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Why Are We Good?

How an Atheist and a Believer Answer

May 23, 2010

Why do we feel wrenching compassion when we see an orphaned child weeping, or an old widow in lonely despair, or an animal whimpering in pain? What gives us the powerful urge to send an anonymous gift of money or clothes to tsunami victims on the other side of the world whom we'll never meet and who are highly unlikely to return the favor?

With these powerful questions, Richard Dawkins begin his chapter entitled "The Roots of Morality—Why Are We Good."

Dawkins is an atheist. And a self-proclaimed proud one. He is very vocal about his "deeply religious non-belief" and longs for others to follow his example.

His book, The God Delusion, surprisingly sold 2 million copies. Surprising because, though he claims religion is illogical and dogmatic, his book dogmatically pokes fun at religion and belief in G‑d by ascribing to it numerous epithets and insulting adjectives with what could only be termed "religious" zealotry. In his rant, he also cites some of the stupidest acts committed by religious people, thereby merely proving that intellectual acuity, or a lack thereof, is not reserved to atheists.

There are many qualified scientists who systematically prove the many holes in the theory of evolution. This article is not about those scientific proofs.

What caught my interest is how Dawkins dealt with the question of morality. At the outset, Dawkins admits that "the Darwinian idea that evolution is driven by natural selection seems ill-suited to explain such goodness as we possess, or our feelings of morality, decency, empathy and pity."

This got me nodding in agreement. When our world is merely a matter of random acts of "natural selection" without any Designer or apparent purpose or direction, and creations are simply individual organisms fighting for their survival, what should cause us to selflessly pursue acts of goodness or morality, at the expense of our own personal needs or pleasures?

Dawkins answers this by explaining that there are four motivators for "altruistic behavior" (his term) in a Darwinian, evolutionary society:

1) Kinship: Acts of altruism would be programmed towards one's genetic kin—such as one's children—in order to increase the pool of one's own genes.

2) Reciprocal altruism or symbiosis: In simple words, "you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours." An act of kindness may be performed in order to demand reciprocation for it at a later date.

3) Reputation of goodness: A generous act may be performed in order to foster a calculated and advantageous reputation of goodness that will benefit the individual at a later date.

4) Advertisement of dominance or superiority: Altruistic giving may be an advertisement of dominance or superiority. Only a genuinely superior individual can afford to advertise the fact through a costly gift.

Dawkins goes on to explain that even if some of these original motivators no longer apply in today's society, they may have become part of our evolved self to the point that these acts are now common.

He writes: "Could it be that our Good Samaritan urges are misfirings, analogous to the misfiring of a reed warbler's parental instincts when it works itself to the bone for a young cuckoo?

"In ancestral times, we had the opportunity to be altruistic only towards close kin and potential reciprocators. Nowadays that restriction is no longer there but the rule of thumb persists…We can no more help ourselves feeling pity when we see a weeping unfortunate (who is unrelated and unable to reciprocate)."

To Dawkins and Darwinians, kindness, generosity, empathy or acts of altruism are simply evolved, self-serving reactions. Anything more is, as he puts it, "misfirings, Darwinian mistakes," which he nevertheless acknowledges are "blessed, precious mistakes."

Altruism is merely a calculated manipulation geared towards self-aggrandizement, or smart investments that will lead to interest-laden results. In the best case scenario in a Darwinian-Dawkins society, any act of goodness beyond these parameters is simply a "misfired mistake," perhaps blessed, but nevertheless a mistake!

To a believer, on the other hand, our time in this world is not accidental, nor is it a random happening of natural selection based on the survival of the fittest. It is rather a benevolent gift bequeathed to us from our Creator entrusting us with the incredible opportunity, and responsibility, to use our time productively by transforming our world into a more G‑dly and goodly place.

To a believer, a fellow human being is not simply a random pool of organisms from whom we can milk the greatest reciprocation or whom we can manipulate or dominate for our own self-interests. Fellow human beings are creations of G‑d with their own G‑dly mission that they alone can uniquely accomplish.

The believer looks into the eyes of his child and does not see a mere random act of copulation, or someone to whom to demonstrate kinship as a means of increasing his own gene pool. He sees instead a precious and miraculous gift of life that has been entrusted to his care, to teach and inspire, to love and cherish.

So, where an atheist sees natural selection of the strongest or fittest, a believer sees a design and Designer.

