Saturday, June 30, 2007

Preaching Atheism

Every once in a while, atheists bring up the topic of whether atheism should be “preached” the way other religions are – whether atheists should be going to the effort of converting others to their point of view. Some object that one of the things they dislike so much about religion are the efforts its followers go into to convert others. They have such distaste for it, they hate to do this themselves.

However, a look at the claims I have been making over the past week about the wrong of teaching religion to children provides an argument in favor of promoting atheism – though it argues most strongly in favor of a type of indirect promotion.

In order to discuss the issue of teaching atheism, I need to address what it means to say that one is teaching (or promoting) atheism. Quite simply, I am going to define it as telling somebody that the proposition P, where P = “There is at least one god” is almost certainly false. (I do not hold that atheism is the lack of a belief in God. Any definition that classifies rocks and cats as being atheists is misusing the term, typically for rhetorical purposes.)

Almost Certainly

The phrase ‘almost certainly’ is important here. A great many advocates of theism accuse atheism as being another type of faith. They portray atheists as saying that it is certainly the case that no God exists, and that this cannot be known without having perfect knowledge of every fact in the universe, or on the basis of faith. Therefore, they argue, atheism is just another religion.

Those who use this argument show the same type of intellectual recklessness that I accused Michael Behe of in “Epistemic Negligence in Teaching Religion. It’s a false claim – a lie – and the type of lie that people use when they are more interested in power and glory for themselves than in truth. It is, indeed, ironic that the public advocates of atheism are accused of criticizing a straw-man version of religion, and yet we hear almost no criticism of those who repeatedly use this straw-man version of atheism. It is yet another example of the double moral standard we live under, where the ‘morality’ of theists is found in the fact that their wrongs simply are not counted.

Anyway, if it is true that the proposition ‘there is at least one god’ is almost certainly false, and if false beliefs cause people to make mistakes that interfere with the fulfillment of their desires, then it is a benefit to know that this is true. However, this benefit is proportional to the mistakes that are prevented by knowing this truth. If these harms are minor, then there is reason to focus instead on teaching beliefs that have greater importance – greater impact. However, if this proposition has the greatest impact, then teaching it should be a priority over other, less consequential, propositions.

The Value of Teaching Atheism

Ultimately, I see no particular value in teaching people that it is almost certainly the case that no God exists, period, with the existence of God being the focus of attention. Saying that no God exists does not imply anything about what does exist. Saying that there almost certainly is no God to tell you what is morally obligatory, permissible, or prohibited says nothing about what (if anything) is obligatory, permissible, or prohibited. Because so little follows from, “It is almost certainly the case that no God exists,” there are a great many propositions that are more important to teach than this one.

The proposition “at least one God possibly exists” is also a very weak claim. Any other view that one can imagine – except a view that say that it is not the case that at least one God probably exists – is compatible with this view. For example, it is compatible with the view that there was once a God who set of a ‘big bang’ which ultimately resulted in the existence of humans as a result of a set of natural laws that this creature established at the start of space/time.

A Focus on Harms Done

Because of the weakness of these propositions tells us that we have better things to do with our time – more important issues to write about. More important than the claim that a God exists are facts regarding global warming, regarding the use of drugs (including cigarettes and tobacco), regarding how to do math, regarding hurricane, tornados, tsunamis, forest fires, house fires, proper use of safety equipment, nutrition, propositions associated with one’s chosen vocation (or relevant in making an informed choice about a future vocation), pregnancy and sexually transmitted disease, or all transmitted disease for that matter, and so on.

This fact is that many who believe in God go far beyond the simple statement, “At last one God exists.” They go on to add a huge list of additional premises, and those additional premises are causing a great deal of death and suffering. With respect to these other premises – those that really do lead to harm – it is now much more reasonable to demand that they put their beliefs on a much more solid foundation or be held in contempt because of the harms they do to others in the name of (their view of) God.

For example, global warming will likely thwart a great many future desires. It is very important to get people to know and understand the propositions relevant to the significance of this threat. However, there are those who dismiss the problem of thwarting future desires because they hold that those future desires will not exist, or the effect of global warming on those future desires will be thwarted (or outweighed) by The Rapture or some other end-of-the-world scenario.

Against such person, I have no problem with somebody saying (when it is true), “Your religion has turned you into somebody who will do more harm to your fellow human than any Nazi or Soviet soldier. Global warming will do far more destruction than any of these evils, and your refusal to defend your fellow humans against this threat in the name of God is no different than refusing to stand up to Hitler or Stalin in the name of God. That makes you a truly evil person, and all of those who will come to be harmed, and all those who care about those who will be harmed, will have reason to despise you because you thought that your God told you to stand by and do nothing to help or protect them.”

The same is true of anybody who takes a position against embryonic stem cell research in the name of God. “Your religion has made you far more dangerous than the followers of Osama bin Laden or any Crusader or Inquisitor in human history. A suicide bomber can usually take out only a few people. In exceptionally rare cases, one can kill hundreds. It is possible that, some day, the losses from a single attack may be in the millions. However, you and those who think like you do will rack up a list of victims in the hundreds of millions to billions. You will rack up these victims in the name of God. If the evil in a religion is tied to its body count, yours clearly qualifies as one of the worst.”

There are also the facts, discussed earlier in my post “Religion and Bad Desires”, where children who are taught religion are often taught false beliefs and false desires that will make them a threat to themselves and others as are taught to spend their lives pursuing an end that will never be realized. They sacrifice so much (that is harmless to themselves or to others) in the name of preserving their chance for an afterlife that they will also never have – because no afterlife exists. Because their life in this world is made less than it would have otherwise been, and the promised afterlife never happens, we have religion promoting that which is bad without delivering any real-world good to compensate.

These are just some examples of the real-world harms that real-world people are being made to suffer for the sake of an entity that does not exist.

That is the main point of this argument. It is meant to shift the focus on the religious debate to the fact that, in those cases that matter the most, it is the case that, “Your religion is making you a dangerous person who has decided to devote his live to options that add death and suffering to the world.” It ranks religious beliefs according to the amount of death and suffering they contribute to, and goes most strongly after those that cause the most death and suffering.

It seems, to me, to be a more reasonable focus.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Taking Action against Religion

I am approaching the end of a series on the wrongness of teaching religion to a child and what to do about it.

I have argued that it is inaccurate to say that it is abuse (“Religion as Child Abuse”). However, it is still a bad thing to do to teach children false beliefs (“Teaching Religion”) and bad desires (“Religion and Bad Desires”) , and a great deal of this goes on in the vast majority of religious teaching. In order to combat these evils, we are morally limited to words and private actions (“The Wrongness and Freedom of Religion”). However, there has been far less use of words and private actions used against this evil than it deserves (“Condemning the Teaching of Religion”). This is particularly true when it comes to the condemnation of those who claim to be ‘experts’ and who have studied the subject matter when they use such poor arguments that a charge of epistemic negligence is justified (“Epistemic Negligence and Teaching Religion”).

In the last two days, I have spoken of the legitimacy of condemning those who teach religion to children and of speaking to the harmfulness of these actions. However, the legitimacy extends beyond words to private actions.

Private actions are those actions that a person may permissibly perform without having to explain to others why they do them. They include decisions as to where to shop, what to buy, what to watch in terms of television, movies, or plays, who to invite over to one’s house, where to donate time and money, who to vote for, and the like.

Just as there have been far too few words criticizing the teaching false beliefs and bad desires to children, there has also been far too little private action taken against teaching false beliefs and bad desires to children. One recent exception that exemplifies the type of action I am talking about was the “Rally for Reason” held at the opening of the Creation Museum. This was more than just words. This was people giving time out of their day to act.

Often, agents of change are condemned even by those who would be their allies. I remember the harsh words that Michael Newdow received for challenging the Pledge of Allegiance in court. Here is somebody who committed himself to more than words, but to actions. His actions were peaceful and totally legitimate – since his actions consisted in filing a court case to enforce the laws as written, and not in any type of violent rebellion against the status quo.

So, in addition to advocating that more words be devoted to true beliefs and good desires – to promoting organizations trying to teach true beliefs and good desires, particularly to children, and in condemning the intellectually reckless who promote false beliefs and bad desires.

We need more rallies for reason, and more public demonstrations of discontent targeting those who teach false beliefs and bad desires to children.

Separation of Church and State

In making this claim that more private action should be directed towards the teaching of true beliefs and good desires, and against the teaching of false beliefs and bad desires, I suspect that many will immediately think about contributing to the separation of church and state. However, I would argue that the campaign to separate church and state has some important weaknesses.

The most important weakness is that it is fought in the courts, and not among the people. Even when they take their case to the people, they assert that the separation of church and state is a good idea, and they assert that the founding fathers would have supported it, without explaining why it is a good idea, and why we, like the founding fathers, should support it.

Judges receive and read the arguments for saying that church ought to be separate from state, and typically the judges are convinced. However, the people seldom see those arguments (at least in a context that they can understand), so they are not convinced. The result is that every decision for separation of church and state undermines public approval of the courts, to the degree that they insist that the courts eliminate this separation of church and state.

