Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Talking About Atheism Part II: The Evils of Religion

This is the second in a short series of posts on Greta Christina's article in AlterNet describing why atheists have to talk about atheism.

(See: Alternet, Why Do Atheists Have To Talk About Atheism)

Reason 2: The Evils of Religion

Another part – and probably more important – is that many atheists see religion not just as a mistaken idea but as a harmful one . . . We see people bombing buildings, abusing children, committing flagrant fraud, shooting political dissenters, etc., . . . all behind the armor of religion . . . and we feel the need to speak out.

Yes, atheist bigots do this.

There is a principle of logic called modus tollens that says that if A implies B, then whatever counts as a reason for rejecting B also implies the rejection of A.

So, if the proposition, "at least one God exists" entailed that it is legitimate to bomb buildings, abuse children, commit flagrant fraud, or shoot political dissenters, then the reasons that exist to reject those conclusions would also imply that we should reject the proposition that at least one God probably exists.

However, the simple fact is that A does not imply B in this case. You cannot draw any moral implications from the simple proposition, "At least one God exists." Therefore, the claim that the reasons we have to reject B are reasons to reject A violate the fundamental principles of logic.

This, in turn, is evidence atheists are just as capable as theists at letting their need to denigrate others cloud their thinking, causing them to embrace illegitimate arguments purely because it helps them to feel good about treating others unjustly.

Religions are make-believe stories. As such, people do not get their morality from religion. Instead, they assign their morality to religion. All of the moral faults that one might assign to those who believe in God are a part of human nature.

The evils that some people assign to God others are just as capable of assigning to a non-religious moral power.

Intrinsic values, categorical imperatives, social contracts, impartial observers, Gaia, man-qua-man, the fundamental nature of humans, these are all just as imaginary as any God. As such, people are just as capable of assigning their evils to these entities as they are of assigning their evils to God. Any one of these can be turned into a justification for bombing a building, or for shooting a political dissenter.

We see this in Sam Harris' argument in defense of torture, Christopher Hitchens' defense of the invasion of Iraq, the defense of defrauding churches of their property (when PZ Myers sought a communion wafer to desecrate), and, indeed, the very example of illogical and unjust anti-theist bigotry being discussed in this posting.

We also have moral subjectivism, by which an agent can justify anything he wants to do merely by recognizing the fact that he wants to do it.

Those who want to give their natural desires an illusion of legitimacy without assigning them to God can now assign them to evolution instead. On this account we have evolved a moral sense such that if one has no 'evolved sense' that something is wrong, then it isn’t wrong.

If the block the channels by which people assign their prejudices to God to give them an illusion of legitimacy, it is a simple matter to shift to one of these other non-religious channels instead. These evils come from human nature itself, and it is foolish to think that atheists are somehow immune (or that you can make somebody a better person merely by changing his beliefs about God).

The real culprit here is not belief in God. The real culprit is the practice of blinding oneself to easily disproved logical fallacies embraced, not because they are reasonable, but because they give an illusion of legitimacy to a conclusion that one finds emotionally appealing.

The practice of claiming that 'religion' is responsible for bombings, shielding child abuse, and shooting political dissenters rather than ‘rationalization’ turns out to be just one more example of people abandoning reason to give an emotionally appealing conclusion an illusion of legitimacy.

15 comments:

יאיר רזק said...

The argument is more subtle than how you present it. It isn't argued that atheism leads to good and religion into evil, but rather that religious modes of thought are more susceptible to corruption towards evil than bright (reason-based, naturalistic, atheism) modes of thought. Exemplar-thinking overrides one's natural good instincts by identifying a false image of God with The Good, a slave-mentality takes pleasure in obeying the imaginary god without question, faith leads people to accept ridiculous propositions on how the world works that lead to evil actions (such as prohibiting condoms), and so on.

I think Hitchins' title is spot-on - religion poisons everything, with its many faulty ways of thought. It isn't that these will necessarily lead to evil, but they tend to lead there too often. Where I disagree with him is in that he is maintaining religion doesn't also lead to good, which I think is obviously wrong; whether the good is outweighed by the bad I'm not sure about, but I suspect in our day and age it is - and of course, it's just wrong.

