Yesterday, I mentioned that I have formed two impressions from watching the CNN broadcast, God’s Warriors. Yesterday, I addressed the issue of how religion fuels a desire in some people to behave in ways harmful to others – and that it is probably as important to address the desire to serve God as it is to address the belief that a God exists.
Today, I wish to address a second impression – the degree to which ‘God’s warriors’ like to speak in terms of group responsibility rather than individual responsibility. When addressing some crime or transgression, often they do not seek out the individuals who are responsible, but they lay the blame on a whole group and use this to justify doing harm to any and all members of the group.
For example, a member of Group X commits some crime – say, a group of blacks rape a white woman, a Irish Catholic blows up an Irish Protestant building, a Sunni Muslim blows up a Shiite mosque, a Palestinian sets off a suicide bomb inside an Israeli bus, some Native Americans rise up and kill some White settlers, Noah finds Ham drunk and naked and condemns all of his descendents to slavery, God finds Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and responds by declaring that all humans deserve punishment for this original sin.
The basic idea is that some individual has committed some moral transgression (or something alleged to have been a moral transgression). This means that some sort of punishment (retribution) is in order. However, for some reason people get it into their head that if Person A commits the crime, and Person B is related to Person A by race, by gender, by family membership, by church affiliation, or some other way, that justice can be served by doing harm to Person B.
So, Person B is then harmed as ‘punishment’ for Person A’s actions. Unfortunately, Person B himself, or Person B’s family and friends take the harm done to Person B as somehow unjust. Since an injustice has been done against Person B, some sort of retribution is in order. So, The Friends of Person B find Person C (who is in some way related to those who did harm to Person B) and they ‘obtain justice’ by doing harm to Person C.
Unfortunately, Person C has friends and family who consider this harm to be unjust . . .
In fact, everywhere where we see conflict ruining the lives of individuals, we hear speakers talking in terms of group responsibility, rather than individual responsibility. Everywhere we see peace, we see societies who, among other things, have a strong cultural dedication to ‘finding the person who was responsible for this.’ Anybody who was not responsible for the crime can rest assured that his or her life is secure. The fact that he or she shares some quality of race, gender, religion, family relationship, or some similar quality as the accused (other than the quality of being guilty), will not be used to condemn him or her.
Of course, this is a matter of degree. I am not talking here about societies that are completely given over to the doctrine of group responsibility, versus societies that are completely given over to the doctrine of individual responsibility. We will still hear people making ‘group responsibility’ claims in an ‘individual responsibility’ culture – and weak and feeble calls for peace from people making ‘individual responsibility’ claims in a ‘group responsibility’ culture. However, to the degree that we see a society descend into barbarism, I suggest that to this degree we see a society adopting a ‘group responsibility’ as their doctrine of ‘justice’.
Even within an individual, we can find cases where that individual is speaking the language of a ‘group responsibility’ adherent, versus speaking as an advocate of ‘individual responsibility’. Somebody who uses the doctrine of ‘individual responsibility’ will give specific names when speaking about transgressions, or speak in terms of those who actually commit transgressions (rapists, thieves, murderers, liars, sophists, bigots, people who shout into their cell phones while riding a public bus as if everybody else wants to be a part of her conversation). People who embrace the doctrine of ‘group responsibility’ use generic terms that are not conceptually linked to any transgression (atheist, liberal, conservative, sunni, black, white, gay, Muslim, Christian, secular, religious).
The series God’s Warriors presented interviews with Jews who became terrorists – one of which attempted to kill a number of Palestinian children at a girl’s school. Their plot failed, though they had gone as far as to plant the bomb near the school and to drive off. The moral doctrine behind this behavior was that it is permissible to seek ‘justice’ by doing harm (killing, maiming) people who had nothing at all to do with the transgressions against them.
We also see Israel adopting policies that do harm to all Palestinians equally. It does not seem to matter to them whether the Palestinian being harmed by their policies has anything to do with any transgressions within Israel. As long as one is a Palestinian, one may be legitimately harmed on this doctrine of ‘group responsibility’.
I am not going to even try to pretend that this is a ‘religious’ problem and that those who do not believe in God will not be tempted to adopt the doctrine of ‘group responsibility’. In fact, many of my previous posts have been very tightly focused on cases where I have discovered atheists speaking in terms of ‘group responsibility’ – condemning any and all people who believe in God as if they are all guilty (and can thus be punished) for the moral transgressions of the more fundamentalist theists.
I have had to remind atheist readers on a number of occasions that, “The proposition ‘at least one god exists’ is (almost certainly) true’, by itself has exactly the same moral implications as, “The proposition ‘at least one God exists’ is (almost certainly) false’. That is to say, none at all. In both cases, one needs to add a number of additional propositions – propositions about the nature of this god or these gods and their relationship to goodness in the first sense, propositions about the real-world facts about reasons for action in the second sense – before one can draw conclusions about morality.
Yet, at the same time, religion – particularly fundamentalist religion – seems to do a particularly poor job of teaching its follows to adopt a doctrine of ‘individual responsibility’ over ‘group responsibility’.
In recent years, we have heard a number of critics of the ‘new atheism’ refer to the writers in this genre as ‘atheist fundamentalists’. If we take the term ‘fundamentalist’ as ‘somebody who believes that some doctrine is beyond question and all who do not live their lives by strict interpretation of its doctrines are evil,’ then we can expect ‘atheist fundamentalists’ to be as common in the real world as ‘round squares’.
However, if we take the idea that ‘fundamentalism’ is somehow liked to ‘those who adopt an attitude of group responsibility – group credit for any who belong to their group, and group condemnation for all who do not belong,’ then this type of ‘atheist fundamentalist’ is certainly possible. This will be somebody who begins with a strong presumption that an agent is good merely because he is atheist and his action is just based solely on the fact that it targets theists. This can be held in contrast to somebody who begins with a strong presumption that an agent who mentions ‘Jesus’ favorably while speaking is a good person and that any policy that targets non-Christians is automatically just.
So, I worry that if the ‘new Atheism’ does not adopt a firm commitment to ‘individual responsibility’ over ‘group responsibility’ – of blaming and praising people by name or in terms conceptually linked to some wrongdoing – that, in the long run, they may not be any better than the people they condemn.
This is, in fact, one of my greatest worries about this ‘new Atheism’.