At least in a country like the United States, a political movement cannot avoid the necessity of taking its case to the people, one way or another, if it hopes to obtain a sustained victory. So, if somebody wants to support stronger separation between church and state, I would recommend supporting organizations who take their case to the people over organizations that take their case to the courts. This will, however, ultimately strengthen those organizations that take their case to the courts by creating a public that supports those decisions.


One specific action that I have in mind is the funding of organizations that promote true beliefs and good desires – and the defunding of those that promote false beliefs and bad desires. This means, keeping track of where your money goes, and making sure to direct a little more of it to those who are making the world better than it would have otherwise been, and making sure that less of it ends up in the hands of those who are making the world a worse place.

There are those I read about who watch Fox News “for the entertainment value”. However, doing so puts money (and power) in the hands of those who are making the world a worse place. Putting eyeballs on advertisement is what Fox News does for a living, and putting one’s own eyeballs on its advertising tells it to keep doing what it is doing. It would be better, I would argue, if a person found their entertainment in something that was more useful and less destructive. In this, I am not advocating shutting one’s mind to ideas that one does not disagree with. I am advocating, instead, giving one’s attention to those who defend alternative ideas intelligently, responsibly, and knowledgably.

Today, I have a specific action that I would like to recommend. I am disturbed by the fact that the enemies of truth and good desires seem to be so well funded, compared to the defenders of truth and knowledge. So, today, I want to make a direct request to my readers to make a cash contribution to whatever organization they feel is best promoting truth over fiction, and good desires over bad desires – and, in particular, organizations that teach true beliefs and good desires to children.

I am a firm believer in leading by example. A person should never ask others to do what he is not willing to do himself, if he is able. So, I made a $250 contribution to Camp Quest this morning. Camp quest is an organization devoted to giving a summer camp experience to children of parents who wish to raise their children without religion. So, where the objective is to act so as to promote true beliefs and good desires, in contrast to those organizations promoting false beliefs and bad desires, Camp Quest certainly qualifies.

Yet, I want to make it clear that it is not the only organization that would qualify, and I would like readers to make up their own minds as to which organizations could best benefit from some additional support.

Labor Contributions

Also, this support need not take the form of a cash contribution. I have more money than time (particularly given the time that I devote to Atheist Ethicist, Atheist Ethicist Journal, The Scrapbook Wiki on Desire Utilitarianism, and other special projects. Others, I recognize, have more time than money. For them, I would recommend a commitment of time – a commitment of a weekly contribution in labor hours where one thinks that it can be useful. With today’s technology, in many cases, it need not even be a local organization. One can contribute labor over the Internet.

For this type of contribution, I would suggest allocating a regular block of time – say, three hours on a Sunday morning to working for an organization dedicated to promoting true beliefs and good desires, particularly to children. Simply write to the organization and say, “This block of time is yours. Here are my skills. What can I help you with?”

What to Do?

In an earlier post, I addressed the question, “What should I do?” I mentioned that a person with good desires gets a very pleasant answer to this question. “Do whatever you want to do?” A person with good desires wants to do things that tend to fulfill the desires of others.

This speaks to the question of whether a person is being asked to sacrifice to engage in private actions that support the teaching of true beliefs and good desires to children, and to inhibit practices that teach false beliefs and bad desires. A person with good desires wants to do good, and gets pleasure from the good that he does. There is no sacrifice. And, if it appears to be a sacrifice, one way to get over this hurdle is through practice. An activity that starts off being work can become something that a person does for its own sake, if he sticks to it long enough, and realizes the good that is being done.

More importantly, the children who are raised with true beliefs and good desires grow up to be people who may do whatever they want. Because, to the degree we are successful, what they will grow up to want to do are those things that fulfill the desires of others, and what others will grow up to want to do are those things that fulfill the desires of our children, nieces, and nephews.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Epistemic Negligence in Teaching Religion

I have been spending the week writing a series on the wrongness of teaching religion to children.

I have argued that it is inaccurate to say that it is abuse (“Religion as Child Abuse”). However, it is still a bad thing to do to teach children false beliefs (“Teaching Religion”) and bad desires (“Religion and Bad Desires”) , and a great deal of this goes on in the vast majority of religious teaching. In order to combat these evils, we are morally limited to words and private actions (“The Wrongness and Freedom of Religion”). However, there has been far less use of words and private actions used against this evil than it deserves (“Condemning the Teaching of Religion”).

Today, I am going to add another level of complexity to this analysis. The claims that I have made so far apply to the common person – the individual who is busy raising children, holding down a job, and living a normal life, with little free time to look at the relevant issues in detail.

However, there is a group of people to whom this does not apply. Somebody who wishes to proclaim that they have studied an issue and has something important to say on the issue have a moral obligation to have gone through the arguments in some depth. If such a person makes easily motivated mistakes, they have shown themselves to be morally irresponsible, and should be treated as such

In the first essay in this series, I spoke of how a mother is not to be blamed for taking thalidomide (which causes birth defects in children) even when its harmfulness is known until and unless it is reasonable for her to believe that it is harmful. However, the doctor who prescribed it for her is under a different standard. As a physician, as somebody who has decided to accept the responsibility of informing others how to care for his or her heath, the physician has an obligation to know things which an average patient may be ignorant of.

The way that this applies to the question of teaching religion is that those who defend the false beliefs and bad desires of any particular religion are more like the physicians in the thalidomide example than the average patient. The instant that somebody picks up a pen or a keyboard and starts to express an opinion on an issue, that person takes on obligations above and beyond those of the average reader. The writer or speaker is professing some level of expertise, and is reporting that he has lived up to his obligation to become informed on the subject at hand. If he has not lived up to this responsibility, he may be permissibly and soundly condemned.

What this means it that the condemnation should not be against ‘religion’ as some vague and broad generality. Instead, a critic should focus on the specific statements made by specific individuals – taking names – and let the moral condemnation fly whenever it can be shown that the individual has failed to live up to the obligations incumbent upon an expert in any particular field. “Here is Person P, who has made the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been. This is why P is guilty of these charges. If you do not wish to make the world a worse place than it would have otherwise been, do not do what P has done.”

A conveniently recent example of this is Michael Behe, who has produced a new book defending intelligent design. PZ Myers at Pharyngula mentioned a couple of reviews of his book (mention 1, mention 2) Several critics have noted that what Behe did was totally screw up the mathematics in order to get a result that matches the conclusion that he wants to defend. These critics have accurately described the flaw – and that is all.

Something else is needed. I wish to address this comment to Mr. Behe himself.”

Mr. Behe, a morally responsible person would never have let these mistakes into his book. If you are going to use probability theory to support your conclusion, then you have an obligation to study and understand probability theory. You should have at least taken a course in the subject. Better yet, you should have shown your calculations to those who are skilled in probability theory and asked them if you made any mistakes. You should have said – to yourself, if not out loud – ‘I have an obligation to make sure that the arguments I place in this book are sound. In order to help ensure this, I must do the following.’

From Behe’s behavior we have good reason to infer that he does not care for truth. So, what does motivate Behe to produce this book? Perhaps he could be motivated by the praise and gratitude of those who want propaganda that they can use to advance their own agenda (where those ‘others’ have the same lack of concern for truth that Behe has). Perhaps he’s motivated by money, knowing that people will buy a book that puts lies and distortions in language that sounds impressive.

A morally responsible person would feel ashamed that he had let such a mistake into his work. He should feel like the mechanic on an airplane who, in working on a bus, did not rebuild the breaks correctly, and put a busload full of children at risk of injury and death. The humiliation and shame should be palpable. Because, in a society where people feel this type of humility and shame, people will behave more responsibly, and we will all be better off because of it. In a society where people do not feel this type of humility and shame, there will be more shoddy work, and more ill consequences as a result.

Behe’s real motives are subject to further questioning. However, a concern for truth is clearly not among them. For this alone, we should not be content with merely pointing out that his arguments are flawed. We should condemn the lack of concern for truth and sound reasoning that he represents. We should stand before our peers and, more importantly, the young, point to him and say in no uncertain terms, “You should be ashamed to become like that man over there. Don’t do it.”

This shame and humiliation must extend beyond the person who made such a mistake. If a school bus mechanic leaves the breaks on a bus partially repaired, the moral shame and guilt are attached not only to the person who is guilty of this carelessness, but to any who would defend him in that role. It extends to the manager who would dismiss his mistake as trivial and unimportant, and would extend in particular to those who would hold him up as a role model for all mechanics to follow. The latter is telling the world not only should we be unconcerned about the fact that he left the brakes on the bus partially repaired, but that we need more mechanics who would leave the brakes on busses partially repaired. A society is simply insane to actually promote this type of irresponsibility, or to praise others who would promote it.

So it is the case with Behe, that the shame and guilt should attach not only to Behe himself, but to any who would dismiss his moral shortcomings as trivial, and in particular to any who would praise his work as a model for others to follow. The latter are not only telling the world that we should not be concerned about careless mistakes in people who profess to understand the topics they are writing about, they are saying that the world needs more people who are similarly reckless. Such a statement is its own moral crime. A society is simply insane to actually promote this type of irresponsibility, or to praise others who would promote it.

Hopefully, from this, future generations will have fewer people like Behe, and more people with such an active concern for truth that they will struggle to make sure that their arguments are sound and that elementary mistakes do not seep into their writings. That would make the future world a better place than it would otherwise have been. Our children, grandchildren, and their children, would certainly benefit from being in such a world.

