Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Faith and the Moral Presumption Against Harm

This week I have been arguing against the association between religion and morality by arguing that religion does not provide the kinds of evidence that is required to justify policies that costs others their lives, health, or liberty. When it comes to doing harm to others, whether by flying airplanes into sky scrapers or by banning embryonic stem-cell research, the claim, "My faith justifies this action," is not morally sufficient.

One needs the type of evidence that would be admissible in court.

Furthermore, the instant that anybody starts testifying in favor of policies that will deprive others of life, health, or liberty for any reason, then he or she must be prepared for a vigorous cross-examination. They cannot morally be permitted to sit there and assert that others may be deprived of life, health, or liberty, and at the same time assert that nobody may challenge their testimony on the grounds that doing so is “insulting”.

Consistent with this argument I want to throw in the principle that the accused in this case – those who would be made to suffer the loss of life, health, or liberty – have a moral right to the presumption of innocence. It is never the duty of those who would be harmed to prove that harming them is wrong. The burden of proof is on those who argue in favor of doing harm. They must not only present evidence, but they must present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.

This means that the morally required default attitude to take towards any religion-based claim that people may be made to suffer a loss of life, health, or liberty is the attitude that they are mistaken. They need to prove their point. It is not sufficient that they offer evidence for their claim that harms are justified. It is necessary that they offer evidence that is beyond a reasonable doubt.

If this requirement is not met, then the presumption that no harm be done wins out, and the faith-based call to do harm to others must be rejected.

Notice that I am not talking about faith-based calls to help others. Helping others requires no justification – so it does not matter how poor the reasons are a person has or being helpful.

It is still consistent with this view that people can argue where these moral requirements come from. It is still consistent with this view to say that God created a universe in which there is a moral obligation to presume that harm should not be done to the life, health, or liberty of another human being, or if it arises as a natural property. I would describe it in the latter terms – that desires are reasons for action that exist for promoting an aversion to doing harm to the life, health, and liberty of another person – an aversion that requires ore and stronger reasons to outweigh.

This is true in the same way that people can dispute where trees came from – whether it emerged through evolution or through intelligent design. Different beliefs about the origins of a tree are not relevant to its existence, its height, its mass, or its chemical composition. The tree is equally there, and equally solid, for both participants.

The obligation not to do harm to the life, health, or liberty of another without good reason – the presumption against doing harm - is equally there as well.

"It is written in this book that I consider holy that people such as yourself shall suffer a loss of life, health, or liberty," is not a good enough reason. If it were, then we all should be dead. I do not care who you are, there is a religious book out there that calls for your death.

Faith that one may do harm to the life, health, and liberty of others is also not good enough. Nor is the assertion, "I know it to be true in my heart with a certainty that could only have come from God that people such as you may be harmed."

None of these have sufficient weight to outweigh the presumption that no harm be done without good reason to do so.

And for the sake of any religious readers who might want to dispute this principle, I simply ask you to consider all of the equally religious people out there who hold beliefs calling for the sacrifice of your life, health, and liberty.


Doug said...

"I simply ask you to consider all of the equally religious people out there who hold beliefs calling for the sacrifice of your life, health, and liberty."

I think that it might be more relevant to consider the irreligious people out there -- particularly the atheists -- who are calling for the sacrifice of my life, health, and liberty. The twentieth century is a catalog of atheist regimes regularly calling for such sacrifices on the part of religious people. The Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Yugoslavia, and Poland come to mind. Please provide evidence that similar injustices on the part of religious people represent the rule rather than the exception!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Your statement represents blatant bigotry.

I am never going to blame you or make accusations against you based on what some other Christian might or might not have done. You have a right to be judged on your own actions, and not to be judged on the actions of others over whom you have no control and whose actions you do not endorse yourself.

In fact, it is the very essence of bigotry to make denigrate an individual based on the actions of others who share some characteristic with him.

And so I demand the same in return. If you judge me based on the actions of people who I did not control and whose behavior I do not endorse, then you are the bigot.

Furthermore, you must contend with the fact that while claiming that your religion makes you morally superior to others, it somehow failed to be a useful guide against committing this act of bigotry.

Doug said...

"Your statement represents blatant bigotry."

