Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Summary: A Perspective on Religion

As tends to be the case with random distributions, questions from the studio audience come in clumps. So, I have a few such questions to address at the moment. I hope to get to all of them.

The first set of questions that I would like to take the opportunity to address are those from Deep Thought, who commented on a couple of recent posts. One set of questions gives me an opportunity to summarize my views, which I think some new readers might find useful.

To start with, Deep Thought asked:

How *do* you form moral judgments?

I actually have a number of sources that I can use to answer that question.

There is, for example, the book, A Better Place: Selected Essays in Desire Utilitarianism, a self-published book that collects the most central aspects of the moral theory that I use in this blog.

A reader can search this blog for the phrase “desire utilitarianism” and come up with several posts that address that issue. Some of these compare desire utilitarianism to other theories such as act utilitarianism, egoism, moral subjectivism, and evolutionary ethical theories.

There is also my web site,

And, finally, there are a few podcasts such as This One in which I explain my answer to this question:

I deal with two common objections to this theory - the possibility of a large number of people who desire to do harm to a small number, and the question of why be moral, in my posts The 1000 Sadists Problem and The Hateful Craig Problem.

On a different issue, Deep Thought write:

I think you need to be more clear when you discuss the rather vague term 'faith-based harms'. This is, in my opinion, cadgey language. For example, I have neighbors who openly support Dawkins' statement that raising a child Catholic is a form of abuse - is this the sort of 'harm' you are discussing?

First, I object to the claim that raising a child according to a dominant religion for a particular society counts as ‘child abuse’ (see Religion as Child Abuse). The phrase ‘child abuse’ denotes malicious intent (a desire to harm to a child) or, at least, a malignant indifference to the welfare of a child. The claim that these qualities define all people who teach the dominant religion to their children is simply false.

In addition, I also argue that when a person makes a mistake – particularly a mistake that can be easily shown to be a mistake, we get to ask, “What caused him to make that mistake and not some other? What theory best explains this observation of the real world? (See: Bigotry and the Ethics of Belief)

When it comes to adopting unsupported beliefs, the typical answer to this question is that the unfounded belief somehow fulfills the agent’s desires, either directly or indirectly (or both). He has adopted a particular attitude, in spite of the evidence, because he finds the attitude pleasing or useful, regardless of its truth (or lack of it).

In this case, the motivation behind the ‘abuse’ claim is probably, in many cases, a desire to generate an emotional reaction on the part of the listener or reader. The listener or reader is being invited to take the natural hatred he or she feels towards ‘abusers of children’ and attach that hatred to those who teach their children to adopt a dominant religion. That hatred is, of course, premised on the fact that ‘abusers of children’ are people who, at worst, desire to do harm or, at best, are indifferent to the possibility of harm coming to children – exactly the quality that cannot be honestly attached to all people who teach the dominant religion to their children.

This is classic hate-mongering; promoting a falsehood because it is useful in promoting hatred of a target group.

I do not have one language of condemnation for theists who promote hatred of others and another softer, less accusatory language for atheists who do the same thing. I apply the same language to both. I lose a lot of readers because of this. However, that will not cause me to refute an argument that, as far as I can tell, are perfectly sound.

Having said this, I do hold that teaching religion to a child does count as doing harm to a child. This falls under the general heading of teaching false beliefs to a child. I argue that a good life requires a connection to the real world. (See: The Meaning of LIfe and Sam Harris: Morality and Religion). When a person lives a lie, that person is like a person who lives inside experience machine. This machine feeds the victim the false impressions of a meaningful life, while the agent actually does nothing but lay down and decay in a pod of goo.

I actually do not expect many theists to deny this claim – that a life lived according to false beliefs deprives a life of meaning. Where they would disagree is on which beliefs are false. There is some disagreement on this issue.

On the subject of this disagreement, I also hold to the principle that the only legitimate response to words are words and private actions, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign in an open society is a counter-campaign. This is necessary for a number of reasons. First, it helps to preserve the peace to limit the number of cases when people may respond to another through violence. Second, it is because if a society does not know and understand why a particular set of beliefs are false, forcing them to live as if those beliefs are false is somewhat empty.

So, while I agree that teaching religion to children is harmful, I assert that there is no right to use anything but words and private (peaceful) actions to persuade religious people to quit inflicting this harm on their children. (See: On Cartoons and Violence). This should not be forced on people through the law. What we have the right to demand of ‘the law’ is that it keeps its nose out of our disagreement, and let us settle it among ourselves. The law should not take sides. (See: Religious Liberty and Religious Culture).

DeepThought then asked:

Are you attempting to condense the rather complicated moral issues of embryonic stem cell research into the nebulous term 'harm'?

