Monday, February 19, 2007

Theism as Mental Illness or Child Abuse

For the last couple of weeks there has been a debate on the efficacy and the ethics of “The Blasphemy Challenge” – a self-proclaimed publicity stunt from the Rational Response Squad whereby young people are encouraged to publicly declare their lack of believe in God (commit blasphemy) and post their statement on YouTube and are rewarded with a free DVD of “The God Who Wasn’t There.”

One of the main points of contention is whether the claims that surround The Blasphemy Challenge are insulting towards theists and, if so, whether this is likely to promote a false impression of atheism and generate a harsh backlash against atheists.

On Insult

I wish to begin with a statement about insult. There is nothing morally objectionable about insult (in common cases) where the claim made is true and the behavior worthy of condemnation. If there is evidence that a person believes that P, claims that not-P, makes this claim for the purpose of manipulating another person, and the manipulation is to the disadvantage of the victim (or others) and to the advantage of the speaker, it is fair to call that person a liar.

We can hardly think it is reasonable to defend oneself from such a charge simply by noting that the charge is insulting. It is as laughable as imagining a person on trial for rape claiming in his defense, “The prosecution is engaged in insulting and derogatory behavior in calling me a rapist. Anybody who submits another person to these types of insults should be ashamed of themselves and should immediately stop that behavior!”

Not if the accusations are true.

When insults are impermissible it is not because they are insults. It is because the insult was unfairly or unjustly launched at the victim. In other words, the inappropriate insult (in common cases) is either negligently unjustified or false.

So, we need to look at the claims made in conjunction with the blasphemy challenge and see if they can be criticized on these grounds.

Theism as a Mental Illness

A part of this discussion has focused on “Sapient’s” claim that theism is a mental illness, and that he would take his mother to a mental hospital to overcome her delusional beliefs if she was a Christian and mental hospitals treated theism.

James Lazarus says that this is inappropriately insulting.

In fact, Lazarus is right on this. It is an unjust characterization.

Sam Harris has made similar comments. Harris has said that if a person were to go to the breakfast table and claim that saying a few Latin words would turn his cereal into the literal body of Elvis, that we would call this person insane.

Indeed we would.

However, there is an important part of the context missing from both of these analogies.

Christians live in a community where the vast majority of the people reinforce these beliefs. This culture of common beliefs defines the difference between the man uttering Latin words over his cereal in the morning and the Priest conducting mass.

I have mentioned in the past that humans are not fully rational and, more importantly, we cannot be fully rational. We do not have the time to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny. Therefore, we (rationally) adopt rules of thumb – heuristics that allow us to get our beliefs mostly right even though they can lead to mistakes.

One of these heuristics is to listen to those around us. If the vast majority of the people around us (or, at least, those we come into contact with) assert ‘P’, then it is rational to adopt ‘P’. Notice that ‘P’ is not grounded on any type of evidence that directly infers the truth of ‘P’. ‘P’ has not been proved or even proved likely in an argument that has ‘P’ as the conclusion. Rather, agents adopt ‘P’ without any foundation, simply because so many people around him have adopted ‘P’.

Logicians recognize this as the bandwagon fallacy or argumentum ad populum. It is not, strictly speaking, rational and can easily lead to people adopting false beliefs.

It may not be a logically ideal way of acquiring beliefs, but it is practical. Given that we do not have time to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny, it is useful to simply grab some of the most common beliefs that others have accepted and hope that they know what they are talking about. It is not unreasonable to hold that those beliefs are generally good enough to live with . . . generally. In addition, this method helps people to get along and to communicate, like picking up a common language.

Building a Ship of Beliefs

In an earlier post, “Joan Roughgarden: Evolution and The Bible,” I borrowed an analogy I heard often in graduate school that compared a person’s set of beliefs to a ship at sea. That ship is in constant need of repair, refit, and, in some cases, redesign, but the owner cannot cast the ship aside and start over. He has to do repairs piecemeal, by attaching new systems of beliefs to those that already exist.

If we carry that analogy further, we can imagine a child as adrift at sea, surrounded by driftwood. From this, the child starts to build a raft. Then, his parents help him to build a framework for future beliefs. All future experiences and pieces of information can only be understood in terms of how it fits onto this framework. If it does not fit comfortably, then it will be warped and twisted and distorted until it does fit.

The child uses what he is given and puts it together as he has been taught. Even here, there is little opportunity for the agent to actually subject his beliefs to rational analysis. He scarcely knows the rules of rational analysis.

There are a lot of Christian beliefs floating around for a child to pick up. On the other hand, there are very few “speaking Latin to morning cereal will turn it literally into the body of Elvis” beliefs to pick up. There is good reason to count the latter beliefs – if one should adopt them – as signs of mental illness. However, adopting the former beliefs in the context of a society filled with Christian beliefs is simply proof that the mind is functioning normally.

The claim that such a person is mentally ill is an unjustified and unjust insult. It is not fair, and it betrays a certain amount of mean-spiritedness on the part of any who would make such a claim.

I am all in favor of being mean to people who deserve it. Indeed, desire utilitarianism demands condemnation and, in the worst cases, punishment as a way of promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desire. In many cases, I write that people are not mean enough. For example, by far we do not denigrate and condemn enough those who work to manufacture false beliefs - beliefs that can kill and maim millions. The problem is not that it is wrong to insult people. The problem is with insulting people who do not deserve it.

Faulty Structures

This analysis can also be applied to Richard Dawkins’ claim that labeling children Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or the ideology of his or her parents is “child abuse”.

In order for something to count as “child abuse”, the person who performs the action must betray either an intention to harm or a callous disregard for the possibility of harm to the welfare of the child. Even negligence (a form of child abuse) is understood in this way – as the absencce of a level of concern for a child’s welfare that would have motivated caution in a concerned individual.

