Sunday, December 09, 2007

Connecticut Valley Atheists: Imagine

A sign, erected by Connecticut Valley Atheists in front of town hall in Rockville, Connecticut, shows a picture of the two world trade center buildings and the words, "Imagine no religion."

This is wrong on so many levels. The most important level, however, is that it promotes a belief that is as absurd as any religion. It says that religion is a necessary for violent acts and, without religion, violent acts will not take place.

That statement is quite simply false.

I have argued in the past that when people make a mistake - when they embrace sophistry or fiction unsupported by evidence - it gives us a window into their moral character. We can ask why they made that mistake, as opposed to some other.

A plausable explanation in many cases is that desire has gotten in the way of well-founded belief. The agents want it to be the case that a particular conclusion is true. They want it so badly that they blind themselves to evidence and reason. They embrace fiction and sophistry in its place - anything to support the desired conclusion.

In this case, I would argue that the motivation behind this sign - behind thinking that this was a good idea - was hate. Some group of people did something that is hate-worthy. The authors of the message wanted to spread this hatred around - target it at people who were not actually guilty of the original crime, so they embrace a message that promote hatred of those the authors want to hate, rather than those who can actually be blamed.

We can imagine a similar sign - one showing a Soviet Galug or a pile of bodies in the former Soviet Union under Stalin with the caption, "Imagine No Religion" - a sign that blames all atheists for the crimes that only some atheists have committed.

In fact, this type of argument is heavily used on the other side of the debate. I have frequently argued against it - arguing that any who would use this type of reasoning is a hate-mongering bigot.

Any who would use this type of reasoning is, in fact, a hate-mongering bigot. And that goes for those who would approve of this "Imagine No Religion" sign.

I am not saying that we should be nice to theists simply for the sake of being nice to them - that out of 'respect' for their beliefs we should refrain from saying certain truths. In fact, I hold the opposite view, that respect for truth is more important than respect for any person or group's favorite fairy tales.

My criticism of this sign is not that it is unkind. My criticism is that the claim it makes is untrue - that the inference it draws is sophistry motivated by a desire to condemn the innocent.

It also portrays and promotes a set of values that I think we would be better off inhibiting rather than encouraging - the claim that we should value a good sound byte, a verbal jab aiming to inflict pain, over truth and reason. I think that the world has suffered enough from that type of attitude.

If the sign has any value at all it is as a 'reductio ad absurdum' of a line of reasoning popular among theists. Many are quite fond of blaming all atheists for the crimes of a few. We hear or read about it constantly - in references to Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot, and how these villains taint all atheists and prove the moral superiority of Christians.

The sophistry of that argument is well illustrated by the equal sophistry of blaming all of religion for the crimes of 9/11. This may well illustrate that sophistry, and the immoral attitudes that lie behind the use (exploitation) of that type of rhetoric to people who otherwise might find it difficult to grasp.

But that is its only value - to illustrate wrongness of using this type of association to those who do not understand it.

Those who do not understand it obviously includes the Connecticut Valley Atheists.


Pedro Timóteo said...

Alonzo, I usually agree with your opinions, but this time I have to disagree. I think that the message in that sign makes perfect sense.

The point is not that all believers are to blame for 9/11. Instead, it's that religion is to blame. It wouldn't have happened without it. Therefore, the implicit "accusation" makes sense. It's not against believers in general, but against religion.

It's completely different from the usual Stalin argument. Stalin's actions were by an atheist, but not caused by atheism.

Another implicit message of the sign is that the world would be better without religion, which I certainly cannot dispute. Religion doesn't need to be the only source of suffering to be a source of suffering -- and a major one, too.

Josh said...

I'm with pedro on this one. Would 9/11 have happened without religious fanatics?

I suppose that you may have purely politically motivated terrorism...

Hmm... perhaps a better sign would be 'imagine a would without dogma'

Then you have the stalin's and bin laden's all accounted for.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

There is a difference between saying that "religion" is responsible and saying that "a religion" is responsible - just as there is a difference between saying that "blacks" are responsible for a particular claim and saying that "a black man" is responsible for that crime.

The latter can be true or false. The former is false and speaks of bigotry.

