I want to start by sharing with you a great post titled Atheist Morality.
In the spirit of atheists taking a ride on the back of a moral-based society (the point taken in said post), I don’t mind taking a ride on the back of an excellent blog!
Rather than relate to his specific points, I want to share something I’ve learned this week which has some bearing on the topic and give my thoughts at the end.
Rabbi Yitzchak Hacohen Kook (Shabbat 10a Ein Aya par. 12) posits a fascinating idea: Human beings have been created with biological processes that serve to promote the moral purpose of existence.
Based on this premise he explains a Talmudic discussion concerning the level of humanity reflected in the time of day people eat their main meal. Those who eat immediately upon waking in the morning before doing anything else are compared to cannibals. They live only in order to fill their stomachs, and nothing sets them apart from animals. It goes on from there to describe the people of culture who think of something outside themselves, next to people who in addition to culture are in touch with their innate morality, after this are laborers, followed by people engaged in creative work and finally seekers of wisdom. After describing the six levels and consecutively later times of the day at which each prototype starts his meal, the Talmud says that waiting beyond this time to eat is compared to throwing the food into a leather pouch. It won’t be properly digested.
Rabbi Kook explains that human behavior is indicative of attitude, and attitude is indicative of one’s level of humanity. Waiting a bit before eating in the morning shows that the most important focus of life for that person is other than food. On the other hand someone who puts off eating beyond a certain time reveals an underlying disdain for life, attaching no importance at all to material existence. This kind of attitude is anti-life and by extension anti-Torah.
Wanting human beings to excel at being humane, God designed human biology such that it would encourage spiritual excellence, by making the postponement of breakfast beyond a certain hour detrimental to health.
Thus if one’s primary focus is on values, life will be good for him and if not it will be bad for him. One who lacks humble respect for the natural order and is missing the consciousness that holiness resides within physical boundaries will end up harming his health. This natural consequence was built into existence by deliberate design.
Through a system of checks and balances God created a situation whereby we can more easily access our innate morality. Natural biological consequences dovetail desirable or undesirable attitudes, with some attitudes naturally lending themselves towards growth and other attitudes leading to harmful consequences.
What is the meaning of consequences? Gravity will work whether you like it or not. Gravity makes no distinctions between a piece of junk being thrown from a tenth floor building or a precious diamond thrown from the same tenth floor. They will both drop and break. When it comes to the laws of nature it makes perfect sense but when it comes to religious law it implies reward and punishment, which we think of as a punitive concept. However, just as the consequence of how we relate to God’s physical laws is not a punitive concept but simply a natural consequence the same is true of God’s spiritual laws. God created a world with rules and natural consequences to breaking or promoting those rules. Rabbi Kook is looking at the complementary relationship between God’s physical and spiritual laws and saying that built into the consequence of how a person relates to a physical law is a perfectly suited educational principle.
Going back now to the blog on atheist morality, I agree with what he says regarding the spirit of the age we’re living in. Take for example the movie Chocolate. The fact that the atheist is the hero makes my stomach turn in spite of the hypocrisy and problems of the religious community.
Rather than relate to his specific points I’m going to say three things:
a) Yes, there is some measure of truth to the atheist claim of morality without religion because God made human beings with innate morality. But the problem with this is that this innate morality is not enough to guarantee that they always access it and act upon it.
b) There is a difference between individuals and society. There can be moral individuals but we can’t guarantee that a whole society will be moral without laws.
c) It is clear from this piece from Rabbi Kook that even laws don’t always guarantee that people will act morally. Even in the mundane example of eating, when people see a clear consequence of getting a stomach ache from eating too much, does that stop them the next time? One might respond: If the natural law (i.e. consequence) is not even enough what good is religious law? And I would answer to this that without it we would be in a much worse state, as evidenced by history, as said blog writer discusses.