Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Young Earth Creationism and "Being Nice"

In my readings today I came across a couple of articles that speaking to different subjects that should be brought together.

In a review of Richard Dawkins' new book, The Greatest Show on Earth, reviewer NAME wrote:

Regrettably and ironically, however, one cannot help but worry that Dawkins is preaching to the choir, that those who most need to hear his message are plugging their ears and singing 'blah blah blah blah'.

(See, Winnipeg Free Press, From Darwin to Dawkins: Evolutionary evidence may be falling on undeveloped ears)

Something about Richard Dawkins preaching to the choir while those who need to listen plug their ears and go 'blah blah blah blah'.

Earlier, I had read a posting by PZ Myers on Pharyngula criticizing an article that was written suggesting ways that atheists can seem nice. (See, Pharyngula, Advice for Atheists)

Of course, I begin with a couple of standard moral claims. The first is that criticism must remain focused on those who are actually guilty. To expand the set of accused from those who are guilty to a larger group that one wants others to hate is to commit the moral crime of hate-mongering.

The second is that a right to freedom of speech is a right to immunity from violence, regardless of how detestable the speech is. Nothing in what follows legitimizes violence or even the threat of violence.

People who plug one's ears and refuse to engage the evidence, like young-earth creationists, are engaging in immoral behavior. The world would be better off if we were rid of them, just as we would be better off if the world were rid of hate-mongering bigots, drunk drivers, liars, and thieves. They cost the lives of countless people every year and cause countless more to be maimed. Whole cities have been or will be laid to waste because of their refusal to consider evidence, and the institutions of liberty are made less secure.

This is not nice, but niceness is not deserved. What possible reason can there be to be nice to people who display such a destructive quality?

I would like to repeat that this applies to those who blind themselves to evidence. I also assert that the evidence for evolution and an old earth are so overwhelming that a young earth creationist must be blinding himself to evidence to continue with his beliefs. This is not a case of expanding a group beyond those who are actually guilty. In this case, all young-earth creationists are actually guilty.

To make the moral argument, I will start with these facts:

Plugging one's ears and refusing to engage the evidence is not a proposition. It is an action. It is, in fact, an intentional action in that it is derived from the beliefs and desires of agents. As such, it is the type of action that is subject to moral scrutiny, and is found wanting.

Because refusing to engage evidence is not a proposition, you cannot argue against it. It would like arguing against a person who is swimming by claiming that the act of swimming itself is false. The act of swimming is not a proposition, so it cannot be true or false. Those concepts do not apply. The same is true of the act of lying or of raping a child. The claim that one should respond to an act with a reasoned presentation of the evidence is absurd.

We can still say that an act is wrong. However, it is not wrong in the sense that a belief can be wrong. It is wrong in the sense that a desire can be wrong – that the agent is not motivated to behave the way a good person would behave. A good person cares to make sure that he actually does good in the world. This means that a good person cares to look at the evidence and to come to the conclusion that the evidence supports. He does not want to make a mistake.

On the other hand, the person who does not care to examine the evidence does not care if he makes mistakes. So, we may assume, he does not care of the harm he has the potential to do when he is wrong.

That people who blind themselves to evidence and reason are a threat to the well-being of others is easy to demonstrate.

If you ignore the evidence about what kills people and what keeps people alive, people die. If you ignore evidence about what maims people or keeps them safe, people get maimed. You can ignore evidence about what keeps levees standing around a town or the condition of an airplane, but your reward will be failed levees and crashed airplanes.

Most importantly, if you cannot reason as to what protects valuable institutions such as freedom of the press and freedom of speech, the right to a trial by jury, and the right to liberty itself, then you cannot recognize threats to those institutions.

Over the years of the Bush Administration we found a huge degree of correspondence between those who blind themselves to evidence and those who supported the policies of the Bush Administration. It was an administration that felt that whenever the evidence did not support a desired policy, that it had the right and the power to change the evidence. As a result, people died and were maimed, whole cities were destroyed, and the Constitution itself became a rag that they were able to 'reason' somehow justified a President who had the power to do as he pleased without legislative or judicial restraint.

We have not yet counted the toll in terms of lost lives and property and the challenge to institutions of freedom and liberty that global warming will bring to future generations because that administration sought to change the evidence of its threat rather than deal with the facts..

Now, the proper way to respond to a bad desire, such as a lack of interest or affection for results supported by reason, is through condemnation. It is by pointing out how people with those values (such as a lack of interest in what best keeps us safe and alive) are a threat to all of us, and to those we care about, and to bring the force of social condemnation against them as a result.

A society that does not properly condemn those who are a threat to its well-being will inevitably suffer the costs.

Within this society, there are many and strong reasons to bring the force of social condemnation against those who refuse to engage the evidence regarding evolution – because if they will blind themselves to evidence here, they have a disposition to blind themselves to evidence elsewhere.

