Over at his blog Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne brings up two atheist quips which have annoyed me every since I first heard them a long time ago. They are very poorly reasoned, yet people goo-goo about how swell they are because they are quick, superficially true, and tell people what they want to hear. The first is from Christopher Hitchens and the second from Steven Weinberg.
I mentioned Hitchens’s challenge: ”Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever,” followed by his ancillary challenge: “Name one immoral action that could only have been performed by a believer.” There are no good answers to the first challenge, but many to the second.
Now, the statements as given are both strong challenges. They both do the rhetorical work that atheists want them to do.
The problem is in what is left out. Substitute the word “atheist” for “believer” in the above and see what happens: the exact same thing. There is nothing good that atheists can do that religious people can’t. And plenty of evils atheists can do that religious believers can’t do (look to communism and other secular ideologies for examples).
The logical structures of the categories being used force the answers. This is a rhetorical move, not good logic, because the question itself generates the answer desired. In other words, they are statements, not questions, and wrong statements for what they leave out.
The fact that atheism is assumed to be a “non-belief” also colors the questions because it implies a neutral nothingness, when in fact atheism is not a neutral nothingness, it is an umbrella category for all sorts of beliefs. And the category of “believer” includes nearly anything humans have ever done, which also rather biases the output.
There is more to be said here too, the problems continue more than I have time for. (E.g., just to mention one: separating motivation/justification from action for the believer vs. atheist permit them to do the same actions but for different reasons, and almost any reason can be substituted for almost any action, thus nullifying the categories of “believer” and “atheist” – if anything can be substituted, why bother to categorize the people involved in the first place? And then in the second question, specific religious motivation/justification is what differentiates the actions from other actions, thus serving to incriminate the “believer” because the action is defined as “immoral” from the start. Bad thinking.)
On to the second, which is even more obviously incomplete:
I’m with Steven Weinberg’s notion that “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil—that takes religion.” That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but there’s little doubt that when you think you have God-given truth, and are enforcing what you see as divine command, you can do terrible things that you would never even consider as an unbeliever.
There is another option left out, again, for rhetorical effect: “but for bad people to do good – that takes religion.” And physicist Freeman Dyson knows that too; he wrote it in a book called “The Scientists as Rebel” (goes to quote). Dyson is a genius, but it doesn’t take a genius to figure this one out. And once again atheism is assumed to be some non-view which is immune to screwing with people’s heads, like no atheist existentialist or nihilist has ever been driven to suicide, and no communists ever killed anybody.
Now, its a lot easier to chime these out in a speech and score your crowd-points than it is to actually explain how incorrect they are. But on the internet you should expect to get called on them. So here I am.
Coyne does cover himself a bit, and I want to present that too:
Or, would those atheists simply commit alternative but equally awful deeds?
Here he is correct. He only need look to history. Appealing to Scandinavian atheist “utopias” while forgetting the USSR displays a rather selective memory.
Lastly, this is an ethics blog, so how is this ethics?
P1: Misleading people is morally wrong.
P2: These statements mislead people.
C: Therefore they are morally wrong.
And I think that logic is valid. Please correct me if you think I have made an error.