Good Atheists?
Published on: June 5, 2013
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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.

  • 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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