Thursday, November 19, 2009

Religion, Condemnation, and Appeals to Scripture

In light of some recent discussion, I think it is time to specify some basic propositions.

(1) There is no God.

Some people may be distressed by this fact. However, I am under no obligation to bury the truth simply because someone cannot handle the truth. In order for people to best fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given the fact that they act to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires given their beliefs, they need true beliefs. Belief that a God exists is not on the list.

Even if there is a God, we know nothing about its qualities. It could be a childish God who created the earth and its occupants at set us to war against each other for its own amusement. Or it could be a bored God concerned with something else in some other part of the universe where we are an unforeseen side-effect that God cares nothing about. Or it could be a God who is more impressed with the human who uses its brain and available evidence to conclude that it does not exist than with those who shamelessly assert that faith is a virtue. All claims about what God is like have to be justified separately from the proposition that a God exists.

(2) Belief that a God exists is not morally objectionable.

We all have false beliefs. None of us have time to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason and sort them all out, so we all have unfounded false beliefs.

Consider a person with no beliefs. How does he hold that first belief up to the light of reason to judge whether to accept it or not? He cannot. Our first beliefs are acquired arationally. Later beliefs are evaluated in part based on their coherence with these early arational beliefs. They help to select subsequent beliefs. It is a method prone to error. If people are to be held in moral contempt for every false belief they adopt, then we must hold everybody - even ourselves - in moral contempt.

(3) People who base behavior harmful to the interests on others on scripture are evil.

If you are going to do something harmful to the interests of others - if you are going to do anything that has a reasonable chance of harming the interests of others - you have a moral obligation to provide good reason to do so. You have an obligation to begin with the assumption that others are not to be harmed unless the value of doing harm is proved beyond a reasonable doubt, and to provide that reason.

Religious texts offer no good reason whatsoever for behavior harmful to others.

As soon as somebody quotes scripture in defense of a law or policy that is potentially harmful to the interests of others, that person has done what no good person would do. that person has violated the moral prescription against doing harm without good reason.

Religious beliefs are fine for people who apply them to their own lives. If you want to use scripture to decide what to eat, when to eat, what to wear, when to work, when to refrain from working, and the like, you are free to do so. Just as you are free to base these decisions on your horoscope, tea leaves, tarot cards, or the role of a die, if that pleases you.

However, if your scripture tells you to do harm to your neighbor, your act is no more justified than that of the person who looks at his horoscope, reads, "CANCER: Your neighbor must die today. Do anything in your power to make sure that he does not survive to see another dawn."

Killing your neighbor and appealing to scripture makes you a murderer. This includes those who support capital punishment who quote scripture that calls for "an eye for an eye." They are murderers, because they have killed without providing good reason to kill. They are murderers for the same reason the person reading the horoscope above and acting on it would be a murderer.

Maiming your neighbor and appealing to scripture makes you guilty of malicious assault. Taking your neighbor's property and appealing to scripture makes you a thief. This applies to anybody fighting over land where they base their fight on the claim, "God gave this land to us." You are thieves. And if you kill others whole engage in an act of theft then you are guilty of murder here as well.

The instant a person appeals to scripture to justify harm to others, at that instant they have done evil. Even if the person harmed actually deserves to be harmed - even if they are actually guilty, the person who has appealed to scripture to justify doing harm has still committed an evil act. This is because it is still the duty of every human being to presume that others are not to be harmed and to use only good reasons to show that they should be harmed.

Again, it is just like the horoscope case. Even if the neighbor turns out to be somebody who deserves to be killed, the fact that the killer did not have good reason to do so makes the killer a murderer.

Yes, this means that there are a lot of people around the world patting themselves on the back and puffing out their chests with pride over how great they are because they are fighting God's war should be ashamed of themselves. Their arrogant false pride is wholly undeserved. For the sake of their victims - those to whom they do harm without justification - it is not only permissible, it is obligatory to stick a pin in that inflated sense of pride and tell these people what type of people they really are.

The Christian conservative who looks to scripture and finds justification for banning gay marriage is guilty of the same moral crime as the Muslim who looks to scripture and finds justifiation for flying an airplane into a skyscraper.

