Letters to The Ethical Spectacle

I was cleaning my ambulance stretcher last night when a security guard, an older Carribean man, came out of the hospital and asked: "To do your job, do you have to be cold as an iceberg?"

I replied: "To do this job, you have to go down the middle. If you are too cold, you will lack any compassion for your patients and will be unable to take care of them effectively. However, if you live or die with every patient, you won't be able to go on either. The people who are too sensitive drop out early, and those who stay are the ones who can handle it."

I have seen a couple of people die despite our best efforts. People who are stabbed in the throat or heart will bleed out in the ambulance. You always wonder if you could have done something more. But then you also go back to work the next morning.

Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Mr. Wallace, the Ethical Spectacle has been thoughtful, provocative, intelligent, and enjoyable on all fronts -- God, politics, ethics, science. Your writings on the Holocaust, 9/11, and God have been, for me, among the most insightful texts I have read. Keep on writing and looking at the world with a clear and moral eye.

David Song

Mail like this keeps me going every time I think about winding down the Spectacle....

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Just a note to let you know I read your account of the morning of 9-11 five years ago. I am so very glad you went looking for what was going on in the first place and decided to get out. God Bless you and all your loved ones and friends and all of New York.

Mary Baker

Dear Mr. Wallace:

Regarding your 1995 essay,Morality without God, I believe you misrepresented your thoughts:

"Saying that without God, not everything is permitted, is not the same as..."

The classic stance is if No God -> Everything is permitted. I think, and correct me if I'm wrong, that you meant to say "Saying that without God, everything is permitted, is not the same as... "

Please do correct me if Im wrong, as I might be misinterpreting this essay. Which I would very like to interpret more properly.



Aaargh. I think the opening paragraph is one of the murkiest I ever wrote. However, at this late date, I think I intended the double negative. Something like, "Without God, NOT everything is permitted. However, this is NOT the same as saying that our complex, highly elucidated moral systems are possible without God. Let's test the latter assertion...."

In those days, I had the habit of writing a series of linked essays, and the confusing first para refers back to the prior essay.

Note the navigation buttons at the bottom of the page which allow you to move through the related essays in the same issue.


I encountered your essay What I Learned From Auschwitz when someone posted a link to it in the Usenet group alt.atheism. After reading, I thought it worth making comment on something you said. Normally, as an atheist, I try and dissuade people from believing in god-myths, but my point actually encourages belief in light of your statement that there is no god.

You said in the item:

Although there are only two possibilities, there is a third approach to retaining belief in God: shut up and stop asking questions. Interestingly, this is the message not of God but the devil to the knight in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Probably, the majority of those who believe in a Jewish or Christian God today-- at least I hope it is the majority--simply do not confront God with the question of how He could let Auschwitz happen. But this approach is not acceptable to those who believe that there is no area off-limits to human questioning.

Similar to your "third approach" is what I call the "poker god". Life is a game of "five card stud": you take the hand you're dealt and play it the best you can, and "god" judges you by it after death. There is no intervention, prayer and wishful thinking will not change what we have; we are instead left to our own devices. Some are dealt two pair and play it like a full house, others are dealt a four-of-a-kind and fold.

There is at least a sense of fairness and an absense of vindictiveness or special treatment to explain why things happen to people. Those you mentioned in Auschwitz who hurt others to ensure their own survival would be failures and would "burn in hell", if one believes such things; Art Speigelman's father would be a success and "go to heaven". In less extreme circumstances, an athlete who throws away his career on drugs would be a failure, while Stephen J. Hawking, with his brilliant mind and work in a failing body, would be a success.

Again, I don't lend any credence to mythical fables, but at least a "poker god" is palatable and reasonable (provided it retains a level of altruism, not an "I got mine, so screw you" mentality) because it suggests a life's effort is more important than belief, innate ability, or toadyism.

Bob Dog

Thanks for your thought-provoking mail, one of the most interesting I have received in response to anything I ever wrote about God. I love the idea of a poker God. Sounds like a fit subject for an existentialist-punk-country song: "If you can't deal the hand you play, play the hand you're dealt...."

