Bad Reasons for Unbelief

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.

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13 responses to “Bad Reasons for Unbelief

  • Insightful Ape

    This is absolute bullshit. Communism was an ideology with its own tenets. The only atheists that agree with those are those you explicitly call themselves communists. I’ve got news for you-Stalin was not a Hindu. He never ever worshipped cows. Well then, does that make YOU responsible for his crimes? Why is it that that a Coyne or a Hitchens, having nothing in common with communists other than rejecting a certain notion of god are somehow to blame for their crimes, but you aren’t?

  • Daniel

    Once again, atheism proves to be a man-made warped window to view the world through. I have yet to find very many atheists who attack Christianity fully understanding what they believe. Usually, they attack some warped understanding of it while judging the whole by the deficient sample.

  • J.J.E.

    You made an error. Religious evil like demonizing homosexuality is religiously motivated. Communist evils (too numerous to list) are most assuredly in service of communism not in service of atheism. Our do you have evidence that Stalin and Mao et al. did what they did to promote atheism? Of close you don’t. They promoted atheism to remove competition from the competing ideology of religion. Religion and communism have a lot in common. They are empirically unsupportable ideologies that require faith to accept. And they are authoritarian. Atheism is nine if these. It is a lack of belief.

  • Brian Green

    Insightful Ape, let me rephrase your argument and see what we can do… Please correct me if I am wrong.

    I think what you are trying to say is that nobody is responsible for the actions of anybody else’s belief system. They are only responsible for the actions done in the name of their own belief system. Good – that is almost reasonable. That just means Hitchens is wrong in a different way.

    First, “religious” becomes a category error for equating things which are inequitable, thus once again invalidating the argument. It comes to include all ideologies including atheist ones, excluding only people who have no beliefs. These would be feral children and newborns, I suppose – certainly not “atheists” in any normal sense. And since non-believers by definition have no beliefs they cannot be responsible for anything at all.

    Thus the argument becomes absurd yet again because it says that people with beliefs are responsible for doing things because of their beliefs, and people without beliefs are not responsible for doing things because of their lack of beliefs. Actually, that is more tautological than absurd, but in either case, there has been a serious logical error.

    JJE, Marxist communism (including Maoism, etc.) are intrinsically atheist. Marx says so, and he made the thing up. There is a reason the communists persecuted religion so much, it was because it was the manifestation of evil economic condition which had to be overthrown, but religion was supporting the system so it had to go concurrently. Saying “of course you don’t” to the question of whether I have evidence of the influence of atheism to Stalin and Mao is silly; you answer your own question in the very next sentence where you say that they did promote atheism precisely to remove cultural competition.

    Calling atheism a lack of belief makes it a negative category (obviously) and humans do not operate on negative categories, we always have positive cultural content in us. These are definitional problems with setting the categories like “atheism” and “religion” against each other, when they are not in fact comparable, and we could certainly explore that more.

    In any case, Hitchens’s statements are still logically invalid because they are comparing incomparable categories. Coyne should know better. I’m just trying to tell him.

  • Brian Green

    By the way, I’m not saying there are no good reasons to be atheist. I’m just saying these two that Coyne gives are not. Coyne should give the good reasons, not the bad ones.

  • Insightful Ape

    Well you are quite wrong, Brian.
    Atheism is indeed a negative. That doesn’t mean Hitchens is wrong. It actually enforces what he says: people who have beliefs do things, sometimes good and sometimes bad, on that basis. Those who don’t share those beliefs won’t.
    Jerry never said this is a good basis to be a nonbelievers. What he said was that, unlike what some people harassing him were asserting, the sky will not fall if a plurality of people just give up belief. Scandinavian nations are Exhibit A.
    Your claim that his failure to bring up communism was “selective memory” was disingenuous. It is a giant leap from giving up belief to adopting a very complex ideology such as communism. Lack of belief leads to communism as much as existence of belief “leads” to Islam.
    You are trying to play a game of words by substituting “non-believer” for “believe” in Hitchens’ challenge and then point to the Gulag. The challenge still stands.
    PS This is my last comment here, since I do not enjoy being a troll.

  • Brian Green

    Aw, Insightful Ape, I thought we were just starting to become friends.

