Sunday, December 30, 2007

Defending Real World Harms for Imaginary Reasons

The “The Friendly Atheist,” contains a post today that presents the atheist writers of Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hutchins as militant and ignorant opponents of Christianity.

The video follows the pattern of refusing to even consider the substance of the objections that these authors have raised, and instead condemns them on the basis of their tone. The charge of ignorance is supported, not by identifying errors that these four writers may have made, but by using the example of an airplane passenger who has not read certain Christian apologetics.

In all of this, the main point is entirely ignored. That point is:

They are killing people you ignorant self-absorbed little creeps. They are destroying lives. Take a look at that fact before you come to me with your condescending tripe.

Oh, but that does not matter. That is not worth talking about. When we compare the moral crime of speaking in an irreverent tone to religious authority, to the crime of killing people and destroying lives, well, clearly the first is the greater moral crime, according to these defenders of religion.

I have spoken repeatedly against hasty generalization, and that it is wrong to say that any part of the religious community is guilty of a moral crime that they have not actually committed. So, my point above is not directed against all of religion. It is directed against those theists who, in the name of God, are engaged in promoting policies and institutions that lower the quality of life for a great many people and end the life of others, for make-believe reasons.

We are talking about justification for acts of violence committed against others – for lies and sophistry in defense of policies whose ultimate effect is to collect power into the hands of the ignorant and dishonest while making others worse off.

Again, the greatest weapon of mass destruction is neither nuclear, nor biological, nor chemical. It is legislative. And this is a violent weapon – a weapon that is designed to force people into a situation where they must choose an option that they would not otherwise choose or suffer real, physical, violence. These members of the religious community wield the legislative weapon of mass destruction in this country with increasingly less restraint as they have taken control of legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government.

Yet, these people insist that when it comes to doing real-world harm to real-world people, that those who are made to suffer these harms have no right or reason to get upset or to raise their voice or to be angry at those who do them harm – or those who do harm to others in their family, or their neighbors.

Let’s imagine a father who is being restrained while somebody slowly sticks a knife into his daughter. We can imagine this father losing his temper and leveling a string of verbal assaults on this assailant that would make a sailor blush. And, yet, the people who produced this video ignore all of that and condemn the father for being intemperate in his remarks to the assailant. They do not even examine the question of the person sticking the knife into the man’s daughter . . . that question is not important. Whatever the truth or falsity of that claim is, the father is not permitted to engage in intemperate speech against the assailant. That, absolutely, must not be allowed.

In the video, Ravi Zacharias is shown saying,

This comes on the heals of tolerance – how we need to learn to live and let live. And now the animosity of Hitchins and Dennett and Dawkins and Harris is unbelievable.

Tell the father, in the case above, that his intolerance of those who are taking action to harm his daughter is ‘unbelievable’ – that he needs to ‘live and let live’.

The doctrine of tolerance can never consistently be extended to the intolerant. Yet, in this case, the paradigm of intolerance is demanding tolerance from others. Of course, those who participated in this video deny the father’s assumption that the assailant is doing anything wrong in stabbing the daughter. However, this is exactly what makes their behavior so morally outrageous. The authors that this video is attempting to answer are people who have laid out their case for believing, “Those religious elements are doing real-world harm to real-world people.” That is what the four books were all about. Yet, the video, and much of what has been written in response to those books, completely ignore this charge.

Listening to this video is like listening to a rape trail. The prosecutor has laid out the evidence against the accused. Then, the defense attorney gets up and whines, “Listen to all of the mean things that those people have said about my client. It is wrong to say mean things about other people. They should be ashamed. When you cast your verdict on whether my client is guilty or not, do not look at the evidence that the prosecutors presented against my client. Look only at the fact that what they are implying is mean, and from that alone decide that my client is not guilty.”

It is an absurd argument.

