Friday, December 30, 2011

Theism, Atheism, and Blame

Gad, how does one kill this senseless piece of atheist bigotry? The idea has dug itself into the atheist community as tight as a tick, even though it represents the worst forms of unreasoned bigotry.

It’s the idea that when a religious person does something wrong religion is to blame, but when an atheist does something atheism is blameless.

This is a very attractive conclusion – for the hate-mongering atheist bigot. The lover of reason has no use for it, but the hate-monger has sure found it attractive.

If you take “atheism” and its counter-part “theism” NEITHER of these are a source of violence or evil. You cannot draw any moral implications from the statement, “It is not the case that at least one God exists” just as you cannot draw any moral implication from the statement, “It is the case that at least one God exists.” They are both behaviorally, morally, and practically impotent.

In order to get to any moral conclusion – any type at all – you have to add something to your fundamental premise, regardless of whether it is atheist or theist.

In order to get violence against homosexuals, you have to combine, “At least one God exists” with “That god commands that homosexuals be put to death” and “We all have to duty to do that which God commands.” Then, you can get behavior worthy of condemnation.

However, on this level, the same reasoning applies to atheism. In order to get any form of behavior – any type at all – out of atheism you have to add something to your fundamental premise. We might add, “Man is a rational animal, and it is irrational to provide help to others unless one expects a sufficient profit in return that more than compensates the cost of the help. Therefore, man ought not to help others. Selfishness is a virtue.”

If we are going to say that religion is responsible for the violence against homosexuals in the first instance, then consistency commands that we hold that atheism is responsible for the selfish disregard for others in the second case.

If, on the other hand, we are going to deny that atheism has anything to do with the selfish disregard for others in the second case, then logical consistency requires that we also deny that theism has anything to do with the violence against homosexuals in the first place.

There is no grounding – none at all – for the claim that religion is responsible in the first instance but that atheism is blameless in the second.

But, hate-mongering bigotry is so sweet, so warm and comfortable. It is so much fun. This sweet, warm, comforting fun is why this bigotry continues to be such huge part of atheist culture.

Oh, and we need to add hypocrisy to this list of evil pleasures. Because when theists engage in these types of unprincipled leaps of logic in order to defend hateful and bigoted conclusions against atheists, they are to be condemned.

The bigot’s trick is to compare general atheism (to which no harms can be attributed) with specific theism (which can be charged with doing harm). Yet, they scream in protest when theists go the other way, comparing general theism (your condemnation is senseless because I can identify at least one person who believes in God who is not guilty of your charges) to specific atheism (Stalin).

Here’s the fact. Religion is exactly as harmful or as harmless as atheism – no more and no less. There are certain religious philosophies that can be condemned for the evil that they contain. However, there are certain atheist philosophies that can be condemned for the evil that they contain. Yes, it is true, atheism itself does not entail any of these philosophies. However, theism itself does not entail any specific religion either.

In other words, when it comes to being a cause of harm, “atheism” (broadly defined) is just as innocent as “theism” (broadly defined). And specific atheist philosophies (narrowly defined) in many cases are just as guilty as specific theist philosophies (narrowly defined). And no decent person is going to sanction scoring political points by comparing broadly defined atheism to narrowly defined theism, or comparing broadly defined theism to narrowly defined atheism. The lover of reason finds this move indefensible. Though the lover of hate-mongering bigotry tends to find this move very, very delicious.


Jesse Reeve said...

You cannot draw any moral implications from the statement, “It is not the case that at least one God exists” just as you cannot draw any moral implication from the statement, “It is the case that at least one God exists.” They are both behaviorally, morally, and practically impotent.

True, philosophical theism doesn't logically entail any moral implications. But theism as practiced by humans-- religion-- reinforces and harmonizes with common errors of human reasoning; dualism, hyperactive agent detection, magical thinking, and so on.

When religious people are tripped up by bad practices of thought that religion encourages, isn't it reasonable to say that religion is partly at fault?

Joshua Bennett said...

