Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Focus on Harm

I have said that this is a blog about ethics, not about tactics. One of the reasons for this is that what is practical and what is moral are not always the same thing. Karl Rove has provided a number of examples in which that which was practical (for special interests getting favors from Washington) deviated from what was moral.

Yet, today, I want to speak about an area where the two may well overlap.

Now, since I devote much more time and energy to issues of morality than issues of marketing, I am more likely to make a mistake about the ‘practical’ aspects of what follows. However, I think I can give at least a few reasons to believe the practical conclusion.

The topic for today is one of atheist strategy. Now that the public voice of atheists has been raised, there is a question of what to do from here. There is considerable talk about getting atheists to come out of the closet and be heard. However, this begs the question, “What are they going to say?”

My suggestion is not to focus on the question of whether God exists, but to focus on the harms being done where some sort of religious belief lies behind it.

In talking about harms done, I do not recommend talking about past wrongs. Those wrongs are, of course, in the past, and it is easy for anybody living in the present to deny responsibility for them. I am talking about current harms done. I am talking about taking contemporary news reports about impending suffering, a set of religious beliefs, and demonstrating the connections that exist (where they exist) between those religious beliefs and the suffering.

This is really the argument that came out of 9/11 attacks. Sam Harris’s book, The End of Faith is a look at harms done – current and real harms done – and a look at the religious beliefs behind those harms done. I have raised objections against accusing those who were not responsible for the harm. However, as long as accusations are limited to those who are actually guilty, it is quite legitimate to say, “Here are people doing harm to others, and they do harm to others due to their religious beliefs.”

There are countless examples to choose from. There is the spread of disease and the growth of poverty in regions where religious reasons are given for opposing birth control. There is the suffering of people who have been denied access to abortion providers, particularly in the cases of rape and incest. There are cases of people dying or suffering from diseases and injuries that might have been treated through stem-cell research. There is the blatant irrationality of faith-based foreign policy (as opposed to evidence-based foreign policy) which characterizes the decision to attack Iraq.

There is the fact that, contrary to claims that connect religion with morality, we find that religious people in America are still the most vocal defenders of an administration that not only advocates but practices torture and other forms of abuse, wars of aggression, unchecked and unbalanced executive power, and other practices that have, in the past, been the criteria by which we judge governments to be immoral.

Who are these people who call themselves ‘Christians’ who cheer injustice, brutality, and murder (in the name of God)? The problem with these is not that they are ‘un-Christian’ – we need not question their interpretation of scripture. We can, instead, well question that being Christian is such a good thing if being Christian means being a supporter of injustice, brutality, and murder.

Let the Christians fight among themselves about how best to interpret scripture – whether to interpreted it as a defense of injustice, brutality, and murder or a call to action against these moral crimes. This is not relevant. All that is relevant is the simple focus of, “Here there are agents of injustice, brutality, and murder, who justify their moral crimes by appeal to scripture.”

We have already seen one religious reaction to these types of arguments. It is to say, “Your attacks only apply to some religious people – but not to us. We are not causing harm.”

The standard reaction to these types of claims has been to accuse those who make it of being just as guilty as those who commit the crimes.

A better response would be, “Does your religion tell you to stand back with passive indifference while others commit injustice, brutality, and murder? Or does your scripture tell you to help put and end to it. By your behavior, it seems your scripture demands that you do nothing. But passive indifference to injustice, brutality, and murder is still a moral crime. So, you still have a scripture that induces you to commit moral crimes – even if they are not the same moral crimes.”

And if they take action against injustice, brutality, and murder, then there is little reason to complain.

This does not mean that the less harm inducing factions are not doing anything wrong. If you had a choice between stopping the detonation of a nuclear bomb in New York or the rape of a child in Los Angeles, the fact that you focused your attention on stopping the nuclear bomb in New York does not imply that you think that the child rapist is a good person. It simply acknowledges the fact that in a world of limited resources we have to make choices. The best choice is the reduction of harms done.

Here, I want to repeat something that I have written a number of times. I think it is extremely important, but others do not seem to be hearing it. So, I will say it again, this time with a pointer that says, “Look here! This is important!”

The most potent weapon of mass destruction is not nuclear, biological, or chemical, but legislative. Our attention is drawn to the religious person who uses a bomb or poison gas to do harm to others, but their victims number only into the hundreds individually. Those who use legislation as their weapon of mass destruction have hundreds of millions of victims. If it is important to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of those who would use them to harm others, then legislation should be considered one of those weapons.

Bomb explosions with scattered body parts make nice images on the television and, as such, are a natural ratings booster. However, the fact that these are the most entertaining harms does not imply that they are the greatest. Unfortunately, the harms inflicted through the use of legislation get far less attention, even though they do more damage, simply because they have less flash and bang.

This significantly greater amount of damage that religious factions create when they employ legislation to do harm to others implies a greater legitimate concern in making sure that these weapons do not fall into their hands.

I also want to clarify that when I speak about harms done, where those responsible to harm appeal to religious text to justify it, I am not talking about the actions of the common criminal. Imagine that a child rapist or embezzler having been discovered working in an atheist organization, and even imagine that the organization tried to cover up the crime to protect their reputation. It would be unfair to suggest that this is a reflection of the moral character of all atheists. It is just as unfair to hold that religious criminals are a reflection of religion in general.

The types of harms that count are harms caused by behavior that includes a widespread belief in the truth of some part of scripture. When people object to embryonic stem-cell research for religious reasons, the people whom they kill may be properly charged to their religious beliefs. Not to all religious beliefs, but the beliefs of those who actually make such claims. If an agent’s actions can be explained by the fact that he believed that X, and those actions are actions that bring about the death of others, then his belief that X has made him into somebody that brings about the death of others. It is, then, perfectly honest and legitimate to blame those who have belief X for those deaths – as long as the connection can be justified.

“You’re killing people, and otherwise ruining your lives – sacrificing them to a creature that does not exist and, if he did exist, would need to be condemned for demanding that his followers inflict these harms on others. Here are real people, suffering real harm, because of those who think that their God commands them to inflict these harms. Do you want to know what type of people they are, simply look at the harms that they do, and that they seek to justify by claiming ‘In harming others, I serve my God.”

There are both tactical and moral reasons to repeat these claims as loudly and as often as possible, whenever they are true.

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