We also have moral subjectivism, by which an agent can justify anything he wants to do merely by recognizing the fact that he wants to do it.
What is this mythic "justification" you speak of? Subjectivism doesn't allow anyone to "justify" his actions, not really, only to make explicit his motivations. Under subjectivism, a psychopath is right to have tortured children from his perspective - but is wrong from the perspective of normative people. That isn't justification, it is an accurate description of their respective desires.

Mike said...

The practice of claiming that 'religion' is responsible for bombings, shielding child abuse, and shooting political dissenters rather than ‘rationalization’ turns out to be just one more example of people abandoning reason to give an emotionally appealing conclusion an illusion of legitimacy.

You have said this many times, but this post is by far the best.

I would like you to address, however, a perceived inequity that still concerns me. Criticizing and condemning specific 'rationalizations' (and their proponents) of a religion is often construed as 'bigotry,' while violently suggestive condemnations against my non-religious reasoning/rationalizations are perfectly acceptable- even explicitly encouraged within the foundational texts of a religion.

Furthermore, our forum for public discourse is willing to allow this kind religious speech, but is reticent to allow counter arguments that condemn these religious proclamations and the members who support them.

I might want to say, 'Your holy book is despicable because, among other things, it proscribes hatred and violence against non-believers of your religion. Furthermore, I contend your assertion that it comes from God, and I suggest that it is a work of fiction. I condemn you for continuing to support the outrageous and evil claims and actions of the God character in your book."

It is likely that I would be labeled a bigot towards that religion and its members. I suspect a news outlet would censor that speech as such, and I would loose a public appointment if I was documented making such a statement.

They say to me, "As written in my book, you are condemned to eternal suffering, not worthy of life. This country was founded by and expressly for members of my faith, and as a heathen, you are not entitled to your share in its governance."

That sort of speech is broadcast and repeated, often by people seeking public office, and people who support this are given the protection of "religious expression." They are not challenged on their claims, and are furthermore allowed to freely attack, demonize, adherents of all manner of secular philosophies that politically oppose them.

This inequity is largely the source of irrational expressions against theists by atheists. They feel marginalized, threatened, and afraid, and resort to demonetization of religion to provide a focus for their anger and fear.

The relevant questions are: How does the 'losing' side maintain the will to fight rationally, and not resort to emotional rationalizations in the face of constant defeat? Is is not the emotional experience of being oppressed that motivates and intensifies the desire to resist in the first place? Are not 'the losers' in this unequal exchange entitled to some forgiveness for their irrationality given the emotional experience of being oppressed?

Doug S. said...

"At least one god exists" is a proposition whose truth, or lack thereof, doesn't imply very much. Indeed, as you say, it doesn't entail that we should go and "bomb buildings" and such.

On the other hand, many religions do make claims that entail that we should do things that, if the religion wasn't true, would be evil. If there were a God who sends everyone who isn't a follower of our religion to a Hell of eternal torment, as many religions assert, it does indeed entail that we ought to go out and use force to convert others, torture heretics into recanting, and many of the other horrors of medieval Christianity and Islam.

"Mere" theism might not be evil, but there are specific religions that do, in fact, cause great evil, and that should be condemned.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Doug S.

"Mere" theism might not be evil, but there are specific religions that do, in fact, cause great evil, and that should be condemned.

Yep.

Which is precisely why I argue for the practice of keeping one's moral condemnation precisely focused on those who are actualy guilty.

I wrote above that people assign their morality to God, and those who have evil inclinations create an evil God. They create their God in their own (morally flawed) image, then they look at it and call it good in order to give their own evil an illusion of legitimacy.

This is to be condemned when and where it happens.

However, the criticism must remain properly focused on those who are actually guilty of assigning an evil to God to give it the illusion of legitimacy.

Pedro Timóteo said...

I wrote above that people assign their morality to God, and those who have evil inclinations create an evil God. They create their God in their own (morally flawed) image, then they look at it and call it good in order to give their own evil an illusion of legitimacy.


I agree that's true of religious "leaders" (religion founders, sect founders, cult leaders, preachers, authors, and so on), but what about the "flock"? The three major religions in the world have holy books that teach faith as a virtue, villify skepticism and critical thinking, and promote bigotry (and often even violence) against women, gays, nonbelievers, and more.

