Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nidal Malik Hasan and the Bigot's Fallacy

Now that the news is stating that Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood shootist, was a Muslim with strong religious convictions, I can already see the Bigot's Fallacy popping up in a number of atheist writings.

The Bigot's Fallacy begins with premises that are true of an individual or a group of individuals in a group, then suddenly leaps to conclusions that are applied to the whole group. A black man commits theft so then all black men are thieves. An atheist leads a campaign of genocide so atheism endorses genocide. A Muslim shoots a group of people in a Texas army base so theists are mass murderers.

The link that these bigots are trying to make is a belief that a God exists caused the agent to kill 13 people. Consequently we are supposed to fear and hate all people who believe that a God exists.

Typically, if somebody where to argue that A causes B, the presence (in America alone) of a couple hundred million examples of A and not-B would be taken as pretty good evidence that A causes B is not true - or, at least, that the situation is more complex than simple (minded) causation.

However, the quality that bigots share is bigots forego reason, If a fallacy gives even an illusion of support to a favored conclusion, then the bigot shuns reason and embraces the fallacy.

This might create a bit of cognitive dissonance if the bigot is also somebody who professes that rationality is a virtue and that people who shun reason for faith - or who otherwise embrace an irrational defense of a favored belief - deserves condemnation. However, this bigot avoids this problem with a display of hand-waving and cherry picking to give his use of fallacious reasoning an illusion of legitimacy that rivals the work of some of the best theologians and creationists on the planet.

Many of the people who embrace the Bigot's Fallacy in this case are quick to argue that nobody has ever done any harm in the name of atheism. The argument (the version that makes the most sense) begins with the premise that atheism is a belief that the proposition that "at least one God exists" is certainly or almost certainly false. This belief alone doesn't tell anybody to go establish a dictatorship and slaughter millions of fellow citizens. Therefore, it makes no sense to blame these atrocities on atheism.

The anti-religious bigot simply ignores the fact that the same argument applies to theists. The parallel argument begins with the premise that a theist is one who believes that the proposition that "at least one God exists" is certainly or almost certainly true. This belief alone doesn't tell anybody go fly airplanes into civilian sky scrapers or to murder people in a processing center at an army base. Therefore, it makes no sense to blame these atrocities on theism.

The problem, in the latter case, is a set of specific beliefs that one attaches to the belief that at least one God certainly or almost certainly exists. It has to do with beliefs about what that God wants. However, there are also belief sets that include the proposition that no God exists that are just as capable of motivating a person to establish dictatorships and promote mass murder. So, still, the two arguments are parallel.

Among the various atheist philosophies there are a few that put a premium on reason and evidence. Among members of that subgroup of atheists, there should be some way to introduce a moral objection to the Bigot's Fallacy and similar breeches of reason. These options are to be shunned - not because it is politically useful to be nice to theists, but because good people condemn the use of fallacious inferences in themselves and others.

Having said this, the Texas shooting does provide good reason, not to go after 'theism', but to go after any specific religious teachings that seemed to support the shooting, and any person who speaks for a specific religion who praises the shooting.

For example, according to the New York Times:

"He felt he was supposed to quit," Mr. Reasoner said. "In the Koran, it says you are not supposed to have alliances with Jews or Christians, and if you are killed in the military fighting against Muslims, you will go to hell."

Does this imply that, in a dispute between an unjust and violent Muslim and peaceful Christians, one must side with the unjust and violent Muslim? This is a view that is definitely worthy of condemnation. If anybody should then answer that if he rejects this he would have to reject all of Islam, the proper response would be to shrug one’s shoulders and say, "I leave it to you to work out the details."

This has nothing to do with claiming that there is some sort of virtue to be found in being nice to theists, or arguing that it should be done for the sake of political expediency. What I am talking about here is the virtue of sound reasoning and embracing the conclusions that reason and evidence supports. The problem with the Bigot's Fallacy as atheists use it, or the other inferences discussed above, is that they transgress the virtue of reason – and in doing so also transgress the virtue of justice and fairness to those who become the victims of unjustified accusations.


Hume's Ghost said...

Dave Cullen, a journalist who has written the definitive text on the Columbine shootings, points out another reason not to be quick to try and find a magic bullet answer for the killer's actions.

If we guess now [at the shooter's motives], the myths will be us forever. Ten years after Columbine, most of the public still believes it was about jocks, Goths and the Trench Coat Mafia. No, no and no. It wasn‘t even intended primarily as a school shooting: the failed bombs were supposed to be the main event. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were not loners, outcasts or misfits, nor were most of the school shooters.

This is tangential to this post and reverse to an anti-atheist bigotyr fallacy, but one thing I found remarkable about Cullen's book is that it points out that while a popular mythology has developed about the Columbine shooters killing a young girl for professing her faith in Christianity, that never happened. (The girl was killed, but she never was given a chance to speak or was questioned by the killer.) The girl who actually was asked about her belief in God and professed her faith was not killed by the killer; ironically enough, she was never lionized.

Matt S said...

In this case, the bigot's fallacious thoughts about muslims never entered my mind. I immediately thought:
1. This is an army soldier, which is a mentally tough job
2. This is a soldier who was going to be asked to kill others of his own faith
3. He probably had issues that were not related to Islam as a whole, but parts.

I later found out that he even was confronted by a more moderate Muslim at the base. So, hopefully everyone else is more or less going on those lines.

Anonymous said...

"It says...you are not to have an alliance with the Jews or Christians...."----If anyone bothers to read the Quran in context, they will find that the verse as well as those preceding and following refers to an "alliance" with those who are fighting you(when you are in a defensive war)---which is sensible advice. It does not refer to making "alliances" that are based on peace (peace treaties, treaties of neutrality or co-operation). Peace is encouraged and preferred over war.

War is justified in self defence---that is true---but the shootings were not "self-defense"---they were murder and as such there can be NO justification.
In the ethics of war, a declaration of war must be made---which is a collective decision--not an individual one. To suppose that Maj Hasan was "at war" is not logical.
I am a muslim and I do not see him as a "devout follower of Islam I see him as a disturbed individual who snapped and created a tragedy.

Thomas said...

The Koran clearly states that the best way to die is in defending Islam.

If you perceive Islam to be under attack from infidels then to join them (army) is an alliance with Jews etc etc and that is against Islam.

If you attack those on their way - you believe - to attack you then that is self defence

Eneasz said...

As a disclaimer - I'm not saying Hasan's actions were justified in any way. He was an evil man who committed an evil act.

But to comment on the discussion between George & Anonymous - based on some of the comments made by members of the previous administration it is not completely unreasonable to draw the conclusion that the Iraq invasion was an attack on Islam by Christians for religious reasons. This would still be a wrong conclusion, but not a completely unfounded one.