Thursday, April 01, 2010

Atheism Is Not a Virtue - Rationality Is

A member of the studio audience said in a comment:

I notice among some of my friends (and perhaps myself sometimes, though I don't like to admit it) the sort of thinking you're describing here. I notice that sometimes people using words like "atheism," "theism," "rational," and "irrational" tend to subtly add to their definitions, perhaps unconsciously, the notion that these words are badges of honor or scarlet letters that inherently make the person they describe better or worse.

I partially agree with this proposition.

Atheism is not a virtue, and theism is not a vice.

First, these are beliefs. Moral qualities are attached to desires, not beliefs.

A virtue is a desire that tends to fulfill other desires, and as such is a desire people generally have reason to promote through praise. A vice is a desire that tends to thwart other desires and as such is a desire that people generally have reason to inhibit.

It is often the case that when people have false beliefs - particularly when they embrace plainly false beliefs supported by totally irrational arguments, we have reason to ask what motivated the agent to adopt that belief. We will typically find that motivation aong the agent's desires. People believe what they want to believe. From this, we can determine if a virtue or a vice is involved - by determining if the unfounded belief is motivated by a good or a bad desire.

We have to allow that perfectly decent people can make a mistake from time to time. In fact, every single one of us is wrong about something . . . something about which we are absolutely certain must be the case. If we condemn each person for their mistake, then we must condemn everybody. So, the mere existence of a false belief is not in itself good enough reason to condemn somebody.

No matter who you are, I think you have at least one false belief. However, I do not think you are a bad person because of it. In fact, I can even assert with utter confidence that I have at least one false belief. I don't know what it is, but I know it is there. Yet, I hope this does not qualify me as a bad person.

Rationality is a virtue. Irrationality is a vice.

Where I disagree with the comment above is that I hold that rationality is a virtue. In fact, it is an obligation whenever one's decisions affect others.

The distinction between rationality and irrationality is the distinction between intellectual moral resonsibility and intellectual recklessness.

To illustrate the difference, imagine an agent loading up a truck with garbage intending to haul to the city dump. A morally responsible person knows that if any part of the load shifts and falls from the truck that others could be harmed. Motivated by a sincere desire to prevent unnecessary harm, he makes sure that the load is secure before taking the trip.

A reckless person, on the other hand, simply throws the garbage onto the back of the truck. He cannot be bothered to take the time to secure the load and, thus, better protect the well-being of others. He would rather trust to fate or to faith to deliver him and his load to the city garbage dump without killing anybody.

The same moral principle applies to beliefs. Unsecured beliefs are many times more dangerous than the unsecured loads that a person may place on a truck. In fact, unsecured beliefs are among the most dangerous objects on the planet. As such, the morally responsible person will struggle to make sure that his beliefs are well secured, particularly when those beliefs put others at risk. Whereas the morally irresponsible person trusts to fate and faith to get away with travelling through life with his unsecured beliefs.

To the degree that we have reason to avoid being subject to the harms caused by unsecured beliefs, and to have those we care about suffer from harm, to that degree we have reason to praise those who go through the effort to secure their beliefs and to condemn those who do not.

Atheism and Rationality

One of the issues I write about is that, even though many atheists claim to value rationality and consider themselves to be rational, they often do not have as much rationality as they claim credit for. Many of my objections to claims that atheists make are claims against their rationality. I argue that these are instances where, like those theists they condemn, they are adopting a belief because it is comfortable to them, not because it is well-founded or well-secured.

One of these inconsistencies is tied to the attitude that atheism is a virtue and theism is a vicee.

Whenevere somebody criticizes atheism, saying that it has dire implications for the well-being of humanity, atheists claim that 'atheism' is merely the lack of a balief in a God. This simple proposition does not have any of the iplications that the critic claims to be a dire threat to humanity.