The worst part of the video is the response that takes the form of a “straw man by proxy.” In order to defeat Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hutchins, the video showed John Turner, the President of Faith 2.0 ministries telling a story of encountering an atheist first-year philosophy professor on an airplane. Over the course of the conversation, it was discovered that there was a certain amount of asymmetry between the educations of the two speakers. Turner, apparently, had read some of the atheist writings. However, this fellow passenger had not read any of the Christian apologetics. Later, as Turner tells the story, the atheist expressed shame over not being familiar with these Christian writings and yet dismissing Christianity.

This story provides us with yet another example of how these people run on the twin vices of sophistry and hypocrisy. Would it not be possible for Turner to ask, “Let’s assume that I was listening to Dawkins tell a similar story, of meeting a theist on a plane – a theology who had read some of the theist literature but had read nothing from people who argue against the existence of God. Imagine this being a story where the theology graduate expressed shame over not reading criticisms of the view he held. What would my reaction be?”

My guess is that his reaction would be that Dawkins was using sophistry to make a point that his evidence does not support. And while Turner would be able to recognize and willing to criticize this failing when he sees it in the hands of his critics, he allows himself to engage in exactly the same sort of behavior, apparently without the least bit of moral hesitation. Apparently, he did not even care to live up to the moral responsibility of asking this question. He uses the argument anyway, not even caring about the fact that it is pure manipulative sophistry.

To make matters worse, it is sophistry offered up in defense of actions that kill people and destroy lives.

Of all the times when people should take care not to use sophistry in defense of a position, it is when the question under discussion concerns the taking and destroying of lives.

But wait. There’s more. This video introduces this argument with the text,

Not only is the new atheism intolerant and militant, but many say it hasn’t even bothered to do its homework.

It does this while the camera pans a shelf containing the writings of the four main atheist authors.

In this way, it seeks to use this story of the airplane passenger to manipulate the audience into thinking that the four authors in question have not done their homework. This is blatantly, intellectually dishonest. This is a moral failing on the part of those who produced this video that they cannot even honestly represent the case in question.

In engaging in this manipulative deception, these people are helping to promote a culture of manipulative deception. Whenever these “models of Christian virtue” tell the world that deception is a legitimate form of persuasion, they help to institute deception as a form of persuasion in the community. This, from a group of people who claim to hold that ‘bearing false witness’ is a sin – people who bear false witness as casually as they get dressed in the morning.

Finally, the fallacy behind Turner’s appeal to these theist writers has already been mentioned. Is it the case that a person needs to read every piece of work ever written in defense of slavery to condemn slavery? Must an individual have an intimate understanding of the details of arguments used to defend Sharia law to condemn Sharia law? Let’s turn to the other passengers on the airplane and ask them for a show of hands. “How many of you are totally familiar with the economic literature detailing the defense of the divine right of kings.”

One argument that you will never read here unless I grow completely senile is to tell somebody who raises an objection to my claim, "Have you read everything ever written on the subject of utilitarianism? If you have not, then your objections are meaningless, and utilitarianism still stands." Doing so is intellectually irresponsible - and intellectual irresponsibility is a moral failure. The only legitimate response to any objection to the theories I defend is to answer the objection

It is quite reasonable to say, “This author presented an argument that does as follows,” present the argument, and then ask the other individual how he responds to that argument. Yet, Turner does not do this. He mentions these authors and claims that they have these sophisticated rational arguments in defense of Christianity. However, he never tells us what even one of those arguments are.

If there is an author with a sophisticated, rational defense of Christianity, what is the argument? If you can’t present the argument, then forgive me for thinking that the argument is as fictitious as the God you worship.

This is pure sophistry and manipulation in defense of the use of a weapon of mass destruction (legislation) to destroy human lives. Yet, those who produced this propaganda, in all likelihood, and in spite of their claim that their religion gives them special access to moral virtue, are almost certainly acting without the least bit of moral shame.


Thesauros said...

What I find really sad, when I read your posts, is that you were hurt so badly by Christians when you were young.