This is not censorship. Censorship means using violence, even the state-sponsored violence of legal threats – against those who offer unpopular opinions. In fact, only a hypocrite could charge somebody with censorship for complaining about intellectual recklessness – because the person who is charging censorship is, himself, trying to silence (through condemnation) expressions of an opinion he does not approve of. He is saying, “It is wrong to say anything critical of the opinions of others,” while, himself, saying something critical of the opinions of others. It is a nonsense position deserving of its own moral condemnation.

The fact that people are openly making embarrassingly foolish claims without embarrassment – the fact that the propagandist and the demagogue is rewarded – is a sign of a deep moral corruption in this society. Behe should be in hiding – not out of fear for his life (for no decent person would threaten harm), but out of shame and humiliation for letting such a simple error make its way into his book. To the degree that he actually holds his head up in pride, to that degree our society has room to institute some moral improvement.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Condemning the Teaching of Religion

I have been writing a series in which I have been focusing on the wrongness of religion. So far in this series I have argued that:

1: In "Religion as Child Abuse" I argued that teaching religion to children does not automatically count as ‘abuse’, because it lacks the desire to do harm or indifference to harm done to the child.

(2) In "Teaching Religion," I rejected the idea that a prohibition on indoctrinating children even made sense. Educating a child necessarily means teaching children what to think. Even the issue of teaching children how to think is subject to disagreement. Still, even though it is not necessarily ‘abuse’ to teach children false beliefs, it is still bad insofar as false beliefs lead to mistakes – and some mistakes can be very costly.

(3) In "Religion and Bad Desires" I said that it is also bad to teach religion to children insofar as it involves teaching children bad desires – desires that thwart the child’s own desires, desires that make the child grow up to act in ways that harm others (particularly through the harmful legislation they support), and desires that waste time an energy because the individual pursues things that can never happen.

(4) Yet, in "The Wrongness and Freedom of Religion", I said that combating the badness of teaching religion to children, we must have a strong presumption against the use of violence (whether direct violence, or through coercive legislation) against beliefs and practices we do not agree with. Instead, the legitimate tools (for all but the most extreme cases) are words and private actions.

Today, I will add that even in the realm of words and private actions, far less is being done than should be done to counter the teaching of false beliefs and bad desires to children.

The Obligation to Condemn Religion

On the issue, the main message of those who have become the public advocates of atheism is correct. For far too long, people have not been raised with the inappropriate and costly attitude that they should have a social aversion to criticizing the fact that religions teach false beliefs and bad desires. In fact, it has been socially prohibited to even suggest that a religion can have these faults.

In saying this, these advocates of atheism have been blaming ‘religious moderates’ and others for this social flaw. In fact, it came mostly from academic, liberal philosophies such as cultural relativism and post modernism – philosophies that said that no world view could be called ‘better’ than another and that criticism is always, fundamentally unjustified.

It is a good thing that the social restrictions against criticizing religion are being lifted. However, they have not yet been lifted by as much as they need to be. An aversion to giving criticism, like any aversion, once learned, does not disappear instantly. It has to be unlearned. At first, giving religion the criticism it deserves for its false beliefs may be unsettling. However, it is still important.

False beliefs lead to mistakes that do real harm to the life, health, and well-being of the agent or to others. Agents with bad desires are a threat to themselves and to others, or waste their time in the pursuit of ends that can never be realized because the things the agents are working for are not real.

Religion, of course, is not the sole source of false beliefs and bad desires. However, it is a source, and a legitimate target for those concerned with reducing the harms that false beliefs and bad desires bring about.

People still show far too much favor towards religion. If a person withholds medical care from a child, we condemn the parents. When the parents say that they do so for religious reasons, the habit is still to back off and say, “Then that’s alright; you shall not be condemned for following your religion.” The proper answer would be to say, “A religion that causes parents to contribute to the death and suffering of their own child is particularly vile.”

'Unconstitutional' vs 'Wrong'

Set aside the constitutional issues involved in those issues where the separation of church and state are involved. Instead, focus on the fact that religion has made the individual a threat to their own children. “Your actions weaken the child’s resistance to the false beliefs and bad desires that religions promote, making the world a worse place than it would otherwise have been. For the sake of those made to suffer and die as a result of the views you promote, we need to resist the policies that do so much harm.”

There should be no qualms in saying (insofar as it is true), “Because of your religion, you have adopted a lifestyle of promoting ignorance and misery. You have made this your legacy, that your life is devoted to standing in the way of important medical advances that can reduce or eliminate much of the world’s suffering, opposing policies that would be prevent disease and fight poverty, working to reduce the quality of life of innocent people who would otherwise be productive and cooperative members of society, and waste countless resources in pursuit of a myth that could otherwise have been spent bringing about positive real-world change. This is the type of person that you have become because of your religion. It is not something to be proud of.”

In the realm of words and private actions, there should be no quarter given to those who promote false beliefs and bad desires.


These types of statements will probably anger those who they target.

So what? Since when is it a defense against wrongdoing that the wrongdoers might react angrily to an accusation? Imagine a defense attorney in a court of law saying, against the testimony of a witness, “I object! Prosecution is eliciting responses from the witness that make my client angry,” then having the Judge sustain that objection. This is a non sequiter.

Also, imagine the absurdity of a slave, saying to the other slaves, “The best way to win our freedom is to treat the master as well as we can, to make him as comfortable as possible. If we anger him and earn his wrath, we will never win our freedom.”

No significant moral advance has come from a policy of making the wrongdoers feel as comfortable as possible in doing wrong. Moral progress is made by making wrongdoers feel uncomfortable – with using condemnation and other social tools to mold the conscience of individuals so that they will avoid the discomfort of wrongdoing.

I may object to some of the things said against religion. However, my objections are not based on a moral requirement to ‘be nice’. They are based on a moral requirement to ‘be just’ – and to make sure that those accused of a particular moral crime are actually guilty.

When they are guilty – when their attitudes are those that make the world a worse place in which to live – what justification is there for ‘being nice’? You are talking about people who are depriving others of life, health, and well-being. ‘Being nice’ to those who cost others life, health, and well-being only ensures that there will be more people more strongly devoted to costing even more life, health, and well-being.

People who promote false beliefs and bad desires are doing real-world harm to real-world people. These are not the people we should be being nice to. Being nice should be reserved, as positive reinforcement, to those who work to reduce the incidences of false belief and bad desires – and who promote true beliefs and good desires.


Once again, I am talking about words and private actions here, not acts of violence (even legislative violence) except in the most extreme cases. And do not let others get away with equating the two – with calling others who know and respect the need to refrain from violent responses as ‘militant’.

We have lived for too long in a bizarre society in which those who promote false beliefs and bad desires are given a special type of social protection, while those who would speak up in defense of true belief and good desires are socially condemned for being rude. It is a system that guarantees more death, suffering, and wasted life than we would otherwise have to endure.

One final point to address is the fact that a project of eliminating (false beliefs and bad desires contained within) religion is impossible. Which is certainly true. One line of reasoning says that since we cannot eliminate religion, we should not condemn it. However, I see this as no different than arguing that, since we cannot eliminate rape, that we should not condemn it. The fact is, the degree to which false beliefs and bad desires can be reduced, to that degree the world is made a better place. The impossibility of complete success is no more an argument against an investment in reducing these evils than the impossibility of becoming independently wealthy overnight is an argument against investing in the future.

I want to repeat that the real badness here is in teaching false beliefs and bad desires. The real badness is not in teaching religion. The teaching happens to be one major source of false beliefs and bad desires. However, other sources exist, and a focus on the religion source should not be taken as an argument for giving a pass on other sources of false beliefs or bad desires.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Wrongness and Freedom of Religion

One should not teach false beliefs or bad desires to a child because, to the degree that one does so, one makes the child a threat to himself or herself and to others. To the degree that the teaching of any religion involves teaching false beliefs or bad desires, then children should not be taught to follow that religion.

This is Part Four in a series on the badness of teaching religion.

In Part 1, "Religion as Child Abuse", I argued that teaching religion to a child does not qualify as ‘abuse’ because it lacks a desire for, or an indifference towards, the harm inflicted on the student.

In Part 2, "Teaching Religion", I argued that teaching religion to a child is bad because (and insofar as) it involves teaching false beliefs, and that teaching false beliefs is bad. False beliefs cause people to make mistakes, and mistakes can often do a great deal of harm to the person who makes them, or to others.

In Part 3, "Religion and Bad Desires", I argued that teaching religion to a child is bad because (and insofar as) it involves giving the child bad desires. A bad desire will cause a child to act in ways that thwart his or her other desires, or act in ways that make the child a threat to the life, health, and well-being of others, or act so as to fulfill desires that can never be fulfilled thus wasting that person’s efforts and that person’s life.

So, teaching religion to children is a bad thing to do. So, what are we going to do to stop it?

The Fact of Conflicting Beliefs

There is nothing more obvious than the fact that every theist is going to protest that teaching religion does not involve teaching false beliefs or bad desires. In fact, the vast majority of them will likely assert that denying God involves teaching bad beliefs, that failure to teach piety is a moral crime against children, and that it is only through God that one can hope to have a meaningful life.

