Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Talking About Atheism Part III: Moral Permissibility

I am spending a few posts going over Greta Christina's reasons as to why atheists must talk about atheism presented in an article on Alternet.

(See: Alternet, Why Do Atheists Have To Talk About Atheism)

The third reasons Christina offered is a reason that actually works. In this posting I want to look at that reason more closely to show more precisely in just what way it works.

Reason 3: Because Atheists might be right.

[R]eligion is, above all else, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is. . . . . We see no reason to treat religion any differently from any other hypothesis about the world. We think it's valid to ask it to support its cae just like any other hypothesis . . . and just like any other hypothesis, we think it's valid to poke holes in it in public.

This is a perfectly legitimate reason.

Obligations, Permissions, and Prohibitions

To be honest, this does not support Christina's conclusion that atheists must (moral obligation) talk about atheism. It supports a softer conclusion – atheists may (non-obligatory permission) talk about atheism.

However, this is all that Christina needs to prove in order to make her point.

If somebody argues that X is morally impermissible – that people who do X deserve condemnation – then it is sufficient proof against this thesis to demonstrate that X is permissible. This proves that the original claim was false.

Christina’s argument establishes the permissibility of atheists talking about atheism. It is as legitimate to engage in open discussion about the existence and nature of a God as it is to debate and discuss whether human actions are contributing to global warming, the economic effects of deficit spending, or the merits of various candidates for public office. The claim that a person’s beliefs on any of these matters may not be openly challenged and questioned is false.

Malicious Error

More importantly, the objection to atheists talking about atheism is not an innocent error. It is a malicious falsehood that shows that the person making this error is a hate-mongering bigot.

The claim is that atheists who discuss atheism are intolerant and bigoted. The intent of people making such a claim is not to simply to make an assertion that happens to be false. Their intent is to denigrate and demean others – to cast them as people to be looked down upon. Yet, these denigrating and demeaning comments are made in the face of a clear argument that shows them to be absurd.

As Christina points out, the claim that a person who defends a proposition in public is 'intolerant' or 'closed minded' is simply false.

First, if it were true, then the person who asserts that a God exists in public is just as intolerant and closed-minded as the person who asserts that it is highly unlikely that a God exists. No justification exists for the hypocritical asymmetric condemnation of one side of this debate that would not apply equally to the other.

Second, if it were true, then the person who says that the Earth is round is also intolerant and closed-minded. The person who says that 3+3=6 is intolerant and closed-minded. In fact, if this condemnation of atheists for defending the proposition that it is highly unlikely that a God exists were valid, anybody who makes a fact-based claim of any type is displaying a closed-minded intolerance of other possible beliefs.

This is absurd. Furthermore, it is absurd on its face to the degree that it is remarkable to think that the person making such an accusation against atheists could have missed it.

Hate-Mongering Bigotry

When people make such a blatant error, we have reason to ask what drove them to it. Clearly, they could not have been driven by the power of reason. And where reason does not drive a person to a particular belief, we may speculate that desire is what drove them to that conclusion. It is the habit, and the love, of making denigrating and demeaning comments about atheists that drove some people to this error and blinded them to the amazingly simple objections.

These are people who have come to the market-place of ideas to fulfill a desire to sell the idea of blatantly unfounded hostility towards others. When I identify such a person as a hate-mongering bigot I mean precisely what I say. This is a person who sells the unjustified hatred of a group on the market-place of ideas.

The Scope of Criticism

In making this criticism, it is important to note that the scope of criticism is limited specifically to those who would identify a person who is exercising a morally permissible right to present and discuss ides openly as ‘intolerant’ and ‘closed-minded’.

If the atheist unjustifiably attempts to expand this category to include all of religion, then that atheist is as guilty of being a hate-mongering bigot as the people that I have criticized in this post. That atheist, also, is somebody who has come to the market place of ideas for the purpose of selling a blatantly unjustified hostility towards all members of a particular group.

If the atheist unjustifiably attempts to restrict this category to those who demand the special protection of religious ideas, then that atheist is a hypocrite, seeking to create and apply a double-standards whereby the religious are judged by one set of rules, while atheists are judged by a much less restrictive set of rules.

The Liberal/Atheist Argument for Protected Status

On this second point, we should note that the idea that it is wrong to criticize other world view has a strong foothold among secular liberal thinkers as it does among the religious. The liberal (even atheist) version springs from the idea that (there is no God and thus) there are no objective moral standards. As such, it is a mistake to judge the customs of another person or culture as if such an objective moral standard exists.

Some who started with these premises took the further step of claiming that is morally wrong for a person to condemn the members of another culture, and would morally condemn those who were caught doing so. This was in spite of the fact that this criticism puts the person making it in clear violation of his own principles.

If we are going to be fair in criticizing the position that religious or cultural norms warrant a special protected status and those who violate this protected status deserve condemnation, then we must also cast blame on liberal/atheist thinkers who defended the same set of ideas.

Atheists are not morally perfect people. They are prone to moral flaws. One of the ways those flaws can manifest themselves is in the hate-mongering bigotry found un unjustifiably expanding a particular criticism to include all of 'religion'. Another way it can manifest itself is in the hypocritical exclusion of atheists from condemnation for committing the same types of wrongs one attributes to (some) theists.

The trick is to remain focused on the specific moral offense that one is writing about and on the specific set of people who commit that offense, without regard to whether the offenders are theists ore atheists.

The offense in this case is that of leveling the charge of ‘intolerant’ or ‘closed-minded” against those who have come to the market place of ideas for the purpose of debating whether a particular proposition (e.g., a god exists) is true or false.


Atheists have no obligation to sit down and shut up. People who claim that an atheist expressing his belief that there is probably no God is intolerant and closed-minded are mistaken. However, this is no ordinary mistake. This is a mistake motivated by a love of denigrating and demeaning others, because a fair and just person would have clearly seen the error and not made placed such a demand. Yet, this is not a mistake that can be fairly attributed to all of religion. Nor is it a mistake that can be attributed only to those who are religious. It is a charge that the morally responsible person would make only against those who are guilty, without regard as to whether the guilty are atheists or theists.


Sabio Lantz said...

The Scope of Criticism
I love that summary. Not only is it showing unfocused hatred to all members of a given group to condemn all religions. The word "religion" is so broad, it probably is taking in many more individuals than the unfocused criticizer is actually trying to hurt.

Anonymous said...

"The liberal (even atheist) version springs from the idea that (there is no God and thus) there are no objective moral standards."

Thats a nonsequitour, you are confusing moral relativism and cultural relativism with atheism wich doesnt follow in any way.

There are moral objectivist among non-believers.

Sabio Lantz said...

@ Alfonzo
At whom is your comment directed?
You quote yourself and then your criticize yourself.
I am confused.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Alfonzo is not me (my name is Alonzo).

Alfonzo's criticism was directed at me.

Though I think the criticism misses its mark. I am not confusing moral subjectivism with atheism. I am stating that some atheists are moral subjectivists.

I am certainly aware of the fact that there are moral objectivists among non-believers since I am one.

Sabio Lantz said...

Thank you -- my bad. I am sure you can understand my confusion. Indeed I do understand you as a moral objectivist -- I am trying to understand it more and appreciate your posts.