In particular, it is 'problematic' (an understatment) to go from "A black man committed a crime" to "blacks are criminals". It is just as 'problematic' to from 'a religion is responsible for 9/11' to 'religion is responsible'.

I would have had no objection to the sign if it had said, "Imagine a world without THAT religion - the one that prompted 9/11' (and 'that religion' is not Islam, but a specific Islamic sect that advocates such harms).

A religion was responsible for 9/11. Not 'religion'.

Mike P said...

Sorry for posting anon - I don't have a blogger account. I agree with Alonzo completely on this. The 9/11 attack was carried out by muslims but, it wasn't about religion. It was about America's bad foreign policy, in particular -the middle east.
The animals responsible for 9/11 spent time in las vegas right before the attack presumably doing things that would make them unfaithful muslims at best.
Stalin killed 60 million Christians as part of his "Soviet purge". I would suggest Atheists are just as capable of causing suffering by horrific acts. Even more so because an Atheist presumably has no-one to answer to but, himself.
Inciting the mass slaughter of people who preport a faith that you cannot understand is a good idea to the Stalins and Hitlers of the world. Is that really the way Atheists see themselves? I would not know because I belong to the Orthodox Christian faith and in the last 2000 years, I find no historical evidence that we killed anyone for any reason.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Sometimes, I cringe when I read some of the things written by people who allegedly agree with me.

Your statement, "I would suggest Atheists are just as capable of causing suffering by horrific acts. Even more so because an Atheist presumably has no-one to answer to but, himself," is just as bigoted a statement as those that I was arguing against.

You come here and denigrate and insult me by saying that, because I am an atheist, people have more reason to fear the violence that I might do than from any theist - simply because I do not believe in God. You make these derogatory statements about a whole group of people without giving an ounce of consideration of their individual differences.

I am not Stalin, and the claim that I am morally inferior to you because of what Stalin did is as obnoxious as the claim that you are morally inferior to me because of what Bin Ladin did.

What morally responsible and just people do is assign blame to those individuals who are actually responsible and not use these crimes as reason to denigrate whole groups - many of whom are innocent of the accusations made against them.

Miguel Picanco said...

As much as I liked the activistic tying between 9/11 (an event that spurred secularists to wake up), religious extremism, and Lennon, Fyfe has hit the nail on the head yet again. It doesn't matter how well message was intended to be; if you actually communicate bigoted nonsense, then all you'll prove to do is give the people you mean to reach firepower to condemn you.

It's very tough to find a way to bring people together to support a cause without falling into the "us vs them" traps. Let's not take the easy way out and use the tools we don't like being used against us - no matter how effective they may seem to be.

Atheist Observer said...

It is not bigotry to state a truth. The truth is that the World Trade Center was destroyed as a religious act by religious people crying “God is Great.” If we imagine no religion we can imagine that the Trade Center would not have been destroyed.
As far as I can see no statement was made that every religion or every religious person was responsible. It’s just as one could show a world without religious art, and say, “Imagine no religion.” Without the Christian religion, we would have no statues of Jesus.
If we take the perpetrators of 9/11 at their word, they did it because of religion, so it follows that without religion they would not have done it. Just because every faith does not lead to this, it is still true that without faith this might not have happened. One need have no bigotry to make this observation.
Religions are quick to point out all the good done in God’s name. It is not bigotry to show an example of a “faith-based initiative” that was not so benign.

Eneasz said...

Atheist Observer -

While you are technically correct in every aspect, this is still bigotry. The message the billboard conveys is that religion led to 9/11, and thus all religion is bad. No one would draw the conclusion "Just because every faith does not lead to this, it is still true that without faith this might not have happened." when seeing that billboard. The imagery and wording were chosen for their ability to cause potential viewers to associate 9/11 with religious people. If this combination of images and words failed to produce such an association, a different set of images and words that did produce this association would have been chosen instead.

It is my opinion that religion is bad. And that a person with religion would always be better off without religion. However the tactic used is reprehensible, and we should not support it simply because we are atheists.

Thinfea said...

My initial reaction to this was that the sign was not morally condemnable but tactically a mistake.

