Thursday, April 05, 2007

Misinterpreted Statements

Greg Epstein and Atheist Fundamentalists

I have two loosely related issues that I would like to discuss today, before too much time passes.

I am feeling sorry for Greg Epstein recently, because a misquote in an Associated Press article that Atheists are Split over their Message.

The Associated Press article reports that Epstein calls atheists such as Dawkins “Atheist Fundamentalists,” which sent a huge number of electrons flying criticizing the use of the term. I offered criticism as well, interrupting my normal weekend postings on the Beyond Belief 2006 conference to comment on the article’s use of terms.

Since then, Epstein has offered a correction.

In fact, what happened that Epstein wrote about atheist “fundamentalists” – putting the term in scare quotes. This is a writer’s way of saying, “I am mentioning how others are using this term, but I do not endorse its use.” The proper way to read the use of scare quotes is to insert the phrase ‘so-called’ before the term. So, “atheist ‘fundamentalists’” means ‘atheist so-called fundamentalists’. His use of the term was fully appropriate.

However, the article put the whole phrase “atheist fundamentalist” in quotes and attributed the quote to Epstein, as if Epstein was not only mentioning the term, but endorsing its use and actually using it in the same way.

Epstein calls them "atheist fundamentalists."

Actually, I did a search of the web site that he referenced in his comment to my blog entery, The term “fundamentalism” only showed up in relation to this article.

I fear that, the way the press works, Epstein is going to forever suffer for the Associate Press’s sloppy writing. The truth will always trail far behind the fiction, never actually catching up with it.

Yet, we can take the time to give the truth a shove, which is what I am trying to do here.

Imaginary Value

On a related issue, because of space limitations, I left a huge hole in my post yesterday where I discussed ‘should’ and ‘good’.

I gave a list of items that a theist might use to support the claim that a person cannot be moral without God.

You permit homosexuality, condemn abstinence education, drive God from the schools and the public square, and argue that we allow abortion. You rob the wealthy of their rightly earned property through taxation and give the money to those who make the least contribution to society. You coddle criminals and condemn their victims. You oppose Israel’s right to establish its historic borders. You promote ignorance in the classroom by teaching evolution and do not even have the courtesy to grant us equal time. You put a few spotted owls above the man who needs a job to provide for his family. You defend cultural relativism that says that there is nothing really wrong with slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia.

I then wrote that the theist claim can often be reduced in the following way:

In short, the claim, "You cannot be moral without belief in God" often reduces to, "You can't eagerly sacrifice real-world life, health, and well-being in the pursuit of the same imaginary (fake) values that I do without belief in God."

This leaves me vulnerable to the demagogue who would want to claim, “Alonzo believes that every value expressed on the list represents sacrificing real-world life, health, and well-being for the sake of an imaginary value.”

That inference would not be accurate. The inference requires the assumption that I think that no theist can recognize real-world value, and that no atheist can end up promoting imaginary values. I explicitly denied this in yesterday’s article, but that would not prevent the demagogue from advertising a misleading interpretation.

Example 1: Consider the claim that a defender of morality without God has to defend the equal value of slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia. Of course I do not think that those who condemn slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia is promoting imaginary values. These three sets of institutions represent very real harms to life, health, and well-being for a great many people. The problem with the theist assertion in these cases rests in the assumption that the atheist cannot defend these as real-world evils. There happen to be many liberals who will readily assert that there are no real-world evils and, against them, the objection would have some traction. Yet, one of the things that I hoped to demonstrate in this blog is that the assertion rests requires the false assumption that an atheist cannot defend real-world value.

Example 2: The accusation of “robbing the wealthy of their rightly earned property through taxation” begs the moral question. In what sense is it that the money was rightfully earned? Many wealthy people acquire wealth by manipulating the political system to funnel money into their pockets. They do this through special legislation, by exploiting the candidate’s need for campaign contributions, and by using the principle, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know that matters”. They also benefit by creating externalities (pollution) that allow them to harvest the benefits of an activity while pushing the cost onto others, and they gain their money as beneficiaries of a set of institutions that have to be paid for. All things considered, there is good reason to question how much of that property is “rightfully earned”. Besides, we need to look at what is required for property to be “rightfully earned”.

