On the virtues of atheism

Excellent op-ed piece in today’s NYT by Slavoj Zizek entitled Defenders of the Faith. His thesis is that for Muslims living in the west, the freedom to practice their beliefs comes from liberal, secular values. Money quote:

More than a century ago, in “The Brothers Karamazov” and other works, Dostoyevsky warned against the dangers of godless moral nihilism, arguing in essence that if God doesn’t exist, then everything is permitted. The French philosopher Andre Glucksmann even applied Dostoyevsky’s critique of godless nihilism to 9/11, as the title of his book, “Dostoyevsky in Manhattan,” suggests.
This argument couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if God exists, then everything, including blowing up thousands of innocent bystanders, is permitted – at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations.

Exactly. This runs straight into what’s called The Divine Command Theory of morality. But as Zizek argues, Hume got it right:

Fundamentalists do what they perceive as good deeds in order to fulfill God’s will and to earn salvation; atheists do them simply because it is the right thing to do. Is this also not our most elementary experience of morality? When I do a good deed, I do so not with an eye toward gaining God’s favor; I do it because if I did not, I could not look at myself in the mirror. A moral deed is by definition its own reward. David Hume, a believer, made this point in a very poignant way, when he wrote that the only way to show true respect for God is to act morally while ignoring God’s existence.

And as he concludes,

The paradox is that Muslims’ only real allies are not those who first published the caricatures for shock value, but those who, in support of the ideal of freedom of expression, reprinted them.