My first thoughts were along the lines of Atheist Observer stated, that the specific act depicted in the sign was in fact the result of religion.

However, Eneasz makes a good point that most people seeing that sign will see the statement "Imagine no religion" juxtaposed with that image as a condemnation of all religion. To strong or rather to generalized a condemnation making it an expression of bigotry.

But wouldn't that also apply to John Lennon's song in general even with the image on the sign? The sentiment of that line in the song is exactly that without religion the would would be more harmonious. It does not seem right that the song Imagine should be considered a bigoted expression.

Is it just a matter of degree that is being objected to then? The shock factor of the image with the line? Certainly the song by itself isn't saying religion directly results in murder but it does say the world would be more harmonious, less divisive and doesn't that imply less acts of this sort?

I know that's how I feel although I also recognize that even without religion humans, particularly humans in a position of authority and/or power, would find reasons to hate other humans and cause suffering of any scale.

Kevin said...

I must compliment you on giving me something to think about. Initially, I didn't see that implication there (though I did find the timing of that particular imagery and it's pairing with a winter solstice display kind of odd, but that's another matter entirely). However, giving it greater thought, that particular message seems a likely possibility. It's my understanding that the image originated with Richard Dawkins website (whether created by him or someone else who contributed, I don't know), and such an interpretation could be consistent with some of his positions on the subject of religion (at least my limited understanding of them).

Anyway, the argument itself is definitely not something that should be made. Interestingly, one theme of support for the sign I saw on PZ Myer's blog Pharyngula was that criticism should be tempered because they're on "our side" and what they did was a brave effort that should be appreciated as such. Also, the "what are you doing?" brand of ad hominem argument was employed by a couple of people. It reminds me there is a temptation to fall into some of the same traps and behaviors of tribalism common to ideologies.

I'm not entirely sure I agree that this is the message they were shooting for, though. Without following the implications, the message that the Twin Towers would still be there if not for religion is more or less true. However, it's not a fair extrapolation from that to say that religion inherently leads to violence or that all violence stems from religion. On the other hand, religion does provide an environment to make some acts of violence more likely to occur, as without certain religious attitudes, the motivation is harder to implant in the first place.

In the US, there's a pretty heavy message that faith (the kind without evidence) is a virtue and dogma and superstition are supposed to be respected, even when directly contradicted by scientific and moral understanding. There does need to be a message showing the other side of those values and the harms that can and do arise from faith and respect for unquestioned, unfounded beliefs, but it needs to be communicated in the proper context that such values are not always necessary for and do not always necessarily lead to such harms.

I rather liked the other side of the display, though, which discussed some details about the winter solstice and how progress has led us to understand there's no need for superstitions to explain the functioning of the natural world. I think a pro-rationality message is preferable to and probably more effective in this circumstance than an anti-religion message while still accomplishing the effort of combating the elements of religion that pose the greatest risks.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


The view that something is permissible if it is done by somebody "on our side" is the very definition of hypocrisy. No doubt there are people who use the Stalin cliche against atheists (all atheists are evil because Stalin was an atheist and he was evil) who hold, "This is unfair and untrue, but it does not matter, because it is being said by people who are on our side."

Actually, "our side" in this case is not "my side". My side is against unjust, untrue, and sophistic reasoning in order to promote a desired conclusion. By definition, anybody who makes unjust, untrue, sophistic statements is not on "my side".

Your statement, "religion does provide an environment to make some acts of violence more likely to occur, as without certain religious attitudes, the motivation is harder to implant in the first place," is in need of empirical support.

In providing that support, the real case to be made is not just that "the specific violence in question is more likely," but "violence itself at a comparable level is more likely." If, for example, some religious prescription may make it more likely that a certain transgressor will be beheaded rather than hung, the relevant question is whether it leads to more unjust killing generally.

Christopher Hitchens is fond of saying that you can't name a good done in the name of God that an atheist cannot do for some other reason. Similarly, there is no evil done in the name of God that an atheist cannot 'justify' using some other set of reasons.

Kevin said...