I know, I know, I say hurtful things that I shouldn’t in my posts but I really do feel badly for you. It has set up such a high level of anger that it’s amazing that you are able to show the level of tolerance for Christianity that you do. The problem, one that is present to a great degree in my own life, is that anger causes us to put a spin on our arguments that isn’t entirely fair. Still, you write good stuff. Happy New Year.

Doug Indeap said...

I saw the video too--and dismissed it as more of the same empty propaganda. It plainly struck a nerve with you. Your analysis dispatches it quite well, though with a bit more venom than typical.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


While perhaps sincere, in this context your comment commits an ad hominem fallacy - bringing up irrelevant facts about the author of an argument in order to dismiss the content of the argument. Nothing about my past changes the fact that the authors of this video are guilty of the moral failings that I have accused them of.

If my interpretation of their arguments is not correct, then perhaps you can provide a correct interpretation and explain why mine are in error. However, the relevant evidence in this case is to be found in their arguments, not in my personal history.

You're looking in the wrong spot.

Furthermore, I deny that my anger is directed at Christians. My anger is directed at those who are a threat to others unjustly - be they atheists (e.g., Imagine: No Religion) or theists.

I am particularly annoyed by smarmy self-righteous individuals who assert that they are masters of reason and tolerance while, in the same breath, using malicious deception and sophistry to market hate. A major problem in this culture is that people do not react to this type of moral irresponsibility with the venom it deserves, particularly given the level of harm it does.

To the degree that we can reduce that habit, on both sides of the religious debate, to that degree the world will be a better place.

Thesauros said...

Oh honey, I was just saying that I'm sorry that you had to take so much crap as a kid, from Christians. Remember? You've talked about it before? That's all I was saying. You're arguments in this post are fine. Rage away to your heart's content.

Uber Miguel said...

Makarios' comments should be removed as pure spam - since they have absolutely nothing to do with the blog post topic. Feel free to delete this comment too as you're taking out the trash.

I can't believe the lame tactics some people are willing to use to distract arguments and criticism.

Thesauros said...

Hmm. Look. I’ve been wanting to say what I said (the apology) for a long, long time and this post was the closest I’ve come to where I thought it might fit. While, based on other comments of mine, you Alonzo, have no reason to view my concerns as genuine. Nevertheless, they were. Sorry if I’ve offended Miguel or anyone else’s sensibilities.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


You are, perhaps, unaware of the fact that one of things we atheists have to put up with is the condescending and arrogant claim on the part of theists that our protests can be ignored because we have been psychologically damaged in some way.

Either we hate God because God did something we do not like (like killed our best friend when we were children or failed to provide us with a pony we really wanted), or we have a strong urge to do something God does not approve of and dismiss God in order to guiltlessly pursue our shameful desires, or some theist did harm to us causing us to hate all theists.

They do not even allow themselves to consider the possibility that the reason we are angry is not because of some psychological damage, but because of a very healthy psychological desire to get these creeps to stop doing real-world harm to real-world people for reasons that are nothing but superstition and nonsense.

It is one thing to watch an innocent person suffering harm. It is another to see them suffer harm as a result of the harm-inflicter making claims about imaginary beings giving him imaginary instructions to inflict harm.

Anybody with a psychologically healthy desire to keep people from being needlessly killed or otherwise harmed is going to have a psychologically healthy drive to prevent people from needlessly killing or otherwise harming others for imaginary reasons.

Your statement may not have intentionally been an example of this type of condescending and arrogant put-down of atheists. However, I hope that you can see that there is little to distinguish it from one of these types of statements, even if not intentionally so.

Anonymous said...

Miguel, I've written Makarios off as a troll a long time ago. There's really only one way to deal with trolls, and that's to starve them. It's best not to reply to anything he has to say at any point, and eventually they'll get bored and leave. I regret posting this already, as it acknowledges his existance and will keep him around that much longer. :/ Just remember - never feed the trolls.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Actually, I do not share this assessment of Makarios. I don't recall him being abusive and, though he comes at the issue with certain questionable assumptions, we all come to the issue with assumptions, and all of those assumptions should be questioned.