Sunday, June 18, 2006

Promoting Atheism

From time to time I come across calls for atheists to organize and to participate in a campaign to spread atheism among the believers. In the context of this discussion, I hear a lot of claims about how organizing atheists is like herding cats. (A phrase, by the way, that I have grown very much tired of and which I would not mind seeing die the last of its nine lives.)

There is nothing morally objectionable to evangelizing atheism. If some people think that this is something that they like to do, I can think of no argument against it. However, even though I see no particularly strong argument against it, I do not see any particularly strong argument for it either.

I put atheism in the same category as I put, for example, heleocentrism. It is a belief about the nature of the universe. It is also a belief that has very few (if any) moral implications. So, I do not see that gives a person much to evangelize about.

In place of being a missionary for atheism, I would like to recommend becoming a missionary for ethics.

Let me illustrate this by an example.

In this blog, I have only briefly touched upon the proposition, “God exists.” I really do not care whether a person thinks that this proposition is true or false. Instead, I focus on moral principles, such as the principle that people should be convicted in a court of law before they are killed, that a major principle of justice is to separate the innocent from the guilty and to protect the innocent while punishing the guilty, that people should tell the truth and not engage in intellectual recklessness that could result in harm to others.

Technically, nothing prevents a theist from looking at this set of objectives and saying, “Yes, I agree. Let us do these things.” Then, we can work together to create a world that has these characteristics.

I will write how actions are based on desires, we can evaluate desires according to their tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. I will add that a presumption of innocence until proven guilty, an aversion to harming the innocent, and an aversion to deceit and intellectual recklessness will tend to fulfill other desires. I will argue for using the tools of praise, condemnation, reward, and punishment to promote these desires and aversions within society.

I think that I can get a few atheists to agree with these objectives.

My theist ally may argue that God wants us to presume innocence until proven guilty, separate the innocent form the guilty and protect the innocent while punishing the guilty, not to lie, and not to engage in intellectual recklessness where others may be harmed. My theist ally may be able to convince other theists to pursue the same objective.

To the degree that I (and my theist ally) are successful at doing this, to that degree we have made the world better than it would have otherwise been, without debating the existence or non-existence of God.

As a case in point, I recently wrote a posting where I condemned the Republican House Resolution 861 as an example of laying a foundation for a campaign of deceit and “bearing false witness” against others. I can make a respectable argument against that type of activity based on the desire-utilitarian assumptions that I use in this blog. At the time, I think that a decent Christian objection can be raised against this type of activity as well – based on the religious prohibition against bearing false witness. Either way, the practice is condemned, without any need to get into a debate over the existence of God.

I admit, there are some religious beliefs that are difficult to work with. A theist may come forth and say, “My God says that I may . . . that I must . . . set off weapons of mass destruction in American cities until the Americans either convert to our way of life or die.”

This is not somebody that I can work with. Indeed, I will readily say that I cannot work with any theist who comes to me claiming that his God is telling him to do harm to others who are not threatening to do harm. My alliance with any theists ends where they cross the line prohibiting harm to (peaceful) others.

Even here, my objection does not take the form, “You believe in God and that is why I am against you.” It takes the form, “You have an irrational and unjustified belief that you may harm others, and that is why I am against you.”

If somebody wants to join a campaign of sorts, the campaign that I would recommend has nothing to do with belief in God. It is a campaign to expose, condemn, and punish those who would organize campaigns of deceit, and those who engage in fallacious reasoning in support of conclusions that, when acted on, cause harm to others. Take a campaign against lying and manipulating others through half-truths and logical fallacies to its conclusion, and the issue of belief in God will take care of itself.

Furthermore, there is no need to be concerned about the fact that others might discover that you are opposed to deceit and intellectual recklessness. You can make this point clear at home, at work, and to strangers standing in line without much risk of generating hostility.

If, in the midst of your campaign against deceit and intellectual recklessness, others might discover you are an atheist, then this will, in fact, pay dividends in favor of promoting the social status of atheists. However, promoting the social status of atheists will be a side-effect, not an objective, of these actions.

This secondary effect will be more powerful to the degree that those who work on this campaign against deceit and intellectual recklessness let it be known that they are also atheists. However, the objective here is not to promote the social status of atheists. The objective remains to force deceivers and those who are intellectually reckless to pay a social cost for their actions, in the hopes of promoting honesty and intellectual responsibility.

Which reminds me….

I have sometimes encountered a pair of statements made in defense of atheism and against theism that make no sense when they are put side by side.

The one is that the theist is lacking in moral character because the only reason he does good and avoids evil is because he expects a reward for his good behavior and fears punishment if he misbehaves. On this conception, the theist will begin to do all sorts of evil the instant he learns that he has nothing to worry about in terms of reward or punishment.

The other is that atheists should be kind and honest to others, not because we value kindness and honesty, but because we want to purchase the good will of others (for what it is worth). We are to step, hat in hand, up to the theist and say, “Please like me. I have done good.”

Yet, this “doing good for the sake of obtaining a reward from theists” is not motivationally different from the theist’s “doing good for the sake of obtaining a reward from God.” For somebody who holds both of these views, their call to “do good for the sake of being rewarded by theists” is an example of hypocrisy.

It does not do much good to condemn a line of reasoning in one breath that one endorses with the next. It has an air of insincerity about it.


Anonymous said...

What an excellent post...makes great sense as a way to communicate effectively with theists.


Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo,

I agree with you as far as it goes, in that atheists and theists can join together to achieve moral goals that we both agree on, and for purposes of doing that it doesn't really matter what a person believes. However, I think you're missing a larger point: the very existence of the evils you oppose is aided and abetted by the fact that society at large believes that blind faith is an acceptable decision-making process and that the vicious and cruel teachings of ancient books are a reliable guide to morality. One might say, and I do say, that people who believe the Bible but advocate love and compassion are different from people who believe the Bible and advocate oppression and hatred only in which verses they choose to support and which they choose to ignore. The fundamentally irrational basis of moral decision-making is still the same in both groups, however.

Although most theists do not support the violent fanatics among their number, merely by existing and holding the beliefs they do, they are contributing to an atmosphere where such beliefs are considered socially acceptable. What we should be doing is encouraging everyone to believe that human needs and human concerns are the only important considerations in moral reasoning, and that blind faith can never be an acceptable way of doing that.

vjack said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
vjack said...

I was having trouble with getting your comments to work the other day, so I did this instead: