Monday, April 14, 2008

Appealing to “Moderate” Christians

I have seen a trend in the comments to my recent blog postings of interpreting my recent postings as suggesting that atheists should get together and organize protests against religion. Assuming that I am advocating something along the lines of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, that religion is the great evil that must be eliminated, they have sought to argue against me by arguing against this position.

I have also picked up a substantial number of new readers in recent weeks who have not read prior posts in which I discussed these issues, so I should not be assuming that readers automatically know my position on these things.

So, let me briefly state some of these basic propositions.

(1) “At least one god certainly or almost certainly exists”, and “At least one god certainly or almost certainly does not exist,” are morally neutral statements. They tell us nothing about how we should behave. Even if a god exists, that god might be a malicious god who designed the earth and created human nature the way he did because he loves conflict. Every day he sits in his recliner with a can of beer and a bowl of chips watching a new episode of “Survivor Earth.” It’s not the existence or the non-existence of god that gives us moral guidance. We get that from the additional claims added to this claim about the existence or non-existence of God. When those additinal claims are junk, then we have problems.

(2) When it comes to tacking junk onto claims about the existence or non-existence of God, atheists are as good at making things up (that happen to be dead wrong) as theists. Branding all theists with the crimes of Stalin is bigotry, but Stalin does provide a counter-example to the idea that you can make somebody a better person just by getting them to believe that no God exists.

(3) There is nobody on the planet that agrees with you about everything. If you can’t get along with people who disagree with you, you are doomed to have a very lonely life

(4) Given that we have no choice but to accept and get along with people who disagree with us, our goal should be to distinguish between disagreements that are tolerable and those that are not (and how we are going to handle each). There is a clear difference between the person who says, “I believe that there is a loving god that commands me to feed the hungry and care for the sick,” and “I believe in a vengeful god that commands me to kill anybody who does not worship him as I do.” One is a false belief that we can comfortably ignore. The other is not.

(5) Rather than making both of these types of people our enemies, if we were rational, we would welcome the former as allies against the latter.

Anybody who has taken any of my last week’s postings as a protest against religion or faith have been reading things into my postings that are simply not there. In fact, you have read things into my postings that I have explicitly and repeatedly argued against.

I have only one posting in this entire blog that discusses the issue of whether God exists. This is precisely because I consider the issue to be unimportant. The important issues are those that put life, health, and well-being at risk. A belief in God does not necessarily do this. Many of the things that some people associate with belief in God do this, but there are a great many things advocated by people who do not believe in God that put life, health, and well-being at risk as well.

I have complained against atheists who have made bigoted statements when I have found them. For example, I objected when the Connecticut Valley Atheists put up a sign that said, “Imagine, no religion” that showed the World Trade Center, I protested that the group was making the unjust (and totally bigoted inference) that all religious people share blame for 9/11.

See, Connecticut Valley Atheists: Imagine and A Speech Proposal”

I have also protested against the claim that teaching religion to a child amounts to child abuse because child abuse requires malicious intent or reckless disregard for the child. This is simply not true in most cases. Some, true - such as this cult in Texas and parents who pray for the health of their child when she has an easily treatable disease - are guilty of reckless disregard for the child. But not all. (See Religion as Child Abuse).

My complaint is not against Christianity in specific, or belief in God in general.

My objection is that the statement, “No atheist is qualified to be judge,” is prejudicial and discriminatory – and that anybody, regardless of their religion, should be able to see that it is simply wrong for a President to hold this attitude.

My objection is that a pledge of allegiance that states that aims to teach children to view the person who does not favor ‘one nation under God’ the way he views one who does not favor ‘liberty and justice for all’ is an exercise in teaching bigotry is not a statement against Christianity. It is a statement against teaching bigotry - particularly to very young children. I trust that most Christians would see this type of bigotry as wrong if they ever got a chance to hear or read the argument.

My objection to Davis’ statement is that she uttered a derogatory falsehood that prejudices her and anybody who shares her views against the words and deeds of those who do not believe in God – a prejudice that makes her unfit to be a legislator. Any good Christian should be able to see this as well.