Sorry, Alonzo, but you're wrong here. The problem is that the first example takes the existence of a god as one of its premises, while the second example does not take the non-existence of a god as one of its premises. The second example is not a necessarily atheistic one (a theist could make it as easily as an atheist, and some do), but the first example is a necessarily theistic one. You're comparing apples to oranges.

Now, that's not to say that there aren't atheistic moral claims that cause harm also. An atheist may take a nihilist position and claim that, since there is no god, there is similarly no need to consider the effects of one's actions on others. This, to him, justifies wanton slaughtering of others. Does this imply that atheism in general leads to the same sort of harms that religion can? No. One can reject the claim that there is no reason to consider the impact of your actions on others, which does not follow necessarily from the truth of the claim that there is no god. Similarly, a theist can reject the claims that his god condemns homosexuality or (rather unlikely, but possible) that he should follow his god's will. Those claims are separate, and do not necessarily follow from the claim that there is at least one god.

The reason for noting the evils that a religion allows is to show that, if one accepts the specific theism (e.g., there is a god and the Bible is an accurate description of his behavior), this leads one necessarily to attribute immoral behavior to this god and, by extension, to those who emulate him. Doing this is not hate-mongering (though it is straw-manning if the person you're criticizing does not hold to the claims of the specific theism which you criticize).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Joshua Bennett

The second example takes the non-existence of God as one of its premises ex hypthesi. If you add God as a premise, you get case 1. If you do not add God as a premise, you get case 2.

Joshua Bennett said...

That's silly, Alonzo. Unless the premise (or lack thereof) that a god exists changes the conclusion of the argument, it is irrelevant. The claim that there is no god is not necessary to make the case in your second example. However, the claim that there is a god is necessary in your first one.

ChrisD said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
scott schear said...

Jesse's argument to me really makes no sense. Maybe I'm not logically sophisticated enough to understand it's nuances. So I believe Joshua, in this regard, is correct. It seems, however, that the two most acute mistakes made in most theism vs atheism arguments is the supposition that theism is religion and that a particular source document is the only basis of theistic understanding.
Additionally, significant vitriol could be avoided if theists didn't feel their faith threatned by contrary opinions and if atheists remembered that their view, if presented to refute theism, is as much a declaration of faith as any made by a theist.

Jesse Reeve said...

No need to be self-effacing, Scott. This is the Internet, communication failure is practically the norm :)

Consider the argument: "guns don't kill people; people kill people." By Alonzo's standard, this argument stands. The existence of guns does not logically entail that they will be used to kill. But in addition to the nature of guns, we know about human nature. We know that many people seek advantage over others through threats and violence, including murder, and that some of those people will use guns for their ends if they can. We have reason to be wary of gun abuse, because guns in human hands are dangerous.

To abbreviate Alonzo's argument: "theism doesn't harm people, people harm people." Again, nothing about the proposition "at least one god exists" logically entails any moral implication. But this proposition is being offered to humans, not ideal philosophy freshmen of perfect emptiness, newly minted from the Platonic void. Humans are susceptible to errors of reasoning such as mental dualism, hyperactive agent detection, and magical thinking, and religion reinforces those errors.

Because religion appeals to dualism, human theists will justify harming people "to save their souls." Because it appeals to hyperactive agent detection, human theists will excuse suffering because "it was meant to be." Because it appeals to magical thinking, human theists will waste resources on pointless "magic" rituals. We have reason to be wary of religion, because religion in human hands is dangerous.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Jesse Reeve

When you start talking about souls and "magic rituals" you make the same unwarranted leap from the general to the specific that I claim to be a mistake.

Atheism is no cure for magical thinking. I know atheists who believe in ghosts and reincarnation. On the other side, history has been filled with scientists who have thought that science itself is how we discover God's world. God created a universe in which science and reason rule.

There is nothing in the gun analogy that incorporates the mistake of equivocating between the general and the specific that I wrote about in this posting.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The failure to distinguish between "a religion" or "that religion" and "religion" is as morally objectionable as the failure to distinguish between "a black man" and "blacks" - and to attempt to promote hatred of the whole group on the basis of the poor behavior of a specific example.

Jesse Reeve said...

