walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: June 5, 2013
Good Atheists?

On May 22, 2013,  Religion News Service reported on the morning homily delivered on that day by Pope Francis I. There has, understandably, been absorbing media interest in the new pontiff, from the fact that he continues to live in a guesthouse rather than in the splendid apartment available to him, to his having eschewed the traditional red papal slippers in favor of ordinary black shoes. With this has gone great attention to every word he utters and an exaggeration of the novelty of these utterances. In the aforementioned homily Francis said that goodness is not a matter of faith but an ”identity card” given, not just to Catholics,  but to all human beings who thereby may participate in the salvation brought by Christ. He explicitly mentioned atheists, implying that good atheists may also go to heaven.

I would like to make two points here: One, that it is a mistake to think that Francis was saying something very innovative here. And a more important point, about the relation of faith and morality.

The story about Francis’ friendly words about atheists was carried by various media, sometimes in contrast to the supposedly different views of his predecessor. This is a misunderstanding. The formula “extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“there is no salvation outside the church”) was coined by Cyprian of Carthage in the third century CE and has been Catholic doctrine ever since. But it has had widely different interpretations. There has indeed been the idea that only baptized Catholics can go to heaven (including the particularly repulsive notion that infants who die unbaptized are denied entrance to heaven but must spend eternity in a disagreeable “limbo”—a notion, by the way, explicitly denied by Benedict XVI). Some atheist spokesmen and other commentators have warmly greeted the homily as a significant breakthrough. The fact is that a much more liberal view of the range of salvation has been mainstream Catholic teaching for a long time, maintaining that the path to heaven is open to good non-Catholics who are “united to the soul of the church”. One may recall that in 1953 Leonard Feeney, a Jesuit attached to Boston College, was excommunicated for refusing to recant his position that only Catholics can go to heaven (an ironical case, I would think, of “being hoisted by one’s own petard”—the excommunicator excommunicated).

But I would like to address a wider point here than misunderstandings of religion in the media and public opinion—namely, about the relation between faith and morality. Conservative Christians (Protestant and Eastern Orthodox as well as Catholic) typically argue that the morality at the core of Western civilization, specifically the values of human rights and liberties, is dependent on the Judeo-Christian tradition. Secularization is then assumed to dismantle that tradition, thus bringing about a pervasive relativism and eventually destroying the moral consensus required for the survival of every society.

I think that this argument suffers from what logicians call the genetic fallacy—that is, the view that the validity of any definition of reality depends on the history of the definition. To be sure, the Christian religion, grounded in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, was a very important source of Western civilization. There were other sources—Greek thought and political practice, Roman law, possibly aspects of Germanic traditions, and, crucially, the enormous effects of the rationality of Renaissance and Enlightenment. A distinctive moral discourse resulted from the confluence of all these historical developments. But it is not necessary to keep retracing this history in order to participate in the moral discourse. Once the discourse is formed and available, it can be accessed and embraced by people from different directions, including people from different religious and cultural backgrounds.

Let me give a mundane example that has nothing to do with religion or culture: Some years ago, while in London, I was told of a bookstore in Bloomsbury that specialized in English-language books from India. I wanted the English translation of a recent novel originally published in an Indian language. I had difficulty finding the bookstore, and wandered around looking for it. Suddenly I came on the impressive old building of the British Museum (the one before it moved to its new quarters); I had not been there before. I then discovered that the book store I was looking for was virtually around the corner. Not long afterward I was with someone who wanted to see the old British Museum, with its reading room where Karl Marx labored to write his hugely misleading and hugely influential Das Kapital. I now knew where it was. I could go there directly, without retracing my journey in search of the bookstore.

