For the last couple of weeks there has been a debate on the efficacy and the ethics of “The Blasphemy Challenge” – a self-proclaimed publicity stunt from the Rational Response Squad whereby young people are encouraged to publicly declare their lack of believe in God (commit blasphemy) and post their statement on YouTube and are rewarded with a free DVD of “The God Who Wasn’t There.”
One of the main points of contention is whether the claims that surround The Blasphemy Challenge are insulting towards theists and, if so, whether this is likely to promote a false impression of atheism and generate a harsh backlash against atheists.
I wish to begin with a statement about insult. There is nothing morally objectionable about insult (in common cases) where the claim made is true and the behavior worthy of condemnation. If there is evidence that a person believes that P, claims that not-P, makes this claim for the purpose of manipulating another person, and the manipulation is to the disadvantage of the victim (or others) and to the advantage of the speaker, it is fair to call that person a liar.
We can hardly think it is reasonable to defend oneself from such a charge simply by noting that the charge is insulting. It is as laughable as imagining a person on trial for rape claiming in his defense, “The prosecution is engaged in insulting and derogatory behavior in calling me a rapist. Anybody who submits another person to these types of insults should be ashamed of themselves and should immediately stop that behavior!”
Not if the accusations are true.
When insults are impermissible it is not because they are insults. It is because the insult was unfairly or unjustly launched at the victim. In other words, the inappropriate insult (in common cases) is either negligently unjustified or false.
So, we need to look at the claims made in conjunction with the blasphemy challenge and see if they can be criticized on these grounds.
Theism as a Mental Illness
A part of this discussion has focused on “Sapient’s” claim that theism is a mental illness, and that he would take his mother to a mental hospital to overcome her delusional beliefs if she was a Christian and mental hospitals treated theism.
James Lazarus says that this is inappropriately insulting.
In fact, Lazarus is right on this. It is an unjust characterization.
Sam Harris has made similar comments. Harris has said that if a person were to go to the breakfast table and claim that saying a few Latin words would turn his cereal into the literal body of Elvis, that we would call this person insane.
Indeed we would.
However, there is an important part of the context missing from both of these analogies.
Christians live in a community where the vast majority of the people reinforce these beliefs. This culture of common beliefs defines the difference between the man uttering Latin words over his cereal in the morning and the Priest conducting mass.
I have mentioned in the past that humans are not fully rational and, more importantly, we cannot be fully rational. We do not have the time to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny. Therefore, we (rationally) adopt rules of thumb – heuristics that allow us to get our beliefs mostly right even though they can lead to mistakes.
One of these heuristics is to listen to those around us. If the vast majority of the people around us (or, at least, those we come into contact with) assert ‘P’, then it is rational to adopt ‘P’. Notice that ‘P’ is not grounded on any type of evidence that directly infers the truth of ‘P’. ‘P’ has not been proved or even proved likely in an argument that has ‘P’ as the conclusion. Rather, agents adopt ‘P’ without any foundation, simply because so many people around him have adopted ‘P’.
Logicians recognize this as the bandwagon fallacy or argumentum ad populum. It is not, strictly speaking, rational and can easily lead to people adopting false beliefs.
It may not be a logically ideal way of acquiring beliefs, but it is practical. Given that we do not have time to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny, it is useful to simply grab some of the most common beliefs that others have accepted and hope that they know what they are talking about. It is not unreasonable to hold that those beliefs are generally good enough to live with . . . generally. In addition, this method helps people to get along and to communicate, like picking up a common language.
Building a Ship of Beliefs
In an earlier post, “Joan Roughgarden: Evolution and The Bible,” I borrowed an analogy I heard often in graduate school that compared a person’s set of beliefs to a ship at sea. That ship is in constant need of repair, refit, and, in some cases, redesign, but the owner cannot cast the ship aside and start over. He has to do repairs piecemeal, by attaching new systems of beliefs to those that already exist.
If we carry that analogy further, we can imagine a child as adrift at sea, surrounded by driftwood. From this, the child starts to build a raft. Then, his parents help him to build a framework for future beliefs. All future experiences and pieces of information can only be understood in terms of how it fits onto this framework. If it does not fit comfortably, then it will be warped and twisted and distorted until it does fit.
