Atheism, worldviews, and responsibility

A bit of a firestorm has broken out on FTSOS’ fan page (or is it a “Like Page”? Silly Facebook). A number of claims have been made which deserve a response (if only because I initiated the discussion), but since the comment system on Facebook is inadequate, an entire blog post is necessary. Besides, a number of logical mistakes have been made in the discussion which are all too common among theists.

To give some context, this is the line which started it all (minus an apparent typo).

This is worth repeating, too: atheism has never been responsible for an act of evil. Ever.

The first substantial criticism was one that amounted to little more than semantics.

Of course those are not examples of atheism being responsible for acts of evil. No more than Christianity is responsible for the crusades or Islam is responsible for suicide bombings. People are responsible for these things.

This person was likely trying to excuse ideas as having any sort of responsibility, and strictly speaking, I suppose that’s true. An idea is powerless without a conscious act or consciousness behind it. But I think it’s also obvious that ideas influence, inspire, and drive people. No one ignores Islam as a major component in 9/11 or the abuse of women in places like Saudi Arabia.

It’s inappropriate – and plainly wrong – to try and separate people from ideas. If we aren’t a composition of ideas and memes, what are we? The vast majority of the people – especially the religious – don’t want to say humans are merely their genes, but that’s the alternative to excusing all manner of ideas in order to create this inane wall where no ideology or systematic pattern of thought bears any responsibility. Just ask: if people are responsible for all actions, not ideas, then what causes people to act?

Of course, some people do get it.

The difference is that atheism is NOT an ideology. Atheism has no moral grounds, no rules, no dogma, no tenets. Nothing can be caused by atheism because there is nothing within atheism TO cause anything. Atheists come from all walks of life, there is not one type of atheist, which (sic) one set of beliefs.

This is precisely correct. Atheism is a descriptive, not a normative claim. The same goes for agnosticism and pure deism. There are no values which come with the claims themselves. People can and do build values around particular claims, but the claims themselves remain merely descriptive.

The next one goes a little off-topic, but still deserves a response.

This is worth repeating. Ideologies are not responsible for acts of evil. Only people are.

And also, for one to call something evil, one must have an objective moral standard.

An atheist has no objective standard with which to back up his rants against “evil” because for the atheist objective evil does not exist. He is full of contradictions.

Again, if ideologies are not responsible (and again, in the semantic sense of being a primary inspiration or drive), then how are people responsible? Are we genetically driven towards action? If so, we aren’t really all that responsible. Do all humans have an equal set of facts on which they act? Or, to bend over backwards, do humans only act on facts, whether real or perceived? If that was true, then ideological actions would become less consistent: the Republicans wouldn’t compose a solid block of doing nothing because plenty of facts fall far outside their current ideology (and the same goes for Democrats or any political party).

As for calling something evil, no objective standard is necessary. This whole line of argument obviously assumes that morality is an objective endeavor. The whole thing just pigeon holes all moral cases to needing a god. Ironically, even those who claim to have an objective source for morality often call things evil even when their source is silent.

Looking back through all the ethical philosophers, it becomes obvious that very few who weren’t also theologians (and really, are theologians even philosophers?) bothered with claims of needing an objective source. Those espousing utilitarianism, libertarianism, and even natural law theory often ignored the use of any gods in their systems. They came up with a basis – the good is pleasure/reduction of pain, the good is liberty, the good is what is natural, etc – and developed systems of thought from there. These systems of thoughts, in turn, influenced their actions as well as the actions of those who agreed/agree with them. That’s what ideologies, ideas, and systems do. The modern day teabaggers, while extremely inconsistent with their ideology, are generally moved to action by libertarian ideas. Of course, since they’re inconsistent (and they don’t really know it), they strictly apply their ideology in a way that will garner them more personal wealth. But regardless of this inability to recognize their own internal philosophical flaws, they are loosely driven by libertarianism because ideas are what bring people to action.

This next one is a response to the claim that atheism is not a philosophy or world view.

Let’s put your grammatical error aside for one moment and look at this statement with the help of my old friend Althusser. Althusser is a great guy when it comes to Ideologies. He states that we are interpellated into an ideology by our reject of other ideologies. For example: I do not believe in God, I am NOT a theist/deist. Therefore I am an Atheism (sic). Please note, this is not referring to me. I am certainly not an Atheist, but a trainee Priest instead. And, my dears, Atheism is as much a world view as anything else. It influence the way you VIEW the WORLD. Therefore, world view.