The argument about the dependence of Western civilization on the Judeo-Christian tradition suffers from another fallacy—an overly intellectual and juridical conception of morality. To be sure, moral judgments can be intellectually deduced from a body of religious thought, and summarized in coherent rules that can be taught and internalized: Do this, don’t do that—such are the divine commandments. But it seems to me that moral judgments are typically based on experiences rather than theoretical reflections. Put differently, every morality presupposes a particular way of seeing. Conscience (the internalization of a morality) addresses us not so much in the imperative as in the indicative: Look at this—and you will then know what to do or not to do. In the story in the Book of Genesis of the primeval murder, Cain’s killing of his brother Abel, God confronted Cain. He did not rebuke Cain for having broken this or that commandment. Instead he said: “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground”. In other words: Look at this! And after that he cursed Cain.

I will illustrate this point by three examples—one each from literature, from the history of World War II, and from a very recent event.

In Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck is joined in his travels by Jim, a black man who turns out to be an escaped slave fleeing from a particularly cruel situation. Huck is a white son of the Old South. The rules, which he still believes in, tell him that he ought to return Jim to his owner. But, as they spend time with each other, Huck finds that he cannot do this. The story is a piece of fiction, so we cannot do research to find out what led Huck to this conclusion. We can only speculate. There is no mention of Huck having spoken with an abolitionist or having read an anti-slavery publication. What apparently happened is that he suddenly perceived Jim as a human being who should not be somebody’s property. It is relevant to point out that something like this perception changed attitudes (at least in the North) before the Civil War—not theoretical arguments or fiery sermons (though there were many of those), but the mediocre novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel told a story of cruelty and had a simple message: Look at this! This must not be!

The second illustration is a real story from World War II. Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who happened to be a consul in Kaunas, then the capital of Lithuania. In 1940 the consulate was besieged by Jewish refugees from Poland trying to escape the advancing German armies. Directly disobeying orders from his government, Sugihara issued thousands of visas allowing Jewish families to travel to Japan via the Soviet Union. Because of this action Sugihara’s career in the Japanese foreign service was ended and he faced great difficulties upon his return home.  Hillel Levine wrote a book about this episode (In Search of Sugihara, 1996). Levine estimated that Sugihara succeded in saving about 10,000 Jews (including families with children) from the Holocaust. Levine especially wanted to find out what could possibly have motivated Sugihara to act as he did, with great cost to himself. No obvious motives could be found – no dissident political or religious beliefs, no known previous contacts with Jews or Judaism. When asked about his motives in an interview with a journalist after the war, all that Sugihara could say was that these people were desperate and that he felt pity when he confronted them face to face. In other words, he saw them as human beings in great distress—and this perception led him to his rescue mission. It seems that we still don’t know what led to this perception in Sugihara’s biography.

I come to the third illustration with some reluctance, because I still find it horrifying to think about it. A couple of months ago I came across a photograph in a periodical. I found it intolerable to look at and after a few moments threw away the periodical, and oddly (or perhaps not so oddly) I cannot now recall which periodical it was. The photo accompanied a story of two young men who were hanged in Iran for having been in a homosexual relationship (a capital offence in the Islamic Republic). In the picture one of the young men was being led to the gallows by the hangman. The latter had an arm around the victim, who rested his head on the hangman’s shoulder. This must have been immediately before the execution. At first glance it looked as if the young man was seeking comfort from the hangman who was about to kill him. I only looked at this scene for a few moments, but some questions rapidly went through my mind: Was the young man really looking for comfort from the hangman? Did the hangman say anything? A promise that he would be quick about it? Or (revoltingly) telling the victim that he should repent and accept his just punishment? But the moral judgment in my mind was absolutely clear: This scene depicts an act of unspeakable  inhumanity, and the authorities that staged it are profoundly evil. One should add that the evil disclosed here is all the more obscene because done in the name of a faith whose sacred book begins every chapter with the sentence “In the name of God, the compassionate, who acts compassionately”. Look at what is being done here!