If your reasons are not the type of reasons that are admissible in court, then they are not the types of reasons that should be permissible in Congress.

However, this applies ONLY to those who appeal to scripture to justify harmful actions. As I have argued, a rancher who gets drunk and drives around his ranch - where there are no other people to hit - is NOT guilty of any type of moral negligence, because he does not put others at risk. Similarly, people are free to be as intellectually reckless as they wish with beliefs that do not threaten others. It is when people put others at risk that they acquire the obligation to act (and to think) more responsibly. It is when they consider policies harmful to others that they become evil if they seek justification for those harms in scripture.

So, if we are going to condemn people, the people who deserve our condemnation are not "the religious". It is "the people who base behavior potentially harmful to others without good reason" - a group both broader and narrower than "the religious" and likely includes a good number of atheists as well.

If a person commits an act of attempting to justify behavior harmful to others by means of appeal to scripture, then this makes that person a member of the group, "People who have attempted to justify behavior harmful to others without good reason" - all of whom have done something evil and can justly be labeled as such.

This is true in the same way that a person who commits rape becomes a member of the group, "Rapists", all of whom have done something evil. And anybody who commits theft becomes a member of the group "thieves", all of whom have done something evil. There is no bigotry involved in labeling these groups what they are or to say that they all deserve condemnation based on that fact.

But nothing in this - nothing at all - justifies extending condemnation to anybody outside of the group, "rapists", "thieves", and "those who seek to justify behavior harmful to others without good reason."

21 comments:

Alessa said...

Well said. But, more often than not, "the religious" and "the people who base behavior potentially harmful to others without good reason," go hand-in-hand. And if they don't, they at least provide the climate for which extremism can flourish.

Irrationality is not beneficial to our future. I'm ignorant to many things, but at least I have the desire to learn, or suspend judgement until I have all the facts. I also have no problem admitting that I was wrong.

I do not 'condemn' those with faith, but I will "fight the good fight" to keep it out of our government. That's all that I am asking for at this point.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Irrationality is not beneficial to our future. However, there are a lot of atheists are irrational.

My criticism of atheist bigotry is a criticism of irrationality (not beneficial to our future) - specifically a morally objectionable form of the hasty generalization fallacy - found among atheists.

To equate irrationality with religion (and atheism with rationality) risks letting a lot of irrational beliefs into the system without careful examination - simply because it comes from an atheist source.

That's not going to help.

If irrationality is the problem, then irrationality should be a target. And irrational atheists should not get a free ride.

Alessa Mendes said...

I agree that not all Atheists are rational. Atheism only specifies what a person DOES NOT believe in; not what they DO. That's something that needs to be taken into account.

I do find your arguments very constructive and interesting, so I'd like to propose a question for you: what aspect of religion would you consider rational?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Read Part 2 of this posting.

The question is not whether religion is rational. We all have some irrational (or arational) elements in our belief system. We cannot help it. Our first beliefs have an arational source. Our future beliefs require measuring them against our earlier arational beliefs so they, too, are partially arational.

We do not have time to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason. So, we must all use methods for filtering beliefs that are less than perfectly rational but still "good enough".

If you consider yourself to be a perfectly rational agent, you are fooling yourself. If you demand perfect rationality from others you are demanding from them something that no person - not even you - can provide.

So, given that there must be some arationality, where can arationality be permitted and where do we have reason to demand more from people?

The principle that I have argued for is that the moral responsibility to secure our beliefs is tied to the degree of risk that those beliefs pose for the welfare of others.

When it comes to harm to others, we are to presume that harm is not justified until provided with proof beyond a reasonable (note reason-able) doubt that it is justified.

Note that the presumption of innocence is arational. We are not talking about proof of innocence, but a presumption of innocence.

If failure to obtain perfect rationality is a vice, then we are all evil.

Alessa Mendes said...

If that is the case, then I feel justified in claiming that the major religions of the world are irrational and harmful in their current state.

The only time religion is not harmful is when its participants appease their sacred texts in their own way, which, often, is quite different than its literal meanings. But then they are not using God to define their morals, but their own subconscious understanding of right and wrong. Therefore, they are not truly practicing their religious beliefs.

Why not just remove religious dogma, then, and live in conjunction with our governed laws and own moral judgement?

