moral chaos. If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded–or even if it suspects–that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe…. Secular humanism is brain dead even as its heart continues to pump energy into all of our institutions.

But why can secular humanists not lead richly meaningful lives, just because, in their view, the values of life lie within human experience itself? How would our lives be more meaningful, if we were to suppose narcissistically that man is the centerpiece of an avowedly inscrutable overall divine purpose, which constitutes “the” meaning of our lives but must remain unknown to our finite minds? Being at the focus of elusive cosmic “meaning” is clearly irrelevant to finding value on this earth: Experiencing the embrace of someone we love, the intellectual or artistic life, the fragrance of a rose, the satisfactions of work and friendship, the sounds of music, the panorama of a glorious sunrise or sunset, the biological pleasures of the body, and the delights of wit and humor.

In the movie Limelight, Charlie Chaplin put in a nutshell what is wrong with the narcissistic delusion that there is such a thing as “the” meaning of life: Life, said Chaplin, is not a meaning, but a desire. Yet Václav Havel, who has a penchant for mysticism, lists “the meaning of our being” as a basic human question (“A Dream for Czechoslovakia,” The New York Review of Books, June 25, 1992, p. 12). And a rabbi demands an “ultimate meaning” in human life: “In the atheistic premise, there is no ultimate meaning to human life. It is just there. Now, no human being behaves as if life had no meaning” (Louis Jacobs, The Book of Jewish Belief. West Orange, NJ: Behrman House, 1984, p. 10). But what, pray tell, is “the” meaning of life? Pious cant?

As secular humanists see it, there are as many “meanings” as there are fulfillments of human aspirations. It is sheer fantasy, if not arrogance, on the part of theists to proclaim inveterately that their lives must be more meaningful to them than atheists and secular humanists find their own lives to be to themselves. Where is their statistical evidence that despair, depression, suicide, aimlessness, or other dysphoria are more common among unbelievers than among believers? Yet Kristol insists: “It is crucial to the lives of all our citizens, as it is to all human beings at all times, that they encounter a world that possesses a transcendent meaning, a world in which the human experience makes sense” (“Quotable,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 1992). This grandiose assertion is flatly false as a matter of psychological fact.

Regrettably, Kristol did not come to grips with the arguments in Albert Einstein’s paper on “Science & Religion.” (The paper was delivered in 1941 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York; reprinted in D. J. Bronstein and H. M. Schulweis (eds.), Approaches to the Philosophy of Religion. New York: Prentice Hall, 1954, pp. 68-72.) There Einstein first points out: “Nobody, certainly, will deny that the idea of the existence of an omnipotent, just and omnibeneficent personal God is able to accord men solace, help and guidance; also by virtue of its simplicity the concept is accessible to the most undeveloped mind” (p. 70). But then Einstein issues his cardinal plea, which clashes head-on with Kristol’s nostrum: “In their struggle for the ethical good, teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up that source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests” (p. 71).

This rejection of theism as part of Einstein’s further explicit denial of supernatural causes impugns Sir Hermann Bondi’s reading that Einstein championed a belief in a superintelligence who was the “architect” of the world’s complexity (“Humanism – The Only Valid Foundation of Ethics,” 67th Conway Memorial Lecture, January 24, 1992, London: South Place Ethical Society). Yet Bondi himself is staunchly anti-religious.

It is true, if trite, that if there is deep and widespread demoralization in a community, as well as pervasive disaffection with its institutions, its socio-political organization will crumble, and it will become highly vulnerable to its enemies. Kristol transforms this commonplace into an ominous charge against secular humanism:

If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded–or even if it suspects–that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.

But the supposition that the godless lead meaningless lives is just an ideological phantasm born of moral self-congratulation.


In an article entitled “Can Atheists Be Good Citizens?” (First Things, Aug./Sept. 1991, pp. 17-21), Richard John Neuhaus argues for a negative answer to the question posed in its title.

First he tries to cope with the fact that Sidney Hook, a life-long ardent secular humanist, was a dedicated, fearless critic of totalitarianism for decades, who received the Medal of Freedom from the United States Government. In that attempt, Neuhaus falls into a confusion between the semantic content of a doctrine with the degree of epistemological confidence that a given supporter of the doctrine may have in it. The content of theism is the assertion that there is a personal God with specified attributes, while the content of atheism is the denial of that claim. But neither content tells us with what degree of confidence a given proponent avows the given tenet.