Back to religion and the moral core of Western civilization: Whatever the history, a distinctive way of seeing has now been established. It is a way of perceiving what every human being essentially is: someone of infinite worth. The fundamental perception is formulated in a lapidary sentence in the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany: “The dignity of man is inviolate” (“Die Wuerde des Menschen ist unantastbar”).  It is very unlikely that this sentence would be in the constitution of the restored German democracy had it not been formulated in the wake of the massive assaults on human dignity by the Nazis. Of course there are many, many questions to be addressed as this sentence is applied to practical life. But my point here is that, once the perception occurs, it implies universality. It is impossible to say, for instance, that slavery or torture are morally unacceptable in Europe or America, but are quite okay in other parts of the world. People of faith will place the core perception in a cosmic framework that ultimately validates it. The perception itself (vide Francis’ homily) is accessible to both Christians and atheists, as well as to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or the many people who are unsure where they stand in the face of the many religious traditions that are on offer in our pluralistic world.

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  • ljgude

    An excellent example of a highly moral and intelligent atheist would by Norm Geras of Normblog. He can make moral arguments with discrimination and force. Some atheists annoy me – like Richard Dawkins. Other’s like the late Christopher Hitchens don’t. He was filled with the holy spirit and often with fine spirits, but was never a witling. Norm Geras incidentally often takes Dawkins to task and defends all the good religion has done the human race.

    All that said as I read across the great traditions, noticing similarities and differences, I find it remarkable that the Tao te Ching, or the Gita or the Bible or the suttas are clear and comprehensible to me. God? I will have to wait until I cross over the wall, but I have lived long enough and walked down this road where so many others have passed that I no longer doubt that this indeed is the way.

  • Gary Novak

    Berger suggests that the compassionate acts of Sugihara and Huck Finn were inspired by their perception of distressed human beings. But Stalin surely perceived the peasants he starved as distressed human beings. Why did Sugihara’s and Huck’s perception include the dimension of inviolable dignity, while Stalin’s did not? Did
    Stalin fail to see something that is empirically available? Or does the perception of inviolable dignity presuppose something in the way of “spiritual insight”? Notice that I am side-stepping the issue of religious tradition. We may be able to
    get to the British Museum (morality) without retracing any historical pathway, but if morality is intrinsically “spiritual,” we cannot get there if our
    atheism prevents us from seeing human beings as anything more than products of conception. To argue (correctly) that people without religious training are, in fact, able to perceive human beings as inviolably dignified does not settle the issue, because phenomenological analysis may reveal that such non-traditional perceptions are nevertheless best understood as forms of religious experience. (At bottom, “humanism” may be a religious concept.)

    I am not suggesting that perceptions of inviolable human dignity MUST ultimately be seen as religious (because otherwise my precious theology would collapse) but that it is not difficult to interpret moral experience (whether described in first-person accounts as religious or atheist) as religious. Do atheists suffer an injustice if Catholics “unite them (involuntarily) to the soul of the church”? Do atheists suffer an injustice if theists respect their inviolable human dignity– as children of God? So, you don’t respect me for myself but only as a child of God! On the
    contrary, your true self IS a child of God!
    I—as opposed to someone who does not share my phenomenology of religion—can ONLY respect you for yourself—as a child of God!

    There is a line in Sartre’s play, “The Devil and the Good Lord,” where Goetz says to Hilda: “I tell you, God is dead. We have no witness now; I alone
    can see your hair and your brow. How REAL you have become since He no longer exists.” God, for Sartre, is an obstacle to perception of the real. Get rid of pre-conceived ideas and just see what is. Berger agrees with Sartre that religious dogma can function as such an obstacle. The important thing is to begin with perception. The difference, of course, is that Berger recognizes that “pure perception” is compatible with a sacramental view of the universe.

    It seems to me that Berger’s primary concern in discussing the issue of humanist morality is not to let executioners off the hook just because they do not subscribe to a religious morality (or do
    subscribe to an anti-human religious morality).
    Moral perception doesn’t require religion! I agree, but my primary concern is to argue that morality assumes a deeper and richer significance in a sacramental universe.