While the atheist sees randomness and purposelessness, a believer sees a world with meaning and direction.

While an atheist sees altruism as an evolutionary "misfiring," a believer sees his moral conscience as the guidance of his G‑dly soul.

The question of "why be good" is answered very differently by the atheist and the believer. In fact, morality and altruism, goodness and kindness acquire entirely different worlds of meaning.

Because where an atheist views creation as an evolved pool of genes, the believer sees every part of creation – from the blade of grass to his fellow human being – as a spark of the Divine.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Making Our Days Count

May 16, 2010

How quickly can you recall – with some specificity – what you did yesterday? Sure, you can probably do it, but how long will it take you?

How about last Wednesday?

If you're like me, you spend a lot of energy responding to responsibilities of the moment, while stressing (at least a bit) about things yet to come. This makes most of life in the rear-view mirror meld into a blur, one hour virtually indistinguishable from another, one day running into the next.

Yes, we're managing, but life should be about more than staying afloat. Humdrum, unspectacular hours just fade into the past.

What to do?

Chassidic thought encourages us to pro-actively take charge of our time and imbue each hour with meaning, making sure that our days really count.

So let's make our time remarkable.

Chassidic though suggests an attitude called "counting hours."

Think of your next hour as a vessel waiting to be filled. It's neutral time, and you get to choose how it will be used.

If you make this hour's character special, the hour will become significant; it'll live on.

It's possible for a day or hour's special events to make it an outstanding slice of time, a time too distinct to just blend in to life's blur.

But it's about more than memory.

After all, what if you learned an important life-lesson years ago, yet can't remember the hour and day during which you learned the lesson? Does that really matter? Doesn't that day live on with you, since its content echoes into your present life?

If my days are meaningfully spent, I'll know it. Life will feel full, and it won't matter whether I can remember exactly what I did at noon last Tuesday.

If you consciously recognize this next hour as an hour during which you are fulfilling G‑d's intent in your creation - whether you spend it working to provide for your family or reading something inspiring on Chabad.org - you have done something remarkable. You have proactively chosen to make this hour a vehicle for purposeful living; you will have aligned your life with G‑d's intent in creating you.

While it may not be apparent to the onlooker, you've filled your hour with Eternal Meaning.

Can time be any better spent?

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.


May 9, 2010


I used to think it was a "bad" word. A real cop-out.

Surrender to destiny or fate? Never! We need to mold and change our circumstances, to strenuously exert ourselves to overcome challenges! Not accept them!

After all, are we not what we choose to be? Don't we have control over ourselves, our lives and our choices? Can't we will to be what we want to be?

Well, yes and no.

One of the most basic human convictions is that we make choices that decide our actions and influence our fate. Having the confidence to forge ahead and overcome any obstacles is crucial in order to actualize our emotional, spiritual and intellectual aspirations.

But then there is also the ability to acknowledge that "my" goal may not be what is ultimately meant for me.

As much as I will myself to become an opera soprano, microbiologist or a shrewd business investor—or even just a perpetually giving person – there comes a point when, as hard as I try, as strenuously as I train, and as much as I study, it simply won't happen. There are things within my control, within my abilities, but a soprano voice just isn't one of them.

Or try as I might to change my spouse (or boss or strong-willed toddler), he'll just never be the neat, orderly and punctual individual I aim for him to be (same for generous-with-a-raise boss, or obedient two-year-old).

There comes a point when I've got to accept that "it is what it is" and "I am what I am."

Is this a defeatist attitude that allows us to be satisfied with mediocrity and encourages lazy acceptance?

I don't think so.

Persevering against one's challenges and fighting against one's inborn limitations encourages our growth and is expected of each of us. Not doing so makes us guilty that we've wasted our innate, G‑d-given potential. We don't need to aim for perfection, but we do need to continue our journey of growth, one step at a time.

But, at the same time, surrendering to our destiny – even if it might be very different than the one we would have chosen for ourselves – is accepting that, despite our limited perspective, there is a design to our world and a Designer who is running it.

To forge ahead and create change takes courage.

To surrender to our destiny takes humility.

And it takes wisdom to determine which of the two is the right choice.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.

Why Does a Scientist Tell the Truth?

May 2, 2010

"I don't think Frankl fell short of providing a path toward meaning. I think that is somewhat a desecration of his message. He wrote a book of psychology, which is naturally a humanistic and subjective field, not an ethics or biblical commentary," a friend told me after reading my last blog critiquing logotherapy, Frankl's psychotherapeutic method of finding meaning.