Yet, many of those who offer these defense will often - even in the same brath - condemn all of theism because of its dire implications for the well-being of humanity. Instead of defining theism as a simple belief that one or more gods of some type do exist, they attach all sorts of other properties to theism just so that they can get to their conclusion that theism is a threat to humanity.

This is inconsistent. It is irrational. Furthermore, it is a type of irrationality that suggests a moral failing on the part of those that make these types of claims. These people are motivated by a desire to belief that members of the atheist tribe are inherently morally superior to members of the theist tribe. As such, they blind themselves to reason in order to embrace an illogical argument aiming to prove the inferiority of theists.

I also hold that the belief that 'atheism' is 'a lack of belief in any gods' is also a false belief that atheists adopt because they find it pleasing, rather than because it is true. 'Atheism' may mean 'a lack of belief in any gods' in some personal, private code language that the speaker has adopted. However, it does not have that meaning in English. In English it means 'a person who holds that the proposition 'at least one God exists' is certainly or almost certainly false.'

One way that people defend the false definition of atheism is by looking at the root of the word itself. A - theism means 'without - theism' or, they say, without belief in a God.

If you want to accept that as a legitimate way to determine the definitions of words, then 'atom' means 'without - parts', which mans anybody who claims that the english-term 'atom' refers to things made up of electrons, neutrons, and protons must be mistaken. Clearly we have demonstrated that 'atoms' cannot possibly have any parts. It is built right into the meaning of the word.

So, atheists accept an entirely unreasonable way to determine the meaning of a word because it gives them a conclusion that they like. This is irrationality, and it proves that equating atheism with rationality is a mistak.

Then there are repeated examples of what I call The Bigot's Fallacy in a great deal of atheist writing. They eagerly embrac examples in which a person associated with religion is involved in something bad, and immediately jump to the conclusion that 'religion' is bad. This is as fallacious as identifying a crime committed by a black person, and jumping from that to the conclusion that no black person can be trusted.

In some cases, they defend their claim by holding that 'religion' provided the beliefs that motivated the bad actions. However, this is false. 'Religion' did no such a thing. 'A religion' - that is, a specific set of beliefs that the specific agents who are being discussed - may have been behind the bad actions. But the distinction between 'a religion' and 'religion' is substantially the same as the distinction between 'a black man' and 'black men'. This type of argument does not provide a defense against the charge of bigotry, it demonstrates the qualities that make the charge applicable.

27 comments:

Marc said...

I'm not usually the cheering type, but this is a great post that addresses an issue I've encountered on many atheist forums. Thanks, Alonzo!

yashwata said...

This an interesting piece, but you are misusing the word 'belief'.

You say, "Atheism is not a virtue, and theism is not a vice. First, these are beliefs."

Atheism is not a belief. That there are no gods is not a belief I have. It is a fact I have noticed.

Nor is theism a belief. "God created the Universe" is not an intelligible proposition. It means exactly nothing. Therefore, it cannot be believed.

You say, "People believe what they want to believe."

People believe what experience shows them. They don't choose what to believe. They choose what to say.

You say, "unsecured beliefs are among the most dangerous objects on the planet."

I agree in principle, but if you are referring to religious beliefs here (as I believe you are) the statement should be modified. This is because so-called religious beliefs are not really beliefs, only slogans. They are dangerous, not because they are "unsecured" but because they are not even held. To put it bluntly, they are lies. And lies are worse than mistakes… because mistakes can be corrected.

Marc said...

@Yashwata
How is Alonzo misusing the word belief?

Wiktionary says belief means: "Mental acceptance of a claim as truth." There are a million different ways of expressing this meaning of course, but it is convenient to speak of a any conviction you hold about the state of the world as a belief.

You say:
"People believe what experience shows them."
Well... They sure do. But not everyone experiences the same situation in the same way. And all experiences are filtered by previously held beliefs and desires. Confirmation bias is a well established fact of human thinking.