  • DavidT

    Prof. Berger: The British Library is in a new building, but the British Museum is not — however, the old Reading Room, where Marx wrote, has been converted to new purposes.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    One area of social life where perception is critical is panhandling by homeless persons. Many people perceive panhandling as harassment and intimidation. Much of it is an exercise right out of social psychologist Irving Goffman’s book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” or Peter Berger’s “The Social Construction of Reality.” To those whom panhandlers solicit the gnawing question is whether the panhandler is genuine or a pretender and whether giving them money actually is counterproductive to helping them (will they spend the money on alcohol and will it them from seeking work).

    I used to hang out at a sort of highbrow coffee house near the Caltech campus in Pasadena, California. There was one apparent homeless man who would solicit outside. Sometimes he would come inside and sit but not risk soliciting customers. He had a Chevy van that he owned and would park off the premises hoping no one would see his vehicle. I once observed him rubbing his bare arms with soil to appear disheveled. He had made friends with several upper middle class male customers but not with women.

    When a nonprofit organization set up a table in front of the coffee house to solicit donations using an apparent homeless person, women customers were observed to be more comfortable with making a contribution. Few customers were around at the end of a day when a well-dressed person in a brand new black Cadillac car came and picked up the money box and the apparently homeless person (who I assumed was paid on a per hour basis). These solicitation tables were scattered all over the city in front of where upscale people shopped or banked. Homelessness is a big non-profit business in California.

    However, if a homeless man was observed at what is called “dumpster diving” most women would feel too intimidated to offer money. But it is the homeless person who is desperate enough to abandon their dignity and put their head down deep into a trash bin to find a pop bottle they could redeem for a small coin. I have always been more prone to offering unsolicited money to the “dumpster divers” who risk losing their dignity than those who may or may not be feigning homelessness.

    The problem which Dr. Berger explores of morality and perception may be more clearcut with Jews facing death camps, slavery, or those led to the gallows. But for many homeless people encountered on the street there is an unavoidable perception of cognitive dissonance: what I am led to believe is the social definition of the situation may not be consistent with the underlying reality. To be moral in such ambiguous situations would require what Berger called “sociological Machiavellianism” in his book “Invitation to Sociology” (see Chapter 5 – Sociological Machiavellianism and Ethics). Berger: “Machiavellianism, whether political or sociological, is a way of looking.” Berger points out however that clearer sociological perception of a situation does not axiomatically lead to a higher degree of ethical sensitivity as much as a heightened sense of cynicism and sometimes even “bad faith.”

    A more difficult problem is using sociological perception of, say, the social fiction of homelessness to avoid responsibility. Should I not help because of the social fictitiousness of homelessness? Living in a society of Potemkin Villages presents difficult ethnical dilemmas. August Comte thought that sociology could produce an objective basis of morality. Certain religious codes and traditions believe the same. But as Berger reminds us, neither science nor religion can avoid the “indicative” situation: “what should I do?” Sociology, and even religion, can help look through the social fictions of homelessness, slavery, or capital punishment.

    As I was writing this comment my carpenter called me asking for work and explaining that by circumstance he was homeless due to his wife forcing him to leave his home. He was camping out in the wilderness and his truck was inoperable because the battery was dead. Applying Berger’s indicative perception: man was not made to live as an animal in the forest. The situation of genuine homelessness violates human dignity. My carpenter is now living in a spare bedroom in my home and went back to work today for the first time in months. He will have the money to get his truck running again next week. I am not sure I would have extended such hospitality to others whose genuineness is suspect. But even clearcut perceptions of what to do can arise out of the social fictitiousness of homelessness. Berger: “sociology uncovers the infinite precariousness of all socially assigned identities.” Accurate perception – or “discernment” – is not necessarily antithetical to religion. In the Christian tradition there is always the perception “be wise as a serpent but innocent as a dove.”