She continued, "It would be unethical for a therapist to impose values… The nature of humanity is to be subjective and thankfully so. A universal code of morality cannot and should not exist!"

My friend made an interesting point, and she is in good company.

Establishing value judgments has been viewed by many psychologists and scientists as an offensive departure from the scientific method, to be shunned at all cost.

According to Thomas Harris, author of the best-selling I'm OK, You're OK, "Some of these people steadfastly insist that scientific inquiry cannot be applied to this field. 'That is a value judgment; therefore, we cannot examine it.' 'That is in the field of beliefs; therefore we cannot assemble plausible data.'"

Can—or should—values and scientific enquiry ever mix? Can the objective criteria of scientific thought and investigation be subjected to a system of values, beliefs or morals which are seemingly subjective?

Harris, whose book sold over 15 million copies and according to the Los Angeles Times "helped millions find the freedom to change" argues it can and must.

"What they [people who feel science and values don't mix] overlook is the fact that the scientific method is totally dependent on a moral value—the trustworthiness of the reporters of scientific observation… Why does a scientist tell the truth? Because he can prove in a laboratory that he should?"

Harris quotes Nathaniel Branden, another prominent member of the psychological community, who charges that psychiatrists and psychologists bear a grave moral responsibility if they declare that "philosophical and moral issues do not concern them, that science cannot pronounce moral judgments." Those that "shrug off their professional obligations with the assertion that a rational code of morality is impossible, by their silence, lend the sanction to spiritual murder." (Italics mine.)

For what motivates a psychologist or scientist to do research to make our world a better place? Isn’t he prompted by the conviction, strictly indemonstrable to science, that the universe has a direction?

How can a therapist hope to help his patient deal with his inner conflicts without believing in a human being's innate abilities? Frankl notes: "If we are to bring out the human potential at its best, we must first believe in its existence and presence. And in spite of our belief in the potential humanness of man, we must not close our eyes to the fact that humane humans are and probably will always remain a minority. But it is precisely for this reason that each of us is challenged to join the minority."

In fact, at the root of the existential movement is the belief that man has free choice to become responsible for his actions. In analyzing the existentialists' contribution to therapy, Rollo May writes: "Man is the being who can be conscious of, and therefore responsible for, his existence. It is the ability to become aware of his own being which distinguishes the human being from other beings. Binswanger speaks of 'Dasein choosing' this or that, meaning 'the person-who-is-responsible for his existence choosing…

"(Medard) Boss points out that a person feels guilt because 'he has locked up some essential potentialities in himself. Therefore he has guilt feelings. If you lock up potentialities you are guilty against what is given you in your origin, in your core.'"

Aren't these underlying principles of therapy value judgments? These statements affirm quite unscientifically that every being has a core value and essential potentialities that, if not used, the individual is guilty of abusing. And that man is distinguished among all other creations in his awareness of his responsibility towards himself and the world.

If these weren't members of the scientific community, many of these claims would almost sound like they originate from religious moralists.

Even Sigmund Freud, considered by many to be the demolisher of religious icons, made an unusually religious statement. When asked to summarize psychoanalytic theory in one sentence, he answered in seven words: where id was, there ego shall be. That is, psychoanalysis tries to explain the process where we can (or cannot) substitute choice for impulse.

If we were to summarize the moral thrust of the Torah, it would come out remarkably similar—don't do what you feel like doing; do what G‑d wants you to do.

So, can value judgments and scientific enquiry be compatible?

Perhaps a more basic question is: how can science be effective without morals and value judgments at its foundation?

But then the real dilemma, which becomes ever so complex, is how to define what these morals should be.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
Often we need a break from our daily routine. A pause from life to help us appreciate life.

A little pat on the back to let us know when we're on track. A word of encouragement to help us through those bleak moments and difficult days.

Sometimes, we just yearn for some friendship and camaraderie, someone to share our heart with. And sometimes we need a little direction from someone who's been there.

So, take a short pause from the busyness of your day and join Chana Weisberg for a cup of coffee.

Chana Weisberg is the editor of TheJewishWoman.org. She lectures internationally on issues relating to women, relationships, meaning, self-esteem and the Jewish soul. She is the author of six books. Her latest book, Shabbat Delights, is a two-volume series on the weekly Torah portion.
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