As for Alonzo's comments about "unsecured beliefs": He is not referring to religious beliefs exclusively. Which should be obvious from this statement:
"One of the issues I write about is that, even though many atheists claim to value rationality and consider themselves to be rational, they often do not have as much rationality as they claim credit for."

There is no intrinsic difference between religious or other types of beliefs. All can be true or false and thus unsecured.

You're basic assumption is that anyone who claims that they have certain 'religious' beliefs is actually lying. Maybe you should explain how you come to this conclusion.

supersage400 said...

Is there a seriously significant difference between "lack of belief in gods" and "a person who holds that the proposition 'at least one God exists' is certainly or almost certainly false?" They seem to say essentially the same thing to me.

I agree that rationality is a virtue and irrationality a vice. I suppose what I was thinking of when I made the comment is the sort of person who makes it a point to stress their supposed rationality to themselves and others in an attempt to make themselves seem better than others. I guess I was thinking more along the lines of a sort of arrogance. But yes, I completely agree with that rundown.

One more question, though: you say that having a false belief isn't on its own a reason to condemn someone and I agree; however, would you consider someone who has been shown the falsehood/irrationality of his or her beliefs and yet still holds them to be true immoral?

The sort of unsecured belief I'm talking about is not one that leads to any problems. If he/she continues to hold it, no harm will come to anyone. But I'm curious because, if I understand your ethical theory correctly, it's not about condemning this person for this one particular instance (act) of brazen irrationality, but condemning the desire to do so since it is, as you have written, a vice. Am I on the right track or completely missing the mark?

Also, it's an honor to be quoted in one of your essays. Thanks for taking the time to examine my reasoning. :)

yashwata said...

@Marc, you said "You're [sic] basic assumption is that anyone who claims that they have certain 'religious' beliefs is actually lying. Maybe you should explain how you come to this conclusion."

It's not an assumption, it's a finding.

I hope I didn't imply that all "believers" are lying. Most are simply mistaken.

My findings are explained in a book, which you can download free of charge: No One Believes In God.

yashwata said...

@Marc -- oops, I forgot to answer your first question, "How is Alonzo misusing the word belief?"

As you say, "it is convenient to speak of a any conviction you hold about the state of the world as a belief." The funny thing about religious "beliefs" is that that they are not convictions about the state of the world. "Jesus loves you" (for example) is a claim that can be made no matter what happens, anywhere in the world, to anyone, ever. But this means that it is not a claim at all. It does not say anything about anything.

Thomas Jefferson described belief as "the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition". But religious propositions are uniformly unintelligible; therefore, they cannot be believed.

The point is developed much more rigorously in my book.

Marc said...

@Yashwata
I've started reading. Might take a couple of days in between life in general though. :-)

Matt M said...

I'm not sure your "atom" example holds up.

Simply pointing to the root of a word in order to define it isn't enough. True. The meaning of some words evolve.

This appears to be what happened with atoms - what were believed to be the fundamental particles of the universe were discovered and named accordingly. However, it was later discovered that these supposedly non-divisible particles were in fact divisible.

However, it remains the case that the vast majority of a- words retain the original meaning: Apolitical, asexual, asymmetrical, etc. They denote the lack, rather than the denial, of something.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Supersage400

A rock lacks a belief in a God. One has to have a brain to have a belief that the proposition 'a God exists' is certainly or almost certainly false.

The main reason why the first definition is so popular among many atheists is because they can then claim that they have nothing to defend.

In fact, atheists do have something that they need to defend. They need to defend the proposition that, "The proposition, 'at least one God exists' is certainly or almost certainly false."

This false definition is popular among some atheists because it allows them to make absurd claims like, "People are born atheist and become theists only through indoctrination."

However, this is a claim that such a conclusion is true by definition - as if native English speakers just through their proper understanding of the way the words are commonly used would assent to this. The absurdity of that conclusion should show the atheist that their basic premises are false. Instead, they embrace the false premise for the sake of irrationally supporting their absurd conclusion.