I'm not sure if I'm properly expressing what I'm trying to say... basically, if a "religious" person decides what is right and wrong based on what a very ancient book has dictated, I find this harmful and irrational. period. For those who are "religious" but often use their own moral judgement to make decisions, that's fine, but they are still accommodating those with extreme views.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

If I may parse your statements a bit.

If that is the case, then I feel justified in claiming that the major religions of the world are irrational and harmful in their current state.

Notice here that you did not say "religion" but "major religions of the world". One would still have to ask what you consider a "major religion" - whether Buddhism or Confucionism would count, for example.


The only time religion is not harmful is when its participants appease their sacred texts in their own way...

And NOW you are talking about "religion". What justified this leap?

Furthermore, you mentioned a relationship between "religion" and "their sacred texts." Yet, many religions have no sacred text.

And religious institutions are not the only institutions that require the interpretation of text. Law has the same function. The interpretation of the Constitution is as heavily disputed as the interpretation of any scripture. And, yes, people read their own morality into their interpretations of the Constitution (and the law) as well.

Why not just remove religious dogma, then, and live in conjunction with our governed laws and own moral judgement?

Part of the reason is because 'religious dogma' cannot be defined precisely enough to give us a real idea of what shall be removed.

Another part is because religious dogma is only a subset of the irrational belief systems that plague human kind.

And the third is that religious dogma is not always the most dangerous. Over the course of the next few years I am going to wager that more lives will be lost and more property destroyed by global-warming deniers and tobbaco company lobbyists than the adherants to any religion.

Among atheists, moral relativism, Randian objectivism, Marxian communism, and evolutionary ethics provide systems of belief that are as poorly founded and exceed the dangerousness of some religions.

If a "religious" person decides what is right and wrong based on what a very ancient book has dictated, I find this harmful and irrational.

I would put it more precisely. A person who decides that others may be punished or harmed based on a very ancient book is evil. That was the thesis of this posting.

For those who are "religious" but often use their own moral judgement to make decisions, that's fine, but they are still accommodating those with extreme views.

How does it make sense for a person who says, "X is false" accomodating those who say, "X is true"?

Emu Sam said...

As I understand it, the accommodation comes in the form of promoting a form of irrationality - unquestioning belief in a god - as a virtue. That is how religious faith is defined. It goes further when people not only say to believe in that god but to obey him/it (my religious background includes a branch of Quakers who avoided assigning gender to any of the trinity).

Actually, no. That would be promotion of part of the argument. The argument is that you must do evil things to obey God, and you must obey God, so you must do evil things. Anyone who agrees with the second proposition of the argument is helping to promote the argument, which goes beyond accommodation. Simple accommodation would be agreeing to not argue with that proposition.

So a person who argues that one must have faith in and obey God is helping any argument that one must obey God when God commands evil things.

But that person might not be promoting evil things. They have an irrational belief (that faith in and obedience to God is a virtue) which other people use to justify harm. The first person does not use it to justify harm. They do not have an obligation to examine and change their belief until and unless they use that belief to justify harm.

Mike Doolittle said...

The question is not whether religion is rational. We all have some irrational (or arational) elements in our belief system. We cannot help it. Our first beliefs have an arational source. Our future beliefs require measuring them against our earlier arational beliefs so they, too, are partially arational.

We do not have time to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason. So, we must all use methods for filtering beliefs that are less than perfectly rational but still "good enough".

If you consider yourself to be a perfectly rational agent, you are fooling yourself. If you demand perfect rationality from others you are demanding from them something that no person - not even you - can provide.


Actually, I think the question of whether religion is rational is precisely the question. I'm not sure that I agree with what you're saying here, that "first beliefs are irrational" or "arational", as you say.

As humans, we make a great deal of inferences and assumptions as a matter of practical necessity. For example... we don't test out every solid object to make sure we won't pass through it — we infer from our experience, and from the observation of others, that we can't pass through solid objects. But we don't know that there aren't solid objects we can pass through, or whether there's some unknown law of physics that if harnessed might allow us to do it.

