Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Atheist Proselytizing

I have seen a few posts about the atheist blogosphere concerning atheist proselytizing. “What should our goals be?” people are asking.

It’s a question that I asked in creating this blog. It is a question that I ask when I decide what to write each day. “What are my goals? What post could I create today that would best further those goals?”

My answer: Atheist proselytizing should focus on those things that make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been.

For example, a couple of days ago I wrote a post about the Copenhagen Consensus, which argued that the most cost-effective way to make the world a better place is to fight the spread of AIDS. (Or, at least it was 4 years ago; we will see what the 2008 conference says). One of the ways to prevent the spread of AIDS is by promoting the use of condoms. Simple, cost effective, having massive positive benefits – and also a number of positive side effects. It also prevents unwanted pregnancies, reduces population growth, and prevents the spread of other sexually transmitted diseases.

However, the Catholic Church and other religious organizations are against this. They campaign against it. They do so based on myth and superstition.

This, then, is one of a multitude of examples in which superstition kills people and destroys lives. It is one of a multitude of instances in which it is possible to say, “Because people grasp onto these absurd ideas, we have more death and suffering in the world than there would otherwise be. To avoid death and suffering, we have reason to promote an aversion to the adoption of these absurd beliefs.”

As the head of a group of atheist proselytizers, I would create a subgroup within the organization dedicated specifically to the prevention of AIDS. It would be a group that collected money for the purpose of buying condoms and shipping them to countries where the HIV/AIDS epidemic is at its worst. Atheist proselytizers would go from village to village giving out scientifically vetted information on AIDS, promoting the use of condoms, and spreading the word that the agents of myth and superstition who argue against this practice are also the agents of death and suffering.

That’s the form that I think atheist proselytizing should take.

I would also form a group dedicated to opposing creationism. It would oppose not only the teaching of creationism as science in American classrooms, it would oppose creationism itself. It would not attempt to make the case that evolution is compatible with religion. It would not make the case in terms of separation of church and state. It would make the case that science saves lives, and anti-science puts lives at risk.

The most popular posting that I have written to date – still drawing 10% to 15% of the traffic to this blog 7 months after I first posted it, is “Ben Stein’s ‘Expelled’”. It is a critique of the movie grounded entirely on the principle of harm done. We can save lives to the degree that we can explain and predict the universe around us. The best method for doing this is science – which continually produces amazing predictions that no religious prophets could ever be able to match. “Intelligent design” is anti-science that simply does not produce the types of predictions that are required of a scientific theory. It’s failure to produce predictions translates directly into a failure to preserve and protect lives.

One of the harmful effects of the Intelligent Design dogma is that it will seduce children away from studying or even understanding science (that is to say, studying or even understanding how to save and preserve lives in a universe of natural laws) and into worthless and ineffective superstitions.

I would also set up a group for opposing ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance and a national motto of ‘In God We Trust’. Both of these movements aim to teach children that it is better to be ‘under God’ or to be somebody who trusts in God than it is to be an atheist. It denigrates atheism as a matter of national policy, even though atheists are by far disproportionately responsible for the scientific discoveries in this country and save more lives and prevent more destruction than religion. With these actions, the government is telling children not to become the types of people who produce more good for their fellow humans in outcomes such as medical breakthroughs, protection from natural disasters, food production, and energy production and efficiency, than any other group in the country.

That is how I would proselytize atheism.

In saying this, we must note that atheists are not immune from unreasoned dogma. Religion is not the only place where one can go to find doctrines that promote death and human suffering.

Europe, though being more ‘atheist’ than America, also suffers from the influence of atheist dogmas that are as anti-science as any religion. The list of popular philosophies in Europe include post-modernism and cultural relativism, both of which condemn the idea that we can have actual knowledge of the real world. These dogmas have been as effective at holding the European culture back scientifically and economically as creationism has been in America. Focusing on religious dogmas and their harmful effects is just a part of the problem.

In fact, the philosophies of post-modernism and cultural relativism point to an important case of atheist scapegoating. Many ‘new atheists’ have accused religious moderates of shielding religious extremists by preventing criticism against the harshest forms of their religion. However, they did not mention the fact that these non-religious philosophies are an even greater obstacle to criticizing fundamentalist religions. It’s from these philosophies, not from religious moderates, that we get the idea that no culture may criticize another. Religious moderates, in contrast, still held to the possibility of moral and objective truths.

We see how atheists can be attracted to pleasant-sounding but useful fictions with as much zealousness as a religious devotee in Objectivism, in the thesis that ‘atheist’ means ‘the absence of a belief in God’, and in the happiness cult. All three of these dogmas have clear problems, yet people latch onto them with little regard for the rational arguments against them.