The child uses what he is given and puts it together as he has been taught. Even here, there is little opportunity for the agent to actually subject his beliefs to rational analysis. He scarcely knows the rules of rational analysis.
There are a lot of Christian beliefs floating around for a child to pick up. On the other hand, there are very few “speaking Latin to morning cereal will turn it literally into the body of Elvis” beliefs to pick up. There is good reason to count the latter beliefs – if one should adopt them – as signs of mental illness. However, adopting the former beliefs in the context of a society filled with Christian beliefs is simply proof that the mind is functioning normally.
The claim that such a person is mentally ill is an unjustified and unjust insult. It is not fair, and it betrays a certain amount of mean-spiritedness on the part of any who would make such a claim.
I am all in favor of being mean to people who deserve it. Indeed, desire utilitarianism demands condemnation and, in the worst cases, punishment as a way of promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desire. In many cases, I write that people are not mean enough. For example, by far we do not denigrate and condemn enough those who work to manufacture false beliefs - beliefs that can kill and maim millions. The problem is not that it is wrong to insult people. The problem is with insulting people who do not deserve it.
This analysis can also be applied to Richard Dawkins’ claim that labeling children Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or the ideology of his or her parents is “child abuse”.
In order for something to count as “child abuse”, the person who performs the action must betray either an intention to harm or a callous disregard for the possibility of harm to the welfare of the child. Even negligence (a form of child abuse) is understood in this way – as the absencce of a level of concern for a child’s welfare that would have motivated caution in a concerned individual.
I sincerely doubt that those who label a child “Christian” or “Muslim” have this type of disregard for the well-being of the child. In fact, quite the opposite is usually the case. The individual is very much concerned for the welfare of the child. He or she has simply made a mistake.
Women who took thalidomide while pregnant did significant harm to their children. Yet, this was not sufficient to charge them with "child abuse". This is because the behavior was motivated by a mistake, not by an absence of concern (or a desire to harm) the child. Calling thalidimide users "child abusers" for actions taken before the harmfulness of thalidimide was known is grossly inappropriate.
Of course, there are cases where a parent subjects a child to some exotic ritual that does harm to the child where we would call it abuse. We do say that the parent ought to have known better. However, this is the case where a concerned parent would have reasonably been expected to adopt a different set of beliefs. Here, too, there is a relevant moral difference between the parent who adopts a harmful belief that the bulk of society knows to be harmful, and one in which a parent adopts a belief that the bulk of society fails to see the harm. There is no "child abuse" in the second case.
And why use the term "child abuse?" The main motivation that I can think of for using a term like this is to make the targets of this term the subjects of the same hatred that is (justifiably) directed towards those who truly abuse children. This term is used to manufacture hate. Hate is fine, when the targets of hate deserve it. Yet, in this case, the goal is to manufacture hate where it is not deserved.
Morally concerned people will take more care in the use of these types of terms.
A Belief Framework
Claiming that the Christian framework, given to a child, does not qualify as “child abuse” does not imply that it is not harmful. The accidental poisoning of a child is not child abuse, but it is still harmful.
This framework has the problem in that it often instructs the child to take actions against dangers that are not real. At the same time, it often disarms the child against dangers that are real. More importantly, this framework encourages the child to put together a structure of beliefs that make the child a threat to the well-being of others; imposing legal sanctions that prohibit people from realizing certain goods while forcing upon them states that are not good. These false beliefs often get in the way of positive real-world change to the point that innocent people are maimed, killed, and otherwise harmed.
It is not fair to apply the terms “mental illness” or “child abuser” to such people. The former is an unjustly derogatory statement. The latter is an attempt to solicit hatred in the heart of the listener against people for whom hatred is not justified.
Using these terms loosely puts atheists in a bad light, not because it is wrong to insult people and they might get angry. It is wrong because the claims are simply false, and making them demonstrates that the speaker is more concerned with being angry and promoting hate than with being accurate and promoting truth.
There are real harms being inflicted that we should know about, but the moral condemnation and solicitation of hate should be saved for those who actually deserve it.