I sincerely doubt that those who label a child “Christian” or “Muslim” have this type of disregard for the well-being of the child. In fact, quite the opposite is usually the case. The individual is very much concerned for the welfare of the child. He or she has simply made a mistake.

Women who took thalidomide while pregnant did significant harm to their children. Yet, this was not sufficient to charge them with "child abuse". This is because the behavior was motivated by a mistake, not by an absence of concern (or a desire to harm) the child. Calling thalidimide users "child abusers" for actions taken before the harmfulness of thalidimide was known is grossly inappropriate.

Of course, there are cases where a parent subjects a child to some exotic ritual that does harm to the child where we would call it abuse. We do say that the parent ought to have known better. However, this is the case where a concerned parent would have reasonably been expected to adopt a different set of beliefs. Here, too, there is a relevant moral difference between the parent who adopts a harmful belief that the bulk of society knows to be harmful, and one in which a parent adopts a belief that the bulk of society fails to see the harm. There is no "child abuse" in the second case.

And why use the term "child abuse?" The main motivation that I can think of for using a term like this is to make the targets of this term the subjects of the same hatred that is (justifiably) directed towards those who truly abuse children. This term is used to manufacture hate. Hate is fine, when the targets of hate deserve it. Yet, in this case, the goal is to manufacture hate where it is not deserved.

Morally concerned people will take more care in the use of these types of terms.

A Belief Framework

Claiming that the Christian framework, given to a child, does not qualify as “child abuse” does not imply that it is not harmful. The accidental poisoning of a child is not child abuse, but it is still harmful.

This framework has the problem in that it often instructs the child to take actions against dangers that are not real. At the same time, it often disarms the child against dangers that are real. More importantly, this framework encourages the child to put together a structure of beliefs that make the child a threat to the well-being of others; imposing legal sanctions that prohibit people from realizing certain goods while forcing upon them states that are not good. These false beliefs often get in the way of positive real-world change to the point that innocent people are maimed, killed, and otherwise harmed.

It is not fair to apply the terms “mental illness” or “child abuser” to such people. The former is an unjustly derogatory statement. The latter is an attempt to solicit hatred in the heart of the listener against people for whom hatred is not justified.

Using these terms loosely puts atheists in a bad light, not because it is wrong to insult people and they might get angry. It is wrong because the claims are simply false, and making them demonstrates that the speaker is more concerned with being angry and promoting hate than with being accurate and promoting truth.

There are real harms being inflicted that we should know about, but the moral condemnation and solicitation of hate should be saved for those who actually deserve it.


BlackSun said...

I see the logic of your post, but how do you propose to sanction those who poison their children (even unknowingly) with religious belief?

It's a far bigger millstone around a person's neck in many cases than physical abuse. Bruises heal, but religious delusion may persist for a lifetime.

I tend to agree more with Sapient, Harris, and Dawkins. People who persist in religious delusions should know better, and should be held accountable.

Ignorance is no excuse.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Ignorance is too an excuse. Look at the huge number of things we are all ignorant of.

Walk into any bookstore (particularly a college bookstore) or any library and marvel at just how ignorant you (and I) happen to be.

I constantly see atheists who, as a matter of routine, say things that are as absurd as those of any theist. The God Deslusion is not the only delusion that exists. I would add to this, for example, the Common Moral Subjectivist Delusion.

Even if I am wrong about common moral subjectivism, I am right about delusions. Because, if there is no Common Moral Subjectivist Delusion, then there must be a Desire Utilitarian Delusion. And there must be an Ayn Rand Objectivist Delusion. There was certainly, at one time, a widespread Marxist Delusion.

Theists are not the only ones subject to adopting a system of false beliefs, and not all systems of false belief are religious.

Given false beliefs are religius All purveyers of false beliefs (and all of us have some false beliefs) are poisoning their children.

Note: I am not saying that all beliefs systems are equal and that condemnation is always wrong. My argument in this post rests on the fact that it is reasonable for people to adopt beliefs that surround them. Once they build a particular framework, then all future experience is going to be interpreted according to how well it fits into that framework. This argues for the non-culpability of certain types of error. It does not imply that these are not errors.

What do I propose be done?

Well, the first step to what should be done is to promote honesty and justice, which is best done by resolving to be honest and just.

If there is logic in an argument that shows that demonstrates that this is a non-culpable error, then holding people accountable for a non-culpable error is neither honest nor just.

These are still errors. I describe in the post how these errors cause suffering and death. Any person with a concern to reduce suffering and death has reason to contribute in reducing these errors.

Yet, holding people accountable for a non-culpable error is, itself, an error to be reduced, not a principle to be promoted.

Anonymous said...

I recently discovered this blog and find it to be very well-written and interesting. It is now one of my favorite websites.

However, I disagree on a couple of your points. I think instilling religious beliefs in someone who is not mentally developed enough IS child abuse. It is not intentional child abuse, and it does not give us warrant to hate religious parents, but it is still child abuse.

Marrying 12 year old girls used to be normal, but with increased knowledge of child development, it is apparent that it is not right. We shouldn't judge those in the past, for they lived in a different culture. But regardless of the intent, it is still harmful, and violates the child's rights. I would call this child abuse, but not judge those in the past.

You separate definitionally harm to a child that is intentional from harm to a child that is accidental. In the case of religion, it is clearly accidental, but I still believe it to be child abuse, regardless of intent.

It's largely a matter of semantics. I consider it child abuse, but do not use the term to engineer hate, and wouldn't presume Dr. Dawkins does either, though only he can speak for himself. I use it to refer to the effect itself, nothing more.

Anonymous said...

1. You correctly establish that there is nothing wrong with an "insult" if it is a true statement, regardless of how the target reacts to or feels about it. Then you go on to discuss "is theism a mental illness" without once addressing whether there is any level of accuracy to such a statement. You're right that however wrong or illogical theism and religion may be, such beliefs are understandable (given our culture, society) and we can't expect people to be perfectly logical all the time (given human nature, needs).