This is simply false. My statement represents history.

What, pray tell, brought you to the incorrect assumption that anything I wrote was in any way, shape or form judging you??

Your accusation of bigotry is prejudicial, and hence inadmissible. ;-)

Doug said...

...while we're at it, when did I claim that my religion made me morally superior to others?

Goodness, your honor, this man's entire case is prejudicial!

The claim, in case you are interested in learning what Christians actually think, rather than what you would prefer them to think, is that my religion provides a warrant for morality. I have no control over, nor do I endorse the thinking of those that turn this into a claim for moral superiority. Hey! But you were judging me NOT "on [my] own actions" (as claimed) -- but on theirs...! This means that Alonzo was judging me with bigotry in the very act of accusing me of bigotry.

And that, gentlemen of the jury, is known as hypocrisy. ;-)

(FWIW, I will happily ignore responses that do not appreciate the humor here)

Alonzo Fyfe said...


What, pray tell, brought you to the incorrect assumption that anything I wrote was in any way, shape or form judging you??

The fact that you posted this statement on my blog as if it were reason to reject something that I had written.

Note that it represents history as well to note that black people make up a larger portion of the prison population compared to a white person. Yet, to go onto a black person's blog and write this as if it is reason to dismiss the claims that a black author had said is clearly prejudicial.

It is a statement that the author is to be judged (and his claims dismissed) on the basis of the behavior of others.

Eneasz said...

It's gonna take years of effort before this finally gets put down. /sigh

Doug - "The next time somebody uses the name of Hitler and Stalin as reasons for you to hate and fear atheists or evolutionists, think of what you would say if they were using the names Hitler and Stalin to teach you to hate heliocentrists"

That is taken from here
(see also here)

The point is, your analogy is baseless. It is a historical fact that heliocentrists are responsible for MUCH more death and misery than athiests. It is a historical fact that light-skinned people are responsible for much more death and misery than dark-skinned people, or atheists. And yet you do not try to make others hate or fear heliocentrists, or white people.

Your use of the atheistic commonality between these people and their crimes instead of some other common trait is a statement that "Atheism leads to mass murder/repression/etc".

First, atheism has nothing to do with morality directly. It simply says "There is no god". It has the same to say about morality as the claim that there are no leprechauns. It is just as impossible to go from "There are no leprechauns" to "therefore I should murder my fellow citizens" as to draw that conclusion from atheism.

Secondly, that statement is patently false. There are, literaly, right now, hundreds of millions of examples of moral, up-standing atheists. They prove that your claim is incorrect. They are no better nor any worse than any typical believer.

Given points 1 and 2, and given how obvious these facts are, one can only ask "How can someone come to the wrong conclusion anyway, given these blatent facts?" And the most reasonable answer is that this person has such a strong desire to promote fear and hatred of atheists in others, that he is willing to blind himself to the truth and parrot back any negative accusation he has heard.

And that is bigotry.

Doug said...

"It is a statement that the author is to be judged (and his claims dismissed) on the basis of the behavior of others."

It most certainly was no such thing.

The original comment was simply an historical perspective on the ideological imposition on limits to life, health and liberty of others. It was also a request for commentary in the context of the undeniable history.

Eneasz said...

The claim ... is that my religion provides a warrant for morality.

Doug, I'll quote others in reply (coming from the two links in my previous reply)

"when someone says that “X did something bad because of his atheism”, he or she can only mean one thing: that there was no fear of eternal punishment preventing the atheist from doing that. ... that’s a pretty lousy source of morality, and only makes believers look bad, since the implication is that they would be stealing, raping, killing, and committing all other kinds of atrocities if they weren’t afraid of hell."


"Atheists, have exactly the same reason to oppose those types of regimes – for their own sake, for the sake of their family, for the sake of their friends – as theists do. Perhaps more . . . because this life is the only life we have, and who wants to live this life under the heals of a brutal and violent dictator, or starving to death in a system that cannot feed its own people?

In fact, this proposition is so obvious it then raises the following question: What type of person is it who would make the absurd claim that atheists (or evolutionists) somehow lose their reasons to avoid subjecting themselves and their loved ones to tyrannical oppression, brutal violence, wonton imprisonment, and starvation?"