Example 3: Concerning the issue of ‘coddling criminals,’ it has been a major theme of this blog that punishment and condemnation are important tools for promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires. I am fully in favor of using them to the degree that they are useful in creating a community whose members are less likely to do real-world harm to others. This means harsh treatment of those who are bad, and reward and praise for those who are good. If we look specifically at capital punishment, I have pointed out that societies that practice capital punishment tend to have more murderers. I have suggested that this may be the effect of teaching children to love to kill – to celebrate (certain) deaths. Not all children will learn those lessons as intended. It will take only a small number of children learning the wrong lesson to create people who are a threat to the life, health, and well-being of others.

In other cases, condemning homosexuality, opposition to teaching children the truth about sex and evolution, treating a blastula as if it has the rights of a full person, and pushing for Israel to re-establish its historic boundaries so that Jesus can return, are all excellent examples of promoting real-world suffering in the pursuit of imaginary values.

In making the list, I wrote each item the way a demagogue would write them – filled with question-begging assumptions that made them sound true by definition. The demagogue uses this to make anybody who would deny those claims sound like a fool. However, it accomplishes this by misrepresenting the issue. It assumes that the wealth that the rich person accumulates is all rightfully earned. It assumes that promoting a vicious reaction to criminals is the best way to protect innocent people from viciousness. It assumes that there can be no real-world value if there is no God.

It is a very popular rhetorical trick, used to manipulate people into accepting things that have not actually been defended. It is just another way in which a person who is more interested in winning than in being right can mislead others into doing things that are harmful to themselves and to those they care about.


Austin Cline said...

If the proper meaning of his words is "so-called fundamentalists," and thus that he's only using a label which others use but which he doesn't agree with, then why does he describe his language as "harsh language" that is "part of an effort to provoke thought"? Why does he treat the use of the word "fundamentalist" as an example of not "being nice and friendly"?

I don't see how your interpretation is compatible with the above comments by Epstein. If it weren't for those comments, your interpretation would be legitimate.

Imagine if I wrote about Muslim "terrorists" and am quoted as writing about "Muslim terrorists." I am then criticized for calling all Muslims terrorists, but you point out that my words are properly interpreted as referencing "so-called terrorists." That would make sense - until I turn around and say that I am using "harsh language" in order to "provoke thought." I don't think your defense of me is legitimate anymore, is it? If I really do mean "so-called terrorists" or "Muslims inaccurately alleged to be terrorists," that's hardly "harsh language," is it? It's only "harsh" if I *really do mean* "terrorists" on some level (even if not quite the usual and expected way).

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Cline

There is a difference between Epstein being guilty of saying calling others "atheist fundamentalists" and saying that Epstein is guilty of saying that others "use harsh language".

More importantly, a response that says that Epstein has misused the term "fundamentalist" is no defense at all against the charge of using harsh language.

So, all arguments about Epstein's use or misuse of the term "fundamentalist" are simply beside the point. It is a red herring.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I want to add something to my earlier comments about harsh language.

I have argued for a distinction between two ways of responding to Dawkins and Harris.

Response 1: "Some of these people are guilty of the transgressions that Dawkins and Harris charge them with, but we should ignore that trangression because we need their help on something more important. In fact, we should not even discuss their guilt or innocence, only their usefulness to these other projects."

Response 2: "Some of these people that Dawkins and Harris claim to be guilty of certain transgressions are not in fact guilty. Dawkins' and Harris' accusations are unjust."

I have given Response 2 to Harris and Dawkins on some issues.

However, their most common criticism reflects various examples of Response 1. This is the "playing nice" response - also sometimes called the 'tolerance' response.

Actually, I have nothing against using harsh language against those who are actually guilty of a transgression. Ignoring their guilty, claiming that it is "all right" that they engage in these transgressions, simply encourages them to continue to do so. Condemnation is a key tool for making wrongful behavior less common, and failure to condemn means that the victims of wrongful behavior will continue to suffer.

I claim that Harris and Dawkins condemn some people who are not guilty. I do not argue that they ought not to condemn those who are guilty in the name of "being nice".

Austin Cline said...

There is a difference between Epstein being guilty of saying calling others "atheist fundamentalists" and saying that Epstein is guilty of saying that others "use harsh language".