But, assumptions and intuitive inferences are not implicitly irrational. Quite the contrary. We can validate their rationality by their reliability. And while there may be plenty of irrational atheists, atheism itself is rational, and supernatural belief is not. Our enemy is not necessarily dogma, but rather the irrationality and credulity that leads to their acceptance.

anton said...

For the sake of their victims - those to whom they do harm without justification - it is not only permissible, it is obligatory to stick a pin in that inflated sense of pride and tell these people what type of people they really are.

Some of us, who make no distinction between religions and nations, have our been using our pins for many years, but the opposition we face is when a nation acts like a religion. We witness it in the middle-east, but are reluctant to accept it is the case when US American pride validates wrongs against some of its own citizens, and justifies its world-wide agenda. Foreigners have watched as "one nation under god" has become the rallying cry for millions of "nut jobs". Meanwhile, patriotic fervor compels millions who are not "nut jobs" to sit on a fence and let those "nut jobs" run amok over the face of the earth as they chant "The Star Spangled Banner". Their actions are no different than the religious "nut jobs" who justify their actions by cherry picking a faulty text.

Kip said...

Alonzo:

Someone believes in God. They believe their God wrote the Bible. They interpret the Bible to say that homosexual marriage is immoral. They interpret the Bible to say that God wants them to vote for not allowing gay marriage in the United States.

How should we go about persuading this person that they are wrong?

1) Convince them that they are misinterpreting the Bible?

2) Convince them that the Bible was not written by God?

3) Convince them that God does not exist?

... or what?

What is the most rational response here?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Kip:

Sorry, but I am not much of a strategist.

If somebody caught me in an argument I would argue (1) and (2) and, when it came to (3), simply say, "It doesn't matter whether you are interpreting the transcripts of the oral stories of a group of illiterate tribesmen who have been dead for thousands of years correctly or not." I have no interest in being an expert on biblical interpretations because there is little in the bible that is worth the effort of interpreting.

I would also argue that, as a principle, people generally have good reason to condemn anybody who argues that behavior harmful to others can be justified by appeals to religion or faith - as I have done in this blog. Anybody who attacks another with the intent of doing them harm "in the name of God" deserves condemnation - faith is not a good enough reason to justify harm to others.

Kip said...

> Sorry, but I am not much of a strategist.

Sorry, that sounds like a cop out. Desire Utilitarianism, er, life in general I suppose, requires that you strategize.

I'm not even understanding your first paragraph at all. You would argue #1 & #2? That makes no sense. It's like arguing that somebody is misunderstanding their invisible friend. It's absurd.


Alonzo> I would also argue that, as a principle, people generally have good reason to condemn anybody who argues that behavior harmful to others can be justified by appeals to religion or faith - as I have done in this blog.


So, here's the other premise that I left out of my real-world scenario: this person believes that the after-life is eternal. Any desires thwarted in this life are infinitesimal compared with the desires that will be fulfilled in the next. To them, it would be like giving the baby a vaccination shot: even though it may be causing some minor harm to the child temporarily, it is much better in the future.


> ... faith is not a good enough reason to justify harm to others.

I don't think you appreciate the extent of which faith plays a role in people's lives. For some of these people, there is no separating the faith that does harm, from the faith that doesn't. It's such a part of their lives, that almost every decision they make is tainted with their faith.

And, it comes back to pragmatism, and rationality. If someone has an "invisible friend" that they believe is telling them to do harmful things, I'm not going to try to convince them that they are misunderstanding their invisible friend. That would be lunacy. Instead, I'm going to try to convince them of the truth: their invisible friend doesn't exit.

Kip said...

Alonzo, here's an example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TO5mjKrfr8

There is a nice lady in this video handing out books, who is asked: "Why are you so passionate about this?"

Her reply: "Because it matters; because it impacts a person's eternal destiny."

I can assure you that this is the reason why Ray Comfort & Kirk Cameron and others spent time and money producing the book, promoting the book, getting volunteers to distribute the book, and will continue their ministry to try to get as many people to not believe in evolution.

They believe that if you believe in evolution, it's less likely that you will believe in God. They're correct.

They believe that if you don't believe in God, then you won't go to heaven. This is what the Bible says. It's the core doctrine.

They believe their God-given purpose on this earth is lead as many people to God so that they can be "saved" and go to heaven. This is what the Bible says.