The evidence is there. It is not a matter of reasoning with those who do not accept it. All of the reasoning that can be done, has been done. What we have left is a moral failing. To 'be nice' to those who are guilty of a moral failing – particularly one as destructive of this – requires that one share their lack of interest in the well-being of those who are killed, maimed, or otherwise harmed by those who can’t be bothered with evidence. That is not a wise recommendation.


Luke said...

I would love to hear more from you about what our moral obligations are to investigate and learn. We could spend 50% of our lives trying to keep up with all the knowledge that is out there and not, say, have time to investigate whether global warming claims have merit, or which government policies are best, or what is science and what is pseudoscience, or whatever. Or you could investigate all those things and learn the (probable) truth, but leave many other areas unexplored instead.

Ernie Bornheimer said...

Strong stuff.

I agree that our opinions are important, because they influence the amount and distribution of human suffering, but there is something here that is unsavory, that I can't quite put my finger on...

Despite your disclaimer against violence that preceded the body of the piece, I find objectionable your saying "The world would be better off if we were rid of [young earth creationists, etc.]." I would much rather you had said the world would be better off without their beliefs and actions. Consider this similar statement: "The Americans who supported the Bush administration enabled the administration to implement policies that caused untold suffering. The world would be better off without those Americans." Would you agree with such a statement?

And another thing: it's easy to talk about the real harms caused by religion, and I have no problem with that discussion per se. However, religion produces social benefits as well as social harms, but somehow supposedly objective people manage to ignore that fact. If you ignore those benefits, you are "refusing to engage evidence" that is relevant to this discussion.

Thank you,


Eneasz said...

Luke - probably some sort of triage, where you only spend effort on investigation on things that are likely and can cause great harm.(?)

Ernie - Alonzo wasn't really addressing religions. Only Young-Earth Creationists who are a small subset of some religions.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

"The Americans who supported the Bush administration enabled the administration to implement policies that caused untold suffering. The world would be better off without those Americans." Would you agree with such a statement?

I would have to say that it depends on the context.

I will give you an example. A co-worker was looking at a postcard I had sent to work while I was on vacation. She held the picture out for me to see and asked, "Where is this?"

I answered, "In your hand, between your index finger and your thumb."

I knew what she meant. I new she was not asking me where the post card was. However, that meaning was not contained within her words. It was contained within the context in which the words were uttered. Context provides essential clues.

My context makes it clear that I am talking about the use of non-violent (but verbally harsh) moral condemnation, aimed at inhibiting the practice of ignoring evidence. My sentences, taken out of context, might have an unsavory meaning. However, the lesson here is to not take them out of context.

And another thing: it's easy to talk about the real harms caused by religion, and I have no problem with that discussion per se.

I have a huge problem with that discussion.

I have repeatedly condemned atheists for writing about "the real harms caused by religion" when the only thing their evidence gives them a legitimate claim to write about is, "the real harms of this or that religion."

In fact, I have labeled the act of starting an argument with evidence of the harms done by this or that religion, and ending with conclusions about the harms done by religion, as a classic example of hate-mongering bigotry. The atheist in this case, motivated by a desire to promote hatred of religion, makes false accusations against religion that are, in fact, only applicable to this or that religion.

So, I explicitly stated that I was not raising an objection against religion. I was raising an objection against the moral crime of ignoring or dismissing evidence supporting conclusions that one does not like - a quality that all young-earth creationists share. However, not all religious people are young-earth creationists. It would be an act of bigotry for me to expand my objections to target "religion" when my arguments do not support that implication.

Ernie Bornheimer said...


Thank you for your timely and clear reply. I withdraw my objections to your post.

Well, maybe not entirely. Let me narrow my objection to the one phrase that still seems problematic.

Saying the world would be better off without someone goes beyond mere "verbally harsh moral condemnation," whatever the context. Maybe it's a matter of taste, but you crossed a line. It's not just a matter of "being nice" or not.

Furthermore, how can you know the world would be better off without some set of people, without measuring the benefits those people provide? Even then, an honest person would concede that whatever tools were used to do such a measurement are inadequate to the task. We just don't know enough about human affairs to make such a judgment. Crises aside, decency requires us to admit our inability to know who the world would be better off without. And the existence of young-earth creationists is not a crisis.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ernie Bornheimer

Clearly, if you rid a community of thieves by promoting an aversion to taking the property of others, there will be fewer thieves. However, those who would have otherwise been thieves would still be free to perform whatever charitable acts they may have performed.

And if you rid a community of drunk drivers by promoting an awareness of the harms they cause to others for the harms they do to others and an aversion to being responsible for those harms, those who would have been drunk drivers would still be free to care for their families. In fact, they would be better able to care for their families.

