Tuesday, December 19, 2006

The Episcopalian Schism

The Episcopalian Church, it seems, is suffering from some dissention in its ranks. Some rank-and-file members cannot accept the fact that some higher officials are tolerant of homosexual unions and the promotion of women (gasp!) to leadership positions.

As an expression of their disapproval, they are seeking some way to disassociate themselves from more liberal church members. Some are doing so by putting themselves under the governance of more conservative leaders. For example, some American churches have put themselves under the bishop of Niger because he is not going to accept homosexuality. Others are splitting from the Anglican Church entirely.

This is a good thing. I am pleased to see a split between moderate Episcopalians and mean-spirited, narrow-minded bigotry of the more conservative branch. It is useful, I think, for individual members to stand up and identify which group they are sympathetic with, so that the rest of us can more easily identify those worthy of being despised.

There are some who may disagree with this. They would want to assert that all Episcopalians are equally contemptible merely by the fact that they are Episcopalians . . . and the only good Episcopalian is . . . well, there ain’t no such thing.

It’s not that those people are advocating violence . . . at least not yet. Yet, they do ignore basic moral principles and, once one becomes an advocate of injustice it is difficult to decide just where that injustice should end.

In discussing the situation in Iraq, I have often wrote that the fundamental problem in the country is a refusal to distinguish between those who plant the bombs and kill civilians from those who do not. There is no reason to distinguish between moderate Shiite/Sunni and the more violent factions because “all Shiite/Sunni are alike,” and even the moderate ones deserve to die because, in being Shiite/Sunni, their mere existence gives aid and comfort to the bombers.

And in the conflict in Israel, the same doctrine holds. Even the moderate Jews are just as guilty as the militant Jews because, merely by existing, they aid and abet the existence of militant Jews. So, it does not matter if the people riding the bus or in the restaurant would condemn unrestrained violence against the Palestinians. We must remember, all Israeli are equally culpable, regardless of their individual beliefs.

For another example, it is much easier to fly an airplane into a sky scraper full of Americans if one believes, “They are all equally guilty. Even the moderates among them are guilty because, in being Americans, they air aiding and abetting any American policy we don’t like.”

And so, we are told, we must adopt the same attitude towards Episcopalians and other theists. Even moderate theists are to be condemned for aiding and abetting the more fundamental theists, so any hatred and contempt we would hold towards fundamentalist theists who do harm to others is equally deserved of their more moderate brethren. We are not to distinguish between them.

Now, as far as I know, no atheists are advocating violence – at least not yet. However, the statements above were meant to demonstrate a principle – the basic injustice that comes from the attitude, “They’re all alike. We do not have to distinguish among them – we can condemn all of them equally; the moderates for aiding and abetting the extremists.”

The popularity of this attitude, the speed at which it has spread and the growth of its popularity among the atheist community, only proves to me that atheists have no special immunity against injustice. This has, of course, been proved in the past as well. The atheism that guided the French Revolution did not bind the leaders at that time to justice, and neither did the atheism of many communists.

Atheists themselves must make a separate commitment to justice or injustice – separate from their views on the existence of God, and can (and do) go either way.

I want to make it clear, I am not raising any objection to saying, "You're wrong" to somebody one believes is wrong, or even "That is the most absurd, irrational piece of nonsense that any human has ever spoken," when confronted with absurd and irrational nonsense. As I have written in the past; criticism is not intolerance. My objection rests entirely with the claim, "They are all alike, and even the moderates deserve the same moral condemnation that we would give the fundamentalists."

The principle that I have suggested for peace in Iraq and in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is a principle of, “Punish the guilty; let the innocent go free.” It is a principle of distinguishing between those who do or advocate harm, and those who do not, and to reject the doctrine that all X are equally deserving of condemnation because some X are dangerous.

I think that some atheists underestimate or under appreciate the possibility of being wrong. I am willing to make the bold, unsupported statement of every reader that there is not one person on the planet who agrees with you on everything. In fact, even if we limited this example to things that people are certain about, no two people’s lists will be alike.

Which means if, by chance you, the reader, happen to have a list where everything you are certain about is true, it is still the case that everybody else has at least one thing on their list that is false. Which means that the possibility (the ease) of error is very, very high.

And if you do happen to have one thing on your list that you are certain about that is false . . . well, you have no idea what it is.

I would have to say that part of my quest in life would be to go through that list and to eliminate all of the false elements that I can – knowing full well that I can never get to all of them, and that until the day I die I will absolutely certain of at least one thing that simply is not true.

