Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Theism, Atheism, and Justifying Harm

I have a comment from a member of the studio audience that I would like to use as a foil for discussing some principles regarding atheism, theism, and violence.

I am not sure you can compare atheism to religion, and a religious motivated murder to an atheistic one. Atheism provides no reasoning to kill religious people or anyone else. Many religious scriptures provides numerous reasons to kill others.

Notice that the author attempts to compare atheism with “many religious scriptures”. This is not a legitimate comparison. A legitimate comparison would be to compare atheism with theism.

I define atheism as “the belief that the proposition ‘it is not the case that at least one God exists,” is almost certainly true.” Theism, then, is defined as ‘the belief that the proposition ‘at least one God almost certainly exists’ is true.” The range between these two beliefs will qualify as agnostic for the purposes of this posting and will not be of any further concern.

The proposition, “It is not the case that at least one God exists” if true, would tell us absolutely nothing about what we ought or ought not to do. It is a purely descriptive statement and does not contain any value component whatsoever. In order to make value claims we have to add something to this proposition. Thus, it is true that atheism provides no reasoning to kill.

However, the proposition, “At least one God almost certainly does exist,” is just as empty. By itself, it tells us nothing about what we should or should not do. It is an entirely descriptive statement that has no prescriptive component at all. In order to make value claims we have to add something to this proposition. Thus, it is true that theism provides no reasoning to kill.

The other things that one can add to this proposition can include claims about reasons to kill. Yet, on this measure, the things that a person adds to the proposition that no God exists also can include claims about reason to kill. Here, too, atheism and theism are on equal footing. However, different bundles of additional propositions that one can add to atheism and theism may well be on different footings.

The author in this case commits the fallacy that atheists love to make when they want to promote an unreasoned claim of atheist superiority over theists. Instead of comparing atheism to theism, he compares atheism to “many religious scriptures.” Conversely, instead of comparing “many religious scriptures” to “many philosophies that hold that it is almost certainly the case that no God exists,” he compares “many religious scriptures” to “atheism”.

This is repeated where the author writes:

Unlike some religions, atheism is not culpable in the murder of a theist.

Here, too, we see atheism being compared, not to theism, but to “some religions.” The proper comparison for “some religions” is “some philosophies that contain the proposition that it is almost certainly the case that o God exists.”

However, some philosophies that include the proposition, “It is almost certainly the case that no God exists” is fully culpable for the murder of theists. The French Revolution and communism are examples. I agree and defend the claim that you cannot use Stalin as a reason to condemn atheism – and that attempts to do so are hate-mongering bigotry. However, I do not deny that you can use Stalin as reason to condemn certain philosophies that happen to include the proposition, “It is almost certainly the case that no God exists.”

The same is true of religion. 9/11 cannot legitimately be used to condemn theism. Attempts to do so represent hate-mongering bigotry. However, it provides us with a perfectly legitimate reason to condemn certain philosophies that happen to include the proposition, “It is almost certainly the case that a God exists.”

I agree that many religions get some of the moral facts wrong. However, many secular philosophies get some of the moral facts wrong as well. Ayn Rand Objectivism and Stalinism are two examples. Common subjectivism, act-utilitarianism, Kantianism, intuitionism, emotivism, all get some of the moral facts wrong as well. Because they get the moral facts wrong, they can all be used to inspire people to do things that, in fact, they should not do – or inspire them to refrain from doing something they should do.

If a desire utilitarian gets the moral facts wrong, then it, too, is a theory that inspires people to do that which they ought not to do, and to refrain from doing that which it ought. The fact that it is tied to the proposition that it is almost certainly the case that no God exists does not save it from the possibility that it is a godless ideology that might well be used to inspire people to commit murder.

In fact, every atheist philosophy either prohibits all killing or allows that there are cases in which a person may be legitimately killed. This is true by definition, and it perfectly matches what is true of religion. Every theist philosophy either prohibits all killing or allows that there are cases in which a person ay be legitimately killed.

And every act of killing that humans have written into scripture (which was invented by humans without any divine inspiration or intervention) can be written into a philosophy that does not include the proposition that God exists. Remember, humans invented the morality that they assign to God, and are perfectly free to invent the same morality and assign it to something other than God. Intrinsic values, perhaps,

There is no factual difference between the two.