    Atheism has both positive and negative formulations, and that is causing some of the confusion here. A pure negation has no content. “Atheism” negatively construed can do nothing as belief system, neither moral nor immoral, because it is a lack. So it is ridiculous to compare it to anything else, it’s like comparing 0 and 1 and saying 0 can never do anything bad, only 1 can do bad things. Well of course a lack can never act for the sake of its lack. One cannot blame nonbelievers for not acting on their nonbeliefs, one can only blame believers for acting on their beliefs. Which, as I said before, is not good reasoning, it’s just reiteration for dramatic effect.

    Everyone “believes” in something, everyone trusts something, even hopelessly paranoid people trust their delusions. Atheists trust their own judgment, or philosophy, or reason, or senses, or whatever it is that convinces them not to trust theism. That’s fine. But the point is that there is no such thing as pure negative atheism. The human mind requires content. Positively construed atheism must have a content which replaces religion, whether it be secular humanism, communism, nihilism, or whatever.

    Hitchens is muddling categories to make his point, appealing to “nonbeliever” as both a vacant and filled category at the same time. Vacant and filled. Absurd. Interesting rhetorical trick, but logically wrong.

    So I would still recommend against using the Hitchens’s example because it is a trick, and when people hear it they ought to feel tricked and lose trust in the speaker.

    In any case, thanks for stopping by. You made me think a bit more about what is wrong with the argument, so that is good.

  • Mark

    Hey Brian,

    While it’s true the atheism isn’t the perfect cure-it-all for the follies of religion, a few points. First, communism and other secular ideologies aren’t evil at all. One for all, all for one ideals would of course be seen as a terrible thing in capitalist consumer markets, but its main goal is equality. What happened to the USSR and other places is inequality of equality, with the rich and powerful still present in their society.

    The evils done in the name of communism is spurred by communism, not atheism. Imagine if communist leaders would fashion a deity for themselves, and an antagonist much like Satan. It would be Big Brother vs Goldstein. Religious fervor meets socialism.

    No atheist is immune to mind-warping ideologies, like as you said, suicide and such, but I don’t think an atheist would strap bombs on his body and blow himself up in a middle of a crowd, nor would they wage war to clear their perceived holy land from people of other faiths like the crusades, or the inquisition, or the witch trials.

  • Brian Green

    Hi Mark,

    Marx believed that creating the communist utopia would be intrinsically violent – hence the constant use of “revolution” talk. Utopia required killing; that makes Marxist communism evil, I think. In my religion we are required to love our enemies (in other words: “don’t have enemies”) and force can only be used as a last resort with the intention to harm as minimally as possible. Sounds better to me.

    Plenty of people died and killed for the sake of communist utopia. I’m not exactly sure how that is different from religious violence except in the specifics. Communists had gulags, suicide bombers blow up cafes. Both bad, both unique. If atheists don’t have a Holy Land it’s probably just because they haven’t been around long enough (or are too unstable as groups) to have gotten one. Maybe atheism is less dangerous under certain circumstances because it just doesn’t get people to cohere into groups with similar courses of action, whether for good or evil, so its impact is always just naturally smaller. But get atheists cohered with an ideology, and they can be just as bad as everybody else.

    Also, distinguishing communism from atheism makes me want to also distinguish theism from, say, terrorist versions of Islam. You are saying that particular instantiations of a category of belief are not in fact indictments of the entire category of belief, e.g. communism does not indict atheism, and violent Islam does not indict theism. Good, that is a good beginning. No particular religion is therefore an indictment of the entire category “religion” (whatever “religion” might mean, it tends to remain undefined in these debates).

    What this ultimately comes down to is that human beings are troubled creatures. We say we like good things, and want to do good things, and then we twist it all towards our own evil ends. We die and kill for stupid things, religious or atheist. The problem with everything here is not “religion” or “atheism” or even “ideology”: it’s people.

  • Matt DeStefano

    Equating the lack of belief in a God to a communist/fascist empire is quite a leap of logic. Can you illustrate how Stalin’s “atheism” led him to slaughter millions? What is it specifically about the lack of belief in a God that led him to do it?

  • Brian Green

    First things first, thanks for leaving a comment. I like comments and responding to them. And my answer has refined slightly over the course of the above comments.

    Second, lacks can never do anything because they are absences. Absences do not exist. Non-existent things do nothing, be definition, because they do not exist, and because action follows being. Nothing does nothing.

