Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The Blasphemy Challenge

Old Business

On the issue of the History Channel blaming the Dark Ages on Godlessness, please note the attached History Channel marquee, "600 Years of Degenerate, Godless, Inhuman Behavior"

See my original post on the subject, which includes contact information for The History Channel.

New Business

A blog called "The Blasphemy Challenge", which is specifically devoted to criticizing the Rational Response Squad's Blasphemy Challenge put a recent post of mine, “Theism as a Mental Illness or Child Abuse”, and posted it on their site under the heading, "Atheist Ethicist calls Blasphemy Challenge Unnecessarily Insulting."

I wrote to them informing them that they misinterpreted and misrepresented my article, and explained my position on The Blasphemy Challenge. In response, they made some slight edits to their blog entry and changed the title. The entry can now be found under the title, “Atheist Alonzo Fyfe on the blasphemy challenge.”

Just as an aside, I am curious as to why they could not have written, "Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe on the blasphemy challenge." After all, I have written 1 post on the existence of God and 500+ posts on ethics. So, I do not understand the decision to put more emphasis on my atheism than on my ethics.

Background

The Blasphemy Challenge is an offer from The Rational Response Squad for people - particularly young people - to take a video of themselves stating their lack of belief in God and posting this video on YouTube.

I article that I wrote actually focused on a discussion of some comments made in association with The Blasphemy Challenge. Specifically, I wrote to deny the proposition that theism is a mental illness (because a proper functioning brain will pick up the dominant beliefs of the society it lives in), and to deny the proposition that labeling a child as being a member of a religious culture is “child abuse” (because “child abuse” presupposes a negligent or willful disregard for the welfare of the child that simply does not exist).

I never wrote anything about The Blasphemy Challenge itself. Yet, this site posted a blog entry saying that yet another atheist had condemned The Blasphemy Challenge.

As I mentioned above, I responded to this misuse and misinterpretation of my views by sending a correction. In response to my comment they changed the heading of the blog entry and edited the body slightly. They also included my clarification in the comments, all as part of a good faith attempt to correct their earlier mistake.

These efforts show at least some meager acknowledgements of the basic moral requirements of intellectual integrity. However, I still fail to see why the requirements of intellectual integrity were not strong enough to prevent them from misrepresenting my earlier post to start with.

Anyway, as I thought about this incident, I decided that I should give a specific moral assessment on The Blasphemy Challenge, to reduce the chance that somebody may misinterpret my position in the future.

Specifically, I think that The Blasphemy Challenge, in itself, is a very good idea in principle and I can see no reason not to support it. I do not think that everything the sponsors of the challenge say in association with The Blasphemy Challenge is fair or accurate, but these faults do not give us reason to condemn The Blasphemy Challenge itself.

Overall Assessment

Ultimately, the Blasphemy Challenge is an invitation to people to report a true statement about themselves. In a sense, it is little different than creating a post that says, “I believe that the Sun is the center of the solar system,” or “I believe that the Earth is round.” In this case, the person is stating, “I believe that the Holy Ghost does not exist.” There is nothing about an act that is morally objectionable.

This is not to say that a statement of one’s beliefs cannot invite moral condemnation. If a person were to say, “I believe that all of the Jews should be killed,” this statement would certainly (and justifiably) invite moral condemnation. However, the reason for this condemnation is because there is no evidence or reason to support such a statement. The fact that a person adopts such a belief in the absence of evidence tells us something about what that person desires, and his desires are not those that tend to fulfill the desires of others. Indeed, a desire to kill others is quite clearly the case of a desire that tends to thwart the desires of others.

The lack of a belief in the Holy Ghost, on the other hand, tells us nothing about what a person desires. The kindest and most caring person on the planet can consistently hold that, as a matter of fact, no holy ghost exists, and that the wellbeing of others depends entirely on our real-world actions. We will get no help from a spirit that does not exist.

So, the claim that there is no holy spirit is morally neutral, in itself. An invitation to somebody to do a morally neutral act is, itself, morally neutral. There is no basis here for any type of moral condemnation of The Blasphemy Challenge.