MattM

Anybody with even a moderate amount of experience with the English Language knows that the term is not used to refer to entities that "lack a belief in God".

In English, it refers to those who hold that the proposition, 'At least one God exists' is certainly or almost certainly false.

Many words may retain their original meanings. However, regardless of whether 'lack of a belief' was ever the original meaning of 'atheism', it is not the current meaning.

Matt M said...

Anybody with even a moderate amount of experience with the English Language knows...

In my experience - as an English person, living in England, and with a 2:1 degree in English - most people here use atheist to mean someone who does not believe in any gods.

This seems to me to cover both those who lack any theistic beliefs (because the subject really doesn't interest them) as well as those who, having given the matter some thought, arrive at the conclusion that the proposition in question is most probably false.

It's also my experience that the former vastly out-number the latter - at least, here in my part of the UK.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Matt M

And as an English speaker, what do these people mean by "someone who does not believe in any gods"?

Here's a test. Is a person who is so brain-damaged that they lack the ability to form a coherent thought considered an 'atheist' by native English speakers?

He lacks a belief in any god. But is he an atheist?

Matt M said...

He lacks a belief in any god. But is he an atheist?

This is definitely one of the biggest issues with "my" definition.

But, I think that, in common usage, saying that someone lacks a certain belief implies the ability to hold that belief.

So - a brain-damaged person would not be described as an atheist, in the same way that they would not be described as being apolitical, despite lacking beliefs about politics.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

But, I think that, in common usage, saying that someone lacks a certain belief implies the ability to hold that belief.

How is this true?

Does saying that a rock lack a certain belief implies the ability to hold that belief?

Atheism, in common usage, necessarily implies the ability to hold a belief. However, this is because atheism is a belief that the proposition 'a god exists' is certainly or almost certainly false. One cannot have such a belief unless one has the capacity to hold such a belief.

Therefore, only those who have the capacity to hold beliefs can be atheists.

With an understanding of the definition as it is used in common language, we do not need to throw in ad-hoc ammendments just to get the word to fit. With your definition, "a person capable of holding beliefs that . . ." is just an unwarranted ad-hoc amendment. Where does it come from? Why is it there?

With what I argue is a correct definition, it is a direct implication from the fact that an atheist is somebody who has a belief that it is somebody who has the capacity to have a belief.

Now, some word needs to be said as to why some atheists like the "lacks a belief" definition. It is because nobody needs to go through the effort of lacking a belief. Rocks lack a belief - but no rock is ever asked to justify a lack of belief. Therefore, in claiming that atheism is the lack of a belief, atheists get to act like rocks when asked to justify their 'lack of a belief'.

That option is not avaialable to the atheist = 'one who belief that G is false'. This atheist can be asked, 'Why do you believe that G is false?'

However, the very fact that 'Why do you believe that G is false' is a perfectly sensible question to native English speakers is, itself, evidence that the atheist = 'lack of a belief in God' theorists are mistaken. If the atheist = 'lack of a belief in God' theoriest were correct, then the question they are trying to dodge would not even be asked because, to English speakers, it would not make sense to ask it.

Matt M said...

Does saying that a rock lack a certain belief implies the ability to hold that belief?

Looks like I could have phrased that better.

Normally, when you talk about someone lacking a certain belief the implication is that you're talking about someone capable of holding beliefs.

If I say that Jerry doesn't like 'The Simpsons', for example, you wouldn't assume that Jerry was brain-dead. You'd assume that Jerry was someone capable of watching TV and forming an opinion about the various shows - even thought my statement could cover both scenarios.

Similarly, it would be strange for me to describe my dog (or a rock) as apolitical - as the word is normally applied only to something capable of forming an opinion on politics.

So while the brain-dead individual is technically an atheist (if we use the lacking-theistic-beliefs definition), it would be meaningless to apply the word to them, given the way it's commonly used.

Therefore, in claiming that atheism is the lack of a belief, atheists get to act like rocks when asked to justify their 'lack of a belief'.

