A Rabbi and an Atheist Talk Good and Evil


Ever wondered what an atheist and a rabbi would have in common in a discussion of morality? On Saturday, as part of the 92nd Street Y’s Seven Days of Genius series , we found out – as it turns out, they agree on a lot. Michael Shermer, science writer and publisher of Skeptic magazine, discussed his new book, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom with Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman, founder of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that aims to bridge the gap between scientifically grounded views and spiritual belief.

The two men engaged in a nuanced discussion about the nature of good and evil, what makes an “evil genius” like Hitler turn to genocide, and how society can encourage people toward moral behavior in daily life. Here are some edited highlights:

On how we can change discriminatory beliefs:
There’s one part of your book that I strongly disagree with. You talk about anti-Semitism, but I believe this can play out not just for anti-Semitism but for a lot of beliefs that are harmful and can be destructive. You say, “The ultimate cause of anti-Semitism was, and remains, an utterly mistaken set of beliefs about Jews. Thus the long-term solution to anti-Semitism is a better understanding of reality.” So the challenge that I have is the belief that fact can change people’s minds when there is that much hatred or strongly held belief.

Shermer: Let’s look at what I call the witch theory of causality: If you believe that women cavorting with demons at night caused crop failures and plagues, you’re either insane or you live 500 years ago when pretty much everyone believed that. What happened? No one believes that anymore. Yes, there are group hatreds. But the arguments are grounded in the idea that the reason we don’t like them is because they caused certain problems. So if you show them that they’re wrong, it’s true that they’re not going to change their mind. But in the long run, it does happen. It’s happened so many times in terms of how we think about women as witches, or different races as inferior, and changing people’s thinking about that. You can debunk these ideas. Once it’s debunked, maybe it takes a generation or so, or three sometimes, before people stop thinking these thoughts — and then it never enters people’s minds … Mostly.

On the upside of certain psychopathic tendencies:
There’s a concept in Judaism called the Yetzer Hara. It’s translated as an “impulse for evil,” but it’s really an impulse for power or selfishness. It’s usually viewed very negatively, but there’s a text that says without the Yetzer Hara, no one would start a business or a family, and there would be no drive to move forward. In limited doses, it’s very necessary.

Shermer: There are people who do research with this on psychopathy – apparently a lot of Wall Street firms are run by psychopaths. But they’ve channeled those aspects of psychopathy that are good; they’re willing to take risks and start new things, and that takes a certain amount of tough-mindedness.

I reject the idea that there are people that are evil in the world – there might be people with brain tumors or psychopaths whose neurochemistry we don’t really understand. There are neuroscientists that now scan the brain of serial killers. Adrian Raine is one of these guys — his book The Anatomy of Violence chronicles his experiences studying these guys on death row. What he finds is that their pre-frontal cortex is basically shut down, so they have very little self-control. “Good” or “evil” is too black and white. So how do we deal with these people? In a way, we just really don’t understand. If we can understand the wiring and the chemistry, we can do something about it.

On whether belief in God increases moral behavior:
No. There’s no data that shows that atheists are less moral than theists. For you personally, maybe believing in God does make you more moral — but collectively, no, there’s no difference. Gregory Paul did interesting research where he took the 20 top Western, industrialized democracies and ranked them first by their religiosity, and then he took all these other societal health measures — rates of abortion, rates of teen pregnancy, rates of STDs, rates of suicide, rates of homicide, and like a dozen of those kinds of things.

Amazingly, the United States is the most religious nation of the top. And we’re the highest on all of those measures of societal ill health. To be fair, each of those has their own set of causes. But the idea is, if religion is a prophylactic against sinful behavior, how come it’s not working here very well?

Mitelman: I think it’s pretty clear that religion and morality aren’t necessarily linked. I don’t think God is telling me to act morally, but when I do act morally, I feel like I am bringing a little bit more of God into the world. I don’t believe that God heals — I believe that medicine heals. But I think that we find God in the healing process. I would flip the question: It’s not, “Does a belief in God lead to morality?” but “Can morality lead to a better sense of holiness and divinity and sanctity in the world?”