Even in the absence of these objections, even if nobody believed in God, we would still have a society in which different people believed different things, and where some of them believed that it is extremely important that everybody adopt their beliefs. We would likely still be at risk of war, not over conflicting religions, but still over conflicting ideologies.

We need institutions that will allow people with widely different beliefs to get along at least well enough to avoid a situation like we find in Baghdad today, or Darfur. We will need these institutions even in a world where nobody believes in God (so these are not institutions that religion makes it necessary for us to have). We need to apply these rules to all major differences in belief, including disagreements over the existence of a God.

Principles of Free Speech

On matters of belief, there shall be a strong presumption against the use of violence or threats of violence against those who hold to different beliefs. This is in spite of the fact that false beliefs and bad desires are harmful. ‘Violence’ here not only includes direct assaults against the life, body, and property of another person with an aim of causing harm. It also means ‘violence’ in the form of criminal penalties against expressing opinions that others do not like, or against rituals and practices that others do not like.

Instead, we are going to limit the set of allowable responses to other people’s beliefs to non-violent verbal responses and private actions. By ‘private actions’ I mean decisions over who to invite to a party, where to shop, what to buy, where to donate time or money, and what to watch, listen to, read, or look at.

The Limits of Freedom

I have spoken here of a strong presumption against private violence and criminal penalty. It is like the presumption used in a jury trial, where the accused is presumed innocent, and the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. If there is reasonable doubt, we should side with liberty and against violent interference. However, when there is reason to believe beyond reasonable doubt that significant harm will come from a belief or a practice, we may stand against it.

Imagine a person standing on the Mall in Washington DC with a nuclear bomb in a suitcase. He says that his God tells him to detonate the bomb. He protests that our Constitution guarantees him the free exercise of religion. The answer is that this right to the free exercise of religion is a presumption that can be overruled by clear evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that the individual is not a significant threat to others. The bomber on the mall is a threat to others, and may that threat may be eliminated.

We can also clearly argue that the right to the free exercise of religion does not include the right to offer a child (or anybody, for that matter) as a live human sacrifice to some God. And no individual shall be able to get off of the hook for the rape of a child by saying that he received a message from God to do so.

There are going to have to be limits to the free exercise of religion. The greater the harm to others (in terms of certainty and degree) the stronger the reason for saying, “These religious practices, we cannot allow.

Institutions for Peaceful Resolution of Disagreements

There are going to be disagreements even over whether a practice is a sufficient threat to warrant criminal penalties. To prevent war and physical violence, we need a commitment to institutions where we will resolve these differences short of bloodshed - such as legislators and courts. Yet, even within these bodies, we need individuals bound to the presumption of freedom - a 'bill of rights' - otherwise oppressive legislation can be the pretext for civil war. It should not be considered sufficient to convince a mere majority that something is a bad idea before it is banned. The evidence must be of such quality that the vast majority of reasonable people cannot doubt it.

Yes, there is a risk that with any standard of interference in the beliefs and expressions of others that we risk banning truth and prohibiting innocent and harmless actions. It is also true that in any court of law that we risk convicting an innocent person. This does not give us an argument for closing down the criminal justice system, nor does it give us an argument for saying ‘everything is permissible’ in terms of the expressions (religious and otherwise), or 'anything may be prohibited' on the slightest expression of discomfort on the part of the majority against it. We cannot avoid the fact that there will areas of dispute. So, we must make sure that our institutions are those that can survive in the face of a sphere of dispute.

Recognizing Rights

I think it is particularly important for atheists – particularly those atheists who are out in front of the camera – to state that they understand and respect these principles. In the words and writings of the most public atheists, I have yet to hear an argument that specifies the limits of freedom speech, freedom of religion, and the limits of violence. This, combined with the widespread public perception that atheists have no reason to recognize that there are moral limits to human action make it easy to generate fear of atheists precisely on these points that atheist spokesmen do not address.

The reason that some people use phrases such as ‘militant atheists’ or ‘atheist fundamentalist’ is because they seek to win political points by marketing in fear. These phrases are meant to convey the impression that atheists do not understand the proper limits on free expression, and are simply aching for an opportunity to turn military arms (militantism) or other forms of violence (fundamentalism) against believers. They are trying to claim that only believers understand the true limits of expression.

This is in spite of the fact that you will scarcely find a scripture that does not command and condone the wholesale slaughter of individuals whose only crime is holding beliefs contrary to one’s religion. This is in spite of the fact that almost all of the violence we see in the world today, where individuals are threatening real-world harms against those who do not share their beliefs, are cases in which the violence is done in the name of ‘defending’ some religion.

Those who are morally impaired hold that in a marketing campaign, the only thing that matters is perception. It does not matter whether it is true that atheists are militant. All that matters is the ability to generate the perception that atheists are militant. A useful lie is always to be preferred to a useless truth – and so it goes with those who speak of ‘militant’ and ‘fundamentalist’ atheists.

There are limits to what may be done to counter the teaching of religion to children. However, in recent history, the fault has fallen far on the side of doing too little than in doing too much. Tomorrow, I want to look at the other side of the coin – at the beliefs that have inspired people to do too little to counter the harms that are done, and the evils that people suffer, at the hands of those who teach religion to children.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Religion and Bad Desires

I am spending these days looking, in detail, at the idea that teaching religion to child is a form of child abuse.

In Part 1, "Religion as Child Abuse", I argued that teaching religion to a child does not qualify as ‘abuse’ because it lacks one of the necessary components of abuse – a desire for, or an indifference towards, the harm inflicted on the student.

In Part 2, "Teaching Religion", I argued that teaching religion to children is, in fact, bad in part because it teaches false beliefs. Each person acts so as to fulfill his desires given his beliefs, but seeks to act to fulfill his desires. False beliefs cause actions that aim at fulfilling desires and cause them to fail – the way that taking a drink that one thinks is clean water, but which turns out to be poison, leads to disastrous consequences for the person who only wanted to quench his thirst.

Today, I am going to argue that teaching religion to a child is bad because it teaches them bad desires. It teaches them to like things that no good person would like.

All of the caveats that I mentioned yesterday – that the bad desires taught by some religions are worse than the bad desires taught by others, and that religion is not the only source of bad desires – apply here as well.

Three Types of Bad Desires

(1) Desires that thwart other desires of the agent.

(2) Desires that thwart the desires of other people

(3) Desires that cannot be fulfilled.

Desires that thwart other desires of the agent.

In the every-day world, the paradigm example of a desire that thwarts other desires of the agent is an addiction. People act so as to fulfill their current desires, given their beliefs. Future desires are fulfilled only in so far as the agent has a current desire that future desires be fulfilled, and current desires that tend to fulfill future desires as a side effect (e.g., a desire to exercise, a taste for healthy food). A drug addiction, or even a taste for unhealthy food, is a desire that tends to thwart other desires of the agent. As such, it is a desire that the agent is better off not having.

In the religious world, nothing fits the mold of a desire that thwarts other desires more than the desire to be a martyr. The suicide bomber, or even the holy soldier whose desire to serve some god is strong enough to motivate him to risk injury or death, is somebody given a desire that thwarts other desires.

Now, many of these suicide bombers and religious warriors may well be operating from false belief, rather than bad desires. Their motivation may be to secure a place of fulfillment in heaven for their friends and family (or for themselves). These are not bad desires. Instead, these are examples like that of an agent drinking a glass of poison, thinking it is water, doing great harm to themselves for what they falsely believe will fulfill a good desire. Yet, it would be strange at best to argue that the suicide bomber, jihadist, or crusader, lacked a desire to promote their religion.

The guilt associated with something as morally innocent as masturbation, or the self-loathing that the religious inflict upon the young homosexual, severe enough to drive many of them to suicide (which, itself, is the ultimate in desire-thwarting acts) are also examples of religion teaching bad desires.

Finally, there are the resources that are spent trying to do something that cannot be done. Imagine a person who comes across a starving village, so she plants a garden, tends it through the summer, waters it, protects it from harm, then, in the fall, harvests the fruits and vegetables, and hands them to the villagers. Only, there never was a garden, there are no plants, and the baskets she hands to the villagers are empty. The whole garden and everything that came from it were figments of her imagination. The cost here is that the time and energy that she had spent tending to her imaginary garden could have been spent tending a real garden that would provide real-world nourishment to people who are suffering from real-world starvation.

Desires that tend to thwart the desires of others.

Many religions not only prevent people from fulfilling their own desires, they cause people to have desires that thwart the desires of others.

Look at the agenda for the Christian Right in this country, and with the Muslim Right in other countries. Their religion has made them into people whose primary desires are those that add to the overall misery, suffering, and death in the world. Opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, the teaching of ‘intelligent design’ (promoting an ignorance of evolution, from which we have derived tremendous breakthroughs in physical and mental health), adding misery to the lives of homosexuals, forcing real people with real interests to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of microscopic entities that have no interests, inhibiting the education of women, inhibitions on free speech and the free exchange of ideas (which only results in the dogmatic enforcement of ignorance) – all of these are examples in which religion has given people desires that thwart the desires of others.

