Wednesday, September 17, 2008

When Athiests Attack

There have been a number of items that have come up recently that revolve around the topic of atheist activism - of convincing people to believe that the proposition "at least one god exists" is almost certainly false.

(And I will repeat that the claim that an atheist is one who "lacks a belief in a god" is a nonsense claim completely at odds with the way the word is used among competent users of the English language, and which makes absolutely no useful contribution or improvement to that language.)

This blog is not a blog about promoting atheism. This is a blog about promoting virtue. And I deny that promoting atheism is a way of promoting virtue because:

Atheism has no moral implications. Atheism is as irrelevant to morality as, for example, the chemical composition of methane. We can certainly find areas in which the chemical facts about methane are relevant about deciding what to do in a given case, but it does not provide any moral guidance.

There are those who have taken every act performed by somebody who (claimed to be) religious and turned it into an attack on all religion. From 9/11, to every instance in which somebody who was religious has molested a child or stolen money from a church or viciously assaulted another member of the community, these have all been held up with a sign that says, "See what religion does!"

Now, atheists need to deal with two stories in which the assailant was an (alleged) atheist, attacking others because they believed in God. (Denver Post: "Man threatens two Christians, may lose an eye")

The other concerns an (alleged) atheist in Woodbridge, England who harassed a Christian neighbor. (Suffolk & Essex Online, "Atheist's bizarre bid to convert Christian" .

It may be possible to dispute some of the facts of these stories. For the purposes of this essay, I do not need to have the facts of these cases entirely accurate. I could take the cases as entirely hypothetical cases of what some atheists might do and make the same point.

The point is to take these articles, then take something such as this:

The Church of Jesus Christ, "When Atheists Attack"

Below are two articles on the extreme that atheists will go to - of course they are enlightened and all.

This article then goes on to mention the two stories that I referenced above.

And to point out how similar that article is to articles that many atheists would post if they should find two articles about Christians making attacks against two atheists.

In fact, I would love to write a nice post about the bigotry expressed this article, in light of the fact that it takes the behavior of two nuts such as this and extrapolates it out to include all atheists. It is clearly the case that the author in this case is engaging in hate-mongering and bigotry, trying to promote animosity against a whole group of people by using the behavior of a subset of its members. I could write an excellent argument proving this point.

However, in this case, the article I would be criticizing is too much like many of the postings that I read every day on atheist-activist blogs. Where they take a story of a theist who has committed some crime and used it in a post that says, "See why I hate religious people?"

The rule is to keep the subject tightly focused on those who have committed the actual wrong - not to over-generalize. Taking the crimes of "a theist" and turning it into an article against "theists" is as bigoted as taking an article about "an atheist" and turning it into a piece of hate-mongering bigotry against "atheists".

The only time it is legitimate to make a claim about a whole group of people is when the claim is true about the whole group. It is quite permissible to say that bachelors are unmarried, circles are round, atheists believe that the proposition "at least one god exists" is almost certainly false, or a theist is somebody who believes "at least one god exists" is almost certainly true.

If a group of faith healers kill a child in the process of trying to rid her of demons (that happen, in fact, to be asthma or some form of juvenile diabetes), then the fault rests with those people who made that mistake. It does not rest with all of religion.

If a group of terrorists destroy a couple of sky scrapers, the fault rests with those people and their specific beliefs, not with religion.

If an atheist harrasses and menaces a neighbor for the crime of believing that a God almost certainly exists, the fault rests with that atheist, not with atheists.

I would like readers to keep this example in mind . . . the example of a case in which two articles about some deranged atheists resulted in a story about "the extremes that atheists will go to", and ask whether some of the atheist activist postings one is reading (writing) fit too uncomfortably close to this model.

If they do, then let's see about putting an end to it, or at least reducing the number of incidences that commit this violation.

To the degree that we pride ourselves on reason and truth, let take these examples of "hasty generalization" and commit them to the bin of inappropriate behavior where they belong.

And then go ahead and criticize any theists who violate the same rule.


BGH said...

What use is explicitly citing religion (or disbelief) in the headline, when it is clearly a deranged individual committing the assault. What is 'atheist' supposed to incite in the headline other than positive reinforcement of bias?

A better headline, regardless of perpetrators faith, would be "Disturbed Individual Threatens To Behead Two Women".

Their faith, nor his matters.

Anonymous said...

You make good points here. The faithful would like to claim morality is impossible for those not following a god, and then use people like these nutters as their proof that all atheists are troublemakers.

Over-generalizing is a pitfall for many people when trying to argue one side or the other. I know I've done it more than once. It's tempting to paint everyone the same, but I know there are good, kind, church-goers who'd never dream of molesting kids, stealing from their parishes, or whatever else becomes news around the world.

Anonymous said...

Actually, if you would read the articles, the violence seemed to be motivated by the victim's religion.

Please feel to join in the discussion at that blog.

Anonymous said...