Objectivism even has its own mythical entities – this thing called ‘man qua man’ that is a rational animal that tells us that reason is the defining characteristic of man. It makes unwarranted leaps from ‘is’ premises (man is a rational animal) to ‘ought’ conclusions (man ought to always promote reason above all else). It confuses the distinction between ‘means’ and ‘ends’ (e.g., life is the near-universal means to the fulfillment of other desires; therefore, it is the universal end). Yet, it attracts a group of atheist followers like any other cult.

The ‘meaning of atheism’ issue is a small affair, yet it illustrates how an atheist can latch onto an idea that just a moment’s reflection will expose to be false – merely because the idea serves a political purpose. The claim is that ‘atheism’ means ‘the lack of a belief in God’ – and because of this we can dismiss the claim that atheism is a religion and atheists actually believe something. However, it does this by introducing a definition of ‘atheism’ that has nothing at all to do with how competent English speakers use the term. ‘Atheism’, as the word is used by competent English speakers, means, “A person who believes that the proposition ‘God exists’ is certainly or almost certainly false. It involves an actual belief that is in need of support. Atheists need to accept this fact and deal with it appropriately.

Indeed, there are some strange implications in talking about ‘atheist proselytizing’ in a context in which an atheist is somebody who has no belief in God. It says that atheist proselytizing can be successful by killing a person (since a dead person has no belief in a God) or by inflicting sufficient head trauma that a person can no longer hold a proposition ‘God exists’. Whereas ‘atheist proselytizing’ in a context where an atheist believes that the proposition ‘God exists’ is almost certainly or certainly false requires a bit more work.

The Cult of Happiness holds that happiness is the sole value. This is proved false by the fact that when happiness is divorced from truth, then happiness loses its luster. Induce happiness by taking the brain of a person in a state of happiness and put it in a jar where it relives its last state of happiness over and over again, or put a person in an experience machine that feeds the agent false beliefs that induce happiness, or find an way of stimulating the brain with an electrode in a way that produces happiness, and then inquire as to the value of this state.

Desire fulfillment, on the other hand, cannot be divorced from truth. Desires are propositional attitudes (attitudes that particular propositions are to be made or kept true). A desire is fulfilled if and only if a state of affairs exists in which the proposition that is the object of a desire is true. Desire fulfillment theory accounts for the essential connection between value and truth. Happiness theory ignores it. Yet, the cult of happiness still dominates atheist conversations about value.

So, let us not think that in ‘atheist proselytizing’ begins and ends with promoting the belief that the proposition ‘God exists’ is very nearly or certainly false. The proposition ‘God exists’ is only one of a number of propositions that people can hold without good reason, and many of them have nothing to do with religion.


Anonymous said...

One thing that religious groups get right is charity. For example, various churches in my area have food banks, which have helped my family personally in the past during rough times. Even as an atheist leaning agnostic, I would encourage people to donate to churches who have similar programs. Rather than shop at Hot Topic and piss people off by the shield of the Internet, perhaps non-believers could help their image by doing similar, close to home things that churches do. A bit more realistic, with an immediate positive effect, than the "fight aids" rhetoric that everyone is tired of hearing and throwing money at. I know plenty of hungry people, and nobody with aids. If I had the resources, I think a food bank of sorts would be a good start.

Another idea, which might even be easier to get off the drawing board, is care packages for the troops. When I was deployed in Uzbekistan and Iraq, I received a few care packages from various groups. Every one of them had Christian proselytizing in them, in various forms such as pamphlets, prayer cards, and anecdotes. I wrote back to one, mentioning that the military allows all religions, and that they have other things to worry about than having their faith potentially attacked. Let's just say they took me off their list, and the rest of the company continued receiving packages on a regular basis. I felt it was wrong for them to assume as such, and even more so to only support troops with their religious belief.

A food box or care package from a non-believer would contain a message that could apply to anyone, no matter what religion they are. General, nice, positive stuff that is universal. The only indication that it came from a group of particular faith or lack thereof would be the group's name and/or website, should they choose to learn more. That would be my way of improving the image of non-believers without shoving belief down their throats, questioning theirs, or discriminating.

anticant said...

You rightly criticise post-modernism and cultural relativism - to which I would add deconstructionism - but are you really saying that these intellectual dead-ends have not established a foothold in American academia as well as in Europe?

Judging from the incomprehensible jargon which pours out from some US universities, I find this hard to believe.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Yes, they have a foothold. However, I do not see much evidence that they have gone beyond a foothold, and I think that the foothold is very tenuous.

I am only basing this on anecdotal evidence that I do not encounter many people writing from that perspective, at least not in my circles, so it could be a mistaken impression.

Anonymous said...