This is not to say that these people desire the suffering of others – though, in some cases, this is clearly true. Instead, these are desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. Like the child rapist, whose desire is typically not to do harm to a child, but to do things that nonetheless cause harm to the child, many religious teachings promote desires that nonetheless result in harm to others (women, anybody who does not share the believer’s specific faith, anybody with a disease or illness, anybody who can benefit from increased knowledge and understanding of the real world, homosexuals) nonetheless.

I wrote about a prime example of this a while back where I discussed an evangelical who wanted to turn the attention of the world’s religious community to fighting global warming. Many religious leaders condemned him for diverting attention from more ‘worthy’ goals such as the fight against homosexuality and abortion. Here is a community of millions of people, refusing to contribute to something that will cause untold harm to future generations, because they are too concerned with causing untold harm to current generations.

Related postings:

The Hitler and Stalin Cliché” discusses the idea that atheism is also responsible for great harm.

“The Good that Atheists Would Not Do” discusses the claim that religion can be defended by the good deeds it inspires.

Desires that cannot be fulfilled

People act so as to fulfill their desires, given their beliefs, and seek to act so as to fulfill their desires. A parent with a desire that his children be healthy and happy will act in ways in which he believes will bring them health and happiness. However, the only acts that have real value are those that generate true health and happiness. If an act does no good, then it has no value. If an act harms his children, even though he acted with the best intentions, the fact that his children were harmed means that this is an act he has reason to wish he had never performed.

Religion fills people with desires that simply cannot be fulfilled, no matter what the agent does. No person has ever fulfilled God’s wishes or helped to execute God’s plan on earth – because there is no God, no wishes, and no plan.

Of course, some people believe that they are serving God. These are like the parent who believes that he is helping his children, when in fact he does not even have any children.

We can compare the life of the religious person in this case with the life of somebody hooked up to an experience machine, which feeds them the illusion that they are acting in the real world. We can imagine an agent with a desire to promote the health of children being hooked up to such a machine. The machine feeds him the impression that he is going through medical school, studying to become a pediatrician. Later, the machine feeds him the illusion that he is working in some impoverished part of the world, promoting the health of children who otherwise would have gotten no medical care. Yet, all of the while, he is floating in a vat of jelly, being fed impressions from a computer.

In many cases, it would be more accurate to say that the computer is also hooked up so that, every time the individual thinks that he has saved a child’s life, the computer tortures and kills a real child. Every jolt of satisfaction the subject has for doing good, is in fact a source of evil. This is the case of many religious people who devote their lives to ‘saving’ others – particularly children – by bringing them to religion. Every jolt of satisfaction that they experience form a success, is actually an instance of doing harm to the people they think they are helping.

This is not to say that a religious person cannot do good. A real-world doctor who saves a child, who thinks he is serving God, is not serving God. However, he is saving a real-world child, and that is a real-world good thing. His life need not be nothing but an empty delusion. However, those accomplishments he has that are of real-world value are accomplishments that bear no relation to religion or God.


So, these are three ways in which teaching religion to a child is a bad thing.

It is a bad thing when it involves teaching a child desires that tend to thwart other (harmless) desires he may have.

It is a bad thing when it involves making the child into a person who will dedicate his life to causes that add to the misery and suffering of others.

It is a bad thing when it involves teaching a child to value things that simply cannot come to be in the real world.

Of course, any given religion is bad to the degree that it does these things, and religion is not the only way in which a person can acquire bad desires. It is, however, one of the most common sources of bad desires, and some religions promote far more bad desires than others. As a source of bad desires, it is something that people who are concerned with the quality of life in the real world have reason to take action against.

What types of actions may we take?

I will write about that tomorrow.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Teaching Religion

Teaching religion to children is a bad thing.

This is the second essay in a series that I have decided to write on the idea that teaching children is a form of child abuse. Yesterday, in “Religion as Child Abuse,” I argued that teaching religion to children does not count as abuse. However, this does not mean that it is not bad. Abusing children is a specific form of badness that requires some sort of maliciousness – a desire to do harm, or a disregard for the harm that would be done. All abuse is bad, but not all badness is abuse.

The argument for the thesis that teaching religion to children is bad is simple. The moral end of teaching children is to provide the children with true beliefs and good desires. Religion is full of false beliefs and bad desires. Thus, teaching religion conflicts with the moral end of teaching children.


Before going into details, I need to present some caveats.

First, teaching religion is bad only when, and only to the degree that, in teaching that religion, one is teaching false beliefs and bad desires. In other words, I do not want to be thought of as saying that the teaching of all religion is bad because some religions contain notoriously bad beliefs (those who do not share one’s religion cannot be moral) or promote bad desires (e.g., the desire to kill anybody who does not profess the same religion). The teaching of any specific religion is bad to the degree that this specifically involves teaching false beliefs and bad desires.

Second (and this follows from the first), this implies that we can evaluate different religions according to their quality. Some religions are worse than others. The worst religions are those that teach beliefs and desires that destroy lives. A religion that introduces some mistakes around the edges of reality would be relatively benign.

Third, religion is not the only source of false beliefs. Every person holds at least one false belief, and no person has a perfect set of desires. This means that no atheist is free of false beliefs or bad desires. In fact, it is quite possible that if you take a random theist with his religiously inspired false beliefs and bad desires, and put him beside an atheist with his false beliefs and bad desires, that the atheist can be (and often is) the worse person. The real wrong here is in teaching false beliefs and bad desires, and it is something which atheists are not automatically innocent of doing merely because they are atheists.

So, my introductory statement where I explain that teaching religion is bad must be understood in the contest of these three caveats. There are degrees of badness. Different religions can be evaluated according to how bad their teachings are. Religion is not the only source of false beliefs and bad desires.


Tomorrow, I am going to go into the issue of teaching desires. The rest of today’s posting has to do with teaching beliefs.

I have frequently used a simple example to show the value of true beliefs. Imagine that you are thirsty, and there is a glass filled with a cool, transparent, odorless liquid on the table. If you believe that the glass contains water, you will probably drink it. If your beliefs are true, your thirst will be quenched. However, assume that your beliefs are false, and the glass contains a poison that will kill you. In trying to quench your thirst, you end up taking your own life. The way to avoid making mistakes that end up thwarting your desires rather than fulfilling them, is to have true beliefs.

Teaching What to Think

One claim that I often here is that it is wrong to ‘indoctrinate’ children. The claim is that we should teach children how to think, not what to think, and to allow children to make up their own mind when they get older.

The fact that I often hear or read this claim coming from atheists is part of my proof that an atheist can believe things that are as absurd as anything that comes out of any religion.

So, we are not going to teach children that George Washington was the first President of the United States. We are only going to teach them how to think, and let them figure this out for themselves.

We are going to quit teaching children that Helena is the capital of Montana, or that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and that the square of the hypotenuse on a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides. We are simply going to teach children how to think, and let them decide for themselves if they want to accept these propositions.

Education requires teaching children not only how to think, but what to think. If ‘indoctrination’ involves teaching children what to think, then the indoctrination of children is unavoidable. If we want to condemn indoctrination, then we have to define it as something other than teaching children what to think.

Typically, the way most people use the terms ‘education’ and ‘indoctrination’ is: ‘Education’ is what you are doing when you are teaching children something that I approve of, while ‘indoctrination’ is what you are doing when you are teaching children something that I do not approve of.

This standard, however popular, is completely useless.

Teaching How to Think

One idea is that we can avoid conflicts over teaching children what to think by focusing instead on teaching them how to think. There are two points that need to be made with respect to this option.

First, the disputes over ‘how to think’ are just as deep, if not deeper, than disputes over ‘what to think’. In fact, one significant difference in the realm of religion is that one of them believes that ‘how to think’ involves the scientific method and logic above all else, while the other relies on revelation and divine guidance. We are not going to avoid any disputes by changing the focus of the question to one of ‘how to think’. We are still going to be fighting each other, making claims and counter-claims over which method counts as ‘education’ and which method counts as ‘indoctrination’.

Second (and this follows largely because of the truth of the first point), I would like to see a show of hands for how many people actually received a quality education in ‘how to think’ in high school. By a ‘quality education,’ I mean that the school made a concentrated effort to make their students proficient in recognizing formal and informal fallacies and in using propositional logic in a way that allowed them to use those tools in their every-day life. My guess is that there are not very many, because teaching children how to think would upset too many parents.

Anyway, my point is that we are not going to be able to move the question away from the issue of ‘indoctrinating’ children by focusing on the idea of teaching children ‘how to think’. There is as much ‘indoctrination’ in teaching children how to think as there is in teaching children what to think.


One of the moral ends of teaching children is to give them a brain stacked full of true beliefs, so that they can avoid the costly mistakes that come from false beliefs. This means that we are going to ‘indoctrinate’ children. It is simply impossible to avoid the task of teaching children what to believe. We can shift the focus to that of teaching children how to think, but this involves just as much ‘indoctrination’. We are not going to get out of it that easy.

One of the problems with teaching religion to children is that it involves teaching false beliefs to children. Those false beliefs are going to cause those children to grow up and act in ways that they think will lead to the fulfillment of their desires. However, they will be mistaken. They will, in fact, end up thwarting their desires. They may not know it – but ignorance of a fact does not prevent it from being true.