  • Gary Novak

    I am pleased to see that Mr. Lusvardi is not dissuaded from reporting his observation that women are more likely than men to contribute to a fraudulent “homeless” person and less likely
    to contribute to a deserving dumpster diver—even though, of course, his political incorrectness might invite a feminist charge of sexism. But while I would agree that many people are concerned with the gnawing question of the true status of the panhandler and the actual consequences of giving, I would note that Goffman, himself, has
    little use for the distinction between the social definition of the situation and the “underlying reality.” Consider this passage from “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life”:

    “While we could retain the common-sense notion that fostered appearances can be discredited by a
    discrepant reality, there is often no reason for claiming that the facts discrepant with the fostered impression are any more the real reality than is
    the fostered reality they embarrass. . . . For many sociological issues it may not even be necessary to decide which is the more real, the fostered impression or the one the performer attempts to prevent the audience from receiving” (p. 65).

    Every backstage with respect to one audience is a frontstage with respect to another. The Cadillac driver who picks up the fraudulent homeless person at the end of the day does not see the reality; he simply gets a different performance.
    Berger captures the spirit of this Goffmanian dramaturgy in “Invitation to Sociology” when he writes: “Still speaking sociologically, then, if one
    wants to ask who an individual ‘really’ is in this kaleidoscope of roles and identities, one can answer only by enumerating the situations in which he is one thing and those in which he is another” (p. 106). But Berger reminds his reader SIX TIMES in the course of his short exposition of this position that he is “speaking sociologically.” The implicit corollary is that there are other ways of speaking. In particular, one might discover that, religiously speaking, there is a true self.

    But many people (male or female) are
    comfortable to speak sociologically. And
    they give to fraudulent panhandlers not because they are gullible but because what matters to them is not making the world a better place (whatever that means—more wine for the alcoholic panhandler?—a higher minimum wage for an unemployed underclass?) but being seen to make the world a better place. In other words, there is a symbiotic relation between the phony panhandler and the phony contributor. (Of course, “phony” loses its meaning in an exclusively dramaturgical universe.) Mr. Lusvardi is concerned about the actual consequences of his contemplated
    generosity and retains the “common-sense” distinction between appearance and reality that Goffman seeks to discredit. Common sense can be naiveté (a view shared by many intellectuals), but it can also be phenomenologically-valid lived experience of the life world (the view invoked by Berger in his protests against barbarism).

    Some of us are old enough to remember the Watergate hearings. Recall White House counsel John Dean trying to explain why he took money from a White House safe to pay for his honeymoon in Florida. “Don’t you have credit cards?” he was asked. “Yes, but I don’t like to live on credit,” he boasted. The room erupted in
    laughter. He was ashamed not because he
    had no way to justify his preference for illegal over legal borrowing but because he could not use it. He wanted to say, “Look, I planned to replace the stolen money before it was noticed, and, in that case, the theft would never have happened, sociologically speaking.”

    But, as Lusvardi says, Berger’s concerns in this post come out more clearly in the context of death camps, slavery, and executions than in the context of panhandler con games. An execution is not a presentation of self; it is an obliteration of a self.

  • Michelle

    Dear Sir:
    My impression from reading the Catholic press, which was indignant at the interpretation being placed on the Pope’s words, is that what Pope Francis actually said was not that we are all saved but that we are all redeemed, between which there is a fairly profound difference. I believe it is in the Gospel of John that Jesus himself tells everyone that only through himself is salvation possible. I’m not familiar with Cyprian, but I’m guessing he was making the claim that the Catholic Church was the only genuine reflection of Jesus’s message.
    We don’t know what God intends for those who don’t believe in his existence, although I am persuaded that he doesn’t just throw them away. I think Francis was only telling us that one place where the believer and the atheist can meet in perfect agreement is in a life of service.

  • Denton Salle

    I think several of the commentators and the author confuse the question. The first is can an atheist be a good person and can he be saved even if he dies as one? I think the Church has always answered that yes: C. S. Lewis did a nice job with that in the Last Battle. The question of whether a society can maintain a moral viewpoint without a basis in faith is difference and that one must be answered no based on what history we have.

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