"God" is a word so completely devoid of any meaning that it is illogical to discuss it. Every religion defines it as something else, and every epoch defined it a bit otherwise. "God" is something people worship, that is the best definition I know! "This is my God" = this is what I worship. An atheist is a man who thinks worshipping God is nonsense. Really, "existence" means nothing... THERE IS ONLY ACTION. Repeat after me: THERE IS ONLY ACTION. Reality is action, is things happening. There is no "existence", "being", "doer", grammatical subject (like "I", "God", "devil"). All this doesn't touch reality of life. Talking about existence of something non-spacial and non-temporal, not doing anything, with will always fulfilled etc. - is nonsense. I'm tired with all these liars telling me that atheism is a belief in "nonexistence" etc. Only actions happening to us are real, the rest is our theorems and grammatics, how could you say a theory (i.e. "something IS THERE billions of kilometers away"), a state of mind, or a grammatical habit "does not exist"? Atheism says all religion is false, and that the word "God" should be trashed - that is all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alonzo,

I beg to differ. In some instances it is appropriate to fault a religion, or even its adherents as morally complicit to an immoral act.

If someone claims their "holy" bible as an infallible lawbook and superior to man-made laws, they are de facto supporting the killing of homosexuals, to give just one example. Leviticus has many more.

Any religious moderate, who does not speak out against and distances themselves from an act that was committed by following some tenet of their religion is giving moral shelter to the fundamentalist perpetrator.

Atheism (by any reasonable definition you might choose) does not have any tenets that immoral action can be based on.


cranky old fart said...

"If a group of terrorists destroy a couple of sky scrapers, the fault rests with those people and their specific beliefs, not with religion."

This is a point with which I often struggle. Religion in general, and certainly of the fundamentalist kind, promotes the idea of us v. them, saved v. unsaved, all to a moral certainty. The most extreme actors, in Islam certainly, are often the ones hewing closest to the words set down in their sacred texts.

To what extent should "moderates" be held accountable for legitimizing the idea that these texts are, indeed, "the word of God" in the first place? To what extent should they be held accountable for mainstreaming the idea that there is a supernatural; that there is a God actively involved in our daily lives?

Anonymous said...

cranky old fart said:
"To what extent should "moderates" be held accountable for legitimizing the idea that these texts are, indeed, "the word of God" in the first place? To what extent should they be held accountable for mainstreaming the idea that there is a supernatural; that there is a God actively involved in our daily lives?"

Moderate church members sit in the pews nodding their head and saying "amen" (hebrew for "so be it, verily"). They give their approval to the preachings and teachings of their religion by showing up every sunday.

(There are probably analogous arguments for Muslims and Jews, but I do not know their practices.)

Social acceptability of ideas and social approval of actions based on these ideas are enabling and protecting factors for ideology-based violence. This is true for example for racism, sexism, heterosexism, McCarthyism, and other -isms I do not mention because of Godwin's law.

The religions ought to adopt tactics like those peaceful protest groups that isolate militant agitators in demonstrations.
Instead, they revere criminals as "martyrs" or lamely excuse them as "lost sheep" that need to be "reunited with the herd".

Freidenker85 said...

They should have written "Idiot tries to deconvert Christian". But I guess that's bad journalism.

Anyway, there's one thing that's a bit OT that I don't get - what's wrong with saying I lack a belief in a diety? I lack a belief in a lot of things that aren't substantiated - why should I use a different language when discussing my disbelief?

Anonymous said...

I agree with heisenberg. There is no "atheist manifesto" that I know of, (and if the two people mentioned subscribed to belief in such a one, I would generalize to them as well), while there are many texts that purport to tell religious believers what is True, and Good.

As such, I feel the blame for actions (that are condoned in said books, such as "not suffering a witch to live", or known through "common" knowledge among believers, such as "casting out demons" in often dangerous ways) should be placed at the feet of the belief system which encouraged said actions.

Then there are acts which are not condoned in religious texts, such as child molestation by those in religious positions of power (so far as I know, it also isn't exactly condemned). However, I think a reasonable person could see a connection between child molestation and a text that tells readers that children should respect (at any cost) their elders, that priests should be trusted absolutely, and that children are expendable in the name of religion.

Now, does this mean that all religious believers are bad people? No, it just means that it is not unreasonable to point out religion as a possible contributing factor when horrific actions are undertaken by religious believers (so long as the action could actually be connected)

Anonymous said...

"And I deny that promoting atheism is a way of promoting virtue because: Atheism has no moral implications."

This may be accurate insofar as we limit our definition of "virtue" to "moral behavior." But what about truth?

The belief that discovery and dissemination of truth is in and of itself virtuous has proven the central motivating idea for the entire project of science and scholarship since at least the Enlightenment.

If a physicist belives matter has mass because of a particle called the Higgs Boson, she probably thinks it is virtuous to persuade others of her theory by laying out the evidence. If an historian believes the Gunpowder Plot was actually a setup by anti-Catholic government agents, he likewise thinks the world will be a better place if he can convice others of the truth of his idea. Otherwise why publish these ideas--indeed, why spend time developing them at all?

So if atheists believe the truth to be, as you put it, that "the proposition 'at least one god exists' is almost certainly false", why is it not virtuous for them to attempt to persuade others of that belief?