(Link added by me.)

The fact that volcanoes and Earthquakes happen also influence the way I view the world. Poverty and wealth hold influence, too. Oh, and the existence of such varied landscapes as the deserts of Utah and the mountains of Maine influence my world view. That doesn’t mean any of those constitute world views per se. They are not ideologies or even ideas. It takes more than something to merely be a fact (or perceived fact) in order for it to be a world view.

And finally, this old canard had to be trotted out.

PS. You call De/Theists ‘predictable’ for using Stalin/Mao/Hitler/etc as examples of ‘Atheist Evil’, yet spew out The Inquisition/Crusades/Salem Witch Trials as your examples for the counter-argument. Are you familiar with the notion of the pot calling the kettle black?

First, whether or not Hitler was an atheist is dubious at best. As late as 1941 he was saying he would always be a Catholic. Second, Stalin and Mao never acted out of some sort of atheistic inspiration. They couldn’t have. The idea is as absurd as saying someone acted out of deistic inspiration. How? How can descriptive claims also be normative claims? What would that look like:

“The fact that there is some sort of creator has told me to do X, Y, and Z. Just ignore for a moment the fact that my belief inherently tells me nothing about the characteristics or traits of this creator, thereby giving me no normative information.

Or agnosticism.

The fact that I don’t know has told me to do X, Y, and Z. Just ignore for a moment the fact that a lack of clarity doesn’t tell me how to act.

Or atheism.

The fact that there is no god has told me to do X, Y, and Z. Just ignore for a moment the fact that my belief is not an ethical system, makes no normative claims, and doesn’t inform me of any sort of morality.

The fact is that religion was what inspired the Inquisition, Crusades, and witch trials. It is the inspiration for the great tragedies, like the anti-science movement that has existed for so many thousands of years, to the more benign such as the Blue Laws many states still hold. Religion is a divisive ideology which drives people to act and behave in particular ways.

6 Responses

  1. Well said! This was a good read. Debating on facebook comments does get pretty long, and somehow I doubt most people actually read the entire response before replying. A better format would be nice, but none of the facebook applications seem to really do it for me.

  2. So many people erroneously think that morality comes out of religion. It doesn’t and it pre-dates religions. Most religions are immoral (slavery, misogyny, , xenophobia, genocide of entire peoples/tribes,nations, etc.)

  3. There is a lot of stuff here. Thankfully my ventures into Facebook threads have become less frequent.

    I only have random responses to the various material presented here (and thanks for giving us the highlights so we would not have to wade through Facebook).

    1) There is, of course, middle ground between viewing an individual as a sum of his genes and an individual enslaved to ideologies.

    Every person also has individual ideas, extrapolations perhaps of broader ideas made to fit their individual life circumstances. For example. a person who calls themselves a Christian, while subscribing to a majority of the tenets that a particular denomination professes, will still have an individual sense of morality, one that can often contradict (for better or worse) the more general ideology.

    2) Conversations like this often get off-track because of differing definitions, particularly of the term “Atheism.”

    Often Christians and other theists mean to compare themselves to “Humanists.” For the theist, humanism is replacing God with man. Atheists may subscribe to “humanism” on an individual basis, but there is nothing within atheism that compels them to do so, one way or another.

    Part of the reason theists make this confusion is because they assume that all individuals worship “gods” or other abstract ideas; this includes themselves, their family (their genes), their country, or humanity as a whole. In a way this can be true, but it would be simplest for them just to direct the conversation away from “Atheism.”

  4. Exactly Ben. The thing is that not all atheists are humanists, nor even naturalists. I would be fine having a discussion about those, but if they understand atheism/humanism/naturalism so little as to not understand the difference, it just makes them look ignorant. I have often had many interesting conversations and debates with theists: but it only works when they have an understanding about my position. Too many do not understand at all.

  5. Yeah, we could all stand to do a lot more listening and understanding and a lot less talking.

  6. Agreed: I’d be the first to admit that many atheists are ignorant about theistic belief. I suppose i’m lucky in that I have a very good understanding of theism… Mainly because I was a christian the majority of my life: and my brother is becoming a pastor, so I often debate with him.

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