The Roman Catholic Church claims absolute dogmatic, irrevocable certitude for its theism, while Madelyn Murray O’Hair has proclaimed her atheism just as irrevocably. Alternatively, both theism and atheism alike can be espoused with varying lesser degrees of epistemological confidence. Some may regard their belief as a highly probable hypothesis in the light of the evidence, while others may see it more tentatively as the best available working hypothesis.

Theoretical beliefs, however well supported by known evidence, are still fallible or revocable, because of potentially adverse future evidence. It is therefore the better part of wisdom to stop short of espousing one’s hypotheses as irrevocably established. Thus, Sidney Hook, Freud, Einstein, and Bertrand Russell, among others, adopted this less-than-dogmatic attitude toward their belief in atheism, but without tampering with its semantic content. Notably, their lack of dogmatism did not, however, constitute a watering down of their atheism into the different doctrine called “agnosticism.”

In its technical meaning, agnosticism does not rule out either theism or atheism: It pointedly makes no claim as to the existence of God one way or the other, even tentatively, because it regards the question as unanswerable in principle. Thus, neither theists nor atheists are agnostics. And atheists disavow agnosticism no less than theists do.

This fact was untutoredly overlooked by Robert Bork during his unsuccessful confirmation hearings to become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Eyes flashing, Bork told the senators that he is not an agnostic, presumably to convey that he is not irreligious. But Bork’s rejection of agnosticism does not rule out his being an atheist.

Neuhaus (p. 17) denies that Sidney Hook was an atheist, claiming that, instead, Hook was an agnostic. Having wrongly assumed that atheism must be irrevocably declared true by its champions, Neuhaus concluded that, since Hook was a fallibilist, his rejection of theism must be tantamount to agnosticism.

Neuhaus is also led to claim incorrectly (p. 20) that the Enlightenment rationalists were “committed to undoubtable certainty,” merely because they were atheists. As a dogmatic theist, opposed to Laplace’s statement to Napoleon, saying that he sees no need for the “hypothesis” of God, Neuhaus declared sorrowfully: “When God has become a hypothesis, we have traveled a very long way from both the gods of the ancient city and the God of the Bible” (p. 18). But why is that deplorable, if modern knowledge compels the demythologizing of the Bible, as indeed it does?

The principal thesis of Neuhaus’s article is that atheists cannot be good citizens. Therefore, Hook’s actual atheism commits Neuhaus willy-nilly to the further conclusion that Hook, the recipient of the Medal of Freedom bestowed by the President of the United States, is philosophically unfit to be a good citizen. Neuhaus’s central argument, no less than Kristol’s, turns out to run afoul of the moral sterility of theism. And this ethical infertility undermines his attack on the separation of church and state, as well as his irate indictment of those religious people who support that separation.

Yet in his castigation of religious believers who support the organization “Americans United for Separation of Church and State,” whom he charges with “political atheism,” he abjures even the notion of the “existence” of God as too this-worldly. Indeed, we learn (p. 18): “The transcendent, the ineffable, the totally other, the God who acts in history was tamed and domesticated in order to meet the philosopher’s job description for the post of God.” But this jeremiad boomerangs: If God is indeed so totally transcendent as to be ineffable, and if He eludes all intelligibility by being “totally other,” how can there possibly be any meaning in the causal assertion that He “acts in history”?

Indeed, as I remarked early on, how can we possibly escape the conclusion that talk about such an avowedly “totally other” entity is just pretentious babble? Is the insistence on engaging in such discourse not a case of thought pathology, abetted by the penchant to abuse language? If, as we were told in the same vein, Yahweh–the God of Moses–was “above naming and beyond understanding,” how can such an entity be intelligibly taken on faith even without evidence, let alone be loved or feared?

It is rank political coerciveness for Neuhaus to tell us that unless we are willing to parrot such gibberish, we are poor citizens. In striking contrast, in a letter written in 1790, George Washington explained to a Jewish community leader in Newport, Rhode Island (quoted in Bernard Lewis, “Muslims, Christians, and Jews: The Dream of Coexistence,” The New York Review of Books, March 26, 1992, p. 49):

The citizens of the United States of America … all possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support [footnote omitted].

Bernard Lewis articulates George Washington’s distinction between mere toleration and genuine coexistence very well (ibid.):

In these words, the first president of the United States expressed with striking clarity the real difference between tolerance and coexistence. Tolerance means that a dominant group, whether defined by faith or race or other criteria, allows to members of other groups some–but rarely if ever all–of the rights and privileges enjoyed by its own members. Coexistence means equality between the different groups composing a political society as an inherent natural right of all of them–to grant it is no merit, to withhold or limit it is an offense.