Doug said...

Eneasz writes "that statement is patently false"

What statement are you referring to, please?

Sorry, you seem to be responding to someone else -- I'm having trouble relating what you wrote to what I wrote.

Eneasz said...

Doug - the statement that "Atheism leads to mass murder/repression/etc" which you didn't directly say, but which is implicit in the Stalin cliche.

Doug said...

"which you didn't directly say"

Ah. That's what I thought, thanks.
Nor was it implicit in what I actually said. I apologize that what I said reminded you of something that implied something that you wished to address, and thus diverted the conversation.

Eneasz said...

LOL! Ok, that was pretty damn humorous. :) You have won me over.

So to go back to your original comment, and giving the benefit of the doubt: Please provide evidence that similar injustices on the part of religious people represent the rule rather than the exception!

I don't think this was Alonzo's point at all. As far as I can tell, he did not say anything approaching "some religious people harm others and base it on their faith, therefore all religion is bad." (Which would be the implication of claiming that faith-based harm is the rule rather than the exception among the religious) What he was saying was "If anyone wishes to justify harming someone else, faith is not a good enough reason."

I believe he'd also say "If anyone wishes to justify harming someone else, lack-of-faith is not a good enough reason.", so he'd be just as opposed to Stalin, China, etc as you are. You misunderstood the trust of the argument, probably because you've seen a lot of atheists attack religion in general based on specific acts by a few theists in the past. I think I'm not the only one who failed to initially give the benefit of the doubt. :)

Doug said...

Your point is well taken. Alonzo was, in fact, saying "If anyone wishes to justify harming someone else, faith is not a good enough reason." I also believe that he would be equally opposed to the actions of Pol Pot or Stalin. I never imagined otherwise.

However, Alonzo also wrote "I simply ask you to consider all of the equally religious people out there who hold beliefs calling for the sacrifice of your life, health, and liberty."

I was simply suggesting that the ground for "calling for the sacrifice of [my] life, health, and liberty" is usually not religion. Bigotry/prejudice, yes. Power-tripping, sure. Greed, certainly. And religious people are not immune to these sins. But they fundamentally correlate to humanity, not to religion.

Eneasz said...

Fair enough, altho that statement was specifically direct at "any religious readers who might want to dispute this principle," (the principle that religious belief is enough reason to justify harm)

Martin Freedman said...


I think that it might be more relevant to consider the irreligious people out there -- particularly the atheists -- who are calling for the sacrifice of my life, health, and liberty. The twentieth century is a catalog of atheist regimes regularly calling for such sacrifices on the part of religious people. The Soviet Union, China, Cambodia, North Korea, Yugoslavia, and Poland come to mind. Please provide evidence that similar injustices on the part of religious people represent the rule rather than the exception!
This is an incredibly bad argument and exhibits your prejudice and bigotry. It also sets a low standard for what qualifies as atheists doing harm to others. A dubious standard as it is very difficult to include Hitler and his Positive Christianity in such a list. Anyway you asked for evidence and this is only to show how bad and absurd your argument is which must something of the form that one should choose atheism or theism on the basis of which has directly caused less harm in the world.

Well using your standard of what counts as an atheist regime, it would surely be double standards not to apply this to also classifying the atrocities of theistic regimes.

So here is your evidence and by your own logic maybe you think you should give up your religion:

* The An Shi rebellion, lead by the son of a sorceress who shows every indication of subscribing to socially normal contemporary religion, cost 36 million lives.
* The Greco-Persian war, lead by the theocratic Persians against the more subtly theocratic Greeks, cost a conservative 500,000 lives.
* Pre-modern conquests by the theocratic, undeniably Muslim Arab empire can be conservatively estimated at 10 million.
* Total pre-modern human sacrifices, the vast majority of which were perpetrated by the theocratic Aztec empire, can be estimated as high as 6 million, but I will put the count at 1 million for now.
* The Mughal conquest of North India (which is categorically distinct from the expansion of the Arab Empire), which was explicitly religious in nature and which pitted a Muslim theocracy against a Hindu one, cost 100,000 lives, conservatively.