I don't disagree with that - but it strikes me as being at least partially beside the point, given the premises you have already established: false insults are bad; true insults are not bad. Having established that, you have set yourself up to discuss whether the "insult" of "theism = mental illness" is at any level true or false. Maybe theism and religion do not fit any definition of mental illness in any way; maybe there is a partial fit; maybe there is a great fit. That's the question you should have addressed first. Then, the "but it's understandable" part can be introduced.

2. I think it's unfair to discuss Dawkins' "child abuse" argument without also discussing some of the context: many people would at least by sympathetic to such a label if the subject of indoctrination were something other than religion - like Marxism. Levels of indoctrination which are accepted for religion would be treated with shock if applied to almost any other belief system - including and especially by religious believers.

Calling a 7-year-old a Marxist sounds absurd, disturbing, and creepy. Calling a 7-year-old a Christian sounds normal, wholesome, and good. Why? Even if Dawkins an be legitimately criticized for taking this point too far and making it too strongly, there's still a very good point to be made here and is something that merits some thought. I, at least, hadn't thought about this disparity before and so can appreciate having it brought to my attention.

By insisting that religious indoctrination isn't child abuse, believers are forced to make an argument which would either allow that other sorts of indoctrination also aren't child abuse, or which demonstrates that religion should be treated differently. This is a difficult position to be in, but given the circumstances I think it's fair to expect such an explanation. The harshness of claim forces a response in a way that other presentations might not. People can't as easily ignore or evade it as they might other statements.

3. If I say that using a switch or belt to punish a child is child abuse, am I encouraging "hate" towards all though parents in history who used such methods? I don't think so. If I say that spanking is a form of abuse, am I encouraging "hate" towards all those parents who do or did spank their kids? No again.

Why? Because of context: most agree that in the contexts where such methods are used, people sincerely believe they are appropriate and are not abusive. It took time for people to figure out otherwise. Women who took thalidomide couldn't have imagined that their actions would be harmful; parents using a belt on their children couldn't claim that (they claimed that the benefits outweighed the harm and/or that the benefits required the pain). A more extreme example along the same continuum would be slave-owners: they sincerely believed their actions were moral, but that doesn't mean it's "grossly inappropriate" to condemn their actions.

There are thus two questions here: how do we evaluate the indoctrination and how do we evaluate the condemnation of indoctrination? Where along the continuum does "religious indoctrination = child abuse" fall? You are equating it to condemnation of using a belt or switch today (at a bare minimum, if not worse) when it strikes me as much closer to condemnation of using switch or belt 100 year ago; or of spanking today. Even if the condemnation is misplaced, it's not a call for hatred.

Where along the continuum does religious indoctrination itself fall? You have equated it to using thalidomide, but what do you base that on? Women using thalidomide had no idea about any negative consequences; can religious believers sincerely say that they are also completely unaware of any negative side-effects to religion and theism? If not, then thalidomide is the wrong analogy.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I hold that using the term "child abuse" without being judgmental is logically incoherent. The term is inherently judgmental.

I attempted to demonstrate this in my posting by showing that the unintentional poisoning of a child, though harmful, is not "child abuse" simply because there is no reason to harshly judge the person who accidentally poisoned the child.

How would you explain the fact that you wish to use the term "child abuse" in the religion case, but not in the accidental poisoning case. On your standard, what is the logical distinction - if not the fact that the uses are distinguished by whether condemnation is appropriate?

By the way, if instilling religoius beliefs in someone who is not mentally developed is abuse, then what about instilling capitalist beliefs, socialist beliefs, beliefs about sharing with other children and not hitting them, beliefs about dinosaurs, stars, not to use the term 'nigger' when talking about the neighbors?

What makes one set of beliefs appropriate to teach children and another set inappropriate?

My view is that any and all true beliefs are fair game for teaching a child. False beliefs are off limits.

I object to teaching a child to adopt a literalist Christian framework, not because the child is not mentally developed, but because those beliefs are false.

I also hold that the teaching of these false beliefs to children is much more like the accidental poisoning of a child than the term "child abuse" allows.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Cline

Mental Illness

I believe that I established that theism is not a mental illness in a culture dominated by Christians, because a properly functioning brain uses "rules of thumb" to efficiently acquire beliefs, and one of those "rules of thumb" is to adopt the beliefs that are common in one's society. Rather than hold each belief up to scrutiny, we assume that others generally know what they are talking about - and they do (generally) know enough to keep themselves alive and reasonably healthy.

If there is no improper functioning of the brain, then there is no illness.

There is still error. However, if having false beliefs is an illness then we are all ill to some extent. That seems an overly general use of the term.

Labeling Children

I do not share the intuition that it is at all "creepy" to label a child Marxist.

I think that this intuition is an example of people accepting a piece of evidence because it supports a desired conclusion, then adopting a conclusion because it is supported by the evidence.

If we understand "marxist" to mean "marxist scholar" - then this is not only creepy, it is nonsense. However, if there were a recognizable community of marxists, there would be nothing at all creepy in referring to the people in this community as 'marxist' and applying it to all of the members of that community.

We had a Hutterite colony near to where I lived as a child, and it made perfect sense to call everybody who lived there - adults and children alike, Hutterites. If there were a commune nearby, I would just as naturally call all of the people who lived there - adults and children alive "communists" because this describes the community in which they live.

The distinction here is whether a recognized community exists. Communities can exist in physical isolation or within a larger community. If such a community of X can be identified, then all of its members, including its children are called 'X-ists' which means only that they live within that community.

And it is perfectly rational to expect that X-ists will grow up to adopt X-ism. It's not being forced on them. It is making a prediction with a certain probability of truth.

In History

You wrote, "If I say that using a switch or belt to punish a child is child abuse, am I encouraging "hate" towards all though parents in history who used such methods? I don't think so."

Neither do I. The phrase "in history" must be removed. If I call an activity "abuse" then I am saying that anybody who conducts that activity today deserves condemnation.

Today, I would use the term to refer to any pregnant woman who consumes alcohol during pregnancy. Yet, the term would not apply to a mother who consumed alcohol during pregnancy 100 years ago, because fetal alcohol syndrome was unknown. Those cases "in history" are accidental poisonings.

Those who consume alcohol today do, in fact, demonstrate negligent or willful disregard for the health of a child, making the term "child abuse" (as a statement of condemnation) fully appropriate.

Theism becomes child abuse when it demonstrates willful or negligent disregard for the well-being of a child.

I can condemn slavery at any time because slavery inherently shows negligent or willful disregard for the well-being of the slave. It is, in fact, the essence of slavery. People in a slave culture may not have cared that they were showing negligent or willful disregard for the welfare of the slave. Yet, this would make them like the drinking mother who does not care about whether she is showing willful or negligent disregard for the welfare of her future child, the drunk driver who does not care about the family he may potentially kill or maim, or the rapist who does care about (or actively desires to inflict) harm on his victim.

Not caring about the negligent or willful disregard for others does not buy one any moral credit. Not having negligent or willful disregard for others is what buys moral credit.


Once again, as with JD, I think that condemnation - or, more specifically, moral condemnation - that is not a call to hatred is incoherent.

I think that what you and JD are talking about is not "condemnation" but "criticism". I can certainly be critical of a person without condemning him. Yet, even this possibility requires that there be some distinction between "criticism" and "condemnation" - something that condemnation has but criticism does not. This difference, I would argue, is that condemnation states that an emotional response - hate, or something very much like it - is appropriately applied to individuals like the accused. Criticism does not have this connotation.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I believe that my above comments to Austin Cline provide an additional answer to your question of how I would sanction those who poison their children with religious beliefs.

There is a difference between criticism and condemnation. "Child abuse" is a term of condemnation. "Abuse" of a child means "the wrongful use" of a child.

However, criticism is justified in cases where condemnation is not. If somebody is wrong, it is perfectly acceptable to say, "You are wrong." If their errors are causing harm to others, it is perfectly acceptable to say, "Your errors are causing harm to others."

If they do not care, then it is time to move from criticism to condemnation.

Anonymous said...

”How would you explain the fact that you wish to use the term "child abuse" in the religion case, but not in the accidental poisoning case. On your standard, what is the logical distinction - if not the fact that the uses are distinguished by whether condemnation is appropriate?”

I consider accidental poisoning child abuse as well as intentional. The parent is actively harming- abusing- the child. Abuse exists regardless of intent. The effect will be the same. If a child’s mind is being taken advantage of by teaching a worldview it is not capable of understanding, without giving fully informed consent to choose that worldview, that is abuse. This includes political beliefs as well as religious. To raise a child capitalist, or socialist, just because the parent believes in one, is abusing the child’s mind.

You ask where is the line drawn between things that are not abuse to teach and things that are? How is brainwashing religion into a child any worse than brainwashing math, or manners, into a child? I haven’t fully thought it out yet, but you do have point. To you it’s ok to teach anything, as long as it is true, and teaching literal Christianity to a child is wrong because it is false, not because the child isn’t adequately developed to choose for himself or herself.

Your reasoning holds together in that it easily draws the line between acceptable things to teach and unacceptable. But if I told a fundamentalist Christian she shouldn’t teach her child Christianity because it is false, she would just say I was the one with a false belief. Who is to judge? I think it is wrong because it takes advantage of the child’s mind, regardless of whether it is true or false, but I admit I don’t know how I would draw the line.

Brainwashing is where you teach to accept a system of thought uncritically. If I taught my child that there is no God because I say so, because he has to have faith that I'm right, because I will make fun of him if he disagrees, because he will not be considered normal if he disagrees, that would be atheist brainwashing. All those techniques get the child to believe something uncritically, and to do that to a child would be abusing my power over him. Any sort of brainwashing like this is wrong.

Teach a child how to think, teach what you believe, and let them make their own decision. Then you won't be abusing your power. You can even teach your religion in this way, as long as it's not done as it typically is in formalized religion.

Children believe anything they are told, and to abuse that trust is not respecting their rights. It's all a matter of consent, and if the child is not mentally capable of giving consent, then you should not push it. It's also why psychologists or doctors cannot have sex with their clients, or why a teachers cannot have sex with their students (adult or child). There is a power play involved that upsets one person's ability to give informed consent.

Anonymous said...

I believe that I established that theism is not a mental illness in a culture dominated by Christians...

I disagree - and I disagree even if I assume from the outset that theism is not a mental illness. At a bare minimum, you'd have to explain what characteristics "mental illness" has and how theism lacks them. The mere fact that something is popular cannot mean that it doesn't have those characteristics.

I do not share the intuition that it is at all "creepy" to label a child Marxist. I think that this intuition is an example of people accepting a piece of evidence because it supports a desired conclusion, then adopting a conclusion because it is supported by the evidence.

I disagree - I don't think that a 7-year-old has anywhere close to the knowledge, experience, and comprehension to be justifiably considered a Marxist — not a Marxist scholar, but simply an adherent of Marxist political, economic, and social ideology. We could call them a budding Marxist or a Marxist-in-training, but not a Marxist.

The distinction here is whether a recognized community exists.

Now I think you're shifting between the terms as labels for members of a community and labels for adherents of an ideology. If "Marxist" or "Christian" is conceived of exclusively in terms of the former, it may be appropriate.

Theism becomes child abuse when it demonstrates willful or negligent disregard for the well-being of a child. ...Once again, as with JD, I think that condemnation - or, more specifically, moral condemnation - that is not a call to hatred is incoherent.

I think that it's legitimate to draw a distinction between an action and a person. You are using a definition of "abuse" which I and others do not accept. I consider "abuse" to be any harmful, injurious, or offensive misuse of something. Willful abuse is worse than negligent abuse, and both are worse than unconscious abuse - but it is possible to abuse something or someone even while understandably not realizing it. In such cases, the abusive behavior should be condemned (censured, strongly disapproved of, judged negatively), but the person should not. The person should be educated — then, if they continue anyway, they might be condemned.

That aside, even if I condemn a person for their behavior, I still reject your claim that this necessarily entails hatred. Just because I censure or strongly disapprove of someone for what they did, this does not require that I also feel extreme hostility, aversion, loathing, or dislike for them. I might, if their actions and character are bad enough, but I might not.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Cline

Mental Illness

A mental illness is a defect in mental functioning.

Error (or false beliefs) are not a mental illness. Proper functioning brains sometimes program themselves for false beliefs.

Picking up the most widely held beliefs in the society in which one is raised is not a defect in mental functioning. It is a very useful skill, allowing agents to efficiently pick up a stock of substantially useful beliefs with minimal effort. Of course, it is prone to error. However, given the high cost (resource use) of perfection, some error is typically far less expensive than no error.


The definition of "Marxist" as "adherent of Marxist political, economic, and social ideology" is not the type of definition that I have in mind, and not analogous to the definition of "Christian" that Dawkins seeks to identify as "child abuse".

Clearly, when I spoke about the Hutterites near my home town, I did not mean, "adherent of Hutterite political, economic, and social ideology." I was well aware that there were infants in the colony who had no idea what that ideology was. Yet, they were still Hutterites in that they were "members of a community organized according to the Hutterite political, economic, and social ideology."

Christian children (even infants) are similarly members of a Christian community. This is what the term means in the context that Dawkins wants to criticize. Changing the definition to the "adherent of a philosophy" (rather than "member of a community") only serves to create a straw man.

actions and persons

Certainly, I hold that there must be a distinction between actions and persons. The question is whether where moral relevance fits.

I hold that the idea of morally condemning an action is incoherent. One might as well morally condemn a rock.

It makes sense to morally condemn a person for performing an action. It also makes sense to identify an action as an action that a good person would not perform.. However, the moral condemnation of an action itself makes no sense.

Take your phrase, ". . . the abusive behavior should be condemned (censured, strongly disapproved of, judged negatively)."

How do you do that? Why would I do that?

I know how to condemn or censure a person. However, I do not know how to condemn or censure an action. I cannot throw an action in jail, fine an action, shame an action, or make it feel guilty. I can only do these things to persons.

I can also identify an act as one that no good person would perform. The act, then, is taken as evidence that the person who performed it is of poor moral character. Yet, here too, it is the person that I condemn. The act is simply an indicator that the person is contemptible.

Indeed, you used the term "misuse". Actions can be harmful. However, actions cannot "use" things - thus, they cannot "misuse" or "abuse" things. Only persons can commit abuse.

Anonymous said...

Picking up the most widely held beliefs in the society in which one is raised is not a defect in mental functioning.

Is there anything that would not cease to be a mental illness simply by becoming popular/common? If not, then the entire category of "mental illness" simply becomes whatever sort of thinking or behavior isn't popular. Regarldess, this is what you should have established at the outset.

The definition of "Marxist" as "adherent of Marxist political, economic, and social ideology" is not the type of definition that I have in mind, and not analogous to the definition of "Christian" that Dawkins seeks to identify as "child abuse".

Why is it not analogous? I'm using "Marxist" in the sense of an adherent to an ideology, so my question is: why do you think that Dawkins doesn't mean these terms in the sense of adherents to ideologies? Is there something particular in his language or word choice that leads you to reject this interpretation?

Christian children (even infants) are similarly members of a Christian community.

Yes, they are. Is that all that's meant by parents who call their kids "Christian" - that they are simply members of a community and nothing more? It carries no further denotation or connotation of belief, faith, ideology?

I don't buy that. I don't dispute that it also means "member of a community," but I deny that it only means that.

I know how to condemn or censure a person. However, I do not know how to condemn or censure an action. I cannot throw an action in jail, fine an action, shame an action, or make it feel guilty. I can only do these things to persons.

Well, if the only way you can think of to "condemn" is to fine, jail, or make feel guilty, then of course you cannot condemn an action. I don't see those as the only means by which I can condemn something. I can "condemn" an action because I can strongly disapprove of an action, judge an action negatively, express disapproval for an action, etc. All of those are forms of condemnation which can be applied to actions, people, or both.

Indeed, you used the term "misuse". Actions can be harmful. However, actions cannot "use" things - thus, they cannot "misuse" or "abuse" things. Only persons can commit abuse.

That's all true, and I never said that an action ever "misused" anything. Abuse is a type of action, and I can condemn abuse itself because I can condemn actions. I can condemn someone's abusive behavior without also necessarily condemning them as a person.

BlackSun said...


After reading through this debate, it's pretty clear where the error lies, and it's because you have based your argument on cultural relativism:

"This culture of common beliefs defines the difference between the man uttering Latin words over his cereal in the morning and the Priest conducting mass....we (rationally) adopt rules of thumb – heuristics that allow us to get our beliefs mostly right even though they can lead to mistakes. One of these heuristics is to listen to those around us."

What you have ignored is the truth value of the claims. People may do all kinds of things, and adopt all kinds of beliefs. But if they are demonstrably untrue, after a while, those people have to be participating in some willful ignorance. Even if they are not, some counter-examples are bound to be seen by them and discarded to preserve their faith.

A lemming in the middle of a pack of lemmings may not bear any responsibility for where he is going, he is just following others. But when they all go over the cliff, he is just as dead.

This is how I look at the propagation of religious memes. We humans possess strong instincts to listen and absorb whatever our parents tell us--because this conveyed a survival advantage on our ancestors. But today, we have much better information.

Science is available for everyone, and its principles are undeniable. It is clear child abuse to deprive someone of an education, whether it's Christians who refuse to teach evolution or Islamics who prevent many from becoming literate at all.

There is no way to challenge this demonstrable evil if we let people off the hook just because they might not know better. It can't be proven they don't know better--we would have to look into their subconscious mind and see why they profess to believe, or actually believe the things they claim to believe. They just might know better, and they just might desire to continue to live in their backward and demon-haunted world for their own wrongheaded backward reasons.

The result is the same, ignorance is passed on to the next generation.

Walk into any bookstore (particularly a college bookstore) or any library and marvel at just how ignorant you (and I) happen to be.

This is true, but there are types of ignorance. If I walked up to a section in the bookstore on particle physics, I might be completely ignorant of 90% of what is in the book. But I could give you a basic description of the discipline even though I don't know specifics. Above all, I know how to test knowledge (within reason) to ascertain its truth value. If it's a really important question, I will seek out the advice of experts until I reach a consensus.

Open the particle-physics book to a random page, and ask me a random question. Give me 15 minutes and an internet connection, and I'll have a high probability of being able to answer the question correctly. This is far from base ignorance.

Religious parents are very different in this regard. They treat knowledge itself with suspicion, and often try to deny whole swaths of it.

This is a different problem.

I not only criticize such people, I condemn them wholeheartedly. They have rejected the greatest collection of knowledge the world has ever known, and they are also denying it to their children. They are far different from the truly innocent recipients of thalidomide, or past ignorant pregnant consumers of alcohol.

The difference is, we have the knowledge.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


No, I have not based my argument on cultural relativism.

If you read through it, I state explicitly that theistic beliefs are false, and that false beliefs are harmful.

Indeed, I argue repeatedly against (what I call) common subjectivism -the idea that it is sufficient to make a proposition true that a group of people believe it.

Yet, it is still the case that an efficient source of reliable beliefs are those that are common in the society one is born into.

The terms "efficient" and "reliable" allow for the possibility of error. That is to say, it is consistent with the idea that those beliefs have an objective truth value and that some of the things believed are false. But on the whole one will acquire a set of beliefs that are mostly true and useful.

Think of it this way. You need to know the sum of a long list of numbers, and you need it fast. The answer does not need to be precisely accurate, but needs to be close. The best method to use is to round off each of the numbers and to sum the rounded numbers.

You will get a result that is not accurate. To say that your result is the sum of all of these numbers is false. But it is "close enough."

To get through life, we do not have time to put all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny. So, we adopt rules that get us "close enough" to the truth. Some of these beliefs will be false. However, they will be close enough to the truth for survival and procreation.

This is only cultural relativism if one states that whatever a society believes is true - that this method cannot yield false beliefs. I am not saying that. In fact, I explicitly deny that. I just say that it is efficient.

It is not indicative of a defective brain to use procedures that are efficient.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I wanted to add a separate comment about your claim that a belief is "demonstrably untrue."

I have acquired a set of beliefs using a reliable (though not perfect) method. This includes a belief that 'P'. You come to me and show that 'P' is demonstrably false.

What does that mean to me?

One of the facts that I know is that I have often thought that a proposition is "demonstrably false" only to discover that I have made a mistake in my premises or my reasoning. A proposition often seems demonstrably true, when it is not. When I look over your proof, I have to confess the possibility that it contains an error that I simply do not see at the moment.

In this example, I am perfectly willing to work on the assumption that the argument is sound. Yet, there is a difference between an argument being sound and a person's capacity to know that an argument is sound.

When I combine the possibility that the argument contains a flaw that I do not see, and the testimony of the bulk of society that it is flawed, it is not unreasonable to be cautious.

Again, the issue here is not one of relativism, but of efficiency - of "useful true beliefs per unit of labor."

Indeed, efficiency may even generate useful false beliefs - false beliefs that prevent one from being killed by those who would kill people having (certain) true beliefs. The "adopt the beliefs that dominate the society one is born into" would be useful in this way as well.

This is how the human brain works, and it works that way for a reason. It is not a defect. Thus, the term "mental illness" is not be appropriately applied to this instance.

Religious beliefs are still false. False beliefs are still dangerous. However, error is not a mental illness.

BlackSun said...


So my question to you is this: Take two people, one who uses perfect objectivity, and one who uses heuristics. Are you saying that the "heuristics" are not worse?

Because I would argue that evolution would favor objectivity (since a persons internal map of the world would coincide more precisely with the actual world).

Cultures without access to better information may have survived on inherited and incomplete knowledge. But today, since we are swimming in better information, isn't it a kind of evil to deliberately deny and oppose the learning process?

I think that's what parents do who fail to teach their children objectivity.

You sort of contradict yourself. Because on the one hand, you did say that:

Religious beliefs are still false. False beliefs are still dangerous. However, error is not a mental illness.

So if we can agree that error is worse than non-error, then it is at least a defect if not an illness. If someone comes along and points out the error, and the person refuses to acknowledge it, that's an illness.

In the end, I do see your point, and from the perspective of good relations with theists, I understand that it serves little to call them names such as "mentally ill," or "deranged."

But in terms of truth value, isn't that exactly what is going on?? They have a (maybe efficient) method of simplifying their worldview into something they can wrap their heads around. But in the process, not only is data lost, but the method of data collection is corrupted. When the error is pointed out, they get upset, and attack the messenger of knowledge.

Those of us who care about reality have no choice but to oppose this process and promote a more accurate approach to life.

You say you don't endorse cultural relativism, yet you give these inaccurate heuristic cultural methods somewhat of a free pass (by saying it is how the brain works, and normalizing it). You say you don't endorse the argument from popularity, but you nevertheless insist that Latin prayers over breakfast cereal are somehow different than the more popular forms of worship in church.

I think we should agree that this is more about semantics than anything else. I would prefer to unequivocally condemn willful ignorance, while you would prefer to criticize it while allowing that it is somewhat 'normal.'

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Heuristics exchanges accuracy for speed. In situations where speed is important, go for heuristics.

If you're car is skidding, or you are hunting, or you are in a competition, or anything where speed is an issue, the perfectly objective person will fail (except insofar as his "perfect objectivity" tells him that this is not a time to be perfectly objective).

More importantly, expecting "perfect objectivity" from a six-year-old is a bit much. By the time "perfect objectivity" is even possible (which it never is), a person is already dealing with a great number of false beliefs.

Which ones are they?

Realizing that there is an inconsistency or a contradiction in one's thinking does not tell you how to fix it. If one line of reasoning leads to A, and another leads to not-A, which is correct? You can't tell. You have to do additional work to find the problem. If you require that the individual sort through every one of his beliefs to find the error, you are demanding something no person has the time to do. If you allow him to use only what appears to be a large and relevant sample, you leave room for mistakes.

As I said above, most emergency situations requires heuristics, not objectivity. If you're caught in a fire, you do not sit down with a pen and paper and compute the precise burn rates to compute precise temperatures to determine the best route to escape. You use rules of thumb to make a quick guess and act on that guess. A procedure that will give you the right answer 90% of the time with little effort is better than one that will give you the right answer 100% of the time but takes too long for the answer to be useful. The problem with objectivity is that it requires a tremendously huge expenditure of resources.

The "learning process" that you are talking about - the descriptive process of how we form beliefs - is one of quick but fallible rules. How long would it take a child to learn a language if he has to "objectively" work through a full set of logical syllogisms to determine the precise definition of every word in that language? It couldn't be done. So, he guesses. Sometimes, he guesses wrong. But, if he used perfect objectivity, he would never learn to speak at all.

If you point out an error to somebody, how is it that he can come to know that it is an error? He has to compare your claim that there is an error to everything else he believes. Depending on what he believes, the most rational option for him may be to reject your proof. You don't reject the proof because your argument sits in a different framework than his. Maybe, you are the one with a false belief? Maybe you think that you have demonstrated error only because you are making a false assumption.

Yes, error is a problem. Yet, one type of error involves thinking that one has 'pointed out an error' when one has not done so. Or in thinking that somebody who claims to have 'pointed out an error' is wrong.

Once again, I do not accept the "good relations with theists" argument - at least in the context of this blog. I will leave the question of "good relations" up to the diplomats.

I am interested in truth.

Given the excessive resource requirements for perfect objectivity, heuristics (which exchanges accuracy for speed) is not a defect. It is a perfectly practical strategy; particularly for young children and anybody in an emergency situation. The claim that theism is a mental illness is false. This does not mean that the theists are correct in what they believe. It means that a properly functioning (healthy) brain will not waste energy on perfect objectivity when a less resource-intensive method will yield results that are good enough for survival and reproduction.

Similarly, my objection to the term "child abuse" the way Dawkins uses it is that it implies a willful or negligent lack of concern for the welfare of the child that is false. Many theists are far from indifferent. They are wrong, but being wrong is not the same not caring.

Yes, people get upset when their world view is threatened. Some atheists get upset when I do not fully agree with the claims made by their "heroes". Even this is not irrational. If one comes to believe that doubt will offend a God who will destroy society, then it is not irrational to get upset at the doubters.

I agree that error needs to be fought. We do better with true beliefs than false beliefs. However, some of those false beliefs are that a properly functioning brain is perfectly objectively logical (false - because it takes too much time and effort), or that those who teach Christianity to their children only seek to use the children for their own selfish goals (that is to say, "abuse" the children).

These are false claims. If one values truth, then these are among the false claims that one should (for the sake of consistently) value getting rid of.

I am not giving these beliefs a pass. I am saying that the term "mental illness" does not apply because a properly functioning brain will pick up commonly held beliefs. The beliefs are still in error, though the error is understandable and natural. A properly functioning mine sometimes acquires false beliefs.

I disagree with the assertion that these are semantic issues. "Theism is a mental illness" and "Labeling a child 'Christian' is child abuse" are objectively false claims - unless one invents a bizarre definition of "mental illness" and "abuse" that wholly ignore the way these terms will be taken by the average listener.

BlackSun said...


My only response to the last comment is to ask, Where's the fire? Where's the car skidding out of control? Why the need to suddenly go with ad hoc methods as if there was some mental emergency?

Raising children is a painstaking and methodical process. (I have three adult children). So you can't tell me that in 20 years, there's not time for an objective presentation of proper knowledge.


Religious parents have an agenda to see the world the way they want to see it. Their children use their heuristic shorthand to believe what they are presented.

For a 6-year-old to question authority figures is extraordinarily rare. (Except for the obsessive bouts of "Why?, but Why?") In the end, most accept the explanations they are given. By 12 or 13, the kids are often looking to seriously question the values of their family of origin. Sometimes they escape their programming, but often, after a period of rebellion, they take on the values of their parents.

For a parent to knowingly answer their 6-year-old with religious gobbledygook is child abuse. As a parent, you see a fallow mind, you know it will take whatever you feed it, you want to make sure it believes like you do, and you feed it bullshit. This is abuse.

Now if you don't think the information is bullshit, that's somewhat of a different story. That might have gotten people off the hook a century or two ago. But, who in their right mind today can claim not to know? For example, creationism has been thoroughly debunked. No one today with an objective mind accepts it.

Therefore, teaching creationism is CHILD ABUSE. Believing in creationism in spite of all obvious facts to the contrary is at least COGNITIVE DISSONANCE, and approaches DELUSION and MENTAL ILLNESS.

I suppose we will have to agree to disagree. I think you are very thoughtful and a good writer, and I agree with many of your posts. But on this point I think you are mistaken.

Theists are willful in their ignorance, and we cannot let them off the hook. Heuristics be damned.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I have always said that there is at least one thing in these posts where I am wrong, and this may be it.

Yet, let me be clear about one thing.

I said that these mental functions are normal - they are not defective. It is not just Christians, but all of us, who pick up beliefs based on these "heuristics". All of us have a group of beliefs somewhere in our belief systems that we adopted without thinking only because they were presented to us as a child, where we do not have the capacity to imagine them being wrong.

Even though they are, in fact, wrong.

For some people, this is in the area of religious belief (creationism, and the like).

For others, it has to do with historical facts.

For some, it has to do with policial or economic systems.

For some, it has to do with moral claims.

Religion is not the only area where we encounter people who ignore demonstrable facts.

If this is mental illness, we are all mentally ill. Under this definition, the concept of "mental illness" loses its meaning. It denies the possibility of mental health.

Once again, I am not saying that there are no right answers. There are right answers. However, we are not right as often as we think we are. All of us are prone to very frequent error.

Anonymous said...

Blacksun --

You can curse heuristics all day, but they are the primary way that all people process information. Evolution probably favors them over objective analysis for the reasons Alonzo gave, including the fact that the sheer amount of information we must deal with does not allow for a lot of thoughtful analysis.

I certainly advocate striving for objectivity, but it is a goal that can never truly be fully attained. Far too many of our beliefs are acquired without our even being aware of it (let alone analyzing evidence), and far too much of our thinking is guided by processes beyond our conscious control.

Some on this blog are aware that a long standing hobby of mine is challenging creationism. I am also not a fan of religion. They are both false. But I think it rather odd to claim that adherents of either are some how defective, or guilty of anything other than ignorance on these issues.

Willful ignorance? Well, I doubt it. I'd like to hear how you have come to that conclusion, and I don't think pointing to the absurdity of these beliefs is adequate.

You said: "...creationism has been thoroughly debunked. No one today with an objective mind accepts it.

Therefore, teaching creationism is CHILD ABUSE."

The only sentence I agree with is the first.

The second is wrong on two counts: first, no one possesses a truly objective mind, and second, I would contend that most who accept creationism have minds that operate within the normal range of objectivity. Yes, I'm merely asserting that, but I believe that fairly subtle errors in reasoning or in making assumptions can direct one's mind to extremely innacurate conclusions. I see no reson to posit a mind bereft of objectivity to account for creationism. Indeed, creationism in some form is probably in the majority (as Alonzo pointed out, "creationism" is a fairly vague term).

And as others have stated, the third is wrong because the term "child abuse" implies willfull harm. You have a long way to go to demonstrate that any harm inflicted on teaching a child creationism is actually willfull.

Frank Walton said...

Wow! Very well said, Alonzo. And I'm a Christian. There have been many problems atheists have had with the Rational Response Squad and their use of rhetoric. Needless to say Christians have had their own problems with RRS. I mention some of their insults here and here.



Shawn Wilkinson said...

Sometimes I wonder if people who make the claims of child abuse mean something different. perhaps they state child abuse in a sense of not willful harm but of neglect. Perhaps a child violence or disservice is a better phrase to encompass what those people are arguing. Indeed, I'm being nit picky about words, but I honestly believe it is a violence upon or a disservice to the child to label it based on the religion of the parents.

Good post, and I look forwad to reading more of your blog. When i spare time.

Doug said...

I see this thread died about 3 months ago so I’m not sure if anyone will see my comment. I just discovered this blog after doing a Google Blog Search on “religion and abuse”.

It seems to me that the epidemic of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church has roots in the fact that children are taught to have an abnormal level of respect and reverence for authority and especially for the authority of the Priest. The unquestioning blind worship of authority, that is inculcated into children by equally unquestioning parents seems to be a big problem. It leaves them vulnerable. I don’t know if it is abuse itself although sometimes physical and mental abuse are used to reinforce it.

I do know that mindless obedience opens the door to all kinds of abuse by “legitimate” authority and not just child abuse. I think it probably stunts the mental development of a lot of people so that they stay forever in a childlike unquestioning and trusting state toward the authorities. I don’t believe treating individuals like Gods is normal. It has to be learned.

Speaking from experience, I believe the Catholic church is a highly authoritarian institution designed for inculcating an authoritarian world view.
As an institution it knows what it is doing and is therefore guilty of participating in and encouraging exploitation and abuse.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I get an email notification of all new comments regardless of where they appear. Also, a significant portion of the hits on my web site are on old posts. People (like you) tend to come here often to find something I may have written on specific context.

Your conclusions would require a greater understanding of social psychology than I have had an opportunity to acquire. Still, the question of whether religion inherently shields other types of abuse, versus whether religion itself is abuse, are different questions.

In writing ethics, fortunately, I do not need to make a judgment on the social psychology to make a moral judgment. The fact is, disregard for the harm suffered by innocent people (particularly children) is evil. It is, at best, odd that so many people who claim that religion is the root of morality would feel comfortable behaving in this way. I am speaking here of those who refused to protect the children in any sense.

Doug said...

Thanks for the response Alonzo,
Your blog is educational. My conclusions are based on 20 years as a participant observer in the Catholic Church, including 5 years in a seminary observing the process of "priestly formation." Plus I think the Catholic Church's performance in the pedophilia scandal is highly revealing, not to mention their attacks on Liberation Theology, etc etc.
I don't get this part:
"In writing ethics, fortunately, I do not need to make a judgment on the social psychology to make a moral judgment".
Are you saying that you are only concerned about individual actions
and not the workings of organized groups? People live in relation to others. You may need to look at the whole picture.