Yet, significantly, Neuhaus deploys his charge of poor citizenship even against those believers who have felt driven to take intellectual account of post-Enlightenment developments in the modern world. In fact, he levels the charge of deicide against them (p.18).

But the gravamen of Neuhaus’s case is yet to come. Having omitted mention of the fallibilist kind of atheism held by such secular humanists as Sidney Hook, Neuhaus tendentiously enumerates the doctrines of much less reasonable atheists, and then he asks rhetorically (p. 20):

Can these atheists be good citizens? It depends, I suppose, on what is meant by good citizenship. We may safely assume that the great majority of these people abide by the laws, pay their taxes, and may even be congenial and helpful neighbors. But can a person who does not acknowledge that he is accountable to a truth higher than the self, external to the self, really be trusted? Locke and Rousseau, among many other worthies, thought not. However confused their theology, they were sure that the social contract was based upon nature, upon the way the world really is. Rousseau’s “civil religion” was apparently itself a social construct, but Locke was convinced that the fear of a higher judgement, even an eternal judgement was essential to citizenship.

It follows that an atheist could not be trusted to be a good citizen, and therefore could not be a citizen at all. Locke is rightly celebrated as a champion of religious toleration, but not of irreligion. “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God,” he writes in A Letter Concerning Toleration. “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.” The taking away of God dissolves all. Every text becomes pretext, every interpretation misinterpretation, and every oath a deceit.

Neuhaus offers a red herring in his ambiguous rhetorical question: “But can a person who does not acknowledge that he is accountable to a truth higher than the self, external to the self, really be trusted?” A secular humanist’s insistence on the indispensability of reliance on the intelligence of the human species patently does not entail, as Neuhaus would have it, that any one of us is morally accountable only to our own self!

Here, he is trading on the vagueness and ambiguity of the phrase “truth higher than the self” to allude to the edicts of purported divine revelation of some sort. Unless he does so, the willingness to acknowledge accountability to a “social contract based on nature–on the way the world really is” obviously does not militate in favor of theism as against secular humanism. Indeed, it is secularism that relies on science to tell us about “the way the world really is.”

The statements that Neuhaus then quotes or echoes from John Locke are vitiated by the moral sterility of theism, besides being outrageously false on their face. Indeed, we are being treated to scurrilous demagogy when Neuhaus declares that, in the case of an atheist, “Every text becomes pretext, every interpretation misinterpretation, and every oath a deceit.” This is brazen and insolent defamation!

Ironically, Neuhaus’s invocation of Locke boomerangs: According to Locke, citizenship should not be accorded to Roman Catholics either, because these religious believers owe their ultimate allegiance to the foreign Pope, rather than to God. Isn’t it odd that Neuhaus, the recent convert to Roman Catholicism, made no mention at all of this highly inconvenient fact?

In an important recent article (“The New Anti-Catholicism,” Commentary, June 1992, pp. 25-31), George Weigel relates and deplores the history of allegations in the United States that an ascending tyrannical “Romanism” or “Papism” poses a threat to the pluralism of American democracy. The burden of his article, however, is a plea against a secularist, anti-transcendentalist polity.

Weigel recounts a major episode that, ironically, is a valuable object-lesson of the dangers run by adopting politically an “absolute” standard of morality on theological grounds:

. . . it is of moment … that classic American Protestant anti-Catholicism in the 19th and early 20th centuries simply took it as self-evident that American democracy required a religious foundation: specifically, a Protestant religious foundation. Absent this, it was widely believed there were but two possible outcomes to the American experiment: revival of premodern despotism (linked to Rome), or moral anarchy leading, in short order, to political collapse.

Significantly, Weigel adds that none of the advocates of this Protestant anti-Catholicism “ever dreamed of advocating a secular policy in which religion would be ruled out of the public debate.”

Thus, by Weigel’s own account, it was not a secularized state that generated the anti-Catholic turn he bewails; it was rather the denominational insistence on an absolute, divinely sanctioned morality amid the conflicting theological revelations. Despite ecumenicism, the strife among the gospels seems ineradicable: Witness the recent breakdown of negotiations between the Vatican and the Anglican Church, which were to yield an ecumenical composition of their theological differences. Or just contemplate the likelihood that Orthodox Jews will become persuaded of the salvific divinity of Christ! (cf. Y. Leibowitz, Judaism, Human Values, and the Jewish State. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992)

Unaware that his chronicle boomerangs, Weigel concludes by misformulating the clash of ideas between secular humanism and a public policy informed by a religiously transcendent morality. As he would have it, this confrontation (Bismarckian “Kulturkampf“) is “a struggle between those who affirm the classic Jewish and Christian notion of an objective moral order, and those who deny on epistemological grounds that there is any such thing as an ‘objective moral norm.'” Having posed the issue in these terms, Weigel speaks conjunctively of “secularism and moral relativism.”