I really don't think this is the case.

If asked to justify my lack of belief I would explain that I've never encountered an argument for a god or gods that I found convincing.

All someone would have to do to challenge this is put forward an argument and ask me to explain *why* I thought it didn't work.

yashwata said...

I agree with Matt M: "If asked to justify my lack of belief I would explain that I've never encountered an argument for a god or gods that I found convincing."

I would go further. The arguments for the existence (and therefore the properties) of these gods fail to make sense. They are incoherent, and therefore not in need of refutation.

Alonzo Fyfe said that some atheists "claim that such a conclusion is true by definition - as if native English speakers just through their proper understanding of the way the words are commonly used would assent to this."

Yes, I do claim this, at least if you accept a strong (Wittgensteinian) reading of this "proper understanding of the way the words are commonly used".

You said, "If the atheist = 'lack of a belief in God' theoriest were correct, then the question they are trying to dodge would not even be asked because, to English speakers, it would not make sense to ask it."

That is correct (except that we're not trying to dodge anything.) The question "Do you believe in God?" does not make sense. You can't "believe in God" any more than you can "gyre and gimble in the wabe"; and this is not because you're not a slithy tove, It's because you don't know what any of those words mean. Heck, you might be gimbling in the wabe right now, without knowing it. But you cannot honestly claim to be doing it; nor can you (or anyone) honestly claim to "believe in God". You don't know what it means.

If this position does not qualify me for the term 'atheist', then maybe there's another term you'd like to suggest. 'Atheist' works for me.

Danny said...

The "lack of belief" phrase might be based on a misunderstanding of the default skeptical condition toward claims. Skepticism requires a belief that reason and evidence should be used to substantiate claims, hence the default condition of any unsubstantiated claim (U) is not automatically false but instead has null truth value. In the case of unknowable god claims such as existing outside of time, the skeptical approach will lead to both "U is true" and "U is false" being called false claims until logical methods determine the answer if possible.

Assuming almost all English speakers know about the concept of at least one god, is someone who does not answer 'Does at least one god exist?' with 'yes' an Atheist? Methinks that is the case since people not answering yes have a reason even if they cannot verbalize it. For example, yashwata's response that 'The question "Do you believe in God?" does not make sense.' indicates a reason for not believing in any gods; a "lack of belief" is not the same as believing all god definitions are nonsensical.

yashwata said...

Danny said, "the default condition of any unsubstantiated claim (U) is not automatically false but instead has null truth value."

I agree.

"There is a Father-Creator who made the whole Universe" is an unsubstantiated claim; by default I consider it neither-true-nor-false. So to the question, "Do you believe that there is Father [etc.]" I cannot honestly answer yes or no. The best I can do is to say, "It is my understanding that this question is wrongly put."

In a word: I am an atheist.

Matt M said...

I wonder if the nebulousness of the god concept plays a part in the disagreement (or my own confusion, depending on how you want to look at it) here?

For example... I would have no problem stating that I think the proposition 'The traditional Christian God exists' is false - as it seems clear to me that such a god is incompatible with the way the world is. It is not just that I lack belief in it, I also find the concept incoherent. However, when it comes to the deistic god of someone like Tom Paine I could not make the same claim - I see no reason to believe in it (and therefore lack belief), but is that really a sufficient reason to believe it false?

Christian Poppycock said...

Let he/she who is without irrationality cast the first stone.

yashwata said...

Matt M said: "I wonder if the nebulousness of the god concept plays a part in the disagreement (or my own confusion, depending on how you want to look at it) here?"

Absolutely. It plays a part in the mis-framing of the whole issue. Because of the nebulousness of this and other religious concepts, one can imagine that one understands a lot more about religion than is possible.

"I think the proposition 'The traditional Christian God exists' is false - as it seems clear to me that such a god is incompatible with the way the world is."

Certainly.

"It is not just that I lack belief in it, I also find the concept incoherent."

