Saturday, January 13, 2007

Atheism, Education, and Virtue

There is a question floating around asking how critical atheists should be of their theistic neighbors. Some advocate a direct frontal assault of all religiosity – turning belief in the absurdities of religion into such an acute embarrassment that none would dare go there (or, at least, admit that they do so in public).

The reasons for doing this are because those who believe in such things should be embarrassed - the idea of people standing in front of an audience and announcing that the world is less than 6,000 years old is laughable. If one were to imagine the Earth under the watchful eye of some extra-terrestrial scientists, the fact that we choose leaders who think that perfect truth can be found in the assertions of a bunch of illiterate goat herders can be seen as good reason for embarrassment.

The other reason – the reason that I hold is the more important of the two – is that these superstitions motivate people to act in ways that are harmful to others. If there were fewer religionists, then there would be fewer people seeking weapons of mass destruction to detonate in an ‘enemy’ city for us to worry about. Our children, and their children, can count themselves safer to the degree that we can make a future world in where there are fewer theocrats trying to kill dissenters.

In earlier posts, I have written that those who focus on your standard weapons of mass destruction – nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons – are blinding themselves (willfully or otherwise) to the fundamentalists’ most destructive weapon – legislation.

We are up in arms over 20 terrorists flying airplanes into some sky scrapers, killing less than 3,000 people. At the same time, religious fundamentalists in this country have orchestrated the curtailment of stem-cell research that will allow the destruction of as many families per day as Islamic terrorists have killed in this country throughout its history.

In Massachusetts, religious fundamentalists are seeking a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. This constitutional amendment is a weapon of mass destruction that has the whole gay population of the state (between 300,000 and 600,000 people) in its blast radius. And some of them will die – most of them children. Fundamentalists engineer such self-loathing among young homosexuals that a disproportionate number will see no option but suicide. “But what does it matter. They are an affront to God.”

We get daily news reports of tens to hundreds of Iraqi citizens being blown up each day in sectarian violence in Iraq (and other parts of the world). Yet, the damage that these bombs do pales when compared to the damage of over a hundred million women being denied an education – either by law or by custom – because so much ignorance is far more destructive than any bomb.

Given the harmfulness of theism, and the more direct embarrassment of being surrounded by people who express such utterly insane beliefs about the world, it follows that a direct assault on theism is fully justified, is it not?

Well, not exactly.

Atheism is nothing more than the belief that no God exists. (I have expressed my contempt for the idea that ‘atheism’ is ‘the lack of belief’ – a definition that makes the atheist the intellectual equivalent of a rock – in earlier posts.) This proposition alone – “No God exists” – does not entail any other belief, so it does not entail any type of scientific or intellectual enlightenment. It is true that almost all members of the National Academy of Sciences do not believe in God. However, it is also the case that a very small portion of those who do not believe in God will come anywhere near to qualifying as members of the National Academy. There are a lot of stupid ideas out there consistent with “No God Exists” that are not at all disarmed by converting people to atheism.

As for the issue of harm, “No God exists,” entails as much about the nature of value as “The Earth is not the center of the solar system.” That is to say, it entails nothing. Theists like to make a lot of noise about the fact that Nazism and Communism were not religious doctrines, and that Communism embraced atheism.

Yet, the fact is so conveniently ignored that these movements had ‘prophets’ who demanded total obedience and ‘scripture’ in the form of Mein Kampf, Das Kapital, and Mao Tse Tung’s Little Red Book - giving them all of the hallmarks of theism without the God. Furthermore, the idea of killing Jews was hardly an new and un-Christian idea in Europe. However, more importantly, every one of these groups had been brought up to believe that the Sun was the center of the solar system – yet we can hardly make the argument that heliocentrism itself should be condemned because those who lead the most bloodthirsty regimes in human history were heliocentrists.

Note: This idea that Hitler and Stalin brought about more destruction than religion is, itself, an instance of distorting the truth through the creative use of statistics. In terms of the percentage of the population destroyed, the religious wars of Europe wiped out a substantially higher percentage of the population than Hitler and Stalin, and failed in the systematic extermination of religious heretics only because they lacked the technology to do so, not because they lacked the will.

So, nothing about atheism per se that entails any type of intellectual or moral superiority. Consequently, there is nothing about promoting atheism that entails promoting intellectual or moral virtue – except in the comparatively insignificant sense of knowing one specific proposition to be true; the propositions that no God exists.

On the other hand, if we take our cart and our horse, and we switch places, we might discover a combination that makes infinitely more sense.

We have noted that the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to doubt the existence of God. The trick, then, in promoting atheism is to promote education, and to take a firm stand against disinformation. The trick is to demand better schools, better teachers, better access to universities and other forms of education, more public lectures, more research money, more research facilities (from space telescopes to supercolliders), more intelligent use of information in all aspects of American life.

It also means a condemnation of far more than a belief in God. It means a condemnation of anything that wastes time in the pursuit of fiction over fact – from astrology to astral projection to conspiracy theories. One of my favorite examples in public conversation now is to use Bush as an example of intellectual backwardness – basing his interpretation of military intelligence on his decision to invade Iraq, rather than basing the decision to invade Iraq on the best military intelligence. (He’s still doing it, you know. Given the way Bush’s faith-based brain works, he will give up Jesus before he will give up the idea that invading Iraq was a good idea.)

Most importantly, it means identifying smart candidates for public office and promoting those candidates. (Smart candidates are not necessarily Democratic candidates, by the way. I think that there are important minority factions in the Republican Party that are very respectful of science and intellectual integrity.)