Correspondingly, if you rid a community of people who close their ears to evidence they do not want to hear, the people who would have been reckless thinkers would still be free to engage in acts of charity. In fact, as clear and rational thinkers, they would be better equipped to actually perform charitable acts than the reckless thinker who blinds himself to evidence.

Now, do you truly think that we do not know enough to realize that we have reason to rid the world of thieves, drunk rivers, and intellectually reckless individuals in the manner described above?

Ernie Bornheimer said...


Thanks for your latest clear reply. I apologize for any lack of clarity on my part.

I accept that you don't want to "get rid of" actual people, merely their behavior. We don't disagree on that. But (and this may be just me) constructions like:

* "rid a community of thieves" and
* "The world would be better off if we were rid of [whoever]"

frankly, stink. And the stench remains, whatever the context, and however much explaining you do afterward. I'm curious if I am the only one to detect that odor. Other folks, please weigh in here.

While I have your attention, there are a couple of other (small) points I'd like to make.

First, your original post seems to imply that believing what young earth creationists believe contributes to death and maiming. Is this what you meant to say? If so, your case would be bolstered by examples. For what it's worth, I agree that dishonesty with oneself can have such consequences for others. I just can't see how that applies to this particular subset of evidence-deniers.

Second (and this is really going off on a tangent, sorry), regarding reducing theft, I would just point out that what we mean by theft is dependent on how we conceive private property and its proper role in society (by no means a settled issue). And (please forgive me if I'm stating the obvious), "ridding a community of [thieving behavior] by promoting an aversion to taking the property of others" may or may not be desirable, depending on the means used for aversion, and the role of property mentioned above. For example, imagine a situation where a poor man, seeing no other options, steals from a rich man to feed his family. He is caught, and his hand is cut off as punishment. I'm not suggesting you are advocating such an outcome; rather, I just wanted to point out some shades of gray we sometimes forget.

Thank you,


Emu Sam said...


An accusation that a group of people contributes to death and maiming is an extraordinary claim, and should probably have references placed where they are easy to find whenever this claim is made. I know that Alonzo Fyfe has supported this claim in the past, but I am having difficulty finding more than a passing reference.

Regarding good desires that can outweigh other good desires and lead to, for example, theft as a way to prevent death:

http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2008/09/desire-utilitarianism-vs-virtue-theory.html , specifically, the last four paragraphs.

Eneasz said...

Hi Ernie.

constructions like:

* "rid a community of thieves" and
* "The world would be better off if we were rid of [whoever]"

frankly, stink. And the stench remains, whatever the context, and however much explaining you do afterward. I'm curious if I am the only one to detect that odor. Other folks, please weigh in here

I agree with you. By explaining what he means, Alonzo clears up these concerns, somewhat. However the fact remains that "we should be rid of... X" is standard eliminationist rhetoric. It is extremely easy to take out of context. It is, honestly, a term that really should not be used in regards to humans. I understand what Alonzo means, but this term should be abandoned. It has been tainted.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I consider the accusation that young earth creationists are now at risk of being rounded up and hearded off to the gas chamber, and it is all my fault, is absurd.

I also find it interesting the way that criticism of the morality of certain religious ways of thinking tend to always get derailed into a conversation about the morality of expressing criticism of certain ways of thinking.

We see this on the national level, in the way that books questioning the morality of faith (e.g., Sam Harris, The End of Faith) became a national discussion of whether or not atheists were or were not being nice to theists.

Also, morality requires that anybody who uses my words do so in a way that accurately expresses what I mean. If somebody were to take my words out of context to defend a position that I explicitly condemned, then the moral fault belongs to that person, not to me.

To say that I am responsible for their immoral behavior in using my words out of context is akin to saying that the rape victim is morally responsible for the rape - perhaps because of the way she dressed or because of her attitude towards men.

I would claim that I did say is important enough, without getting into a diversion over what somebody who takes a few words out of context might interpret me as saying even though I explicitly address and blocked that interpretation in context.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

"Because refusing to engage evidence is not a proposition, you cannot argue against it. It would like arguing against a person who is swimming by claiming that the act of swimming itself is false."

But don't people who refuse to engage evidence do so for actual reasons, convoluted as they may be? In that case are we not better off rationally attacking those reasons first and, should that fail, only then jumping to condemnation? For example, if we wanted to get someone to stop swimming it seems that we would first give them an argument ("Hey Johnny, a lightning storm is coming through better get going") and when they respond with an ignorant, "I don't care I'm doing it anyway" then we would be justified in condemning.

Perhaps I'm missing the point, but it seems that it does make sense to argue against swimming indirectly by focusing on those supporting reasons or beliefs that encouraged the swimming in the first place. So while refusing to engage against evidence is not a proposition it is an action, and we can provide reasons for avoiding certain actions.