Those who want to teach religion to children will, of course, insist that they are teaching true beliefs, and that it is the atheist who is mistaken. Whichever beliefs are false, it is the teaching of false beliefs that is bad. It is the teaching of false beliefs that we must take pains to avoid.

We will never be in full agreement over which beliefs are true and which are false. Ultimately, what we need, is a set of principles and institutions that allow people who disagree to resolve their differences and come to a decision without descending into civil war.

I will discuss these principles and institutions in a future posting. Next, I want to get to look at the question of teaching good desires.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Religion As Child Abuse

In previous posts, I have given a superficial account of the idea that religion is a form of child abuse. However, the claim continues to be made, and I want to look into it in more detail.

Abuse and Maliciousness

In “Theism as Mental Illness or Child Abuse”, I argued against the claim that religion is child abuse on the grounds that the term ‘abuse’ is an accusation of maliciousness – a lack of concern for the well-being of those abused. In the case of religion, this is often false. The people who ‘teach’ religion to children love their children as much as any parent or adult can love children. They are simply mistaken about the facts of the matter with respect to what is in the child’s interests.

I used the example of a parent who took thalidomide in the 1950s. This drug caused severe birth defects in children. This was a tragedy, but it was not an instance of abuse. It is an instance where the parents would have behaved quite differently if they had been aware of the real-world facts of the matter. It is not because of a defect in desire (maliciousness, for which moral condemnation is appropriate), but a defect in belief, that they act as they do.

Consequently, we cannot legitimately call this behavior ‘abuse’.

Emotion-Laden Words

Furthermore, I hold that that the use of this phrase, ‘religion is abuse’ represents the same moral flaw as is exhibited in using the phrase, ‘militant atheist’ or ‘atheist fundamentalist’. People do not choose these phrases because they can be proved true. People choose these phrases because they know that the person hearing them will have a particular emotional response – a response likely to generate irrational, unreasoned, and unjust hatred of the target group based on a false assumption built into the use of the term.

Religious demagogues use the term ‘militant atheist’ because they want to give the (false but useful) impression that atheists are disposed to act violently and, if they are not controlled, will come after ‘good Christians’ with guns and other forms of violence to force them to give up their religion.

‘Fundamentalist atheist’ is used to convey the (false but useful) response that these atheists have blindly attached themselves to a set of propositions that they will hold on to in the extreme and will not tolerate any view that differs from their own.

‘Religion is abuse’ is used to generate the (false but useful) impression that religious people have no interest in the welfare of children and that they harm children merely for the pleasure of doing do – or that they are too caught up in their own pleasure to consider the child’s welfare.

Anybody who complains about the terms ‘militant atheist’ or ‘fundamentalist atheist’ on the basis that those who use the term are trying to generate an emotional response based on a false association, who then uses the phrase ‘religion is abuse’, is the purist form of hypocrite.


The two points above represent the first layer of this particular onion. Now, I want to go to the second layer.

If I deny that teaching religion to children counts as ‘abuse’, does this imply that it is a perfectly legitimate action?

Absolutely not.

Look at the comparison situation. If I say that a mother who took thalidomide in 1955 is not guilty of any moral crime, am I saying that it is or was safe to take thalidomide? Absolutely not. Thalidomide was a dangerous drug that caused harm to the children of those parents who took it.

One might respond that this is an inappropriate comparison because people did not know that thalidomide caused birth defects, and this is why they were not culpable. Now that we do know of the harm, we would accuse any pregnant woman who takes thalidomide today of committing a grievous moral wrong.

This is true, but there are some important details to take into consideration with respect to ‘knowing that thalidomide is dangerous’. There period of time from ignorance to enlightenment was not instantaneous. It is not as if, at 11:53:14 am EST on March 11, 1958, everybody went from total ignorance of the dangers of thalidomide to total awareness of its dangers. There was a process involved that took time. We start off with only a small number of people knowing of the harm, who then have to convince others, who then have to convince others. A society has to achieve a certain level of overall awareness of the harms of thalidomide before taking thalidomide can be said to be morally objectionable.

Asserting that it is morally objectionable to teach religion to children requires the false assumption that knowledge of the wrongness and dangerousness of religion has reached the required degree of public acceptance.

Evidence and Epistemic Negligence

A person with prima facie good desires, but false beliefs, is not automatically free from moral condemnation. I have, in this blog, made a great deal of noise about epistemic negligence – about negligently holding onto a belief when that belief makes the individual a threat to the well-being of others.

I have compared reckless thinking to reckless driving – engaging in behavior that puts others at risk without a sufficient exercise of caution to make sure that one is not acting in a way that threatens others.

However, reckless thinking does not depend on a failure to use logic. As I have also argued, the requirement that we use reason at all times is unrealistic. Sometimes it is more rational to use quicker, though more fallible, methods for justifying our beliefs. There was sufficient evidence that thalidomide was harmful long before the average person could be held morally culpable for its use.

Even today, a mother who takes thalidomide during pregnancy can be held to be blameless if she was told by a trusted authority that thalidomide is harmless, such as a physician.

The fault, in this case, belongs to the doctor – the expert – who gave her the bad information. It does not belong to the mother who decided to trust her doctor.

Similarly, it is not the fault of the mother who decides to teach religion to her children when she is surrounded by a population that is almost entirely in agreement on the value of a religious upbringing. It is still not the case that ‘abuse’ is a legitimate charge in this case.


I am still going to argue that it is wrong to teach religion to children. However, the precise nature of that wrong, and what a moral person may legitimately do about it, are still open to question. I suspect that I will take at least two more posts to address these questions.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Journalism and Conflict of Interest

Coincidentally, while I was writing about the nature of different types of objective research, MSNBC released an article on journalists making contributions to political campaigns. Apparently, I am supposed to believe that a journalist who makes a contribution to a campaign is somehow a worse journalist than one who does not make contributions to campaigns. Thus, I ought to have some sort of aversion to states of affairs in which the proposition, “Journalist J has contributed to political campaigns” is true.

I do not see the argument.

Ad Hominem

First, let us recognize that referring to a journalist’s campaign contributions as an argument against the credibility of his articles is an example of an ad hominem logical fallacy. Ad hominem fallacies are arguments are arguments against the person who made an argument as a way of discrediting his argument. In other words an ad hominem argument takes the form, “Because X is true of the person who gave a particular argument, his argument is flawed.”

In fact, there are only two legitimate ways to discredit an argument. (1) Show that one or more of the premises are false (or are less likely to be true than the person claimed them to be), or (2) show that the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Both of these arguments forms of refutation can take place without knowing a single fact about the person who made the argument. Any attempt to look at the person who made the argument to discredit the argument is a distraction – a waste of attention.

If I were running a news organization, my policy would be simple. I would expect my employees to make intelligent and well-informed contributions. I think that the world would more likely be a better place as a result of their efforts.

However, in each and every article they write for my publication, I would expect that those arguments to contain only true and verified premises, and conclusions that logically follow from those premises, or some sort of explanation as to why the conclusion does not follow (that is, why the argument – which the reporter is reliably citing from some source) is reasonably believed to fail.

If the reporter can live up to these standards, then I have no reason to get rid of her. I do not care about her campaign contributions – they are none of my business. On the other hand, if I discover that a reporter is leaving out relevant facts, inserting unsupported claims, refusing to question invalid implications, or similarly producing sloppy work, then I would fire her regardless of whose campaign she was contributing to.

At this point, I wish to add a quick disclaimer. I am making these claims from the point of view of an ethicist. If I were to put my business hat on, I would have to add additional concerns.

If a large group of potential customers are prone to be persuaded by ad hominem arguments – to see them as valid – then my news organization’s revenue is in jeopardy if I should be concerned about the appearance of a conflict in interest. I may have to ban political contributions by reporters for business purposes. It has nothing to do with the prohibition on political contributions making good moral sense. It has a lot to do with the fact that a lot of business decisions must be made on standards other than good moral sense.

This does not imply that organizations may behave immorally if it is profitable to do so. It only acknowledges that there is a huge set of options that are morally permissible – neither obligatory nor prohibited – that a person can choose from using something other than moral value.

Conflict of Interest

One of the arguments says that, if a journalist makes a contribution to a political campaign that this generates a conflict of interest. Once a journalist invests in a political campaign, he has a vested interest in the outcome of that campaign, and this may be in conflict with his interests as a reporter to present an objective and accurate assessment of what is happening.

We can see ‘conflict of interest’ in the business world. If a journalist owns stock in Exxon-Mobile, for example, and his future wealth depends on the well-being of that company, how will this affect his reporting on, for example, climate change or environmental regulations? The reporter himself profits from getting people to adopt a particular point of view in this case.

Even here, we are dealing with the application of an ad hominem fallacy. In this case, it is called, “Ad hominem circumstantial.” It argues that an agent’s circumstances – particularly an agent’s ability to profit from getting people to adopt a particular view – gives that agent a ‘reason for action’ to get people to adopt a particular view.

Here, too, the ultimate test is not whether the reporter has stock in the company, but whether the agent’s reports show signs of misrepresented claims, missing counter-arguments, and invalid or weak inferences. If we see these in a reporter’s work, we can ask why that happens. Here, we may answer our question by discovering that the reporter has a financial interest in getting people to adopt a particular view. However, the discovery of stock ownership does not prove that his articles are flawed in any way. It only provides a possible explanation for flaws that are found. (At which point, the reporter can be fired.)