Anyway, the ease of error speaks to the simple absurdity of condemning somebody for being wrong. Every one of us believes something that is wrong, where the falsity would reveal itself if we only had the will or the desire to look at the issue honestly. So, this type of condemnation would condemn everybody, including the speaker.

Condemnation comes in when that error makes one a threat to others.

In yesterday’s entry, I did not criticize Dennis Miller for being wrong. I condemned him for being wrong on a matter that can easily be demonstrated to be wrong on a matter that puts the lives and well being of others at risk.

A drunk, who wants to get in his pickup and drive around, is not guilty of the moral crime of recklessness if he limits his driving to his own ranch, where there are not supposed to be any other people. He can drive around and drunk as he wants until he puts the lives and well-being of others at risk by leaving the ranch. It is the risk of harm to others that is reckless.

The conservative Episcopalians who are splitting from the main church or supporting narrow-minded, hate-mongering leaders are to be condemned, not because they are Episcopalians, but because they are supporting narrow-minded hate-mongering leaders, which gives us sufficient evidence to assert that they, too, are people whose religion has driven them into being people who are a threat to others.

But we have no reason not to welcome those who are willing to accept homosexuality, and to form an alliance with them against their narrow-minded, hate-mongering former (in most cases) associates, and encourage them to drop association with their narrow-minded hate-mongering brethren.

I am willing to say the same thing for atheists. There is no value in associating with narrow-minded, hate-mongering bigots in our own ranks. Rather, there is every reason to recognize the difference between those who respect the principle, “Punish the guilty, let the innocent go free” from those who say, “They are all equally guilty and all deserve the same treatment, regardless of the actual threat posed by their individual beliefs.”

I have absolutely no kind or compromising words to offer to the, “They are all equally guilty” crowd. They have embraced injustice, and I have no use for them. Moderate atheists should no more fear a split with such people as moderate Episcopalians should concern themselves with the fundamentalists (and less moral) who decide to leave.


Austin Cline said...

“They are all equally guilty. Even the moderates among them are guilty because, in being Americans, they air aiding and abetting any American policy we don’t like.”

I don't think it's clear enough what you mean by "guilty of" here, because different meanings can lead to different conclusions (examples might have helped). If a person says "They are all equally guilty of promoting irrational beliefs that cause problems in society, and the moderates who seem to be OK end up providing cover for the fundamentalists who are ostensibly worse, so I'm going to condemn their irrational religious theism on an equal level," then I don't think you can accuse such a person of injustice. It might be unwise on a practical or pragmatic level, but it doesn't strike me as an example of condemning both the innocent and the guilty.

On the other hand, if a person says "They are all equally guilty of violence and oppression, even the moderates who don't openly practice it because they provide cover for the fundamentalists, so I will condemn them all equally for the violence and oppression," then that's another story. That is unjust because even if the accusation against the moderates is true, they should be treated differently from those who actively work for or engage in violence and oppression.

Now, atheists who say something like "they are all equally guilty" may being doing a bad job at specifying what they mean, but it seems to me that they are have the former more in mind than the latter. If they are thinking about the former and communicate the latter in any way, then it strikes me as more an example of sloppy thinking and writing than injustice (though potentially an example where such sloppiness can end up encouraging injustice in the long run if people don't step back and take more care in what they say).

Insofar as you criticize the latter, I agree completely: if you're going to attack or condemn someone for something, be sure it's for the right thing — and if you're unsure, then qualify your statements a lot or err on the side of saying nothing.

As to the Episcopalian split: is it such a good thing? Is it not true that when bigots isolate themselves in bigoted communities, their bigotry can become self-reinforcing, more extreme, and thus in the long run more difficult to eliminate? Is it not plausible to argue that keeping them in the same church institutions will have a chance at moderating them sooner rather than later?

This isn't the first time American church institutions split - I think we could map out a lot of continuity between the dissenters today and the churches which broke away just prior to the Civil War over slavery and racism. Southern churches today are still the most segregated places in American society. Churches were the main ideological engines supporting slavery, segregation, Jim Crow, and racism and it might be argued that the splits helped make that easier.

The pro-homophobia churches will lose just like the pro-slavery and pro-segregation churches lost; but as with their predecessors, they have it within themselves to cause the rest of us a lot of problems in the meantime.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


My first point begins by asking the question, "Does your ethics allow you to morally distinguish between the Episcopalian who is working to accept homosexuals versus those who condemn homosexuals?"

If the answer is "no", then this essay applies. Such thinking is as unjust as refusing to morally distinguish between the liberal who pays taxes to a government that engages in wars of aggression, warrantless wiretaps, and repeals habeas corpus, and the conservative who actually advocates and defends these practices.

A person who cannot make these types of distinctions are a part of the problem.

