One of the most valuable projects I think one can take up in 2010 is to battle against the prevalence and acceptance of garbage arguments. These are arguments on issues relevant to the life, health, and well-being of people that carry some blatant flaw - a flaw that any reasonable and responsible person could see and would avoid.
Some of my recent series postings contain examples of these garbage arguments.
One example is the claim that since humans are responsible for only a small percentage of CO2 emissions in a given year, that humans are not responsible for the change in atmospheric concentration of CO2.
Whatever these other sources of emissions are, the system has been in equilibrium for over 10,000 years. The amount of CO2 released in a year has equaled the amount absorbed. None of these emission sources of have changed. The only new emission source in the last century that is available to account for the new increase in atmospheric CO2 comes from human emissions. Furthermore, the amount of new CO2 in the atmosphere is less than the amount that humans release (the rest being absorbed mostly by the oceans).
A responsible person can make this mistake once, or until somebody actually shows her the error. From that point on, it becomes a 'garbage argument'.
The most important point here is that it should become a matter of social convention to identify this as a garbage argument and to condemn those who use it.
It is tradition, in these cases, to correct people who make these types of mistakes. "Your argument is flawed. All of those other emissions have been in equilibrium with absorptions over the last 10,000 years. We have to look at what has broken 10,000 years of equilibrium. Unless you want to argue that these other sources such as the oceans came into existence in the last 100 years, and that they release more CO2 than they absorb, you have to concede that these emissions are not relevant."
Yet, there are people who keep using this argument, ignoring its obvious flaw.
When this happens, the response needs to change from politely correcting the individual to morally condemning him.
"Obviously, you do not care that whole cities may be destroyed and whole populations may be made to suffer. A person who cares about such things will not continue to use garbage arguments once they are shown to be garbage arguments. You're like the drunk driver, carelessly and irresponsibly making claims that have the potential to get people killed without any regard for the harms that you might do. You are a threat to human well-being and even to human life."
The attack on garbage arguments does not depend on whether one's position on any issue in which the garbage argument might be used.
One garbage argument that I have attacked in the past year is the argument that, "These religions promote acts that are worthy of condemnation; therefore, all religion must be condemned."
I have called this The Bigot's Fallacy. The person who uses this argument seeks to promote hatred towards a whole group of people by making an invalid inference from the actions of a subset of the group he loves to hate - and wants others to hate.
"Religion" is simply the belief that one or more gods probably or certainly exist. This proposition does not imply anything about how one ought or ought not to behave. It does not imply the evil actions that some religious people commit. The evil that some religious people do comes from the other beliefs that they attach to the belief that at least one God probably or certainly exists. It is those beliefs that are responsible for this evil, and those beliefs that are worthy of condemnation. Yet, not all religious people share those beliefs. The leap from this or that specific evil to a general message of hate represents a garbage argument of the type I am concerned with here.
One of those garbage arguments appeared on an atheist sign put up this year. The Freedom From Religion Foundation put up a holiday sign that said:
At the time of the winter solstice, let reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is just myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.
Yes, that sign qualifies as hate speech.
The proposition, "At least one God probably exists" can be, and often is, simply a mistaken belief. We all have mistaken beliefs. None of us has the ability to hold every one of our beliefs up to the light of reason, so we use reliable but fallible shortcuts in adopting beliefs. "That which is widely accepted in the society in which I grew up" is one of those shortcuts.
None of us have beliefs that are 100% certified true according to the principles of perfect reason.
Consistent with that, some people seriously believe that there is sufficient evidence for the existence of a God. The design argument and argument is fine-tuned to support life are persuasive. They are flawed arguments, but not the obviously flawed arguments that any responsible person giving the subject an ounce of thought can see through. Most importantly, they merely support the conclusion that a God probably exists and created the universe. It does not support any type of hardening of hearts and enslaving of minds.
You simply cannot get to the proposition, "At least one God probably exists" to the hardening of hearts and enslaving of minds without adding a bunch of additional premises. No matter what additional premises you add, there is no reason to believe that they are necessarily shared by all people who hold, "At least one God exists."
What causes people to embrace garbage arguments such as this and post them in government buildings during the holiday season? It is nothing less than tribal hatred stampeding over reason – a moral fault against which atheism provides no immunity.
An atheist culture that is truly devoted to reason is going to shun garbage arguments. Even when a garbage argument supports a conclusion that they want to convince others is true, their hatred of garbage arguments is going to outweigh their desire to convince others that a particular conclusion is true.
She will adopt a prescription such as, "I will try to convince people of X but I will not stoop to doing so with the use of garbage arguments - and, in particular, stoop to doing so by embracing and propagating The Bigot's Fallacy."
This is no more different than saying, "I will try to make that trip to Greece this year but I will not stoop to do so by using theft and fraud to pay for the trip."
The inference, "religion -> evil" is simply invalid. It's garbage. There is no way to make the deductive leap from "At least one god probably or certainly exists" to "it is permissible to perform these acts that are, in fact, evil," without a set of additional premises - and those additional premises are not premises that all religious people must necessarily share.
This would not be a campaign that aims to promote acceptance of any particular conclusions. It is a campaign that looks at the way people reach those conclusions. It argues that certain forms of argument are not only mistaken (and may be corrected), but indicate a moral flaw in the character of those who use them - making them worthy of condemnation.