But surely the secularist’s this-worldly warrant for ethical norms is neutral as between an “objectivist” and a “relativist” construal of their epistemological status. To deny that our moral code has a transcendent religious foundation is not to rule out the objectivity of its secular grounds. Nay, ironically, the cacophony of divergent absolutist revelations is effectively tantamount to moral relativism as between the rival religious subcultures.

Alas, Neuhaus’s and Weigel’s gravamen against secular humanism, no less than Kristol’s, emerges as a shoddy caricature of the doctrine they attack.


It is well-known that there are theists who were (or are) paragons of morality, such as Francis of Assisi and Mother Teresa, who devoted themselves sacrificially to the poor and to the care of outcasts (e.g., lepers). Yet the great harm done by Mother Teresa’s Roman Catholic stance on artificial birth control and her rigid opposition to any and all abortion detract considerably from the moral benefits of her impact on society. Furthermore, the humane services of various religious orders, sects or denominations in hospitals and in the relief of other suffering (e.g., famine) are legion. Besides, Pope John Paul XXIII, while Archbishop Roncalli of Naples, did his utmost to save the Jews of the Balkans from the Nazis. On the other hand, a Roman Catholic Pope signed concordats with Hitler in addition to Mussolini and Franco.

Incomparably more significantly, and macro-culturally, however, the two millennia of Christian history have prompted the German scholar Karlheinz Deschner to characterize much of it as “criminal” in a very widely read multi-volume work of documentation: The first three, which are already published (1986, 1988, 1990) are devoted to antiquity, the next three volumes to the middle ages, and the last four to modern times (Kriminalgeschichte des Christentums. Hamburg: Rohwolt). Plainly and notoriously, belief in theism is not at all sufficient motivationally for the sort of conduct on whose moral worth many theists would agree with secular humanists.

Some Western historians have characterized the Third Reich and the Soviet Union as seats of the two great secular movements of our time. And, even as the theist Cain concedes “some egregious horrors connected with traditional Western religions,” he opines that “far greater horrors [were] committed by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union,” societies that were “anthropocentric without any transcendent norm” (Free Inquiry, vol. 14, no. 1, 1993/1994, p. 55). It is unclear just how Cain arrives at these comparative measures of evil, but his comparison is, at best, highly and multiply misleading.

In the first place, Cain has to grant that neither of the two societies he names were ideologically secular humanist; on the contrary, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia are anathema to secular humanists on both moral and scientific grounds. As for the scientific component of secularism, the Nazi racial doctrines were pseudo-scientific, as was Stalin’s rejection of biological genetics in favor of Lysenkoism. Similarly for the governmentally endorsed distortion of scientific theorizing to conform to the prevailing political ideology (e.g., “Nordic” science in Nazi Germany, and “proletarian” science in the USSR).

And in regard to the comparative scale of evil, Cain ignores that the technologies of Auschwitz and of the Soviet gulag were simply not available to the Holy office and to Cardinal Torquemada, who had to rely on the thumbscrew and the rack. Nor, to mention only a few examples, were they available to those who fought the Thirty Years’ War in Europe for religious stakes, or who slaughtered the Huguenots, or who organized the loathsome Crusades, or who hanged Quaker women at the stake in Puritan Massachusetts, or to the host of others who prompted Founding Father John Adams to describe the Judaeo-Christian tradition as “the most bloody religion that ever existed” (cf. Barbara Ehrenreich, Time, September 7, 1992, p. 72).

Moreover, even the Stalinists who persecuted religious believers did not burn them at the stake, whereas just that was the fate of heretics in Christendom for centuries. And nowadays in Islamic Pakistan, the theocrats are urging that even those who oppose the anti-blasphemy laws be put to death.

Indeed, two millenia of doctrinal and often murderous Christian anti-semitism prepared a climate in Nazi Germany, Vichy France and in Eastern Europe (e.g., in Ustachi Roman Catholic Croatia) that was hospitable to the Holocaust. Even recently, during the Polish election campaign that issued in Lech Walesa’s presidency, this devout Roman Catholic demanded that candidates of Jewish origin acknowledge it as a kind of skeleton in their closet, much as those who have a dubious personal past should own up to it. And Reinhard Heydrich, the SS Security Chief who presided over the genocidal “Final Solution,” was a graduate of a Catholic German High School.

