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Intelligence + Religiosity = Danger

[This is one of those pieces I had promised to post back on May 10th. It is now x-posted in my journal and in the atheism community.]
Paul E. Grabill is a local pastor who is intelligent enough to create very clever arguments but not intelligent enough to discern myth from reality. Consequently, he writes engaging, creative articles promoting his religious views. I sometimes wonder if he isn't too intelligent for his own congregation, who generally think more simply.

On April 16th he wrote a clergy column article for the local paper in which he accused atheists of hypocrisy. The article is provocative and surprising because normally the brush of hypocrisy is used to tar theists rather than atheists. Below the cut is his article, followed by my letter to the editor reply.

Centre Daily Times (State College, PA)
April 16, 2005
Page: 3C



Hypocrisy makes the world go round.Think about this with me. There is a huge upside to hypocrisy.

Oh, I know, usually the word "hypocrisy" is used as an epithet in politics and religion. Many people say they are not serving God because of hypocrites, which I suppose means that if they are standing between us and God, then hypocrites are closer to him than we are.
On the one hand, God knows there are far too many people who are not living up to the standards that they have affirmed in some way or other. Cases such as Congressmen Bob Barr, R-Georgia, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich attacking former President Bill Clinton's personal morality brought understandable consternation to the president's defenders.

But on the other hand, maybe it's better that someone is living up to 70 percent of a high standard rather than living at 100 percent of no standard at all.

Besides, when people truly understand that a church is a hospital rather than a museum, then there is no shame in admitting that one hasn't attained the degree of spiritual health that they truly desire. They attend worship, not to show off, but to gain strength for the journey.

But that's not the kind of hypocrisy for which I am thankful.

The kind that makes the world go round is the hypocrisy of those who have no creed, but live as if they do. Intellectually, they agree with Nietzschean nihilism, but they live like saints.

These are the folks who say that we are just another kind of mammal, that there is no purpose in the universe, that we only exist as a result of chance, that there are no inherent limits to sexual freedom. Yet fortunately for all of us, they refuse to live lives consistent with their worldviews.

They treat people with respect. They are faithful to their spouses. They are honest in their business dealings. Indeed, their lives are more consistent with Augustine's "City of God" than Golding's "Lord of the Flies."

Oh, I know, there are many who will cite Kai Nielsen's deeply flawed classic, "Ethics Without God," saying that one does not have to believe in God to be moral.

That's absolutely true, but to assert that there is a transcendent standard of morality or justice without God is intellectually vacuous. There is no "ought" in the universe without God.

Not too long ago, I had the privilege of being a guest lecturer in a Penn State philosophy class. When making this point, I was challenged by an obviously bright student who had bought into the ethics of utilitarianism.

He said, "Are you saying that human beings cannot construct a moral system to guide society?"

I said, "Of course they can, but if two large groups of people come up with two different systems, there is no way of judging which is better without a transcendent, God-revealed standard."

I then went on to say that our public school system tells students on the one hand that they are just animals, but on the other hand that they "must" respect each other. This is intellectually incoherent, and raises the natural questions "Why?" and "Who says so?"

Much more could be said here, but I'm pondering a bumper sticker: "Thank God for Hypocrites. The World is Better for Them."

Then again, maybe not.

The Rev. Paul E. Grabill is the lead pastor at State College Assembly of God. He can be reached at pgrabill@aol.com.

Copyright (c) 2005 Centre Daily Times

My reply appeared in the April 28th issue of the CDT. Interestingly, when the paper did its minor copyediting on my letter, they insisted on inserting "the Rev." in front of the first instance in which I referred to Grabill. I purposely did not want to dignify him with that title, as I hardly revere the man. The newspaper also apparently has a penchant for one-sentence paragraphs, as they parsed several of my relatively short paragraphs into smaller pieces. Here is the response.

Nothing Hypocritical About It

Hallelujah, a religious person recognizes that treating other human beings decently does not require believing in the supernatural.

Oddly, though, the Rev. Paul Grabill, in his April 16 clergy column, used the term "hypocrite" to describe those of us who hold a naturalistic world view while practicing benevolence, civility, compassion, generosity, kindness, and respect. He claims that these practices are inconsistent with the view that we are "just another mammal that evolved by chance in a purposeless universe."

But naturalism describes without prescribing, so it contains no moral prescriptions with which to be inconsistent.

Grabill argued that it is intellectually incoherent to tell students that they are just animals but that they must respect each other.

As disbelievers in transcendent, absolute goods, bona fide naturalists would never tell anyone that they "must" or "ought" to do anything, except in the sense of utilitarian, cause-effect necessities that Grabill summarily dismissed.

Because we are the kind of animals that are more likely to give respect when we receive it, it is perfectly coherent to say, "If you want others to be nice to you, then you ought to be nice to them.”

Furthermore, our moral behavior is motivated by evolved moral sentiments and only rationalized after the fact by intellectual philosophies.

We refrain from hurting people when the thought feels abhorrent, not because nonviolence is a transcendent principle or some logical derivative thereof.

We--­both the religious and nonreligious--­are complex creatures who possess both selfish and prosocial impulses. Some call that hypocrisy; I call it human nature.

John A. Johnson
Ferguson Township


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 9th, 2005 08:12 pm (UTC)
I maintain a reputation for honesty.

Indeed! The importance of reputation throughout human history cannot be underestimated. Reputation determines who prospers and succeeds and who falls by the wayside.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )