Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Atheist Terrorist

Old Business: The Webcast

Infidelguy was kind enough to provide a link to yesterday’s webcast done for Faith and Freethought program.

Just to give you an idea of how nervous I was. I was on the show to discuss my book, “A Better Place.” About 2/3 of the way through the show, I was discussing Hume’s is/ought argument, and I was thinking about a quote from Hume that qualifies his claim that one cannot derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’. I said something like, “I need to look that up.”


I covered the subject in Chapter 7: “Hume on ‘Is’ and ‘Ought’”.

The quote, from Hume’s Treatise on Human Nature – the quote that shows that Hume thinks we can, in fact, derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’, as long as our ‘is’ statements include claims about ‘the passions’ – is:

Nothing can be more real, or concern us more, than our own sentiments of pleasure and uneasiness; and if these be favourable to virtue, and unfavourable to vice, no more can be requisite to the regulation of our conduct and behaviour.

These sentiments of pleasure and unease are real. They are a part of the is world. It is the case that something is pleasing or that it is useful for bring about something that is pleasing. And from these is premises, Hume derives all of his virtues and vices – all of his ought conclusions.

Like I said, the rest is in the book.”

New Business: The Atheist Terrorist

One Sunday afternoon as you go about your chores you hear about a news flash. Some guy went into one of these megachurches with automatic weapons and grenades and began killing as many people, cursing the 'fundies' as he did. The news quickly discovers that he was a militant atheist, contributing heavily to atheist forums where he constantly ranted against religion.

This person would actually qualify as a militant atheist.

Theists who sell hate for a living like to use the term to refer to people who write books challenging religious beliefs and who file court briefs, as if these are somehow comparable to bombs and guns. They love to use the word 'militant' because it feeds fear to the listener. These people understand how politically useful fear can be.

But theirs is a rhetoric of hate - a quest for power through deception and manipulation.

The proof is found in the absurdity in saying that people who write books against violence and who file court briefs are 'militant'. Anybody who says such a thing must love promoting fear over truth.

In spite of this rhetorical fear-mongering, it violates no principle of logic or nature for an actual militant atheist to exist.

All it takes is one person learning the wrong lessons as he reads and hears what others say, a particular set of ideas that striking a particular mind in the wrong way, and we get a story like the one that started this blog entry.

There are two things that I want to say about this possibility.

Explicit Limits

The first and foremost is that those of us who write on this topic can take steps to reduce this possibility.

I make it a point to repeat in my own writings that the only legitimate response to words are counter-words and private action. It is quite permissible to criticize a person for what he says. Indeed, banning criticism would itself be a violation of free speech. It is also quite legitimate to use what another person says as a reason for altering one’s private actions – for deciding where to shop, who to invite to one’s wedding, what shows to watch or listen to, who to be friends with, and the like. The demand for free speech simply says that it is wrong to respond to mere words with violence - including the violence of legal penalties.

The same goes for cartoons.

Offensive speech can be soundly condemned. However, it may not be banned, and its owners may not be physically harmed – with some exceptions such as national security and provable fraud, slander, libel, and the like.

I also argue that, in an reasonably open society, one may only respond to a political campaign with a counter-campaign; never with violence. It is legitimate to raise money to run advertisements to explain one’s own side of the issue, but not to inflict violence on those defending the opposite position. These public debates over which course is best is healthy. Once again, this debate, no matter how heated it gets, should not be marred by physical violence.

I want to further argue that it is important to be explicit about this. It is not sufficient to hope that others do not get the wrong ideas from one’s criticism. It is important to spell it out – to state explicitly, "Those who take my complaints about religion as justifying violence do not understand my complaints about religion – complaints that largely rest on religion’s capacity to foster unjustified violence.”

Legitimate Response

The second lesson that I want to draw from this goes as follows:

Such an incident will inevitably be used to fuel the market for hatred of atheists. Atheism itself will be held responsible for this crime, and some will assert that all atheists are guilty. They will claim that this is the inevitable result of the atheist lack of morals.

They will conveniently ignore the huge numbers of similar attacks executed for religious reasons. They will, sometimes in the same breath, call it bigotry to condemn all theists because one theist somewhere set off a bomb for religious reasons.

But my question is, "How shall we respond to these charges?"

Will we be able to boast that when we heard of theists setting off bombs, that we knew enough not to blame all of theism? If we told them to consider the actions of this atheist the same way we took the actions of theists who killed in the name of God, would we be able to say that they are treating us justly?

Are we doing to others as we would have them do to us if the situation was reversed?

Personally, I wish to be judged by what I say and do - not by the actions of some hate-filled punk. If I enbrace or endorse his violence THEN I deserve the same condemnation. If, instead, my words and deeds are not consistent with such violence, then that is the basis on which I am to be judged - not on the basis of somebody else's violence.

And I will treat others the same way.

Please note - because others have missed this pint in the past - that I am not saying that only the violent individuals are to be blamed. Moral condemnation fits any who would cheer those actions, or who would defend them in their written and spoken words. Fault would rest with anybody who held such a person up as a role-model, rather than an example of what NOT to become.

In other words, condemnation would not only be fitting of the person in the story at the srart of this blog, but anybody who would say or write that the world needs more people like him - who shares his beliefs and attitudes.


So, there are two moral concerns addressed in this blog entry. The first is to look at the things that a community may do to reduce the chance that somebody in contact with that community will commit acts like those described at the start of those post - and to take those steps, and to insist that other cultures do the same thing.

The second is to consider what the appropriate response should be if something like the story that starts this blog were to take place, and to set an example by using the legitimate response to acts of terror committed by others.. Make sure that you can say to others, "The fair and just response is the same that I have given in cases C1, C2, C3 - not the bigoted hate-mongering response you have given to this case."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello Atheist Ethicist! Your post says some wonderful things, and I am dying to explore them further with you - I just don't want to take up too much space in your comments section!

You said, "Personally, I wish to be judged by what I say and do - not by the actions of some hate-filled punk."

Are you aware of the David Mills YouTube incident? Relative to what you've said, what do you think of his actions? Personally, I find him to be PRECISELY a "hate-filled punk." I look forward to discussing this with you. --Pat (