Well, as I attempted to establish later in the post, the elements aren't necessarily limited to religion, but religion provides those elements. Namely, the dogma and faith elements provide a mechanism to encourage violence among people. Without those elements, bin Laden would have had a great difficulty in selling the plan to hijack planes in suicide runs to destroy several buildings (not that religion was the sole factor there). I'm not saying that religion is in itself a cause, but religion can be a source for elements that circumvent the reasoning and make such acts possible. However, history provides enough examples to show religion is hardly unique or consistent in this. The problem isn't necessarily religion itself, but instead respecting dogmatic ideological extremism and the values that support such positions of extremism. In hindsight, the use of "more likely" was a poor choice of words.

I'm still not sure the message that comes across is the message they were shooting for with the sign, but blaming religion itself for that kind of violence is failing to deal with the complexities of the matter and certainly not an accurate statement.

I'm also reminded of something Richard Dawkins said when Bill O'Reilly used the Hitler/Stalin argument. Dawkins pointed out that you could make the same argument, instead claiming that both Stalin and Hitler were evil because they had mustaches.

Dan Comfort said...

Alonzo said:

"There is a difference between saying that "religion" is responsible and saying that "a religion" is responsible - just as there is a difference between saying that "blacks" are responsible for a particular claim and saying that "a black man" is responsible for that crime."

If a bunch of white guys lynched a black guy, would it be ok to blame racism? It sounds like you'd want everybody to be sure to blame white-against-black racism. I blame racism.

And I think that it's ok to give some of the blame for 9/11 to religion, as the CVAs are doing. Those murderers definitely did what they did for their religion and that's worth pointing out. Good for them.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

dan comfort

Racism is defined as unjust and unwarranted attitudes towards another based on race. Racism is necessarily wrong for the same reason that circles are necessarily round. The question is never whether racism is permissible. The question is always whether a particular type of act counts as racism.

The same cannot be said of religion. Religion is not bad by definition such that whatever is not bad is necessarily not religion.

Once again, the fact that 'a religion' (or a set of religous beliefs) contributed to 9/11 (which I do not dispute) does not imply that religion is to blame - in the same way that the fact that 'a black man' committed a crime is evidence that all black men are to blame.

This hasty inference from the specific to the general is a fallacy. In logic textbooks it is called 'hasty generalization'.

Mike P said...


I apologize. I went the wrong way with the 'even more so' comment. After re-reading what I wrote, it does not properly convey what I think about it. I in no way walk around fearing Atheists as being any more likely to be violent people.

I did not take the time to comment on your blog in attempt to insult you or your readers.

Please, let me try this again: An Atheist is just as capable of causing suffering as a religious nutcase. Just as some religious nut acts on some imagined will of some pretend deity - One who recognizes no higher being other than themselves may justify the act because there is ultimately no-one to answer to, but themselves.

Please tell me if you perceive this comment as some bigoted, negative attack - I will gladly stop commenting and go back to into "just reading mode". :)

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mike P

I, of course, agree that converting a person to atheism does not necessarily make him a better person - or a worse person. It is like convincing a person that the Earth is not the center of the solar system - it has no affect on moral character.

Whether 'having somebody to answer to' makes one a better person depends on whether the 'somebody' one is answering to actually commands one to do good or not. A complaint against religous morality is that much of it was made up by substantially ignorant tribesmen. Their 'commandments' are not actually commandments to do good things. Answering to somebody who commands you to do things that are not good or right does not make one a better person either.

The 9/11 hijackers, for example, believed that they were answering to Allah - to somebody who commands that they commit such attrocities. The fact that they thought they were accountable to a higher force actually, in this case, helped encourage them to do evil.

In this type of case, a person who does not answer to anybody has a chance of being a better person than one who answers to somebody who commands him to do evil.

Ultimately, as I have argued, the propositions "At least one god exists" and "It is not the case that at least one god exists" are both morally neutral propositions. They do not say anything about good or evil. That comes from other claims that one adds to this.

Treating these as morally significant claims - and treating everybody who holds one proposition or the other as, by that fact alone, morally superior to the other is unjustified.

Pedro Timóteo said...

The message of the sign, in a strict sense, is that without religion the WTC would still be standing. Of course it's impossible to say that with 100% certainty (there could have been a natural disaster, or a man-made one, or even a politically-inspired terrorist act), but I think it's reasonably safe to assume that, without any religion in the world, the towers would still be there.