The differences that are claimed are pure rhetoric. People do not embrace them because they have any roots in reason. People embrace them because they are useful pieces o rhetoric and, thus, have value to people who value the usefulness of a claim in promoting hatred more than they value truth and reason.

10 comments:

Baconsbud said...

This is a very good point and one I never thought about. Basically until something is written about beliefs neither can be said to provide anything more then a view. I would still say that there are a lot more written words that different theist use which can be used to justify acts of hate while atheist writers as I know them tend to avoid hate.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Baconsbud

I can ask whether you believe this because you are driven to it by the evidence or whether your will to believe it colors your interpretation of the evidence.

One thing I can say is that religious morality comes from somewhere - and that somewhere is NOT God.

Instead, it is invented by humans and assigned TO God.

There is nothing to prevent people from inventing exactly the same moral principles and assigning them to a secular source, such as intrinsic value, a moral sense, or an evolved disposition.

Because no God exists, religion itself does not have a divine source. It has a secular source, as does the morality written into that religion.

Mike said...

First off, I regret that my post implies the “atheist superiority over theists.” I do not support that claim. On a theoretical level, I agree that it is fallacious to compare Atheism to particular theistic religions, rather than to it's logical opposite, 'Theism.'

On a practical level, though, I can defend the comparison. Theists do not exist, while Atheists do exist. There is no actual person who holds the simple proposition that at least one God exists. That person holds a proposition that a particular god or gods exist, and demands we do x. However, there are people who simply hold the proposition that God does not exist, and have no subsequent propositions based on that assertion- other then proposing a negation of assertions attributed to the will of Gods of specific religions.

Furthermore, there is no societal conflict between Atheists and Theists. There is a societal conflict between Atheists: those who assert god does not exist or is relevant in public discourse, and the assertions of specific religions: asserting a particular god exists, is revealed in scripture, and says we should do x in our public sphere.

It does us no good to debate generic claims of Theism vs Atheism. In a real-life situation, a debate between an Atheist and a Theist is not a debate on the existence of a god in the generic sense. It is always a debate about the existence and proclamations of their god versus that god’s non-existence, and the subsequent negation of that god’s claims.

Getting back to our Atheistic-motivated murder of a religious person- I guarantee the Atheist will be choosing a particular target based on his or her hatred of that particular religion. This should not spark a debate about the morality of Atheism vs. Theism- but a discussion about the bigotry and bias that murderer has towards the particular religion of the victim. It is incorrect to consider Atheism being responsible for such a murder- it is another indirectly related set of propositions that resulted in the murder. Not necessarily true for a ‘Theist’ – as a particular Theist is bound to any subsequent propositions of their religion, including those that advocate murder – if not, that they are not of that religion. This is not to say that Atheism is superior to Theism- this is to say that Atheism is not a religion or value system- rather it is a negation of values based on the proclamations of Gods.

Kip said...

The implication of those bashing theism, is that it leads to other false beliefs, which can lead to poor decisions, and immoral actions. Theists bash atheism for the same reason.

Which reminds me of a question I had regarding DU:

If I believe that God wants me to do X, and that if I do it, he will fulfill more & stronger future desires of all people (perhaps in heaven), but if I don't, then he will thwart more & stronger future desires of all people (perhaps in hell), then should I do X?

Mike said...

No one should engage in or support the 'bashing' of anyone. Atheists do equal wrong as anyone when the generalize, mock, stereotype, and insult people for their particular religion. That is not an Atheistic or Theistic concern, that is a universal ethical proposition. Any Atheist who also wishes to be 'good', should condemn such acts be mindful of avoiding violent language when confronting religious propositions and persons, even those that are bigoted.

From my experience, when debating important issues with a Theist of a particular religion, it's not useful to have even a reasoned and respectful debate over the existence of their god- rather it is better that I would argue for my right and for the possibility that we can live in a moral and free society irrespective of the proclamations of their God(s).

Atheism should not be relevant in moral debates or considerations beyond one objective- negating moral propositions for reason of God's will- especially when we are looking for universality in morality. Those who are looking for to make the world a better place, should want equally that the concepts of God, and no-God to have no bearing on universal moral considerations for our civilization. Otherwise, we would fail to achieve Universality.

Kip said...

By "bash", I mean to strongly criticize. I said bashing "theism", the belief, not the person. I think that bashing false beliefs can be a very good thing.

Mike said...

Alonzo-

After more consideration, I now understand my conceit expressed in the original post.