When you start talking about souls and "magic rituals" you make the same unwarranted leap from the general to the specific that I claim to be a mistake.

If this is a mistake-- if souls and magic rituals are not general features of religion, but only features of specific religions-- then where are all the religions that don't incorporate souls and magic rituals?

Atheism is no cure for magical thinking.

Well, atheism can remedy some kinds of magical thinking. But I never claimed that atheism is a universal prophylactic against it. In fact, I said that magical thinking is a "common error of human reasoning," and atheists are of course a subset of humans. You certainly did a number on that strawman though.

The failure to distinguish between "a religion" or "that religion" and "religion" is as morally objectionable as the failure to distinguish between "a black man" and "blacks" - and to attempt to promote hatred of the whole group on the basis of the poor behavior of a specific example.

This is wild, frothing hyperbole. Religions are things like beliefs, organizations, or cultural institutions. "Promoting hatred" of those things based on their errors is never as morally objectionable as promoting hatred of any group of people based on their non-malleable nature. And asserting that religion should take the blame for the harms it causes is not "promoting hatred" of religion, any more than asserting that murderers should take the blame for their crimes is "promoting hatred" of murderers.

Drake Shelton said...


"If you take “atheism” and its counter-part “theism” NEITHER of these are a source of violence or evil. You cannot draw any moral implications from the statement, “It is not the case that at least one God exists” just as you cannot draw any moral implication from the statement, “It is the case that at least one God exists.” They are both behaviorally, morally, and practically impotent. "

>>>That is erroneous American thinking. The idea that theory is inherently a-moral, is telling and I believe connected to your first ammendment and the rise of your cousins, the baptist religion. The Bible in Galatians chapter 5 mentions that heresy is a work of the flesh. To think correctly is moral and to think incorrectly is immoral.

M34nMrMust4rd said...

I have to agree with Jesse 100%.

Drake, The claim is that Theism is not inherently immoral, not that any specific religion is not. Quoting the bible is stepping from general to specific, making it irrelevant to the topic at hand.

While there may exist some form of theism that is morally blameless, I have not yet come into contact with it. This is of course not to say that all theists are immoral, plenty of theists are moral in spite of their religion.

I don't think that atheists attribute all the wicked actions of the religious to their faith, only the ones that they are scripturally mandated to commit. If a Christian kills someone, I will not say "Man A killed Man B because man A is a Christian." It may well be the case though that Man A killed Man B because Man A is a Christian and Man B is gay, a doctor who preforms abortions or euthanasia, or a member of another faith. In any of these cases the man's faith informed his wicked action. His scripture tells him that he is doing the lords work by this action, plainly and not as a matter of misinterpretation (except perhaps in the case of the doctor). Now of course this is a specific faith, not general theism, but as above stated, there exists no major religion where a similar example could not be constructed with ease.

So if all the major forms theism takes cause people to commit immoral actions and/or to feel righteous about doing so, it stands to reason there is something morally lacking with theism.

I think the issue is that theism is almost always gnostic, it discourages our skeptical nature. That is does this metaphysically is un-doubtable, as no god past the Aristotelian prime mover can withstand any hones skeptical inquiry, and even that falls flat when you see it for just another step back in a regress rather than an end to one. But even when moral skepticism is not specifically discouraged or forbidden (as in Abrahamic religions), I think that metaphysical suppression bleeds over and prevents people from asking difficult moral questions. Again, it could be there exists a form of theism that encourages independent moral inquiry unburdened by mandated archaic bigotry, It's just not a form that I've encountered.

While it's hard to talk about "theism" without touching any specifics, I think this rather famous Steven Weinberg quote does a good job of articulating why the anti-theist movement views theism as a net loss morally speaking, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."

Kristopher said...

i thik alonozo is right on this one. you can't say theism creates immorality until you add what God commands. at most the believer is believing a false statement. I am fairly sure everyone of us believes at least on thing to be true that is false.

the closest you could get to argue that someone is bad due to their belief in the proposition "at least one God exists" is perhaps intellectual negligence of not properly researching the matter, since the information is pretty easy to find and pretty conclusive toward athiesm. though this would only work if the person bases a significant portion of their lives around the religous edicts. i dont know the correct answer to alot of questions but i try to research answers to the questions that affect my life. many people are religous but are not greatly affected by it. that just means their wrong not bad. those are two very different concepts. i think athiests and theists tend to confuse them when talking about one another.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

The argument I presented is not all that complicated.

