Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Evil of Complimentary Overgeneralizations

I have quite frequently complained about the bigotry of atheist writers who make "derogatory overgeneralizations" about religion - taking denigrating facts about some small segment of theists and applying them to all theists in order to promote a hatred of theism in general.

There is, however, a similar form of bigotry that I have not written about, but which involves roughly the same type of thinking.

This involves making complimentary overgeneralizations - to speak about all theists in positive terms.

At a basic level, this represents the very same evil as the bigotry that I expressed earlier. While the former has the effect of tarnishing theists who are not guilty of the wrongdoings assigned with the stain of actions they did not commit, the latter compliments those who are guilty by painting them in glowing colors they do not deserve.

I am referring to comments such as this:

So far I hope the general public is waking up to two ideas. First, that Catholicism is a beautiful religion with, at its core, the idea that we should all love and help each other, and although there is deep disagreement within its ranks about a few core issues, these – in time – will be resolved.

(See: Ed West, Papal visit: Romophobes, atheist extremism and Nazis)

The fact is that "Catholicism" represents a wide range of beliefs - and some of them are quite despicable. Far from being a "beautiful religion" is it a cornerstone for lessons on bigotry and hatred, and for the teaching of ideals that lead to widespread death and destruction.

Some Catholics are decent people. Some are hate-mongering bigots or advocates of a religious primitivism that still carries echoes of the Dark Ages.

If it is wrong for an atheist to take the evils of the latter sort and paint all Catholics with that brush - effectively making the bigoted assumption that all Catholics are alike, it is equally wrong to theists to take the goods of the former sort and paint all Catholics with that brush.

Catholicism is not "a beautiful religion". It is a spectrum of religions - and some of (but not all) of the elements of that spectrum are quite putrid.

To refuse to acknowledge that fact is to fail to correct those failings - to allow the evil to hide behind the skirts of the good, and to use the good as a shield for deflecting much deserved criticism.

"How dare you criticize me. I am religious - just like them! That, alone, should be enough to protect me from your wrath."

Because of its ability to hide evils that should be confronted and eliminated, complimentary overgeneralizations are no less bigoted, in their own way, than derogatory overgeneralizations.

The proper trick to use in both of these cases is to speak specifically, of the specific claims and actions of specific people, and to resist the urge both for complimentary and for derogatory overgeneralizations and for the evils that either find protection or promotion by these two forms of rhetorc.


Brian said...

I suspect we disagree, which means at the least your opinion is not clear enough for all to understand.

An imperfect analogy: suppose the U.S. Armed forces have maximum feasible controls to prevent soldiers from killing people when it does not result in military benefit (and they may). Currently in the news is the charging of five American soldiers with murder by the Army. Now, consider the odds of something like this happening in an extended war: I think we can uncontroversially acknowledge it is fairly high. After all, thousands of young men are being put into stressful situations in which they fight an enemy that they often can't find and know is being given aid and comfort by some local civilians, etc.

Take all people who supported the war (even though this may not include the men charged, or they may have been too young to count; the analogy is not perfect). Are they to blame if they (supported the war and) never included this consideration in their cost/benefit calculus, even though it was a probable event (and had this been included, they would instead on balance have opposed the war [parentheses take care of factors some might consider morally relevant])?

If the answer is yes, as I think it is (although I am undecided as to whether the conditions I put in parentheses are crucial, those are tangential issues), there is a valid role for the type of generalization I think you reflexively decry.

Theists often object to atheism by claiming that it frequently leads to immorality. You seem to think this needn't be contested on the merits so long as many atheists are ethical in every test of atheism. I disagree. If ethical atheists are the equivalent of Russian roulette survivors, we can still criticize someone for playing (or having played) a dangerous and pointless game.

I think the objection must be met on other grounds, such as whether the claim is true. If it is (or arguendo), we would then have to address the significance of a belief system improving morality more than its absence. Such objections would generally show such facts are not relevant to truth claims and that false beliefs cause more harm over time than true ones both as they warp decision making and themselves unravel over time.

I also think an atheist objection to theism is valid along much the same lines, mainly attacking belief without evidence and the opportunity cost of squandered resources.

The Universe is an Atheist said...

This post made me think, because I often do paint all theists as fools. But, this is not because they themselves practice the fouler forms of religion: I do this because in their silence and in their defense of religiosity, they are furthering the divide between 'good' religion and 'bad' religion. I think that it is justified to say that if you are not speaking out against foul religion, you are furthering the idea that it is okay to act and think like that.

I think atheists and theists of the 'good' religious convictions need to stop the evils of religion, together. A theist who says "oh, well, everyone isn't like that" is not raising consciousness that this is abhorrent and should be spoken out against. By defending it, they become a part of it, and are therefore susceptible to my derision.
This is not to say we pass laws that make religion illegal, or anything like that. It's just time to stand up and make it unacceptable in our culture.

great post!