The Insult Argument

One argument offered against The Blasphemy Challenge is that it is an insult to religious belief.

Certainly, the statement, “No holy spirit exists,” implies that those who believe in a holy spirit have made a mistake. In other words, there is some shortcoming in their ability to determine what is true or false. This might be taken as an insult.

However, it would be absurd in the extreme to adopt the position that nobody may ever assert a proposition that might conflict with the beliefs of any listener. We would have to outlaw all spoken and written words expressed where others might encounter them.

More specifically, somebody who demands that we condemn the statement, "I believe no gods exist" because it insults the intelligence of those who believe in God needs to explain why “I believe in God” is not to be condemned for insulting the intelligence of those who believe that no God exists.

If a measure of a moral principle is to be found in applying it consistently to everybody, we can easily see that those who advance the “insult” argument against The Blasphemy Challenge are more familiar and comfortable with injustice over justice.

The Psychological Effect

I have a reason for favoring The Blasphemy Challenge based on the psychological effect that this type of event might have.

In America today, people who do not believe in God are often subjected to pervasive psychological abuse from the first days that they enter school. They are told that those who are not “under God” or who do not “trust God” are inferior to those who do. If they belong to a family who does not believe in God, or if they should come to doubt the existence of God themselves, public (and many private) schools quickly make the child aware of the fact that they are considered among the worst and the lowest of America’s citizens.

I have mentioned before that there is a reason why atheists are considered the ‘most hated’ (actually, the ‘least American’) of all citizens. This is because the Pledge of the Allegiance and the national motto were specifically instituted to teach this lesson to children, and it works. They learn this lesson well.

Those same children, when they enter Junior High School and High School, get to listen to a President declare that only a person who believes that our rights come from God is qualified to be judge. In the last couple of weeks, he has heard a Presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, say that only a person who believes in God can lead America. These, too, are messages to young atheists asserting that they are morally and socially inferior to other Americans. When these people are cheered for their statements – when these types of statements give those who make them a political advantage over those who deny them, this reinforces the negative message reaching the young atheists.

There is an editorial being widely circulated across the country right now stating that, “There Are No True Atheists.” The author, Paul Campos, asserts that a person who denies the existence of God must give up ever using the word 'ought'. Any use of the word 'ought' is an acknowledgement of God. Since even atheists make 'ought' statements, they are not true (or, at least, not consistent) atheists. No atheist should be elected president, because no amoral person should be elected President.

The problem here is not just that the atheist learns that he may not hope to become President. It is that the atheists are told not to expect the trust of his neighbors, while his neighbors are told never to trust the athiest. It is the fact that these claims identify the atheist as inherent inferior to Christian neighbors – whether the atheist seeks to become President or not – that does the harm.

In the face of this, I think it is particularly important and useful to do something that will communicate a competing message to young atheists – that atheism is not, in fact, a source of shame.

The blasphemy challenge is similar to “coming out” in the homosexual community – an invitation to homosexuals to stand up and state publicly, “I am a homosexual, a human, with every right to the fair and equal treatment that should be given to all humans who are not a threat to their neighbors.”

Atheists who see others stepping up and announcing their atheism have the opportunity to shed some of the shame that the government and society has surrounded them with through twelve years of public education.

This, by the way, is one of the reasons why I include “atheist” in my blog name and why I openly state my beliefs – in the hopes that this might help a young atheist realize that the assertions that atheists are inherent amoral is hate-mongering propaganda, that tells us more about the poor moral character of those who make such claims than of their victims.

Conclusion

So, I am, in principle, very much in favor of The Blasphemy Challenge. I do wish that it would have been brought into the world in a context that showed more respect for the need for young atheists to see positive role models. It seems to have come with some baggage that I wish would have been left behind. Yet, still, if we sit around and wait for perfection, then nothing would get done. None of my objections are so strong that they would have lead me to the conclusion, “This should not have been done.”

5 comments:

Frank Walton said...