I am simply not talking about a protest in defense of atheism and against Christianity. I am talking about a protest by those in defense of equal respect in the eyes of the law and against government declarations of hatred and bigotry.

For atheists to sit and do nothing while waiting patiently for others to do the work would be like the blacks in the 1950s sitting in their homes waiting for white people to change the voting access laws and to eliminate “separate but equal”.

The blacks in the 1950s and 1960s needed to take the lead – to be at the head of the march for civil rights. And there was, indeed, an attempt at the time to cast their activities in terms of “black” versus “white”. However, what those who marched for civil rights - those who engaged in the 'sit ins' and the voter registration drives - were demanding were things that no just and fair white person could deny. There was nothing inconsistent in white people joining the marches and the rallies and fighting for the same cause – because the cause they were fighting for was not ‘blacks’. The cause they were fighting for was ‘justice’.

When it comes to responding to the bigotry and injustice that I have been talking about this week, I am talking about things for which atheists must take the lead. However, there is nothing in what I have written that should give a good Christian pause. It is not anti-Christian. It is anti-injustice. Just as no Christian would tolerate being on a witness stand and being told by a sitting legislator to ‘get out of that seat because you are a Christian and Christians have no right to be here, no fair and just Christian should tolerate a legislator telling an Atheist to ‘get out of that seat because Atheists have no right to be here.’

In asking the question, “Why don’t atheists defend themselves?” it seems that I must be asking a related question, “Where did we get the idea that atheists defending themselves is anti-Christian? Is it the case that blacks defending their rights is anti-White? Is it the case that women defending themselves is anti-Male?”

There will certainly be people who will want to distort the message and turn it into an “atheist’ versus “Christian” message. The will seek to promote the idea that Christians are being persecuted because Christians are being forced to treat atheists as political equals to be given equal respect under the law. However, the existence of people who will distort the message in order to promote hostility and manipulate the public does not imply that proponents of justice should give up. Of course the unjust are going to fight back. But this implies 'fight harder', not 'give up'.


anticant said...

See my post "Does God's existence matter?" in Anticant's arena:

SpiderBrigade said...

Extremely interesting post. I'm one of those new readers you mention, although I am trying to work my way back.

The views you describe here are extremely reasonable, and I can certainly understand your unwillingness to be lumped in with Harris and Hitchens (although I'm sure you're aware that your point #4 about benign vs malignant belief is similar to what Harris has argued). However, I have a difficulty with your position that I'd be interested to see how you answer.

What you're arguing against and taking a stand against is bigotry. You draw some interesting parallels with the civil rights movement. However, in a very real way religion has this kind of bigotry, or at least a predisposition to it, built in, in a way that "whiteness" does not. There's nothing about having pale skin that causes hatred or indifference to those with pigmented skin (other than primitive in-group reactions). In contrast, the core of religion is that believers know they have THE TRUTH, and those who disagree are wrong.

Now, of course one can point to various outgrowths of religion that take a less aggressive stance. Unitarian Universalists, for instance, or moderate Christians/Muslims/etc. This is tricky for me, though. Benign, acceptable religion has to do one of two things. On the one hand, it can reject the bigoted tenets of ancient belief (GLBT-friendly christian congregations, eg). Or, it can acknowledge the moral fact that in a plural society others with different beliefs must have an equal voice.

My problem is that both of these choices are well on the way to agnosticism, if not atheism.
When moderate Christians reject the bigoted writings of Paul, for instance, they're asserting that their own ethical judgment is more relevant than ancient writings. That same argument can then be applied to the entirety of Christianity, or any other faith for that matter.

Similarly, religious people who accept and defend the right to speech and political agency to those of directly-conflicting faiths or non-faiths must cede their claim to The Truth. In other words, admitting that the statements of infidels are not dangerous libel completely undermines the position that the faithful have access to the absolute truth. Furthermore, pluralism requires that simply saying "because it is written in my Holy Book" is not sufficient argument for a policy. But if the Holy Book were "really true" this *would* be a sufficient argument, wouldn't it? Thus, allowing such a compromise tacitly admits that the Holy Book might *not* be true.