Second, as I have argued in the past, a crusade against irrationality is, itself, irrational.

Every one of us jumps to conclusions on some issue or other, saying, "Okay, on the surface, that sounds reasonable, but I don't have time to go into it in detail. There are just too many things I have to do that I don't have time to study that issue over there. So, I'll make a prima-facie surface judgment and move on."

We must do this. The cost of rationality is simply too high, so we have to use shortcuts. If we did not, we would die while we sat there using only pure rationality on all of our beliefs.

Given that we must do this, the criteria to use to determine which beliefs to study in detail and which to use simpler and quicker methods on should not be "theism" vs "atheism," it is "harm to self and others" vs "benefit to self and others".

Atheists, too, must use "short cuts" in adopting some beliefs. And while their beliefs in God may be accurate, they make huge mistakes elsewhere. Importantly, they have been known to make huge mistakes in adopting beliefs that are harmful to others. They are not grounded on religion, but they are still in error, and they were still adopted using the irrational shortcuts that we must all use in the real world.

So, yes, it is injustice to condemn others for using shortcuts that all people must use - that atheists themselves use - and that many atheists actually use on the issue of whether God exists. It is more than that . . . it is hypocritical.

(Note: The fact that the philosophical arguments are all in favor of, "No God exists" does not prove that all atheists have acquired their belief by a careful consideration and understanding of those arguments. Some atheists simply stumbled upon the truth and, in a slightly different set of circumstances, would have stumbled upon theism just as easily.)

Austin Cline said...

"Second, as I have argued in the past, a crusade against irrationality is, itself, irrational."

I agree - but arguing against both moderate and fundamentalists religious believers on an equal level isn't necessarily a "crusade." It might be impractical, but it's not necessarily unreasonable.

Atheist Observer said...

The principle of "harm to self and others" would seem to run into a special case with religion. Religion claims the right to decalare what brings harm. You believe suppressing homosexuality causes harm. Those you condemn believe that going against the will of God as they see it causes harm to themselves and others in this world and the next. If you use nothing but the "harm" argument, you have nothing but conflicting opinions, with no reason to chose one or the other.
It would seem you not only need the yardstick of harm, but also a way to determine how to chose the most valid definition of it. If "revealed by God in His Holy Book" is as valid as developed by experience, observation, and application of reason to human desires, we have no more valid grounds to condemn the extremists than they do to condemn homosexuality.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Atheist Observer:

What you say is true of some, but not all. And, indeed, the very definition of prejudice is to hold over-generalized derogatory attitudes, attributing to members of a group of which it is not true.

Yes, some people base their beliefs on what counts a harm on religious premises. In this case, if they get it right, then I see no reason for substantial complaint. If they get it wrong, however - if they assert "harms" to be protected against where none exist, or deny the existence of real harms, then there are grounds for complaint consistent with the arguments I gave above.

We have conflicting opinions, but I deny that we have "nothing but" conflicting opinions.

This debate, on the objective/subjective nature of harm, is a part of he objective/subjective debate generally. I hold that there is an objective fact of the matter as to what counts as harm and that religious beliefs (and non-religious beliefs) can lead people into making mistakes.

People who thought that burning witches was good for them because the flames purified their soul are wrong - and objectively so.

People who believe that the suppression of homosexuality is harmful are wrong, and objectively so.

I tell you what . . . I'll write an essay on a theory of harm this weekend.

Atheist Observer said...


I look forward to your weekend essay. I hope it doesn't cut into your holiday preparations, if you do any.

I'm intrigued by your assertion that "People who thought that burning witches was good for them because the flames purified their soul are wrong - and objectively so."
While I have no doubt burning at the stake is not objectively good, it seems hard to objectively demonstrate flames do not purify the soul, unless you can objectively demonstrate a soul does not exist or that flames are not good for it. One could certainly state there is no objective evidence for a soul or the purification properties of fire upon it, but objectively showing there is no soul would seem as difficult as showing no god exists.

bpabbott said...


I'm a bit late to be commenting on this post ... but ...

I am largely in agreement with you. The best solution to such struggles will necessarily result in compromise ... it will be impossible to accommodate everyone :-(

To use a metaphor, the most *divine* solution would minimize the degree of compromise. This solution is elusive ... and can only be illuminated by hindsight, which we do not presently have the benefit of, and may not in our lifetime.

In any event, the title of your post reminded me fo a auditory essay on NPR. I don't find it particularly inspiring, but it does have context to your post.

Perhaps you'll find it of interest.

Snowbrush said...

I see I'm a bit late getting here, but I did want to let you know that I enjoyed your post.