Dear Mr. Wallace:

The recent statement made by Representative Katherine Harris once again stirs the debate about the separation of church and state.

The First Amendment of the Constitution states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

The government of the United States is prohibited from recognizing any particular religion as the official religion of the country. This extends to any land or property owned by the government. Examples range from city hall to the White House, the vast wilderness to public parks, and pre-schools to universities. Therefore, if anyone wanted to erect a symbol of their particular religion on public land or property, provisions would have to be made to accommodate all the other religions as well. Consequently, in respecting the fact that all religions are equally affected by this prohibition, no one religion is recognized with favoritism nor is any religion restricted in its practice. We simply agree as United States citizens that in order for our religious differences to be accommodated, there must be some form of neutrality when it comes to public land and property.

The government is also prohibited from restricting the exercise of an individual's or group's religion. This too extends to any land or property owned by private individuals and groups. Examples include churches, synagogues, and mosques and any schools that are privately owned as well. So too, if anyone wanted to erect a symbol on private property, they would have to seek permission from the owners.

The separation of church and state was established by the founding fathers to prevent any one religion from influencing the state against other religions. It was a compromise of facilitation not a compromise of principle. So too, we must always guard against those who try to influence public morality with their own private beliefs. The problem with society today is that there is no respect for public ethics and morals. The main objective of capitalism has been corrupted into an ethos of materialism. The resulting hedonistic philosophy of "I, my and me" is what is ruining this country not the restriction of religion in public places. We need to bring back the study of philosophy in our schools and begin a new nurturing of spirituality in our religions. Otherwise the seeds of destruction for our social experiment will have finally come to fruition.



I am a long-time admirer of the Ethical Spectacle. I have been reading essays off and on for over 5 years now. I came across an interesting video series online in which I think you might find very interesting.

If you find the time, it would be interesting to hear your views on the ideas raised in the video:


Cheers from Toronto,


Dear Mr. Wallace:

I've been researching my family tree for over ten years my great grandfather immigrated to the us from germany around 1890. He spelling of his surname has changed several times it ended up being rickamer- I've found over 200 ways to spell it. My grandfather told me that his family stoped speaking their native language of german even in their home. I found your Auschwitz Alphabet site through jewishgen.org wich led me to missingidentity.net out of all of their links I ended up at your site. I was fortunate enough to travel to germany, austria and the czech republic in '95. The last stop on our tour was Munic, our chaperones changed our itenery and the group spent the afternoon in the city. I comendered a chaperone, and we found our way to Dauchau. It was hard for me to grasp the enormity, while I was there I was overwhemled with a feeling that i can describe as consuming, insasable, desperation- it was sufforcating. I was amazed when we were shown shindlers list my junior year of highschool- My classmates made jokes and were talking and srewing around so loudly that I couldn't hear I stood up and told them to shut their mouths or leave- I recall hearing comments that the holocaust was propaganda and It didn't happen. I don't understand why or how people choose those beliefs.

How can the US government and the department of education continute to teach a cirriculm that was constructed by individuals who were wearing blinders. You can pick up any history book in any school. I know how much I was taught about the founding of this country, the slaughter, of american indians. Our founding fathers, and the great men who built this country did so by murder, I was taught much much more about the Terrible Nazi's.

the news tells us that sadam husane might as well be the devil incarnate- We stood still and did nothing while he gased many people to death- How is that so different that the US giving blankets infected with smallpocks. my 16 year old neice knows hitler used gas to kill Jews but she didn't know that prior to WWII we were admistering gas to end the lives of criminals sentanced to death.

I thank you for the understanding and insight i gained from reading your work. It leaves me with a lot to contimplate. As to your consideration about adding The Third path- I do not know how you will be able to achieve this- I do know that If you construct it in a way that it is used to teach- but if you do I think that it will be a valuable way to teach future generations. The horror that is portrayed in todays video games and movies is vewed by too many people that do not realize the real horror that our parents, grand parents some how survived. people have the ability to watch war in real time. I couldn't believe that I was watching the gulf war I believe that it is totaly irresponsible to show this images to society-

I thank you, and I apologise for rambling on- I appreciate you.

Sharlene Marie