You say we can't condemn "religion" because it's just the statement "at least one god exists", but can't we condemn Christianity, Islam, and so on? Yes, there are many liberal believers, but in this context "liberal" just means "ignoring parts of their religion", which means their religion is still evil.

Jayman said...

Alonzo, speaking as a theist, you are simply wrong when you state that people assign their morality to religion and do not get their morality from religion. Your statement may be true in some cases but it is not true as a blanket statement.

Here is how I see religion modifying people's desires. The person becomes convinced that a specific religion is true. That religion has certain commandments. Following those commandments leads to praise and reward from the deity while not following those commandments leads to condemnation and punishment from the deity. These promised consequences cause people to desire what their religion commands of them.

This realization allows us to predict and explain the actions of religious people. We can explain why Muslims make up a disproportionate number of terrorists. We can predict that an offensive cartoon of Muhammad may set off riots while an offensive piece of art about Jesus will not.

Your theory of morality and religion just raises questions. Are we to believe that Muslim communities, for some unknown reason, create more terrorists than non-Muslim countries? Are we to believe that Quakers are born pacifists while most other people are not? The list could go on.

Jayman said...

Pedro, why insist that religious leaders create God in their own image? Can they not be sincere in their beliefs? How are they different from "the flock" which apparently can get morality from religion?

Andy said...

To the first post:

Why associate theism with not being reason-based and atheism with being reason based? Surely, there is no logical implication between being theistic and being anti-reason or unreasonable. There may be a contingent one based on observation (how you would test for this, I have no idea) but that would not prove that religion poisons everything. One can easily just say false beliefs lead to evil, so that false beliefs poison everything.

One can be an atheist and have a false belief about intrinsic values. One can falsely believe there is intrinsic value in cutting off the arms of children. This would tend to cause one to do evil things. However, is it the belief in intrinsic value that is to blame or the belief that intrinsic value exists in cutting off children's arms? If you say intrinsic value, then one could easily say that other beliefs about intrinsic value do not cause people to do evil things. You could then reply that belief in intrinsic value gives people more probability to put intrinsic value places where it doesn't belong. However, does this prove someone shouldn't believe in intrinsic value?

Not all beliefs in intrinsic value lead to evil. In the same way, not all religious beliefs will lead to evil. Some may have no consequence on whether someone commits good or evil and some may lead people to good.

So, some religions poison everything is what should be concluded. Some religious beliefs will never lead to evil. Say the belief that God commands us to care for others. How can this lead to evil? (Without reinterpreting it to the extreme or with some extreme exception or without adding in other false beliefs)

One can believe God commanded us to care for others. Many atheists also believe we should care for others. How can the former belief be more likely to lead to evil but not the latter?

Sabio Lantz said...

As an atheist, I am pleased to see a fellow atheist argue against self-righteous atheists.

Andy said...

You may respond that belief in God or intrinsic values is not based on reason since there are no good arguments/evidence for either. If you respond that way, your argument has the following form.

1. The evidence/arguments for God is insufficient to prove he exists.

2. Some beliefs make it more likely or tend to cause people to do evil.

3. Belief in God or belief in a religion is this type of belief (refer to premise 2).

4. If a belief is of the type described in premise 2, one should not believe it.

5. Hence, one should not believe in God or any religion.

There are many criticisms one can throw out.

The first is premise 1. Surely not all theists will agree with you there.

Premise 3 is not true. Certain beliefs about God will cause people to be more likely or overall likely to do evil. Show me a person who committed evil in the name of religion and I'll show you a specific belief about God (that is not implied by the belief that God exists) that caused it. Or, if the religious belief contains no reference to God, one can then condemn that belief and not the belief in God.

Premise 4 seems false. A belief of the type described in premise 2 may have very good evidence backing it. If this is the case, one should believe it regardless of the consequences that may result. Surely, the more likely and worse the evil is that results from the belief means a good person would hold the standard of evidence that much higher. That doesn't mean the standard can't be overcome though.

You may want to change premise 4 to say the following:

4'. If a belief has no good evidence and either increases the probability or makes it more likely than not a person with that belief will do evil, then one should not believe it.