Middle Ages:

* Genghis Khan, an avowedly religious person (and, like many of his co-religionists, a homophobe of the highest Levitical quality), ground up about 40 million lives in the expansion of his empire throughout the 13th century.
* The emperor of Japan, a routinely avowed theist who has been throughout history considered himself somewhat divine, on ordering an invasion of Korea in the 16th century, end up causing about a million casualties. Further competition among the shoguns around that period for the favor of the divine theocrat cannot be calculated due to lack of records, so I will conservatively estimate 500,000.
* The Holy Roman Empire's various ideological squabbles, mostly from the Peasants' War, can be conservatively estimated to have caused about 100,000 deaths.
* Total violence between Protestants and Catholics over disputes of religious ideology in the Middle Ages have been conservatively estimated at 14 million.
* The Crusades, the old and boring example that gets trotted out routinely, have been estimated as causing around 9 million casualties total, between Muslims, Christians, and Jews.

Early Modern:

* The unabashed holocaust perpetrated against the aboriginal inhabitants of the North America is far and away the most lethal item on this list. Between the militant Catholic fundamentalists known as Conquistadors, and the deaths caused by militant Protestant fundamentalists known as Puritans using biological warfare in the form of smallpox-infected blankets against natives, the total desolation across the continent exceeded 100 million even before the American nation swept most of the rest from the continent by force.
* The Spanish Inquisition is an oft-cited example, but its real death toll is insignificant. Perhaps 1,000 or less.
* The witch trials of North America (Salem and Connecticut being the only two famous, but far from the only, examples) are also oft-cited examples, but they too are utterly insignificant as measures of the depravity of the average theist. 100 or less.


* The early 20th century's Armenian Genocide (and yes, it was a genocide), carried out by a vassal state of the theocratic Ottoman empire, cost 1.5 million lives.

* the Nanking massacre, which modern historians estimate took about 500,000 lives, almost entirely Chinese.
* The 1948 Arab-Israeli War has been reliably tallied at almost exactly 20,000 casualties.
* The Six-Day War has been reliably tallied at almost exactly 22,000 casualties.
* The First Sudanese Civil War (which is not the Darfur crisis), which was explicitly religious in nature, cost about 500,000 lives. The Second Sudanese Civil War (which is also not the Darfur crisis) cost about 2 million.
* "Operation Searchlight," the pogroms carried out by the megalomaniacal theists in charge of Bangladesh in the early 1970s, cost 3 million lives.
* Conservative estimates of the Hindu extremist group known colloquially as the Tamil Tigers place the ongoing death toll at 215,000.
* Other forms of modern Hindu violence against other religions or lapsed Hindus (almost entirely in the form of Hindu-on-Muslim violence) can be veeeery conservatively estimated at 25,000.
* Late 20th century violence by the Islamic Ba'ath party of Iraq (a nation so religious that it had the phrase Allahu Akbar scrawled across its flag and which once hosted one of the largest mosques in the region built by Saddam Hussein) against ethnic Kurds cost about 150,000 lives.
* The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, also known in Iran as the Holy War, cost about 750,000 lives, conservatively.
* The 1994 Rwandan genocide, not religious in nature but certainly caused by theists, resulted in about 1 million deaths.
* The Ustasa regime's mass murders, which would have been impossible had not the regime been propped up by the Catholic Church (whose fingerprints can be found in nearly every example of 20th century fascism; see "God Is Not Great" by award-winning journalist Christopher Hitchens), tally up to "hundreds of thousands." Lets call it 200,000.
* The 2001 attack on the World Trade Center by Muslim fundamentalists who all came into extremist Islam in adult life after coming out of good educations and good backgrounds in countries that had never known any measure of oppression by the United States cost almost 3,000 lives.
* The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the avowed theocrat George W. Bush who said that the war was waged on instructions from God, launched against the (above-mentioned) theocratic Ba'ath Party of Iraq, has, between insurgents, Americans, Iraqi security, Iraqi civilians, foreign military officers, and foreign civilians, cost about 1 million lives, mostly caused by Muslim fundamentalist extremists.

