A quick note: that I will be on “Faith and Freethought” tomorrow evening at 6:00 eastern time.
Okay, now, I want to rant just a little bit more on the clichés surrounding atheism and ethics, then I'll move on.
This is the Hitler and Stalin Cliché. It is the argument that there is something fundamentally and foundationally wrong with atheism because Hitler and Stalin were atheists – and look what they did.
The reason that I want to address this argument is that I often see atheists discuss it outside of its proper context.
The typical response that I see to this claim involves a history lecture.
There are two tactical problems with history lectures. The first is that it puts the audience to sleep. They do not care about these arguments enough to be persuaded by them. The second is that you are asking the listener to trust that the claims that you make about history are true – when the listener has already been told that people such as you are not to be trusted. What reason do they have to take your word for these historic events, as opposed to the word of your opponent?
There is also one logic problem. It assumes that the Hitler and Stalin Cliché is valid, so that one has to prove that one of the premises (e.g., “Hitler was an atheist”) is false.
The argument is not valid.
My sound-byte answer: "I'm sorry, but blaming me for the crimes of Hitler and Stalin is like blaming the Amish – or blaming you, my honorable adversary – for 9-11.”
The Irrelevance of Atheism
If my opponent will grant me a few more seconds, I would add, “You would certainly object if I were to accuse you of being responsible for these crimes. You would scream that any who would make such an assertion is bigoted and unjust. You would be right. Such a person is, in fact, bigoted and unjust. So is the person who blames all atheists for the crimes of Stalin.”
I have seen atheists scramble for evidence that Hitler was not an atheist. Perhaps it is true. It does not matter to the moral argument. Assume that somebody were to assert that Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy were white males, and as such all white males are to be regarded with contempt. One possible answer would be to try to prove that Dahmer and Gacy were not white males. However, this would be fruitless. A better response would be to say that justice demands that each person be judged by his own actions, and that no person shall be judged guilty of the crimes of Dahmer and Gacy but Dahmer and Gacy themselves.
By the way, Hitler and Stalin were also both white males. I sense a pattern.
It is also the case that both Hitler and Stalin wore a mustache. Maybe it is the wearing of a mustache that disposes one to tyranny, and the wearing of mustaches should be prohibited.
They both (almost certainly) believed that the Sun was at the center of the solar system. In fact, if you take a look at history, you will discover that heliocentrists (those who assert that the sun is at the center of the solar system) have killed and maimed far more people than geocentrists (those who believe that the earth is at the center of the solar system). Obviously, heliocentrists are evil and despicable creatures! We must immediately take action to remove the doctrine of heliocentrism from our schools before this view that the Earth is not the center of the solar system . . . that humans live on just another planet orbiting just another star . . . destroys the very moral fiber of our civilization!
Hitler and Stalin were both born in Europe. They both had six letters in their first and last names.
Of all of the traits that define Hitler and Stalin, why attribute their evil deeds to atheism? Why not the mustache, or their European birth, or their heliocentrism, or the number of letters in their name, or their gender, or their race?
The answer, at least for a great many people, is that they are looking for reasons to market in hatred and bigotry of atheists, and references to Hitler and Stalin are very popular among those who sell hate for a living. If not for the love of hate, or the business of selling hate, atheism would be seen just as irrelevant as these other traits. This is because it is just as irrelevant as those other traits.
The Crusades and Inquisitions Cliché
So, just as there are theists who love to use the Hitler and Stalin Cliché, there are atheists who love to use the Crusades and Inquisitions Cliché. This is the same form of argument. Just as theists attempt to blame all atheists for the crimes of Hitler and Stalin, some atheists attempt to blame all theists for the Crusades and Inquisitions.
When their argument takes the form, "The Crusades and Inquisitions were lead by theists; therefore, all forms of theism are evil,” then they are making an argument that is as flawed as, “The Holocaust and Stalin’s Purges were lead by atheists; therefore, all forms of atheism are evil.” A consistent person cannot condemn one argument without condemning the other.
However, there is a second use for the Crusades and Inquisitions argument. If a theist were to say, “By turning to the Bible, an individual can find perfect moral guidance,” then it would be legitimate to answer, “What about the crusades, inquisitions, slavery, the divine right of kings, slavery, torture, censorship, forced tithing, and the like? Clearly, if it were possible to find perfect moral guidance in the Bible, either we would not have had these things, or one would have to argue that they were moral.
It is just as legitimate to make the same use of the Hitler and Stalin cliché. If an atheist were to say, “By turning to atheism, an individual can find perfect moral guidance,” then it would be legitimate to answer, “What about Stalin?”
(Note: Hitler makes a poor example. His religion is a matter of ambiguity. However, and more importantly, he was able to sell his program to a nation that was largely Christian without asking that they give up their religion. The German people themselves were able to reconcile Hitler with their religion and regarded Hitler as a hero up to the end of the war. This is hardly effective testimony for the virtue of religion.)
However, find me the person who says that, in turning to atheism, one can find perfect moral virtue. Find me the person who makes a claim that would make the Hitler and Stalin cliché appropriate. If one looked hard enough, it may be possible to find one or two. However, if one looks at the way the Hitler and Stalin Cliché is actually used, one would think that this assertion is a part of mainstream atheism.
In fact, atheism says nothing about moral values, other than to say that certain premises in moral arguments (those that take the form, 'there exists a God such that . . .') are false and play no role in sound moral reasoning. Atheism says nothing about what remains after this error is removed.
"That’s it!” shouts the theist. "That is precisely what is wrong with atheism. It offers no moral guidance!"
Well, chemistry offers no moral guidance either. I have yet to find a moral principle that I can derive out of the fact that xenon is an inert gas and that water is made up of H2O. Is chemistry to be condemned for its lack of guidance? What about physics? Geology? What moral guidance can we draw from the fact that quartz is an igneous rock? None? Then be rid of it!
This is yet another nonsense argument.
True, atheism says nothing about ethics other than that no God is involved. Atheism also says nothing about astronomy other than that no God is involved. Atheism says that if you want to study the stars and planets, you do not study atheism – you study astronomy. Atheism also says that if you want to study right, wrong, good, and evil, you do not study atheism – you study moral philosophy (ethics).
That is what I studied through 12 years of college. I did not study atheism. I studied moral philosophy.
Mistakes and Character
In earlier posts, I argued that you can tell something about a person’s moral character by the mistakes he makes – by the invalid arguments he is all too willing to embrace, and the false premises he is far to eager to accept. When a person makes a mistake, we can ask, “Why did he make that mistake, and not some other?”
The answer to the question “why” often leads to the agent’s desires. If he embraces a conclusion without evidence then we have reason to suspect that he wanted to believe that conclusion. This “desire to believe” tells us something about what the person likes and dislikes – about his virtues and his vices.
We have good reason to suspect that the people who make the types of mistakes I have written about desire (love) to hate. Hate is important to them. In order to protect and to serve their hatred, they need to cover it in a cloak of legitimacy. No sound argument supports their hate, so they embrace unsound arguments and false premises. They too eagerly adopt claims that a person free of hate would easily see as flawed.
This is why there are people who love to see atheism ‘to blame’ for Hitler and Stalin, but can instantly see the absurdity of blaming their mustaches, and why they can instantly recognize the injustice of attributing their evils to all white males.
These are people who profit in the marketing of hate. They sell hate for cash contributions, so that they can manufacture more hate, and sell it to raise more money. It does not matter to the hate monger whether his advertising campaign contains truth or fiction. It only matters whether it is useful – whether it increases sales, revenue, and profits – profits that come in the form of money and power.
This we get from people who claim that their religion gives them true virtue.