Actually, my criticism of religious interference in the science of medicine goes beyond stem-cell research. At the time of my writing I was thinking primarily of religious objections to ‘safe sex’ programs – in particular, the use of condoms – in Africa to reduce the spread of AIDS. I was also thinking of religion’s historical objections to the use of autopsies and dissection of cadavers as a way of learning about the human body and to immunizing children against disease since this was considered ‘playing God’.

These same policies promote overpopulation, which in turn put straings on the water and food supplies and the ability to provide sanitation. Contaminated water, poor food, and poor sanitation also, in turn, contribute to the spread of disease.

I was also thinking of contemporary resistance to medical practices such as the Christian Scientist reliance on prayer over all medicine, the Jehovah’s Witness refusal to accept blood transfusions, and the Scientologist’s objections to the science of psychiatry. (See Faith Hospital)

We can add to this the reliance on faith healers and other quack medical practices – spiritual surgery and new-age healing, which provide no medicinal benefit.

In all of these cases, not only are people persuaded against obtaining reasonable treatment for their own disease. Worse, they prevent children from obtaining the best cures and treatments for their injuries and illnesses.

Religious objections to stem-cell research certainly does fit in as one of the many areas in which religious institutions have come down on the side of sickness over health. On this issue, I deny that this moral issue is all that complicated. Zygotes do not have desires; thus, they cannot be wronged. (See Abortion and Infanticide Part I and Part II.) The fact that a lot of people do not like a particular issue does not imply that the issue is complicated. The label ‘complicated’ is simply a label that those who do not like the conclusion use to give themselves permission not to like it.

Ultimately, the issue of embryonic stem cell research is no more complicated than the issue of small-pox vaccines was 200 years ago. It is not complicated at all. It only appears complicated to those who have yet to reconcile the facts of medical science with their primitive religious beliefs.


are you attempting to claim that moral concepts have a 'shelf-life' after which they are harmful? Are you attempting to claim that a particular person's ignorance of, for example, quantum theory means that their concepts of civic governance or human rights are inherently flawed? If not, what *do* you mean?

I would not infer that ignorance of quantum theory implied ignorance of moral facts unless somebody could demonstrate that quantum theory had moral implications – that it provided information on how we should or should not behave.

However, I am a moral realist. (See: Who Gets to Decide) I hold that moral facts are a subset of scientific facts. It is a subset that primitive human cultures did not understand very well.

Another set of scientific facts that primitive cultures did not understand very well was the science of agriculture. However, this does not imply that they were unable, on the whole, to grow enough food to survive. Obviously, some of them were able to pull off this much with their primitive understanding or we would not be here. Similarly, they knew enough about organizing societies to have survived, though history tells us that they did not survive very well. In the realm of morality, as in the realm of agriculture, we can do better than they did, because we know more.

Correspondingly, turning the clock back on morality so that we return to the primitive standards that existed 2000 years ago would have disastrous effects similar to turning our understanding of agriculture back 2000 years. Such a move would kill most of us and leave most of the survivors wishing they were dead. It is as grave of a mistake for a person to hold up a book of ancient moral truths and say, “This is how we should live our lives,” as it would be to hold up a book on ancient farming practices and say, “We may not engage in the practice of farming in any way that deviates with the lessons given in this book.”

The concept of ‘human rights” that you are talking about did not even exist until the 1600s. Before that time, the idea of a ‘right’ did not exist. It certainly cannot be found in any scripture. I consider the discovery of ‘rights’ in the 1600s to be comparable to Newton’s discovery of the principles of motion in the same age. It is not a coincidence that they were discovered the same way – by people who believed that they could discover truth without appeal to scripture. This is not to deny that both Newton and Locke were very religious people – but their methods of investigation made no use of scripture or religion.

I am sorry, but as an outsider looking in this piece smacks a little bit of 'others = bad' and I would like some clarity, please.

Your comment is somewhat ambiguous. It is a necessary truth that if an agent believes that X is true, then he also believes that all people who believe that X is false are mistaken. A person who believes X and rejects not-X, while at the same time holding that believing not-X and rejecting X is just as plausible, is suffering from some type of epistemic dual personality disorder.

So, yes, when I assert that X is true, I also assert that everybody who believes not-X is mistaken. This is part of what it means to say X is true.

This does not mean that I refuse to accept the possibility of my own error. Of course, I cannot coherently believe that I am mistaken. If I believed that, I would have no choice but to change my mind. At the same time, I have often said, “In these writings, I have certainly made at least one mistake. I do not know where it is (because if I knew, I would change it), but I do not know what it is. I leave it up to my readers to discover what that mistake is (what those mistakes are).

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