Tuesday, February 10, 2009

About This Blog

There is a new meme floating around the atheist blogsphere that has to do with listing one's 30 favorite atheist blogs.

I will admit that it pleases me when I see this blog on a person's list. And in the Friendly Atheist's tally of the 30 most popular atheist blogs mine shows up as number 20.

However, it was my intention when I created this blog not to make it an atheist blog. I resolved at the start that I would not use this blog to argue whether or not a god exists, or debate the age of the Earth and the mechanisms of evolution or the literal truth of scripture.

Bus signs that tell viewers to enjoy life since no God exists, and signs that tell people to imagine no religion, do not interest me.

Signs that promote virtue and counter bigotry concern me, as do signs that promote bigotry and counter virtue. I am interested in the sign, “Somebody who does not trust in God is not one of us” interests me not because of its religious content, but its bigotry content.

In other words, instead of creating an atheist blog, I wanted to create an ethics blog – though one that happens to be written by an atheist.

I attach as the same significance to being an atheist ethicist as I do to Barack Obama being a black president. That is to say, I attach no direct significance at all. The only interest in these types of relationships comes from the fact that there is or has been a widespread bigoted hostility against accepting such a combination..

I decided at the start to put the word “atheist” in the title of this blog and to present myself as unapologetically atheist simply to send a message to those who think that “atheist ethicist” is a contradiction in terms. If you believe that, come here and look at this.

I considered using a title that did not mention the word “atheist” at all, and simply ignoring any discussion of God. I believe that if I had done that my blog would be a lot more popular. Far more people avoid this blog because it has the word “atheist” in the title than are attracted to it for that reason.

However, my goal was not to be popular; and in particular not to be popular through the practice of deception. My goal was to argue for that which I believe to be true in matters of ethics, and that includes dealing directly with the truth of anti-atheist bigotry.

One of the ideas that I wanted to confront was the idea that piety is linked to virtue. It is a foolish idea that allowed a group of people who embraced torture, killed hundreds of thousands of people in a war of aggression, engaged in extraordinary rendition, and used lies, threats, and personal attacks against others as a way of obtaining personal and political benefits, and generally abuse their positions of authority, to get into positions of power that no atheist, no matter how virtuous, would be allowed to hold.

I made one significant miscalculation. I did not figure correctly the degree to which people can simply avoid that which they do not want to see or hear.

Unlike atheist sites that deal with existence of God and the truth of evolution, I get almost no feedback from people who consider themselves religious. I get no hate mail, or threats against myself or my family. When I do get comments from religious people, they are almost universally of the form, “I am a Christian, but I agree with what you wrote about X.”

I have had a few comments over the years from people who drew a direct relationship between the desire utilitarian slogan, “Do that act that a person with good desires would perform,” and the Christian slogan, “Do that which Jesus would do.”

This actually makes sense to me. After all, with the contradictions and outright errors in scripture that have to be glossed over, people can read into the Bible whatever they want to see. If a person is impressed with desire utilitarianism, then they can read that theory into the Bible just as they can read any other theory.

After all, they fit the Divine Right of Kings into scripture for over a thousand years, until monarchies lost their popularity, Now, that very same text that once supported the divine right of kings now allegedly supports the inalienable rights of individuals.

People, as I said, will read into scripture what they see, and the comments I get from religious people tend to be from those who have decided to see desire utilitarianism in religious text.

Ultimately, I strongly suspect that most of my readers are atheists, so I write under the assumption that my words will be read by an atheist reader. I guess that makes this an atheist blog in a sense.

Yet, I still hold that promoting virtue over vice is far more important than promoting atheism over theism.

And that is what this blog is actually about.


Friar Zero said...

I would say that you do deserve to be counted amongst atheist blogs because you do touch on anti-atheist bigotry, the negative effects of religious morality, and the separation of church and state. All topics very popular with the atheosphere.

Hambydammit said...

Speaking of blogs dealing with ethics that just happen to be written by atheists...


I've just discovered your blog, and I really like your approach. (Gee... it's a lot like mine.) I've added it to my bookmarks, and will be a regular reader.

vjack said...

Look at it this way: you are at least as much an atheist blog as Pharyngula is a science blog.

Anonymous said...

I agree with your virtue over vice remark. I think it's more important to illustrate and demonstrate the fact that virtue is not the principle domain of the faithful, that anyone with a lick of sense and conscience should feel obligated to be doing the good. It doesn't have to be a war against theists. I think atheists would be far better off reacting to theists ethically rather than by mocking their beliefs all the time. It doesn't do "our" side any favours.

David Parker said...


I'm a Christian who enjoys your blog, but have yet to agree with anything you've written. I'm still in the process of examining your terms and digesting the philosophical aspects of desire utilitarianism. Luckily, your concise writing style makes this a pleasure!

One thing is for sure: you have a more consistent view of morality then many atheists I've studied such as Dan Barker, Michael Shermer, and Christopher Hitchens.

I would be interested to see you examine the argument from morality as put forth by Christian apologists.


Justus Hommes said...

The number of people that stop to think about right/wrong and philosophy are tragically few, for atheists as well as believers of any faith. Much of it probably has to do with personality types, and also general apathy or laziness.

I am a Christian, and don't hold that virtue is exclusive to the religious. I hold that God as creator is the divine source of virtue, and Jesus is the perfect human model of virtue, much like D'Souza. But the fingerprint of God is in every part of his creation, and not reserved to those who believe what I do.