Individually, a person isn't "evil" or even "more dangerous" for having religious beliefs. I'm not arguing that. But religious faith, in general, is a problem, because religion allows people to be absolutely certain when they have no actual reasons for it. It's not the only source of that, but it's, again, a major one. Most cases of people being 100% sure of something with zero supporting evidence for it are related to religion.

If, to use Sam Harris' words, people's beliefs scaled with the available evidence -- as "no religion" would certainly require --, I'm pretty sure that the world would be a much better place. Not perfect, of course. But better.

Or, to use another approach: without religion, there would be no religion-inspired terrorism (though there would still be terrorism), no religion-inspired torture, no religion-inspired bans on promosing avenues of scientific research (e.g. stem cells), no religion-inspired sexism, no religion-inspired slavery, no religion-inspired foreign policy (e.g. dominionism), no religion-inspired homophobia... in other words, the world would be a significantly better place.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The claim that the sign is merely a description of a historical event and not a prescription to abandon religion is as disingenious as the claim that 'under God' in the pledge is merely a description of historical events and not a prescription for one nation under God.

And it shows that atheists are not immune from the human tendency to embrace sophistry and absurdity in support of a desired conclusion.

Think of a sign that says, "Imagine: No Arabs." We can defend such a sign the same way people are trying to defend the "Imagine: No Religion"sign. Yes, it is possible that some non-Arab might have some day attacked the towers. However, if we had a world without arabs, chances are, the towers would still be standing.

Does this justify the sentiment, "Imagine: No Arabs?"

No . . . because it blames a whole group of people who did nothing wrong.

Similarly, "Imagine: No Religion" blames a whole group of people who did nothing wrong.

Both versions are morally repulsive and for the same reasons.

Divided By Zer0 said...

To tell the truth, I read the sign to say:

Imagine no religion...No religious crimes.

Which I find true. Without religion there would indeed be no religious crimes.

As to Mike P's statement that Orthodox have not killed anyone...well HA! They have.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Yes, and without property there would be no property crimes, and without sex there would be no rape, and without political ideology there would be no political crimes.

Without hands there would be no pickpockets, castrate all the males and we can end the crime of rape, blind everybody and we can eliminate a whole lot of crime.

And, best of all, without people, there would be no crime at all.

This simply is not a good argument for a prescription against religion. In every case there is a huge block of people who can reasonably protest, "Why are you targeting me? I didn't do this."

Justice means blaming those people who are actually responsible for a crime. It does not permit condemning people for crimes they did not commit.

Divided By Zer0 said...

Alonzo, this is why we should be rate everything by judging the good vs the bad.

For example, without sex, there would also be no reproduction and we would miss it's extreme joy. Also without the sex urge that makes males rape, the reproductive drive would be much less which would lead to low birth rates (which, now that I mentioned it, is sorely needed)

Without hands there would be no pickpockets but there would also be no craft.

Without nuclear power, there would be no nuclear bombs, but also there would be no nuclear power and less research progress.

Without humans there would be no point :P

Nevertheless, you have to ask, what is the good that balances the bad of any religion? The Hitchens challenge states it best in this regard.
In my mind, without religion, you would lose the religious crimes but the "good" parts would remain, as they do not come from religion.

Matt E. said...

Hi Alonzo,
I have a hard time understanding how you equate "Imagine: No Religion" with "Imagine: No Arabs." "Religion" is not a group of people; it is a set of ideas and practices. If the same sign had read instead: "Imagine: No Aerodynamics," would you take that to mean that all airplanes are to be blamed for 9/11? Or would you take it to mean that if you couldn't fly any airplane, then no one would have flown those particular airplanes into the towers?

I suspect that you are reading the sign as "Imagine No Religious People," while I am reading it as "Imagine You Could Somehow Delete Religion." I think that my reading is the more obvious one, and the distinction is important to the claim of bigotry.

You also wrote: "[i]t says that religion is a necessary for violent acts and, without religion, violent acts will not take place."

No, it doesn't. It refers to a particular act of of religious violence; it certainly doesn't imply that violence comes only from religion.