From my point of view, by the time religion has shed the qualities that lead to bigotry, it has become something like agnostic moral philosophy instead, which is of course benign. So to me it sounds like you're saying you have no problem with religion, so long as it doesn't insist that it's true. Of course by definition people who believe in a religion do think it's true, and qit follows that they act accordingly. For someone like President Bush, saying that he wants judges who believe our rights come from God is equivalent to saying he wants doctors who believe in germ theory. Of course, germ theory can be backed up by evidence and religion cannot, but admitting that would contradict his faith. This is why I say that faith has this kind of bigotry built in.

Anonymous said...

I understand your point, but isn't there an issue relating to intellectual dishonesty where one relies on "faith claims" to justify actions based on what they think is the desire of a god?

I find it easy to condemn religious beliefs in general because these people are in no position to criticize anyone else's faith claims and resultant actions. Christians are in no position to say a radical Muslim is wrong when the Muslim takes it on faith that Allah wants them to fly a plane into a building. If their god exists then their god defines morality. There are no other criteria of morality that they need apply.

I see no reason to give less aggressive religions a free ride when their way of thinking is basically validating the violence put forth by the more aggressive religions. This is a key reason why I left the religion I was raised in. I realized I was part of the problem if I couldn't be part of the solution.

I also question the issue of abuse being only malicious intent or reckless disregard. I am sure the parents of the child that died had no malicious intent or reckless disregard since they truly believed god's will would be done. While I think their beliefs were based on bad data, I am sure their desires were well intentioned. But, they still need to be condemned for relying on this sort of unfounded “faith” which is anything but virtuous.

Apply the same logic to something like circumcision. Jews are required by their holy texts to remove a healthy, normal, functional, and sensitive part of their son's penis. While Americans typically don't find this to be a problem, we cringe when we hear of any unnecessary genital cutting on a girl's genitals for ritualistic reasons. Whether a parent is having their son's genitals unnecessarily cut up, or their daughter's, their intent is usually for the best for the child. I would still label it abuse and a blatant disregard for an individual's bodily integrity even though they might have the best of intentions. The reality is, the data upon which these decisions are being made is faulty and deserve to be condemned.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


On the standards that I defend in this blog, having reckless disregard for the welfare of others, including the reckless disregard for the welfare of a child, includes the moral crime of epistemic recklessness - forming beliefs with disregard for the welfare of others.

It is not sufficient for a parent to believe that a prayer will cure their child. Rather, when our beiefs put others at risk, we have an obligation to subject our beliefs to certain standards of care. Failure to do so constitute the moral crime of recklessness.

This does not imply that we must subject all of our beliefs to this care. We cannot do so. There is simply no way that we have the time or the means to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason. We must often use less reliable but faster means.

For example, the "bandwagon fallacy" - believing something because it is popular - is not formally valid. However, when you don't have time to collect all of the evidence and subject it to rigid logical proof, you will be better off on average going with what most people accept than what most people reject.

Given that we do not have time to subject all of our beliefs to reason, we must choose which beliefs are to be judged by reason, and which we can leave to less reliable methods. Needless to say, one of the criteria that we should be using in making this evaluation is harm to self or others.

Intellectual recklessness is the same as other forms of recklessness. The amount of care that you are morally obligated to use depends on the amount of risk you are creating for others.

A person who fails to secure a load in his pickup before he drives it across his otherwise empty farm is less negligent than the person who fails to scure a load on his pickup before he takes it out on the highway.

This means that for beliefs that have little or no risk for others, there is less of a moral obligation to subject them to the light of reason.

The people who pray for children who have treatable illnesses are epistemically negligent. In this society, there are enough people who question the effectiveness of prayer and know of the effectiveness of medicine, that they have no moral right to take this type of risk. Their beliefs concerned the well-being of a child. They had an obligation to use methods that have a proven history of being a more reliable way to save lives.

However, the person who thinks that there is a God who will be pleased with him if he spends his life feeding the hungry and taking care of the sick . . . well, he does not have a load of beliefs that put others at risk. He cannot be charged with recklessness.

So, it does not matter what one beliefs. When it comes to beliefs about things that put others at risk, there is also a moral obligation to secure those beliefs. But much less so when those beliefs are harmless to others.