Nothing else matters. All other concerns not directly ordained by God are infinitesimal and irrelevant.

So, go ahead and try to convince them that they are misinterpreting the Bible (good luck, I don't think they are). Go ahead and try to convince them that the Bible was not inspired by God (I think this is a good strategy). But, while you're at it, I think it's perfectly legitimate for others to go to the heart of the problem: belief in the existence of the Christian God.

I'd say a two-pronged strategy is best: 1) promote doubt in the inerrancy of the Bible, and 2) promote doubt in the existence of the Christian God (meaning, all of the attributes normally attributed to him)

Eneasz said...

I'm not even understanding your first paragraph at all. You would argue #1 & #2? That makes no sense. It's like arguing that somebody is misunderstanding their invisible friend. It's absurd.

It may be absurd, but it is more effective. It's not terribly hard to demonstrate that someone is misinterpreting the bible because it is The Big Book Of Multiple Choice. Most positions it takes are contradicted by itself in other passages.

If you would rather take the much more costly and far less effective route of trying to convince someone that god doesn't exist then you should ask yourself if you're more concerned about good outcomes, or about ideological purity?

Desire to believe in a god is a much stronger and much harder desire to change than beliefs about what s/he wants. Many people can't imagine having their invisible friend ripped away, but they can imagine misinterpreting what he wants.

I don't (greatly) care if someone believes he shouldn't steal because Papa Smurf tells him not to, as long as he doesn't steal.

And the fact is that as long as humans exist there will be some portion of them that are religious. I'd rather that the religious faction interpreted their texts in a way that doesn't cause harm, even if that means having absurd arguments about what their invisible friend wants.

Not that we shouldn't ever make those arguments, of course. But it's easier to convince someone to be liberal rather than fundamentalist, then to go straight from fundamentalism to atheism.

IMHO anyway.

Kip said...

Eneasz: Your solution does not solve the problem. If you convince someone of your interpretation of a contradictory text, then someone else could convince them of yet the opposite interpretation. The solution is to have them see the truth, not believe a lie.

I think that a love of truth is a good desire to promote. If you are willing to promote lies (e.g. that someone's invisible friend doesn't want them to steal) in order to get your desires fulfilled, then you are acting immorally.

I think that if people had a good epistemological basis for their system of beliefs, then this world would be a better place. I think that faith is the worst possible justification for belief that there is. I think that reason and evidence, as exampled by the scientific method, will lead to more true beliefs and fewer false beliefs. I think that this will lead to more desires being fulfilled and less desires being thwarted. I think that this is therefore, moral.

I think that promoting an evidence and reason based system of belief is moral. I think that promoting faith-based systems of beliefs (beliefs not supported by reason and evidence) is immoral, as they will lead to more desires being thwarted than fulfilled. It is not something someone with good desires would do.

Eneasz said...

Kip -

Hm. Well, yes, you are right. I must think about this more.

I'm mainly conflicted because my wife is christian, and still a good person. We've talked about this many times and she'll never abandon her beliefs. But when it's all added up... she's a better person than I am. The fact that she has one wrong belief doesn't change this.

And the fact does remain that there will always be a certain percentage of the population that will not abandon belief in god. Wouldn't it be better for them to not be extremists?

Kip said...

Eneasz> Wouldn't it be better for them to not be extremists?

Certainly. But most likely your wife is not a good person because she believes in God; she would be a good person even if she were atheist.

If it is as you say, that she only has *one* bad belief (this belief in God), then I agree with Alonzo that it's not a big deal.

This is usually quite rare, though. At least where I'm from. People around here go to church. They are taught to believe in the Bible. They learn to believe many things, and are led to do things based on what they believe is the will of God (based on what they are taught and what is in the Bible).

I think the best strategy in these cases is to teach people how to think rationally. Teach them why reason and evidence are a good epistemological basis for belief, while faith is very poor.

For your wife, this may not be necessary, since you say she only has one belief. However, if she started saying that she prayed, and God told her not to vaccinate your kids... or that she read the Bible, and it says that you should give 10% of your money to the church, then you may have a problem.

Eneasz said...

Certainly. But most likely your wife is not a good person because she believes in God; she would be a good person even if she were atheist.