Here I think you're mixing up different ideas. If it doesn't match what we observe with our senses, it's false. If it fits with all possible observations, it is unfalsifiable (and therefore empty). If it misuses language and therefore fails to make any sense, it is incoherent. Various people insist that various statements in all three of these categories can be profound, useful, beautiful, or even (in some special sense) true. A person saying this is repeating someone else's lie without understanding it — or is the original liar.

Unfalsifiable and incoherent propositions both warrant Hitchens's observation that "what can be claimed without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Since no evidence can be brought to support or deny either type, no evidence is needed for their dismissal – only a clear head.

"However, when it comes to the deistic god of someone like Tom Paine I could not make the same claim - I see no reason to believe in it (and therefore lack belief), but is that really a sufficient reason to believe it false?"

Deism is not obviously false. On the other hand, it is unfalsifiable, and therefore empty. It is not in need of rebuttal, because it is not even a claim in the first place.

cl said...

Yet, many of those who offer these defense will often - even in the same brath - condemn all of theism because of its dire implications for the well-being of humanity. Instead of defining theism as a simple belief that one or more gods of some type do exist, they attach all sorts of other properties to theism just so that they can get to their conclusion that theism is a threat to humanity. This is inconsistent. It is irrational.

I agree. I've seen this too many times to count.

yashwata said...

Alonzo said, "Instead of defining theism as a simple belief that one or more gods of some type do exist, they attach all sorts of other properties to theism just so that they can get to their conclusion that theism is a threat to humanity. This is inconsistent. It is irrational."

cl said, "I agree. I've seen this too many times to count."

@Alonzo: I have no problem with "a simple belief that one or more gods … exist". But this not what we see. What we see is religion, which is a bundle not of intellectual beliefs but of repressive practices.

@cl: Too many times to count? I suspect that you are exaggerating. Indeed, I suspect that you have never seen it.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yeshwata

If it is permissible to define theism according to the bundles of beliefs that get attached to belief in God and to condemn them for it . . . then it is permissible to define atheism according to the bundles of beliefs that get attached to it as well . . . and to condemn it for the attrocities of the 20th century.

cl said...

yashwata,

Too many times to count? I suspect that you are exaggerating. Indeed, I suspect that you have never seen it.

Why is that? Just to argue? Or, have you actually some reason?

yashwata said...

Alonzo said, "If it is permissible to define theism according to the bundles of beliefs that get attached to belief in God and to condemn them for it . . . then it is permissible to define atheism according to the bundles of beliefs that get attached to it as well . . . and to condemn it for the attrocities of the 20th century."

1. Atheism is not a belief.

2. Nor is theism a belief! There is no one who believes in any god. There are only religions, which are oligarchies masquerading as benevolent brotherhoods.

3. I condemn no one for their beliefs, only for their actions.

4. As I am sure you are aware, the idea that "atheism" is somehow to blame for "the atrocities of the 20th century" is not just false, it is a deliberate lie.

yashwata said...

@cl: OK, let's be very clear what the dispute is here.

You are claiming to have observed, "countless times", a person "attach all sorts of other properties to theism just so that they can get to their conclusion that theism is a threat to humanity".

Furthermore, Alonzo was charging me with being one of those people. But my argument is nothing like that. So you haven't seen me do it.

Who have you seen mischaracterizing theism in order to support an assumption that theism is a threat to humanity?

cl said...

You are claiming to have observed, "countless times", a person "attach all sorts of other properties to theism just so that they can get to their conclusion that theism is a threat to humanity".

Correct.

Furthermore, Alonzo was charging me with being one of those people. But my argument is nothing like that. So you haven't seen me do it.

I didn't say I did. I wasn't talking to or about you.

Who have you seen mischaracterizing theism in order to support an assumption that theism is a threat to humanity?

The internet is awash with b-grade atheists that do just that. If it weren't, I doubt Alonzo would have written this post.