We see the same relationship in ethics. Not all atheists are virtuous, but an argument can be made that a truly virtuous person must be an atheist. In this blog, I have defended the idea that moral conclusions must be grounded on reasons for action that exist. In fact, I have attempted, in a way, to make this a clich̩ of these posts Рto distinguish conclusions based on reasons for action that exist from conclusions based on reasons for action that do not exist.

One of the things that theism gives us – over and over again – is a huge stack of reasons for action that do not exist. Thus, theism gives us the pursuit of ‘goods’ that are not, in fact, good. It employs reasons for action for promoting certain states of affairs and avoiding others that are simply not real. So the ‘goods’ that they promote, are not good. In fact, many of the ‘goods’ that they promote are evils in fact (evils, when we consider only the reasons for action that exist) and many of the evils that they tell us to avoid are good in fact (good, considering the reasons for action that exist.

Even though atheism does not imply virtue, and many atheists can be evil – virtue does require a certain type of atheism, because only atheism can focus attention on reasons for action that exist while abandoning reasons for action that do not exist.

This means that, instead of promoting atheism as a way of promoting virtue, promoting virtue as a way of promoting atheism. This means pointing out that President Bush’s veto of stem cell research is a religiously motivated weapon of mass destruction that will spread far more death and misery than any terrorist bomb This weapon will bring about far more sickness and death than a half-dozen Jihadist nuclear bombs. In this case, is not protecting us from fundamentalists with weapons of mass destruction. He has become one.

It means spreading the idea that the Massachusetts anti-gay-marriage amendment is a religiously motivated weapon of mass destruction as destructive as releasing a neurotoxin into parts of The Big Dig.

Because these types of attacks on peoples’ wellbeing – just like the terrorist attacks we have learned to fear – are examples of religious fundamentalists destroying the lives of others by basing their decisions on reasons for action that do not exist.

In both cases, these types of campaigns have additional virtues. The campaign of promoting reason and education (instead of promoting atheism) can direct its guns against other types of irrational belief systems that make no reference to God. The campaign of promoting virtue based on reasons for action that exist can be used to target reasons for action that do not exist that do not have their roots in religion.

This is not an argument that one should downplay atheism – that one should sweep it under the rug and hope nobody notices while one engages in a campaign to promote education and virtue. Look at the title to this blog. I certainly am not downplaying atheism. However, it does mean that the existence of God is not the most important question – not when people are dying today and will die tomorrow based on ignorance and beliefs in reasons for action that do not exist.


Anonymous said...

An interesting reversal of strategies. Sounds promising.

Anonymous said...

1. The MA gay marriage ban has zero chance of passing overall. Polls show that about 2/3 of the population are against it.
2. You don't need to release nerve gas into the Big Dig. It's killed enough on its own.

Anonymous said...


I have to applaud you on this post. I also have a question or two for you.

As for the applause... I have said precisely the same thing as you when you said "these superstitions motivate people to act in ways that are harmful to others." That is why I do a lot of theological and philosophical debating with people who believe in a literal, perfect Bible. People criticize me for not leaving them alone, but I consider my actions justified because they have the potential to be harmful. For some, religion seems to be a beneficial part of their life, giving them the meaning, peace, and love that they seek, and I don't trouble such people, as a rule.

I also agree that atheism needs a bit of a strategy. I know that a lot of people are told that straying from the church leads to harmful things and pain, so whenever someone strays and feels confused and pained (which would happen regardless, I'm sure) their first response is to think "oh, they told me this would happen...they must have been right." Even more troublesome is the fact that they've been socialized to avoid "negative" behaviors, which may not be negative at all. This happens especially when people brought up in a religious background don't know what to believe when they learn enough to reject the religion.

Atheism needs a strategy of sorts.

Here's my question for you: How do you see your utilitarian value system being implemented? Obviously, to impose rewards and sanctions on actions - as you propose - demands an institution to decide rationally what is most practical for society, and devise a way to implement those values.

Basically, it seems like a government education system designed to shape how a person is brought up... which strikes me as oppressive. It also opens the door for corruption, self-righteousness (we decide what's best for society, and we were good enough at it to deserve this position, so your contrary opinion must be stifled)

Of course, I have not considered all possible ways for this to come about. I'm interested to know how you'd predict it all unfolding.

beepbeepitsme said...

RE: "Atheism needs a strategy of sorts."

I don't agree that atheism CAN have a strategy.

But atheists can define themselves as secular humanists, or secularists, or humanists - and then, they may have a strategy as these groups have sets of beliefs.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have used your questions in part to write my blog entry for January 29th: Promoting Desire Utilitarianism

The thing to do is not to promote "desire utilitarianism" itself - it is a descriptive theory that tells us what desires are worth promoting and what desires are worth inhibiting.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Even if it is the case that the Mass. ban on gay marriage has a zero chance of passing, it will still be extensively used to raise millions of dollars to promote fundamentalism. They will use the money for campaigns, outreach, and a whole set of projects to corrupt the next generations of young minds into hatred.

There are still good reasons to use this event to promote as widely as possible the idea that such a law is a religiously motivated hate crime - an attempt to set off a weapon of mass destruction in the state that will victimize hundreds of thousands of people. (Using the analogy that laws that are harmful to others are weapons of mass destruction.) This will curtail the fundraising power of these groups and reduce the amoung of damage they can do with the money they will raise.