I can't do anything about the unfortunate atrocities committed in the name of faith, and atheists can do nothing about the atrocities committed in the name of reason, enlightenment, and egalité. I think you know this, and your blog gives hope that a small minority on both sides can find common ground, even if your comments about faith are often dismissive in a way that I find objectionable. It's not my job to proselytize you if you are not open to it, so it is water off a duck's back.

Unknown said...

I just wanted to say thanks for writing this blog. I don't think I've made any comments yet, but I read every post. You've really make me think about my ethics and the choices I make. I'm sure there are a lot of readers that feel the same way. I'm glad you named your blog what you did because otherwise I would probably have never stumbled across it. Thank you for writing =)

Anonymous said...


One thing that I don't think anyone can get around is that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. Even if a god existed, what it ordered people to do would be a consequence of its desires.

Do you agree with that much?

David Parker said...

Mark C. said:
...desires are the only reasons for action that exist

I agree that desires are necessary conditions for voluntary human action; however your statement sounds as if you believe them to be sufficient conditions. Is that correct?

Mark C. said:
Even if a god existed, what it ordered people to do would be a consequence of its desires.

I don't think this conclusion is easily evidenced, unless you are assuming the Christian God in your term "god."

Even so, in what sense would god have desires if we assume this being posesses all actual knowledge and experiences all actual time/space simultaneously? I don't think it is as easy as saying "well god would be this way too."

Anonymous said...

david said:
I agree that desires are necessary conditions for voluntary human action; however your statement sounds as if you believe them to be sufficient conditions. Is that correct?

Alonzo states that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. He's saying that in a given situation in which a person is given alternatives to choose among, with the capacity to pursue any of them, the choice will always be made because of the existence of some desire within the mind of the person making the choice.

So if a voluntary human action has been committed, a desire to perform that action was present. You and Alonzo agree on at least that much. But he's also saying that everything that would decide between the choice to perform one action and the choice to perform another, or none at all, is a desire--that nothing other than desires motivate the selection of one thing among alternatives.

I don't see how this could possibly be incorrect, and I was trying to see if you could Agree with Alonzo on it. You said you didn't agree with him on anything, but I thought this point was simple enough that it would be impossible to not agree with him on it. If you still disagree with him on the uniqueness of desire as a deciding factor, then I would like to know why.

Here's an example:
Let's say that X believes that god G wants him to do Y, but G won't force him to do it. Let's also assume that there is no outside interference, so that the choice of X to do Y is entirely free in the normal sense of the term. If X does Y, it will be because of a desire--whether the desire is to satisfy G or not. If X has no desire to do Y--for whatever reason--then X definitely will not do Y. This is to say that desires are the only reasons for action that exist--if no desire, then no [voluntary] action.

That's all I meant to get at in my post. If you still have issues with what I'm saying, feel free to respond again.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Marc C.

Desires are not a sufficient condition for intentional (voluntary) action.

Beliefs are necessary.

A person with a desire that P, but no beliefs, will have no idea whether P is true or false, or how to make or keep P true. The means of human action is selected by beliefs. The ends of human action are selected by reason.

Another necessary condition is a connection from the brain to the muscles that then cause the actions. The brain of a parapalegic is filled with beliefs and desires. Their failure to generate intentional action is due to the fact that the mesage cannot reach the muscles.

When I talk about desires being reasons for actions, I admit that the term "reasons" is ambiguous. In one sense, all causes are reasons. The reason that the building caught fire was because there was an oily rag near the pilot light on the heater.

However, when we ask about a person's reasons for doing something (e.g., "Why did you leave the party early," we are not asking about causes. We are asking about the agent's objectives or goals.

It is this second sense of the word "reasons" that I use when I say that desires are the only reasons for action that exist. They are not the only cause, but they are the only entity that supplies goals.

Now, a being with perfect knowledge but no desires, would know how to get whatever he wants. But, he would not want anything, so he would not act. He would have no reason to act - no objective or purpose to aim for. He would sit there, doing nothing, entirely apathetic and indifferent about everything.

David Parker said...


Thanks for the clarification. I can certainly agree with your assessment of desires being the only reason (as you have defined it) for human action.

I am curious as to the actual metaphysical state of a desire:

Do desires exist or are we merely describing a physical process?

Perhaps a desire is merely a neuron firing in position P at time T such that I now possess some mental disposition towards an action?

So perhaps the desire is the mental disposition that resulted from P at T? But then what exactly is the mental disposition? Just another P at T from all I can figure.

You may have already written on this topic elsewhere, and if so a link would suffice. Just in general I'm wondering about what a desire is.

Thanks again,

Anonymous said...

Correction noted, Alonzo. I thought about the necessity of relevant beliefs after I made the post, but I was in a hurry and didn't have time to correct myself.

Kristopher said...

if athiest had not been in the title i probably would not have come here to read (you can decide if you regeret that decision ;p )

not becous i was perticularly interested in argument against theims and for evolution (i have already decided this issue sufficiently until new evidence is produced)

but i was interested in ethics and when your site said athiest ehticist i new i could read and learn about an ethical argument that i had not already discounted as false. whereas i site title ethicist would not have had that garantee. (though when i saw it was called desire utilitarianism i almost didnt read it because i had discounted many other forms of utility (i had assumed it was desire act utilitarianism...it could use a different name just to keep people who have rejected utilitarianism in the past from skipping over it, i almost did)

so much of surfing the web is about finding the few gems out there among the multitudes of sites. there are so many people who call themselves ethicists that i dont have time to read. with your site name i new i would get something new that at least it wasnt going to assert one system i had already discounted. which let it stand above the rest at least enough to deserve the intial click. which is the most important click.