I'm not convinced this is true. There may be other benefits of a belief of this type to the agent or others which causes it to still be okay to believe something of this type. Even leaving this alone for now, one should notice you're looking at the consequences of a belief, not only the evidence for it. Given this, one could say a belief in God that increases the probability of a good act with no evidence/arguments in its favor should be believed. I doubt this is a conclusion you would endorse. (Or perhaps that any belief whatsoever with no evidence or no good arguments towards it should be believed if it increases the probability or tends to cause people to do good.)

If you don't endorse this, then why talk about the evil consequences of a belief at all? Why not just leave it at there are no good arguments/pieces of evidence and be done with it?

Eneasz said...

Pedro -
in this context "liberal" just means "ignoring parts of their religion", which means their religion is still evil.

Every religious person ignores parts of their holy book. This is a necessity, because holy books frequently contradict themselves. What seperates one religion from another is which parts they choose to ignore. Those who ignore the evil parts are good religions, and those who ignore the good parts are evil religions. For a shining example of a good religion, I would direct you to The Slacktivist.

Jayman -
speaking as a theist, you are simply wrong when you state that people assign their morality to religion and do not get their morality from religion.

People are born into a religion, yes. But they choose how to interpret that religion. They choose to go to a liberal church or a fundamentalist church. Sometimes they choose to change religions entirely. They do this so that the religion they practice will confirm to their morality, not the other way around.

Following those commandments leads to praise and reward from the deity while not following those commandments leads to condemnation and punishment from the deity.

Allow me to modify this. As no deity has ever praised or reward (or condemend or punished) anyone, it would be more accurate for you to say that "their peers, leaders, and others who's opinions they value, will praise/reward or condemn/punish them for following/disregarding those commandments"

why insist that religious leaders create God in their own image? Can they not be sincere in their beliefs?

Why insist that these are mutually exclusive? Most believers are sincere in their beliefs, yet most believers have created a god in their own image. This is the way human psychology works, there is no mystery to it.

Jayman said...

Eneasz:

People are born into a religion, yes. But they choose how to interpret that religion. They choose to go to a liberal church or a fundamentalist church. Sometimes they choose to change religions entirely. They do this so that the religion they practice will confirm to their morality, not the other way around.

Your theory fails to explain why people change their morality at the moment of conversion. Many converts become convicted of their past sins. In other words, they find that their morality prior to their conversion was wrong.

Why insist that these are mutually exclusive? Most believers are sincere in their beliefs, yet most believers have created a god in their own image. This is the way human psychology works, there is no mystery to it.

I'll take people at their word rather than assuming I know better than they do why they believe what they believe. Positing that most believers are sincere but still create a god in their own image is a belief that is impervious to reason.

Eneasz said...

Hello Jayman.
Your theory fails to explain why people change their morality at the moment of conversion. Many converts become convicted of their past sins. In other words, they find that their morality prior to their conversion was wrong.

My claim would be that these people did not change their morality at the moment of conversion, but rather that they had been changing for a while, and looking for a way to solidify that change. Much like how a couple doesn't fall in love the moment they are married, but we still consider marriage a significant ceremony.

Unfortunatly this is only conjecture, and not backed up by any studies I know of. However I believe the same can be said of your "changed morality at the moment of conversion" claim.

I'll take people at their word rather than assuming I know better than they do why they believe what they believe.

Well, assuming that people are generally sincere in their beliefs IS taking them at their word. Observing that people create gods in their own image (and always have) is simply an empirical observation. It is well-documented that people are often motivated by reasons they don't consciously recognize, and may even deny. However we can still discover what these underlying reasons are. I'm not trying to be derogatory when I say people create gods in their own image. It's a part of being human, and I know I do similar things myself. All humans run on corrupted hardware.

Jayman said...

Eneasz:

My claim would be that these people did not change their morality at the moment of conversion, but rather that they had been changing for a while, and looking for a way to solidify that change . . . . Unfortunatly this is only conjecture, and not backed up by any studies I know of. However I believe the same can be said of your "changed morality at the moment of conversion" claim.

My claim is based on listening to people talk about their conversion and observing radical changes in behavior after a conversion. I would not call that conjecture.

Observing that people create gods in their own image (and always have) is simply an empirical observation. It is well-documented that people are often motivated by reasons they don't consciously recognize, and may even deny. However we can still discover what these underlying reasons are.

How do you know someone is creating a god in his own (moral) image? What empirical observation allows you to differentiate between a believer who created his god in his own image and one who did not?

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