I think, as an Agnostic, I hold my resulting values superior to those of the theists of the dominant religions, because my values are universal. Most religious values as they exist are not- they are only meant for those that belong to the particular religion.

Additionally, a majority of theists of the prevailing religions hold ideas that I think are inferior to mine, because their beliefs, at their scriptural foundation, include a certain amount of bigotry- notably an assumption of a greater entitlement to life, liberty, and moral superiority

Agnosticism/Atheism by definition, merely negates those assertions- resulting in my only claim that they are not superior, and we are in fact equal. The only superiority that I claim to possess that of universality and equality.

Did I infer otherwise? Am I wrong in my conceit of the superiority of Universality?

Baconsbud said...

I can't say it is evidence but what I have gotten from reading both theist and atheist writings. Of course I haven't read a lot of stuff by either but what I have seen written leads me to believe theist tend to hate more the atheist.

I don't disagree with you about morals. All morals come from how we are raised and the rules applied within groups. You can look within the USA and see how different areas of the country have different morals based on mostly what someone within religion says their morals should be.

I do wonder how peoples morals would be different if religion had never existed.

Eneasz said...

Mike, I think you're being a bit disingenious.

Theists do not exist, while Atheists do exist. There is no actual person who holds the simple proposition that at least one God exists.

In that case, no Atheists exist either, because there is no actual person who holds the simple proposition that at no god exists. They also hold other propositions as well.

particular Theist is bound to any subsequent propositions of their religion, including those that advocate murder – if not, that they are not of that religion.

Again, using this definition, there are no Christians (and probably no religions at all). There is no person on earth bound to all the propositions of Christianity. It is impossible to be so bound, because some of them directly contradict each other. People must choose which propositions to uphold and which to disregard.

Kip-
If I believe that God wants me to do X, and that if I do it, he will fulfill more & stronger future desires of all people (perhaps in heaven), but if I don't, then he will thwart more & stronger future desires of all people (perhaps in hell), then should I do X?

Speaking based only on my own understanding of DU, what someone believes has no impact on what she SHOULD do. If your hypothetical X is something that a person who has [all the desires and aversions that all people generally have reasons to promote in others: shorthanded to "good" for the rest of this comment] desires would do, then you should do it. If not, then you shouldn't.

Of course what someone believes DOES have impact on what they WILL do. But that's a different question than what they SHOULD do. For example, someone who believes rat poison is delicious and non-harmful WILL feed it to their children, then tho they SHOULDN'T feed it to their children. That's why people have many strong reasons to have correct beliefs.

Mike said...

Eneasz

"Disingenuous - lacking in frankness, candor, or sincerity"

I hope not. I am trying be nothing if not sincere and frank in my comments.

What I meant by the statement that "theists do not exist" is that a theist is a descriptive term about a person who believes in a God, but is not in itself, the belief. Is just a derivative descriptor. A person considers them self Christian, Jewish, Muslim, etc, not a Theist.

An Atheist is different- that is the practical label one applies to oneself of they do not believe in God. Lots of people call themselves Atheists, the same way a person would call themselves a Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

For that reason, I am claiming it is acceptable make practical comparisons of Atheism to specific religions, rather than its conceptual opposite, theism.

Also, I should rescind the statement , "-then they are not of that religion." I meant to just propose that you can't say your are something, and then disavow a definition of that something. A Christian must believe the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ forgives original sin- or else they are not really a Christian.

Also let's say that a particular Theist is liable instead of bound to any subsequent propositions made on behalf of their religion, including those that advocate murder. For example, I think it is acceptable to challenge a Christian about how Dr Tiller's murder relates to their beliefs, as long as the murderer attempts to cite Christian scripture -the source of Christian belief- to commit the murder.

I would be just as liable if I purported some ideology whose propositions could advocate a crime- atheist or not. Atheism, at it's conceptual core does not advocate anything other than negating religiously divined propositions.

Therefore, I was arguing that it is inaccurate to suggest a crime could motivated by Atheism, equivalent to the way a crime may be motivated by the scriptural propositions of a particular religion. There must be other propositions at work.

The conclusion I offer, is that Atheism should not be thought of as a religion or value system, and we should not let it be considered one, lest its meaning get diluted or co opted by another ideology. We should not worry about future Atheist murderers, we should worry about the statements of anti-religious bigots turning into violence. We should also be worried that the media might try and conflate anti-religious bigotry with being an Atheist.