This, however, applies to stock or some other arrangement where the object of the reporter’s story will somehow pay a benefit to the reporter that can be influenced by what the reporter causes others to believe. In the case of campaign contributions, we are talking about a reporter who has given money to a candidate, not one in which the candidate is giving money to the reporter.

We should assume that a reporter who is willing to give $500 to a candidate has a desire to see that candidate win. Just because the reporter is no longer permitted to give $500 to a candidate, this does nothing to the reporter’s desire to see that candidate win. The only thing that this prohibition changes is our ability to find out whether that reporter desires that the candidate win.

We also have reason to be concerned that a reporter, prohibited from donating money to a candidate’s campaign, may be more (rather than less) interested in finding some other way of acting on his desire. The only reason that a company’s prohibition restrains a reporter from giving a contribution is because it puts the desire to donate money as a means to helping the candidate win up against the even stronger desire to keep his job. However, the desire still exists, and it will seek other ways to express itself – to ‘make true’ a state of affairs where the candidate wins that will not put his job at stake. It is simple foolishness to think that a ban on campaign contributions will change any of these dynamics.

Strangely enough, while people are getting bent out of shape with respect to the possibilities that a reporter might be giving money to a candidate, we pay far less attention to the many ways in which a candidate can ‘pay’ reporters for favorable press. For example, the Bush Administration has been bribing reporters to write favorable stories since it took office – paying cooperative reporters a dividend in terms of access, leaks, and other valuable prizes.

These are bribes. It is as foolish to refuse to think of these things as bribes as it is to believe that a prohibition on cash contributions inhibits a reporter’s desire to see a particular candidate win. People have wondered for years why the White House Press Corps gave the Bush Administration a pass on the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq. The answer is actually quite simple. They were seeking various types of payoffs that the Bush Administration might give to a cooperative reporter.

Judith Miller was a cooperative reporter for the New York Times, writing articles that were favorable to the Bush Administration’s agenda for war in Iraq. When the Administration had the opportunity to leak a hot story that would promote their agenda, they contacted Judith Miller – the way Scooter Libby did when he wanted to leak the fact that Paul Wilson’s wife worked for the CIA. In this case, the attempt to bribe Miller for some favorable news coverage backfired, but we can still see how the system is supposed to work.

I know that this is how the press business works. Candidates from both parties use what they have that may be of value to the press to manipulate the press into giving them what they want. However, even though this is natural, that does not make it right. It still will pay handsome dividends if we were to learn to condemn and punish, at least through our private acts if not by law, institutions where reporters are paid off for giving candidates favorable coverage.

What we have then is an attempt to cover up the mere illusion of favoritism and conflict of interest, while we protect and defend the fact of favoritism and conflict of interest.

The whole system seems a bit irrational to me.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Objectivity and a Neutral Point of View

I have mentioned that I am working on a project to create a text that would explain the problems with Intelligent Design in terms that a 12-year-old could understand. However, I have no particular talent or expertise to give to this project, so I have asked for advice on how to make the project open so that others can contribute.

One reader, borofkin suggested “Wikibooks”, but argued that my intended project would run up against Wikibooks’ “neutral point of view policy”.

Wikibooks has a strict neutral point of view (NPOV) policy, which basically states that its mission as a book collection is best served not by advancing or detracting particular points of view on any given subject, but by trying to present a fair, neutral description of the facts -- among which are the facts that various interpretations and points of view exist. (Of course, there are limits to what POVs are considered worth mentioning, which can be an area of conflict.)

I found the question of whether my intended project would or could meet this standard for a “neutral point of view” an interesting puzzle.

I have grown up under a standard that says that there are at least two sides to every story, and anybody who honestly reports on a particular conflict is under an obligation to present both sides. This means that if I intend to discuss intelligent design, I need to present the opposing viewpoint fairly and honestly. However, I hold that an honest presentation of the theory of intelligent design holds that it is a worthless waste of time. Indeed, that is one of the conclusions that I would want to demonstrate in this book. Are arguments that a particular ‘point of view’ count as worthless wastes of time consistent with, or in violation of, this neutral point of view policy?

It seems to be true by definition that a text that advances a particular point of view is not neutral. A paper that argues that Tyrannosaurus Rex was primarily a scavenger or that the Earth is 4.55 billion years old (against competing theories) is not in any sense of the imagination neutral with respect to the claims that T-Rex was a scavenger or the age of the earth.

Because these are not neutral propositions, they would be prohibited under any ‘neutral point of view’ policy. The best that a person could do is argue, “There are people who believe X and who offer these reasons for doing so.” However, this must be accompanied by text that says, “There are people who deny X and these are their reasons for doing so.” However, the “neutral point of view” cannot take sides. It is not permitted to show the coup de gras that destroys one of these two systems.

However, by making certain options impermissible, this ‘neutral point of view’ itself proves that it is not neutral. The ‘neutral point of view’ itself must take sides. It counts certain representations of reality ‘permissible’ (those that conform to the neutral point of view policy) and categorizes others as ‘prohibited’ (those that violate the neutral point of view policy).

In other words, a ‘neutral point of view’ policy is incoherent. Whenever people encounter an incoherent set of instructions, they are encouraged to adopt one interpretation that pleases them most as the right interpretation. In this case, it means, “You have written something contrary to what I believe; thus, your project violates the ‘neutral point of view’ policy. On the other hand, administrators are also free to argue, “Your project makes sense to me; therefore, it must be in compliance with our neutral point of view policy.”

In fact, a strict adherence to a neutral point of view requires that authors lie, giving alternative views more credit than the author thinks is justified. This is as much a lie as recommending that a particular plumber does a good job, when one honestly thinks that his work is substandard.

An Alternative View of Neutrality

There is another version of ‘neutrality’ that is exercised in, for example, academic peer-reviewed papers and submissions. Academic papers inevitably defend a particular conclusion. Their purpose is to argue, ‘this view is correct, and all other views are mistaken’. As such, they are not ‘neutral’.

However, academic papers are still obligated to observe a standard of objectivity. This standard does not say, “Consider all opposing theories to be as plausible as your own.” It says, “Take their objections seriously and, if you wish to claim that they give no reason to reject your conclusion, explain why this is the case.”

So, for example, I write that the generic term ‘good’ can be expressed in terms of ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.’ Because I take this position, I am not at all neutral with regard to either David Hume’s ‘is/ought’ distinction, or G.E. Moore’s ‘naturalistic fallacy’. I think that neither of these provide good reason to reject my thesis. However, I cannot simply ignore them in an academic paper. I must explain what these objections are in their strongest terms, and explain why they do not give us any good reason to reject the proposition that ‘good’ = ‘is such as to fulfill the desires in question.”


These two methods, the ‘neutral point of view’ and ‘academic defense’ positions stand in contrast to a third option, which is the position of the pundit. The pundit says, “This is my microphone and I will use it to say whatever I please. If you disagree with me, then get your own microphone.” The pundit does not even pretend towards neutrality, nor does he pretend to have any regard for academic integrity. He is a propagandist, whose sole job is to convince others that a particular proposition is true, without regard to the truth or an honest consideration of objections to his thesis.

The Pundit, like the academic, presents a particular point of view. The Pundit, unlike, the academic, has no interest in taking seriously arguments and evidence that might be brought up against his position. He feels completely comfortable ignoring conflicting claims, leaving those who would express them to ‘find their own microphone’.

Morally, the pundit is on the same level as the liar and the sophist when it comes to his devotion to the truth. His interest is in ‘winning’ a political battle – which, for all practical purposes, means a willingness to inflict harm on others in order to obtain benefits for those he represents.


My interest is in creating a product that would fit the ‘academic’ standards. That is, I create articles that defend a particular point of view – but does so with the intention of taking objections and counter-evidence seriously, and needing to show why they are rejected. In fact, I would argue that this is the only view that has merit. The alternatives all require some measure of deception or dishonesty. The ‘neutral point of view’ gives conflicting positions more authority than they deserve; the ‘pundit’ point of view does not give them enough authority.

However, the academic standard is not ‘neutral’. It does not even pretend to neutrality. It takes sides. However, it does so with a sincere interest in honesty, fairness, and truth. This is, I hold, the best that one can ask for from others, and to deliver oneself.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Illegal Activities of the Bush Administration

According to an article in the Boston Globe, the General Accountability Office reports that “US Agencies disobey 6 laws that president challenged” through signing statements. In other words, this organization has collected evidence showing that members of the Bush Administration are violating laws that Congress has passed and the President has signed.

A ‘signing statement’ is a statement filed on the same day that a President signs a bill into law. Signing statements are not mandatory – they are not even mentioned in the Constitution. They are, instead, something that Presidents have done in as a way of making a formal statement about the legislation that he has just signed into law. Typically, a President will use a signing statement to formally recognize and thank those who have worked to get a particular law through the legislative process, and to explain what he hopes the new law will accomplish.

