Greg Epstein and Atheist Fundamentalists
I have two loosely related issues that I would like to discuss today, before too much time passes.
I am feeling sorry for Greg Epstein recently, because a misquote in an Associated Press article that Atheists are Split over their Message.
The Associated Press article reports that Epstein calls atheists such as Dawkins “Atheist Fundamentalists,” which sent a huge number of electrons flying criticizing the use of the term. I offered criticism as well, interrupting my normal weekend postings on the Beyond Belief 2006 conference to comment on the article’s use of terms.
Since then, Epstein has offered a correction.
In fact, what happened that Epstein wrote about atheist “fundamentalists” – putting the term in scare quotes. This is a writer’s way of saying, “I am mentioning how others are using this term, but I do not endorse its use.” The proper way to read the use of scare quotes is to insert the phrase ‘so-called’ before the term. So, “atheist ‘fundamentalists’” means ‘atheist so-called fundamentalists’. His use of the term was fully appropriate.
However, the article put the whole phrase “atheist fundamentalist” in quotes and attributed the quote to Epstein, as if Epstein was not only mentioning the term, but endorsing its use and actually using it in the same way.
Epstein calls them "atheist fundamentalists."
Actually, I did a search of the web site that he referenced in his comment to my blog entery, http://www.thenewhumanism.org. The term “fundamentalism” only showed up in relation to this article.
I fear that, the way the press works, Epstein is going to forever suffer for the Associate Press’s sloppy writing. The truth will always trail far behind the fiction, never actually catching up with it.
Yet, we can take the time to give the truth a shove, which is what I am trying to do here.
On a related issue, because of space limitations, I left a huge hole in my post yesterday where I discussed ‘should’ and ‘good’.
I gave a list of items that a theist might use to support the claim that a person cannot be moral without God.
You permit homosexuality, condemn abstinence education, drive God from the schools and the public square, and argue that we allow abortion. You rob the wealthy of their rightly earned property through taxation and give the money to those who make the least contribution to society. You coddle criminals and condemn their victims. You oppose Israel’s right to establish its historic borders. You promote ignorance in the classroom by teaching evolution and do not even have the courtesy to grant us equal time. You put a few spotted owls above the man who needs a job to provide for his family. You defend cultural relativism that says that there is nothing really wrong with slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia.
I then wrote that the theist claim can often be reduced in the following way:
In short, the claim, "You cannot be moral without belief in God" often reduces to, "You can't eagerly sacrifice real-world life, health, and well-being in the pursuit of the same imaginary (fake) values that I do without belief in God."
This leaves me vulnerable to the demagogue who would want to claim, “Alonzo believes that every value expressed on the list represents sacrificing real-world life, health, and well-being for the sake of an imaginary value.”
That inference would not be accurate. The inference requires the assumption that I think that no theist can recognize real-world value, and that no atheist can end up promoting imaginary values. I explicitly denied this in yesterday’s article, but that would not prevent the demagogue from advertising a misleading interpretation.
Example 1: Consider the claim that a defender of morality without God has to defend the equal value of slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia. Of course I do not think that those who condemn slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia is promoting imaginary values. These three sets of institutions represent very real harms to life, health, and well-being for a great many people. The problem with the theist assertion in these cases rests in the assumption that the atheist cannot defend these as real-world evils. There happen to be many liberals who will readily assert that there are no real-world evils and, against them, the objection would have some traction. Yet, one of the things that I hoped to demonstrate in this blog is that the assertion rests requires the false assumption that an atheist cannot defend real-world value.
Example 2: The accusation of “robbing the wealthy of their rightly earned property through taxation” begs the moral question. In what sense is it that the money was rightfully earned? Many wealthy people acquire wealth by manipulating the political system to funnel money into their pockets. They do this through special legislation, by exploiting the candidate’s need for campaign contributions, and by using the principle, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters”. They also benefit by creating externalities (pollution) that allow them to harvest the benefits of an activity while pushing the cost onto others, and they gain their money as beneficiaries of a set of institutions that have to be paid for. All things considered, there is good reason to question how much of that property is “rightfully earned”. Besides, we need to look at what is required for property to be “rightfully earned”.
Example 3: Concerning the issue of ‘coddling criminals,’ it has been a major theme of this blog that punishment and condemnation are important tools for promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires. I am fully in favor of using them to the degree that they are useful in creating a community whose members are less likely to do real-world harm to others. This means harsh treatment of those who are bad, and reward and praise for those who are good. If we look specifically at capital punishment, I have pointed out that societies that practice capital punishment tend to have more murderers. I have suggested that this may be the effect of teaching children to love to kill – to celebrate (certain) deaths. Not all children will learn those lessons as intended. It will take only a small number of children learning the wrong lesson to create people who are a threat to the life, health, and well-being of others.
In other cases, condemning homosexuality, opposition to teaching children the truth about sex and evolution, treating a blastula as if it has the rights of a full person, and pushing for Israel to re-establish its historic boundaries so that Jesus can return, are all excellent examples of promoting real-world suffering in the pursuit of imaginary values.
In making the list, I wrote each item the way a demagogue would write them – filled with question-begging assumptions that made them sound true by definition. The demagogue uses this to make anybody who would deny those claims sound like a fool. However, it accomplishes this by misrepresenting the issue. It assumes that the wealth that the rich person accumulates is all rightfully earned. It assumes that promoting a vicious reaction to criminals is the best way to protect innocent people from viciousness. It assumes that there can be no real-world value if there is no God.
It is a very popular rhetorical trick, used to manipulate people into accepting things that have not actually been defended. It is just another way in which a person who is more interested in winning than in being right can mislead others into doing things that are harmful to themselves and to those they care about.