Hi Alonzo,

Just as an aside, I am curious as to why they could not have written, "Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe on the blasphemy challenge." After all, I have written 1 post on the existence of God and 500+ posts on ethics. So, I do not understand the decision to put more emphasis on my atheism than on my ethics.

*SHRUGS* We could have put in "ethicist." But I think it's a tempest to the teapot. After all the name of your blog is "atheist ethicist." So, I don't see the harm.

I never wrote anything about The Blasphemy Challenge itself. Yet, this site posted a blog entry saying that yet another atheist had condemned The Blasphemy Challenge.

Well, you renounced the underlying assumption of the blasphemy challenge did you not? RRS believed that theism is a mental disorder.

However, I still fail to see why the requirements of intellectual integrity were not strong enough to prevent them from misrepresenting my earlier post to start with.

Well, jiminy jillickers, Alonzo! Did you not say I made a mistake? You seem to have the intellectual integrity to acknowledge that... but with some reservations, of course. Typical.

Would it make you happy if we took away the post, Alonzo-poo? Perhaps, we can change the title to

"Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe says RRS's 'theism is a mental disorder' is unjustifiable insulting, but he favors the blasphemy challenge.... with some reservations"?

Frank

Rev. Moe said...

A small comment/correction that occurred to me as I read your post...

You wrote:
The blasphemy challenge is similar to “coming out” in the homosexual community – an invitation to homosexuals to stand up and state publicly, “I am a homosexual, a human, with every right to the fair and equal treatment that should be given to all humans who are not a threat to their neighbors.”

I would say that the quote should have ended after "all humans", without the addition of "who are not a threat..."

As I'm sure you know, many Christians would think having a gay person living next door to them (or down the block, in the neighborhood, in their town, city, state, country - well, you get the idea) IS a threat. Of course, they can't really justify that fear, but their inability to define or explain it, or provide any valid evidence to support it, doesn't prevent them from using it to support discrimination against gays.

Sorry, I'm a Humanist - I just had to.... ;-)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Frank

Note that I identified the paragraph that you are responding as 'just an aside' - meaning that I consider the points interesting, but not that important.

You are correct. There was no harm in "Atheist Alonzo Fyfe" rather than "Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe." Indeed, you could have just written, "Alonzo Fyfe" or kept the original "Atheist Ethicist."

However, the choices we make tell others about our values. Your choice indicates that identifying me as an atheist has some measure of importance. It is probably not significant, but it is interesting.

And, yes, I acknowledge that your mistake regarding the intent of my original article was a mistake. However, just as we can tell something of a person's character by the choices they make, we can also tell something by the mistakes that they make. Given that I wrote the purpose of that post in the title, it is particularly interesting to inquire as to the motive of that particular mistake.

People often see what they want to see. That you saw my posting as a criticism of The Blasphemy Challenge means that you wanted to see it as criticism of The Blasphemy Challenge - that you wanted to see it in this light so strongly that it blinded you to what I actually wrote.

Relatedly, the "mental disorder" claim is not an assumption of the blasphemy challenge. I could challenge people to post statements on YouTube where they stated that they believed that there is (or, alternatively, is not) intelligent life somewhere else in the universe. I do not need to assume that those who hold the opposite view suffer from a mental disorder to offer such a challenge. I simply need to assume that I think they are mistaken.

Yes, the claim had been made in association with The Blasphemy Challenge. Furthermore, the claims that I made here can be applied to that mistake.

In fact, the post you cited is one in which I did just that. In that post, I examined the claims that theism is a mental illness and identifying a child as being raised in a particular culture as "child abuse", gave my reasons for holding these claims to be a mistake, and gave some thought to the motivation behind this mistake.

Then, I took your claim that I called The Blasphemy Challenge unnecessarily insulting, showed it to be a mistake, and gave some thought to the motivation behind that mistake.

As an ethicist, this is part of what I do. It's standard fare in this blog.

Shawn Wilkinson said...

On the issue of the History Channel blaming the Dark Ages on Godlessness, please note the attached History Channel marquee, "600 Years of Degenerate, Godless, Inhuman Behavior"

Ugh. Well, I gave the history channel the benefit of the doubt, but now I think it was ill-given.

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