Thus, Cain is driven to admit, after all, that motivationally, theism is not morally superior to secularism. He grants that even the leaders of religious institutions, rather than merely the run-of-the-mill faithful, are no more ethical in practice than are secular leaders. As he acknowledges, both sorts of leaders alike “often put the practical welfare of their institutions above that of higher ethical values” (p. 56).

Thus, it is further grist to my mill, when Cain points out that secularists like Willy Brandt and religionists like Niemoeller and Bonhoeffer appealed alike to an authority higher than their secular government in resisting the Nazis. As Cain notes (p. 56), Willy Brandt’s motivation for his anti-Nazi activities

was clearly secular, based on a democratic socialist humanism, … As a member of the Norwegian resistance movement, he became, formally speaking, a traitor to his country, thus challenging the idolatry of the national state so pervasive in modern times. There were many other Germans who resisted Nazi tyranny for purely secular reasons, so far as anything is pure in human existence. Lay religious resisters sometimes found themselves abandoned and disavowed by their church leaders, like the simple Austrian carpenter who inveighed against the Nazi invasion of other countries only to be told by his bishop that he had no business opposing the governing authorities; hence, the church did nothing to prevent his execution. A similar case was that of a young Mormon workingman who engaged in anti-Nazi activities in Germany, only to be excommunicated by his church leaders and executed.

And again (Cain, pp. 55-56):

Take the so-called righteous Gentiles who helped Jews to escape the Nazi murder machine, risking deadly danger for themselves and their families. Some of them may have been acting from a self-sacrificing devotion to values engendered by centuries of Western secular humanism. Others, like the French Huguenots who saved a remarkable number of Jews, were moved by religious motives and identification with the People of the Book. And there may have been French humanistic values mixed in.

Just this record shows that there can readily be moral parity between secularists and theists, rather than the vaunted superiority proclaimed by the theists I challenge.

Furthermore, comparison of the crime statistics in the predominantly theist U.S.A. with the largely irreligious countries of Western Europe and Scandinavia resoundingly discredits the recurring claim that the moral conduct of theists is statistically superior to that of secularists, let alone of secular humanists. A fortiori, these statistics belie the smug thesis that the fear or love of God is motivationally necessary, in point of psychological fact, to assure such adherence to moral standards and good citizenship as there is in society at large.

Thus, the U.S.A. has by far the highest percentage of religious worshippers in its population of any Western nation, and presidents from Nixon to Clinton recurrently give prayer breakfasts. In Great Britain, for example, which has the Anglican state church, only about 3 percent of its citizens attend a place of worship, whereas in the U.S., the figure is approximately 33 percent, i.e., greater by a factor of eleven! In the U.S., about 90 percent of the population profess belief in God, whereas in Western Europe and Scandinavia the percentage is very considerably below 50 percent. Nor is the black population in the U.S., in which the crime rate is high, at all predominantly irreligious. Yet the percentage incidence of homicides and other crimes in the God-fearing U.S. is much higher than in the heavily secularized Western countries. And a corresponding disparity exists between the respective percentages of the prison populations in these societies. But the inveterate clamor for permitting prayer in the public schools of this country invokes the supposed efficacy of such devotionals in fostering “family values.”

It emerges that theism and atheism as such are not only alike sterile qua theoretical foundation for concrete norms of ethical conduct; motivationally, belief in either of them is far too crude a touchstone to correlate with civilized moral conduct on the personal, social, or national level. If I may use the received androcentric idiom, the brotherhood of man does not depend on the fatherhood of God, either normatively or motivationally.

It is time that this major lesson be heeded widely in word and deed, especially by those who are at the levers of power in our polity and vociferously deny it. Thus, Cain (p. 57) was oblivious to the contemporary religio-political climate in the U.S., when he wrote:

I would counsel secular humanists to spend much less of their time accumulating proof texts on the failings and horrors of religion … [they] should stop finding all the good in their own camp and all the evil in that of their adversaries. Bigotry, fanaticism, and the refusal of dialogue are common human failings, affecting secularists as well as religionists. Let’s look for the mote in our own eyes.


I am grateful to my colleague Professor Richard Gale, who made several valuable suggestions in his comments on the first draft.


Professor Adolf Grünbaum

University of Pittsburgh

2510 Cathedral of Learning

Pittsburgh, PA 15260-6125

FAX: (412) 648-1068

“The Poverty of Theistic Morality” is copyright © 1995, 2000 by Adolf Grünbaum. The electronic version is copyright © 2000 Internet Infidels, Inc. with the permission of Adolf Grünbaum.

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