Desire fullfillment is like objectivism, and or the pursuit of happiness, also a belief system. You may be right that it is more sensible, or self-consistant or rational. But the credo it rests upon, as do all systems is not proven. Atheist prostletyzing should at least have the courage to admit, that it is not about removing all belief, but about changing what it is people believe in.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Perhaps you could idenfity this unproven 'credo that [desire utilitarianism] rests on' for me. Then we can see if it is, in fact, unproven. Or, perhaps, we can understand where you might have misinterpreted some part of the theory.

Anybody can utter a statement, "You system is wrong." The phrase is so easy that it is worthless.

The question is whether you can identify an error.

Anonymous said...

I am not saying that desire utilitarianism is wrong. I agree that is is an interesting aproach to ethical thinking, and I am not offering any better approaches, nor am I yet convinced it is the best. All I am saying is that it rests on certain unproven premises, as does any system in a universe that is not fully understood. Even if it, like other ways of thinking, can be shown to have flaws, it may still turn out like democracy, to be the best system available. Godel theorem in mathematics anyways argues that the completely consistent system is sure to be incomplete.

You asked for the credo, and I will do my best to provide one.

I see desire utilitarianism as postulating that "the most moral act is that which allows the greatest number of desires to be achieved".

Like Euclid's fifth postulate, (parallel lines never meet) this may be a reasonable assumption, but is is an assumption nonetheless. And if you stop believing in the assumption, then you are open to all the different non-Euclidian geometries. Even natural geometry (which does not use the fifth postulate, still rests on the 4 other unproven assumptions Euclid's Postulates.

A good and very short post on the postulates.

So I see many theistic religions as self-consistant moral philosophies, as is desire utilitarianism. That does not make them equivalent. Only that neither is wholly without reason, or wholly without belief.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am not saying that desire utilitarianism is wrong.

I can say it. Desire utilitarianism is wrong. We can expect any theory to be ultimately rejected and replaced with better theories as our knowledge and understanding of the universe increases. Just as Einstein's theories replaced Newton, future theories will replace desire utilitarianism. Or, at best, it will require some significant overhauls.

I see desire utilitarianism as postulating that "the most moral act is that which allows the greatest number of desires to be achieved".

Actually, that is not correct.

I distinguish desire utilitarianism from desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism. The postulate you describe above is desire-fulfillment act utilitarianism (the right act is the act that fulfills the most and strongest desires), which I reject. I reject all act-utilitarian theories (the right act is the act that produces the best consequences) because they require that all agents have only one desire - a desire to produce the best consequences. If the agent has any other desire, regardless how small, it will sometimes prevent him from producing the act-utlitarian best act.

It is common to think that a moral system must have some fundamental, foundational 'ought' statement that cannot be proved. I reject that view. It is a dualist view that holds that there are two different types of relationships - 'is' relationships and 'ought' relationships. This type of dualism is as problematic as any type of metaphysical dualism. It raises very serious questions about, 'What is this second type of entity and how, if it is not a part of the material universe, does it interact with that universe to make real-world changes'?

So, I hold that 'is' relationships are the only relationships that exist. 'Ought' relationships are either a subset of 'is' relationships, or they do not exist. There is no fundamental unprovable 'ought' statement any more than there are fundamental, unprovable 'is' statements.

In this case, all value exists in the form of relationships between states of affairs and desires (an 'is' relationship), where desires are the only reasons for action that exist (another 'is' statement). Since agents can only act to fulfill the more and stronger of their desires given their beliefs, the right act cannot be the act that fulfills the most desires generally. The right act can only be an act that fulfills the more and stronger of the agent's desires, given his beliefs.

However, because desires are maleable, we are capable of (and we have reason to cause) people to have desires that tend to fulfill other desires. By molding people's desires, we can make it the case that a person who acts so as to fulfill the more and stronger of his own desires, also fulfills the more and stronger of the desires of others as an intended or unintended consequence.

This 'promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires' and 'inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires' is what morality is about.

Lippard said...

Note that there is an organization which promotes science and opposes creationism, but it also argues for the compatibility of religion and evolution--that's the National Center for Science Education.

I suspect that it would be far less effective than it is if it were an atheist organization, as opposed to an organization that takes no position on the question of atheism vs. theism.

Unknown said...

Well. For starters, "WE" are not a group, any more than people with brown eyes are a group. "WE" don't have "positions" on anything. "WE" are people that do not believe in any god, and that's all. If you want to develop your own religions or theological viewpoints, that's super, but you'll have to think up a new name for it. I like anagrams... perhaps C.U.N.T.S could be something to shoot for?

Anonymous said...

I am sure you believe in the statement that is highly unlike that there are in nature pink elephants with round purple spot, wings the size of a hummingbird that can fly at 180 miles per hour. So I claim you belong to the religion of non-believers of such creatures, right. That would probably be the largest religion on the planet according to your understanding of what a religion is.