Deaths from theism whose full tallies are impossible to calculate:

* Routine violence, starvation, economic attrition against, denial of medical services to, and criminal negligence of India's dalits over the millennia have probably cost hundreds of thousands or millions of lives.
* Religion's endless war on vaccines has caused and will cause the resurgence of old diseases and the ravaging of current populations, mainly in Africa, since it takes only a few unvaccinated people to allow a virus to mutate into a strain that resists vaccination. The death toll from this encouragement of disease-related deaths by religion will undoubtedly skyrocket in the coming century.
* The Vatican's and Muslim leaders' routine opposition to safe-sex practices, especially through the murderous criminals known as "missionaries" in Africa, has exasperated the HIV problem considerably and there is no way to know how many hundreds of thousands of people have died slow, agonizing deaths at the hands of HIV as a result, and how many will continue to suffer in the future.
* The death toll from those who refuse to seek medical attention because of religious beliefs, Jehovah's Witnesses who refuse blood transfusions, Christian scientists who refuse all treatment, those who subscribe to the undeniably religious pseudoscientific New Age beliefs that prefer bullshit to real medical therapies, etc., is impossible to calculate. I do not doubt that it is thousands every year.
* Honor killings in Muslim societies. Probably hundreds every year.
* The deaths that will be caused by the inevitable famine in the fundamentalist Confucian state of North Korea will be staggering but difficult to precisely calculate.

Disputed theist deaths:

* A 3rd-century compendium of ancient Semitic fairy tales and military procedures known as the Bible records a number of deaths, mainly at the hands of a genocidal maniac worshiped as a patriarch named Moses. I doubt most of these, so I will not include their tens of thousands in the final tally.

Negligible sources of theism-related deaths:

* Botched circumcision, Waco, various Mormon atrocities in the 19th century, UFO cult suicides, and genuinely bizarro psychos like Andrea Yeats, or other oddities like this have not been included. Theism doesn't need the help.

Final tally for theism: 2,157,074,100

For more see my blog where I provide a link to this source of data.

Doug said...


Your history is about as accurate as your arithmetic.

Martin Freedman said...


You ask for evidence and you are given evidence and this is all you can say? Maybe you are too embarrassed to purse this further, which does not surprise me, since I was trying to show the absurdity of your argument.

Tom Gilson said...


Your list includes a very large number of religious persons who were not theists by any stretch of the definition. Theism is one category of religion that basically includes Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I am arguing only for Christian theism.

Martin Freedman said...


There can be no double standards in such a list. If you to exclude all non-christian theistm , then I will exclude all so called communist and fascist atheism (even though much of it could be argued is specifically Christian inspired too) since such view are not what I nor the large majority of atheists I know personally and otherwise support.

However if you exclude all this it is till the case that Christian theism is far more drastically more lethal than popular/standard atheism, again you should find your argument embarrassingly bad and stop using it. To persist is to display your bigotry and prejudice.

And on the logic of your argument surely you should give your theism and become an atheist.?

Joshua McGee said...

The burden of proof is on those who argue in favor of doing harm.Ah, but you are missing a bit. Where should the burden lie in deciding what is logically or effectively capable of being an object of harm?

Anti-abortionists believe they have met the burden of proof: a bundle of cells is a human being, we should not do harm to human beings, Q.E.D.

Vegans believe they have met the burden of proof: an animal is an agent (in some sense of the word, such as "having the ability to reason" or "having the ability to suffer"), we should do no harm to such agents, Q.E.D.

Militant monkeywrenchers believe likewise: old-growth trees are life and irreplaceable, thus should not be destroyed, Q.E.D.

Muslims (apparently) believe that certain concepts (the nature of their prophet, their religion itself, etc.) are capable of sustaining harm by the thoughts and words of others. Again, in this system of logic, the holders of the beliefs are sure the proof has been provided.


Unknown said...

More people have died in the name of their Deity than for anything else in history, that is irrefutable.

My only qualm is your link between atheists and evolutionists. Evolution is and has been recorded for over 100 years, and predicted to occur thousands of years before that. But, the fact that evolution does occur does not rule out a Creator, and many biologists and geneticists are NOT atheist in fact.

If you mean "evolutionist" by the fundamentalist definition, by which many brilliant people have been led astray, than you are indeed putting faith into something. So true atheism is not similar nor is it even analogous to the belief of evolution.