Yes, there is, but I can't see how that's a difference that is at all relevant to my comment.

a response that says that Epstein has misused the term "fundamentalist" is no defense at all against the charge of using harsh language.

So? I'm not aware of anyone offering that as a response to his charge.

I'm sorry, Alonzo, I must be missing something important. I don't see how your responses address my comment at all.

You say that Epstein's words are properly interpreted in a certain way. Taken by themselves, that interpretation would be fair. Taken in the context of later statements of his, though, I don't see how that interpretation works.

On the contrary, Epstein's later comments seem to directly contradict that interpretation. If he considers his use of "fundamentalist" as an instance of his using "harsh language," then that doesn't allow us to "so-called fundamentalists" in for his original words - that substitution just makes no sense to me in light of statements I cited.

Can you can explain how your interpretation/defense still works in the context of Epstein's later comments?

David Cortesi said...

Well, I didn't want to carp about it after reading the original post, but I'm not surprised you got into trouble with that "theist's list" and its "atheist's reduction."

That whole passage was, in my opinion, an unhelpful digression from your stated topic ("good & should"), and in any case didn't make a lot of sense. The items in the theist's list are a jumble of political, social, and moral issues and I couldn't imagine the theist who could be characterized by all of them; yet the list contained at least some items that arguably don't reduce to the "fake values" the hypothetical atheist claims. So it was all a rather confusing straw-man setup in the first place. If you can, just go back and delete the whole passage...

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I did not get into any actual trouble at all with my paragraph. Here, I was addressing hypothetical trouble that I could get into - trouble that I knew could come from how I presented the the reduction.

I sought to close off that option before somebody actually used it. This was a pre-emptive strike.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Cline

I must admit that I had trouble understanding how your first comment related to my article, so I took I best stab at an interpretation. I then responded to that interpretation.

If you are confused, then I guess my interpretation must have been incorrect. In which case, I am left with only the option of saying, "I don't get what you're trying to say."

David Cortesi said...

loren petrich said, Alonzo Fyfe's theist's list was from the perspective of pro-capitalist economics. If you think so you didn't read it closely. I continue to think it was a jumble of issues and frankly I was surprised to find something like it coming from the keyboard of Alonzo, whose prose is normally measured and clear-thinking.

The "theist's list" was a catalog of positions a hypothetical theist attributes to a hypothetical atheist, deliberately expressed in provocative, over-simplified terms. The presumption is that the theist holds the inverse of each asserted position. Here I have recast it as a list of presumed theist's positions:

* ban homosexuality

* promote abstinence education

* insert God into schooling and public debate

* oppose taxation (the inverse of "You rob the wealthy...")

* oppose welfare (inverse of "give the money to...")

* promote severe criminal sentencing

* favor Israel over Palestinians

* oppose teaching evolution

* oppose conservation of endangered species

I cannot figure out how to phrase a logical inverse for "[you] argue that we allow abortion" or for "[you say] there is nothing really wrong with slavery, the Holocaust, or Stalinist Russia." These appear to be simple mud-slinging.

I said I could not imagine a theist who would be characterized by ALL these positions and I still say it. If there are such, they are few. As for it representing a hypothetical theistic capitalist (or theistic leftist, whichever loren meant), I don't see that either.

I said it was a digression from the stated topic of that essay and I stick with that. The implicit vituperation, the over-simplification, and the emotively-colored tone of the "theist's" accusation creates a distraction. Alonzo is not a ranter, but here he is putting a rant in the mouth of a hypothetical character, and it wasn't helpful or informative. "Debate" of the sort hypothetically depicted is just shouting without listening, and although such non-communicative "debate" is common, I don't see what point was served by recreating it in the context of a fairly technical essay on the meanings of "should and good."

bpabbott said...

Speaking of misinterpreted statements, have you read the recent Time article, Einstein and Faith. The article gives me the impression that author has misinterpreted Einstein to be a bigot of atheists, rather than a bigot of bigoted atheists (or of bigoted theists for that matter).

Austin Cline said...

"I don't get what you're trying to say."

Well, then, do you understand my question: Can you can explain how your interpretation/defense still works in the context of Epstein's later comments?

You have offered an interpretation of Epstein's statements. I have provided comments of his that, to me, contradict that interpretation. If you don't think that they contradict, then can you explain how?