However, sometimes, Presidents have used signing statements to rewrite the law. President Bush has done this more than all other Presidents in history – combined. Rather than veto a law that he does not like (which the Constitution gives the President the power to do), Bush simply uses a signing statement to rewrite the law, and then signs the law he wants, rather than the law that Congress has passed.

Bush’s most infamous use of a signing statement came when Congress passed a law that outlawed the torture of prisoners. Congress passed this law by a huge margin – more than enough to sustain a Presidential veto. The Bush Administration fought against this law while Congress debated it, but failed to prevent its passage. When the bill reached his desk, rather than veto the legislation, Bush issued a signing statement that effectively said that he will obey the law only to the degree that he desires to do so.

However, a question remains, when the President says that he is going to ignore a particular law, is he really ignoring it? I can say that I am going to ignore the law against speeding. However, I do not deserve a ticket merely because I have announced an intention to violate the law. I am not guilty of a criminal act until I am actually caught speeding.

I could, under some circumstances, be arrested and charged with conspiracy to break a law. This happens when there is evidence that I am actually making plans to break a law, before I actually break it. For example, the police do not have to wait for me to actually kill my business rival before they step in and charge me with a crime. It is enough that they caught me, for example, trying to negotiate with somebody I thought was a hit-man in order to arrange the murder. Conspiracy requires that I show enough intent to make it reasonable to believe that I would have gone ahead with an act.

Signing statements alone do not violate the law, nor do they show enough intent to support a charge of conspiracy.

However, what the General Accountability Office did was pick 19 laws that the Bush Administration changed through his signing statements. They then asked those members of the Administration that the law applies to and asked if they have obeyed the law that Congress has passed, or the President’s rewritten law.

Of the nineteen examples of laws rewritten through the use of signing statements, investigators found 3 cases where they could not determine if the law would be enforced as written. The law required executive action when triggered by specific circumstances, and those specific circumstances have not yet come about. Ten of those laws were being enforced as written. However, in the case of 6 of those laws, the Administration is violating the expressed will of Congress. In other words, the administer is ignoring the law that Congress passed and is following the President’s law instead.

The OMB included in their report the fact that they did not test whether the agency violated the law because of the signing statement. They simply asked the agency what the agency had done to conform to the law as written, and found 6 instances in which the agency obeyed the President’s law but ignored Congress. These agencies may have decided to violate the law for other reasons, or simply acted in ignorance of what the law said.

Still, President Bush has issued over 1000 signing statements in his career, and the OMB only studied 19 of those laws. We have more than enough reason to suspect that if Congress were to investigate the remaining signing statements, they would find additional cases where the President and his administration is acting in total disregard for the law. From there, it would be possible to launch an investigation, to collect emails an dother documents, and to determine whether the nature of those illegal activities – determine who is responsible, and who needs to resign.

The question now is whether Congress will take action.

There is a principle in law that states that silence implies consent. If you are given an opportunity to speak up and express an opinion on a subject, and you do not do so, others have a reason to assume that you consent to the proposal. If Congress remains silent and inactive in the face of a President who overrides and disregards its will, then they give their consent for this and all future Presidents to continue the practice.

This is nearly identical to allowing the President to dissolve the legislature (or, at least, divest it of power and turn it into a body of Presidential advisors rather than legislators) and to declare himself the sole author of all laws.

In Al Gore's book, "The Assault on Reason," he tells us that this is, effectively, the situation that Julius Caesar created in ancient Rome when that republic died. Caesar did not disband the Senate. He kept it intact, to give the people some false sense of control. The idea that a tyranny does not exist as long as there is a semblance of a body of elected officials in government is naive. The question is not whether there is a body of individuals elected by the people, but whether that body has power to determine the laws of the land, or if that power rests instead with an executive who writes his own law.

And it was the people of Rome who gave their voice and support, not to the Senate, but to Caesar.

So, what will become of people that the General Accountability Office have found to be acting in violation of the law?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Belief and Evidence

I have just read a story in which the author claimed that a parable, popular among atheists, is not actually true.

The story concerns a meeting between Napoleon Bonaparte and a French astronomer Laplace.

Some background information is useful for understanding this story. In the 1600s, Isaac Newton had published his laws of motion in which, among other things, he explained the orbits of the planets. However, on Newton’s accounts, these orbits were unstable. Each planet exerts a small influence on the others so that, over time, the solar system would fall apart. To solve this problem, Newton said that God intervened to make minor changes in the orbits of planets to keep the solar system stable.

Laplace came along with some new mathematical formulae that showed that the orbits of the planets were stable after all.

The story popular among atheists is that, after Laplace explained his new discoveries to Napoleon, Napoleon asked why God was not mentioned. Laplace’s popular response was, “Sire, I had no need of that hypothesis.”

Daniel Johnson reports in an article titled, “The Hypothetical Atheist” that this exchange probably never took place. Instead, Johnson presented the case that a historian E.T. Bell made up the story, presenting it in his book Men in Mathematics in 1937. Those atheists who are fond of this story have merely accepted on faith that the story was true.

Johnson's so-called scholarship on the issue is questionable. It took me just a few minutes to trace the quote at least to Augustus De Morgan's A Budget of Paradoxes published posthumously from a collection of essays De Morgan wrote. De Morgan died in 1871, suggesting that the quote can be traced significantly further back than Johnson claimed.

The easy availability of this information suggested that Johnson did very little to research this subject, or that he knew the truth of the matter and decided to lie for political purposes. Either way, Johnson shows that he has a caracteristic disregard for truth and is more than happy to promote fictions to obtain political and social ends.

However, for purposes of this post, it does not matter that Johnson's claim is incorrect. My guess is that few (if any) atheists reading Johnson’s article would have been immediately able to refute it, as I was not. This is because few atheists who have come to accept this story as being true actually acquired that belief on the basis of good evidence. Instead, they came to believe the story because they heard it from a position of authority and it was a story that they wanted to believe to be true.

This supports two conclusions that I have been defending regarding the ethics of belief.

The first conclusion I want to support says that a moral obligation to use nothing but reason in the formation of our beliefs is not only unreasonable but hypocritical. None of us have the time and resources to hold all of our beliefs up to rational scrutiny. Instead, we have to rely on quick but fallible ‘rules of thumb’ for our beliefs – such as the rule to trust people in authority, and to accept as true those propositions that fit into an overall world view. Even the proponents of pure reason, we will discover, need to use quick and fallible rules of thumb from time to time.

The second conclusion that I want to draw comes from the observation that most atheists, I suspect, who believed this story will react to this report much as I did. Once exposed to the idea that the original story was false, they will immediately suspend belief and wait for confirmation. I doubt that any atheists are going to start clamoring for the head of those who dare question the literal truth of the Laplace story or accuse those who spread the story as blasphemy. Nor are they going to campaign that the story much be taught in its original version, and taught as if true, because doing otherwise will weaken the population’s moral commitment to science and reason.

In other words, though there is no prohibition in using quick rules of thumb in forming our beliefs, evidence still matters where it can be found. Precisely because we tend to form our beliefs on the fly, we have no good reason to hold firmly onto them when conflicting evidence comes to light.

Even here, I am going to assert, many rationalists will continue to hold on to a belief far longer than the strict adherence to reason would allow, even when reason comes into play. Once an individual becomes psychologically tied to a proposition so that he identifies with it, then that proposition becomes more difficult to surrender, even in the face conflicting evidence. This is not a problem that is unique to the religious, it is a human weakness. It helps to make religion possible, but religion is not the only bundle of false propositions that a person can embrace on the basis of insufficient evidence.

I will put my own belief in desire utilitarianism in this category. Now that I have come to identify with this set of propositions, I worry that it will take more than the standard set of evidence to the contrary to dissuade me as to the theory’s truth. This is not because I have decided to embrace the theory in complete disregard for any and all evidence that might be brought against it. Rather, it is because this psychological investment will block my ability to see evidence against it as evidence. I am more inclined to dismiss as unsound that which is logically sound, and to embrace that which is logically unsound, if it proves consistent with desire utilitarianism.

Now, there is one last moral principle that I want to apply to this discussion. Even though it is natural for an individual to cling to a belief that they have come to identify with, this does not make it right. The naturalness of a desire is not a measure of its merit. Its merit depends entirely on its tendency to fulfill or thwart other desires. The habit of holding onto beliefs far longer than the evidence would allow is a habit that tends to thwart desires. This, combined by the fact that condemnation can weaken this natural desire-thwarting tendency, makes it a fit target for moral condemnation.

My confession that I may hold onto desire utilitarianism longer than reason would allow is not an argument that it is permissible to do so. It is an argument that I may suffer from a moral failing. If I were the one holding onto this belief while it is no longer reasonable to do so, then I could be legitimately condemned for my stubbornness.

This, of course, assumes that I am holding onto desire utilitarianism longer than reason would permit, which (as far as I can tell) has yet to be demonstrated.

So, here are three moral conclusions that I hope the LaFavore story sheds some light on.

(1) There is no moral crime in using quick rules of thumb to forming beliefs – we must do so in order to function efficiently.

(2) Beliefs that come from these rules of thumb should be dropped whenever an exposure to reason suggests that they are false. Rules of thumb are notoriously fallible.

(3) We also have a tendency to hold onto beliefs longer than a strict view of reason will allow. The naturalness of this tendency does not make it right.