P.S. Great post. It really got me thinking.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

matt e.

Let is take your suggested interpretation, "Imagine if you could somehow delete religion?" and ask a simple question.

"Why would I want to?"

The picture provides an answer to this question by saying that religion itself - not some subset of religious beliefs, but 'religion' itself - is responsible for 9/11.

The message is fear-mongering. It is designed to promote a fear reaction (feeding on the emotional response to 9/11), and associating it with the generic subject 'religion'.

It is a very simple and common marketing tactic - a simple association. Put 'religion' next to the towers so that people emotionally link the memory of seeing the towers destroyed to the word 'religion'.

Simple. Easy. And wrong.

Matt. E. said...

Hi Alonzo, I hope you'll forgive me for the lengthy post...

You wrote:"The picture provides an answer to this question by saying that religion itself - not some subset of religious beliefs, but 'religion' itself - is responsible for 9/11." (emphasis mine)

That's an unwarranted interpretation. There is a difference between saying "this is religion's fault" and "this would not have happened without religion." Fault (blame, responsibilty) implies more than causation - it implies intent. Religion caused the hijackers to be susceptible to bin Laden's fatwa (according to wikipedia, "[a] the Islamic faith is a ruling on Islamic law issued by an Islamic scholar"). Yes, we are talking about a particular subset of religion; that is what religion consists of: a bunch of religious subsets. If there were no religion, there would be no subsets.

You wrote: "The message is fear-mongering. It is designed to promote a fear reaction (feeding on the emotional response to 9/11), and associating it with the generic subject 'religion'."

I question whether you can call it fear-mongering when the sign asks you to imagine a world in which the 9/11 attacks did not happen. The picture they use is really quite enchanting, showing the sun setting between the two towers. But considering that I am not an American and not religious, perhaps I am less afraid of terrorists, and maybe that biases me. I do see that the subject of 9/11 is extremely upsetting (it upsets me, too), but I don't see how that makes it taboo as a rhetorical tool. I have a hard time imagining anyone seeing that sign and thinking "Yeah, all religious people are as dangerous as the 9/11 highjackers! Let's arrest all the Christians!" So what is the harm of the sign? It might be offensive to some people, but it is not bigotry.

You wrote: "It is a very simple and common marketing tactic - a simple association. Put 'religion' next to the towers so that people emotionally link the memory of seeing the towers destroyed to the word 'religion'. Simple. Easy. And wrong."

Sure, it is a simplistic statement. You're right that it is an old Marketing Gimmick, but what is wrong with that? The intention is to capture attention, make people question the widespread assumption that religion is always a force for good, and hopefully get a few people to visit their website and find out what they intended. If you could honestly say that religion played absolutely no role in the motives of the 9/11 attackers, then the sign's message would be clearly false. But that is not so. Al Quaeda's attacks are based on bin Laden's fatwa entitled "Declaration of War against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Places." All the evidence suggests that there were religious motivations behind the attacks.

I think we probably both would agree that it would be wrong to say that violence only comes from religion, or even that suicide attacks only come from religion. Nothing in life is so simple. But we're talking about a sign promoting atheism, not a statement of intent, not an essay, not a paragraph. Three words that suggest a conclusion that is absolutely supported by evidence: In an imaginary world without religion, that horrible attack would not have happened. Just that attack, not all attacks. It does not say that religion is all bad or that all religions are bad. Claiming otherwise is to attack a straw man.

Let me finish by quoting the CVAs themselves:
"Since we erected our holiday display in Vernon we have received several emails suggesting that the World Trade Center design was inappropriate. This is our response."
"Al Qaeda is not an evil organization which happens to be religious (such as the Nazis were), but rather an organization whose evil is directly caused by its religious beliefs. If its members were Atheists instead the WTC would still be intact. There's no reason for people to be offended because a display promoting Atheism touts what would be an advantage of Atheism, just because they would prefer a different way of accomplishing the same end. We would not be offended if a religious group put up a sign showing the intact WTC with the text, "Imagine all religions relying on absolute moral principles and rejecting the idea that morality is derived from the will of God as revealed by holy scripture.", although it would be pretty hard to read that while driving down Route 74." (