    However, humans are never “lacking” in the belief department. We are creatures that necessarily are composites of biology and culture. Culture is largely composed of stories explaining things. Your head is full of stories and beliefs whether you want it or not, whether religious or not; and not just you, everyone else too.

    Now to atheism. Atheism is never really a lack because it is always a negation of theism. There is always the theistic content with a “not” tacked on.

    So here goes. God? “Not.” Theistic ethics? “Not”

    That’s the basic point. Drop God, drop the moral system too. No more “God is love” or “love your enemies.” No more intrinsic dignity of the person. No more love thy neighbor. What replaces it? Not nothing. Anything. Something MUST replace it. humans cannot be empty vacancies, that’s what feral children are and they are always dramatically damaged. The vacuum must be filled.

    In the case of Stalin, the vacuum was filled by Marxism.

    Karl Marx said exactly this: there is no God and the end point of history is a communist utopia. Getting there will be intrinsically violent, therefore violence is necessary and whoever stands in our way is evil and resisting the flow of history. So kill them; killing is a good thing.

    So Stalin kills a lot of people. He thinks it’s good. Ethical vacuum opens up with atheism, ethical vacuum fills with atheistic morality of communism.

    Nietzsche would be an even better example. He knew what happened when God died: it was just humans, and the will of the strongest determined moral truth.

    So to sum up your question: Stalin’s atheism opened him up to atrocity, and atheist Communism made it pretty much mandatory. There is nothing intrinsic to atheism that forced him to commit atrocities, but intrinsic to atheism is the rejection of certain kinds of theism which ought to (when working properly) prevent atrocities. So he was opened up with his rejection, then adopted a form of atheism which mandating committing atrocities.

    How’s that?

    • Matt

      Well, we can obviously see in history the failure of theism to prevent atrocities, and in many times be the sole instigator. To your other point, atheism is solely a lack of belief in God, it makes no comment on a moral system at all. To pose Nietzsche and Marx as stalwarts of atheist thought is silly, to act is if there is an atheist creed that all adherents comply to. To suggest your last phrase “then adopted a form of atheism which mandating committing atrocities” as if there were a “form” of atheism that mandates killing is absolutely ridiculous.

      Whatever extra philosophical tenets someone might adopt in addition to atheism, does not mean that atheism shares in responsibility of their actions. Atheism is mute on the denial or acceptance of any moral structure, and to suggest that atheism necessarily implies moral relativism is to either misunderstand logical consequence or the nature of atheism.

  • Brian Green

    We can also obviously see in history the failure of atheism to prevent atrocities, and in many times be the sole instigator. I could parrot back to you your entire statement with the names switched out and have it be a defense of theism. Or perhaps a-atheism, which right now seems like it would be a useful ploy on my part. You see, a-atheism is solely a lack of belief in atheism. It has no other content and no moral system. Therefore you can say nothing bad about it.

    I am being facetious, of course, but I hope you might begin to see that both having and not having a belief system proves to be rather useful on your part. It’s also ridiculous. You do not get to be an atheist and then believe “nothing” you have something filling the vacancy, and that must be defended. Pure negations do not exist; there is a position that you have, and “atheism” is just serving to obscure that. So why don’t you come out and declare you beliefs and we can argue about those?

    This equivocating on lack vs. content was the point of my above post and several other comments: atheism is sometimes categorized as a pure lack and sometimes as a belief system with content, all for the convenience of the speaker, Hitchens being the speaker in question in this particular case.

    As for the ethics, there may be no atheist creed (except not believing in god(s)), but that would be exactly the point of Nietzsche: with no creed you get to do whatever you want. Thank you for agreeing with me.

    And trying to somehow separate Marx from atheism is very strange. Atheism in intrinsic to Marxism, to deny that is a purely defensive maneuver on your part. Yes, atheism does not lead directly to Marxism, Nietzsche, or moral relativism. It leads to a lack. And the lack MUST be filled. Humans do not operate on lacks. So if you want to categorize it as a lack, then you must admit that it opens the atheist up to a wide variety of other ethical systems, some of which could be quite grotesque. And the grotesque ones are genuine options which will be chosen – they certainly have been historically.

    So if you want to continue this discussion, which I am open to (with the caveat that I might be occasionally slow to reply, sorry for my tardiness on this one), tell me what kind of atheist you are, and then we can see how your lack has lead to content. And then you will have something to talk about, not a rhetorical position to equivocate upon.

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