You cannot argue from the specific to the general. The infrerence from "an X" to "all X" needs justification.

If you want to condemn theism itself, then you are limited to conclusions that follow exclusively from the belief that at least one god exists (or has existed) - and nothing else. We can attribute no qualities to this God other than those that are necessary for godhood.

I hold that this is a false belief. However, if having a false belief is sufficient for condemnation, we all must be condemned.

For many years, I held the false belief that the American Volunteer Group (the so-called Flying Tigers) were fighting in China long before America entered the war. I was shocked to discover that they flew their first mission on Christmas eve 1941 - 3 weeks after Pearl Harbor.

This is a belief that I could have easily learned was false if I had done the research. Yet, I didn't do this research.

I do not believe that my error made me an evil person worthy of condemnation and contempt. Mostly, it is because this belief had nothing to do with my behavior towards other people. I do not have the time - let alone the obligation - to hold every belief that I have up to scrutiny. I only have an obligation to hold those beliefs up to scrutiny if there is a chance that they might lead me to doing something that turns out to be harmful to others.

The proposition "at least one God exists" is not a belief that meets that qualification. It doesn't imply ANYTHING about how one person should behave.

M34nMrMust4rd said...

Alonzo, I'm unsure if this response was aimed at me, but I understand perfectly what you are saying. In fact I take care to address the confines of your criticism repeatedly. While speaking first of something specific as an example as the moral responsibility that atheist place on religion, as your initial claim was that atheists will blame religion for all of the faithful's follies, and it's hard to talk about how blame is actually assigned without being a little specific. I then immediately admit to speaking of something more specific, and attempt to pull it back to a general matter of practicum by pointing out there is no major faith for which a similar example can't be created.

At this point we're moving away from do atheists blame all evil done by the religious on religion, and in to "is any EXISTING, not theoretical, form of theism blameless?" Not does any form of theism contain no bad people or contain any good people, but does the form of theism itself lend to some moral evil?

I think the issue here is that people attack religion for its moral failings, and you are taking specific criticisms and applying them to something that -nothing can be said about-. While I think plenty could be said about a god's character if we can know him to be omniscient of omnipotent. If we are talking about a completely unknowable, non-interventionist god such as the one spoken of by Aristotle, we can't say anything other than it's not very likely.

So why would you assume that is what people are talking about? When people make a claim about "theism" assume they mean "The set of all major gnostic theist Dogmas currently existing or known to have existed." Because there really isn't another term that means that. kind of the opposite of "solar system," where we refer to them in general by the specific name of our own system surrounding our sun Sol.

Lastly, I can't really think of a plausible situation in which holding a false belief about some military trivia could have any significant moral implications. Similarly, belief in a god that we know -absolutely nothing- about, who gives as no moral commandments or pointers, couldn't really be harmful either. But when is it ever the case that that sort of god is talked about, let alone criticized (morally, not metaphysically)? And beyond that, even if one does hold a belief in a god that gives moral commandments, no one would call them evil just for that. There are plenty of good, religious people and no one worth conversing with would attempt to argue otherwise. It can however be said of these individuals that they are morally irresponsible, because not investigating a belief you hold with clear and significant moral implications, is the definition of irresponsibility. The false truths that delude them are evil, and those who sell them (I'm talking like, the catholic clergy, who I think we well know is made up largely of non-believers, at least in the sort of god they sell) are guilty of a wicked act (it's hard to really call a person "evil" exempting extreme cases).

Kristopher said...

@ alonzo

your right without adding a proposition as to the nature of God's commandments one couldn't even assign intellectual negligence because the proposition "at least one god exists (or existed)" does not play a significat role in anyone's life without further added propositions. just like your example played no significant role in your moral decisions.