Today’s post comes from things that I was going to say yesterday, but which I could not get to make sense.
One claim that I have made repeatedly in this blog is that atheism is not a virtue. The proposition, “No god exists” does not entail, nor is it entailed by, any moral virtue. Consequently, convincing a person that no god exists does not change his moral character. If he is evil (has bad desires), he will remain evil; and if he is good, he will remain good.
People seek to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires with each intentional action. However, they actually act so as to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires given their beliefs. False beliefs serve to thwart people’s attempts to fulfill their desires, which is why institutions that aim to produce true beliefs are so important. When we remove false beliefs and put true beliefs in their place, we improve a person’s ability to fulfill their desires.
However, correcting a person’s false beliefs does not change those desires (or, at least, it does not logically or causally entail any change in desires). So, changing a person’s beliefs does not change his moral character. If you want to improve a person’s moral character – if you want to promote virtue over vice – then you need to focus on their desires, not their beliefs. This includes the belief that no god exists.
So, it is a waste of time to try to convince people that no God exists, right?
Some of the things I have written suggest this implication. However, the inference above is invalid, and the conclusion given above is false. Just because moral character is locked in a person’s desires does not imply that a person’s beliefs are irrelevant.
An evil person convinced that no god exists will remain evil. Correcting his beliefs only gives him the ability to fulfill his evil desires more efficiently, because his false beliefs will no longer get in his way.
At the same time, a good person convinced that no god exists will remain good. Correcting his beliefs only gives him the ability to fulfill his good desires more efficiently, because his false beliefs will no longer get in his way.
Convincing a person that there is no god may not improve his moral character. However, it will improve the ability of a person with good moral character to fulfill his desires. This (at least in desire utilitarian terms) means that it will improve his ability to fulfill desires that tend to fulfill other desires – increasing the possibility that those other desires will be fulfilled as well. It would be useful in helping this good person to do good deeds is to clear away the false beliefs that will cause him to do things that are not so good.
For example, somebody who is concerned to prevent the next terrorist attack or natural disaster, but who holds false beliefs about god, may decide that the best course of action to protect us from these threats is to institute prayer in school and to demand that the government endorse Christianity. He might think that formal support for a Christian god would make that god happy, so that it will use its magic powers to protect us from harm. As a result, issues of prayer in schools and monuments in court houses influence his votes more than issues of scientific research and investments in engineering projects. As a result of his actions, this agent is actually leaving those he wants to protect more vulnerable than they would have been if he had insisted in investing more in science and engineering, and less in prayer and magic. The science will give us a better understanding of the threat, while the engineering will allow us to best deflect the danger.
No amount of prayer in school or religious monuments in court houses will keep an old bridge from falling into the river, or a hurricane from hitting a coastal city, or terrorists from flying airplanes into sky scrapers, or he next great plague. If we want to prevent these things, we need an investment in the relevant sciences – physics, weather, psychology, biology – that will allow us to better understand these threats. We need an investment in prevention techniques that sound research shows to have a proven chance of success.
The protest may come back, “How do you know that prayer and ritual would not have prevented the bridge from collapsing? You are the one arrogantly presuming your own infallibility.”
This is hardly an effective comeback. I cannot prove that if everybody capable of doing so were to hop on one leg while whistling the star spangled banner for 15 minutes will make this country invulnerable. Yet, I can hardly scarce recommending the action. The list of things that I cannot prove will not work is infinite, picking items from an infinite list is pointless, and wasting time with things on the list will simply take resources away from options with a provable chance of success.
Under the assumption that our hypothetical agent is strongly motivated by a desire to prevent the death and misery coming from the next disaster, this agent is being thwarted in his attempt to protect people from harm to the degree that he turns to religious and magical protections. He is diverting resources that could go into understanding the phenomenon and designing real-world protections, and wasting those resources instead on empty rituals that may make us feel better, but which will not protect us.
So, it is not a waste of effort to convince good people that their religious beliefs are false – not if it prevents those people from wasting effort promoting policies that do more harm than good.
Good People Doing Bad Things
Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things -- that takes religion. -- Steven Weinberg
The preceding section seems to be arguing in the direction of Weinberg’s statement, but Weinberg’s claims go too far. In fact, this is the type of false statement that warrants the claim of bigotry, in that it unjustifiably and unjustly denigrates a whole group of people even though others who do not belong to that group are also guilty, and some members of the group are not.
Religion is not the only set of false beliefs that cause good people to do bad things. The world is filled with false beliefs causing good people to do bad things – many of them having nothing at all to do with religion. Even in a world without religion, we can expect that there will still be false beliefs within that community causing good people to do bad things.
However, criticizing Weinberg’s claim that religion is the only way to get good people to do bad things does not imply that religion (or many religious beliefs) do not, in fact, cause good people to do bad things. The world is filled with good people doing bad things and doing them because they have false religious beliefs.
The argument also suggests a somewhat different tone in addressing these people.
You’re a good person. I know that what you really want is to prevent death, misery, and the destruction of property. However, what I need you to realize that your religious beliefs are causing you to promote death, misery, and the destruction of property. You are doing so by diverting time and effort from those things that show a promise of helping to solve these problems, and channeling them instead to efforts that will not work.
Of course, if the individual really does not care about whether acts grounded on his false beliefs are causing innocent people to suffer – or he is too arrogant to worry about the possibility that he might be mistaken - then the claim that we are talking to a “good person” goes out the window. A good person does care, and a good person will admit to the possibility of his own fallibility.
Any false belief will cause good people to do bad things. We all make mistakes from time to time. A substantial percentage of the mistakes we make are grounded on false beliefs. Yet, the bulk of those false beliefs have nothing to do with religion.
However, many religious beliefs are false beliefs that cause good people to do bad things. This statement is not such a gross generalization that it ends up being bigoted. It applies only to those whose false religious beliefs cause them to do bad things, while it refuses to accuse all (if any) whose false religious beliefs do not have them doing bad things.
As it turns out, if this argument has weight, it does suggest a different tone in the issue of combating religion. It suggests a tone like:
This is not an accusatory tone that says, “You are a bad person.”
It is a tone that says, “You are a good person. You want to help. However, because of your false beliefs, you’re not helping. You’re making things worse.”
In other words, it suggests a campaign that takes the tone, “You are good people blinded by false beliefs. You really don’t want to be doing these things. You really don’t want to be hurting these people – or to prevent them from being made safe from harm. So, stop it.”
Again, this applies to those who truly are good people. It applies to those who truly want to help. The evil person – such as a televangelist who is more interested in his own social standing and political power than in the well-being of others – will not be phased by these concerns. You cannot persuade a person who has no concern for the welfare of others that his actions have a detrimental effect on the welfare of others.
When a person says that we need more prayer in the classroom and more prayer in the public square in order to keep bridges from collapsing, a possible answer would be, “Do you really want to keep bridges from collapsing? If you do, then I would advocate more inspectors, better, science, and better engineering.