Oh yes, I completely agree. Religion has nothing to do with it, she was brought up in a very loving and empathetic family. I'm saying that there is a percentage of people like her who will never give up belief, and I'd rather that they believed in a compassionate/loving god than a wrathful/angry god.

This is usually quite rare, though. At least where I'm from.

I would wager that this is due to two major factors: where you are from (as you said), since change doesn't spread evenly; and the age of the believer. Even among the strong fundamentalists, their children often come into contact with gay and/or atheist peers and are forced to shed their prejudices. Right now it's very common for even evangelicals, in large metropolitan settings, to be tolerant of others. Heck, just a few months ago she agreed to go to The Great Kiss-In

They are taught to believe in the Bible. They learn to believe many things, and are led to do things based on what they believe is the will of God (based on what they are taught and what is in the Bible).

The Bible can be used to justify many things. My wife's more religious than my parents, and yet my parents are more opposed to gays than her. When the Bible contradicts a person's moral code, it is the Bible that adapts, not the person's moral code. Is the will of god to smite your neighbor, or to turn the other cheek? It depends on the reader. The book itself is practically irrelevant.

or that she read the Bible, and it says that you should give 10% of your money to the church, then you may have a problem.

LOL! :) Very astute, hit right on the sore spot. Well played sir! In general, I dislike how much money she gives to her church. But she doesn't give close to 10%. Her reading of the Bible indicates that any money given to others to help them counts as a tithe, and thus she spends more on her grandmother's medication and her mother's chemo than she ever gives to the church. I'm ok with that.

I really despise her pastor tho...

Anyway, yes, rationality is the best option, but sometimes the best option isn't available. In those cases, one shouldn't commit themselves to "all or nothing".

Unashamed said...

Who defines what is good and what is evil? Who is right? Who is wrong?

How are you, the Atheist, right and the Christian, wrong? Who defines evil? Who decides, "Yes! THIS is correct?" Are not both sides convinced? For someone to be right, the other must be wrong.

The Atheist says there is absolutely no God! The Christian says the Atheist is absolutely without excuse.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Unashamed

The bulk of this blog, plus the book listed on the right, plus the FAQ listed on the right, explain how to tell the difference between right and wrong.

By the way, very few atheists say that there is "absolutely no God". Most atheists adopt the position that there is no evidence of a God, thus no reason to believe that a God exists. This is true in the same sense that there is no evidence of a teakettle orbiting Mars, and no reason to believe that such a thing exists, but it does not allow one to say, "There absolutely is no teakettle orbiting Mars."

Still, anybody who would say that there absolutely IS a teakettle orbiting Mars in spite of the lack of evidence is somewhat off.

Who defines 'evil'? That's a bad question. Who defines 'planet'? Who defines 'atom'? Who defines 'malaria'?

(Note: 'Planet' used to mean 'wandering star' - 'atom' once meant 'thing without parts' - and 'malaria' once meant 'disease caused by bad air')

This is not a question of definitions. This is a question of what people do and do not have reason to do - and what values people do and do not have reason to promote or inhibit in others.

mmissinglink said...

Another thoughtful blog entry Alonzo! Thank you.

I very strongly disagree with troubling and indifferent statements like this:
"If you want to use scripture to decide what to eat, when to eat, what to wear, when to work, when to refrain from working, and the like, you are free to do so."

Sadly, personal decisions of what one chooses to eat, wear, or find employment doing (as just 3 of many numerous examples) are not necessarily morally responsible decisions even if a human is not harmed by such activities. The truth of the matter is, the unnecessary harm of ANY sentient individual is morally wrong or morally irresponsible. When someone makes a personal decision to eat the cadavers of killed chicken's or deer, to wear the skin and / or hair of four sheep or sixty ermines, or to physically exploit and mistreat a bull forced into a rodeo, all these choices and all choices of similar activities are the consequence of the unnecessary harm of or violence perpetrated on sentient individuals wholly against the interests of these individuals.

It would behoove your integrity as a person and the consistency of your logical arguments to include all sentient individuals in your circle of compassionate consideration. You should strongly consider all the logical arguments put forth in this presentation (intended for law students but is very applicable to discourse by atheists and ethicists): http://www.vimeo.com/5013428