Being Nice to Religion

by Luke Muehlhauser on January 13, 2011 in Ethics,Guest Post

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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It is not a virtue to “be nice” to religion.

In my last post, I objected to the American Atheist sign that says of religions, “You know they are all scams.”

I objected on the grounds that the statement is not true. The word “scam” implies intent to mislead for personal gain, and the claim “There is always intent” is false.

More importantly, it is a particular brand of falsehood called a “derogatory overgeneralization” – the type of falsehood that defines bigotry and prejudice.

For the most part, arguments in defense of the sign have fallen into three categories.

(1) “Scam” does not imply intent.

There might be a personal, private language in the back rooms of American Atheists where ‘scam’ does not imply ‘intent’, but in the English language of those who can be expected to see the sign, it does. The very quality that takes an act from “innocent mistake” to “scam” is the agent’s intent to mislead for personal gain.

(2) Okay, “scam” implies intent, and the statement is a derogatory overgeneralization, but this is legitimate when it serves a higher cause.

I could write a whole post on this assertion, and probably will.

(3) We should not be coddling religion any more. The days of being nice to religion are over.

This is a red herring. It functions to divert attention from the main argument — the ‘scam’ claim is a derogatory overgeneralization — and shift it to a new topic: are we obligated to refrain from telling unpleasant truths about religion?

Well, I am going to follow that red herring.

It is not a virtue to be nice to religion, just because it is religion.

I have been defending a moral system that understands morality to be the use of social tools such as praise and condemnation to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires, and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. In other words, condemnation plays a major role in morality. To ban condemnation is to ban the use of one of our tools for promoting desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart other desires.

Besides, I notice that those who advance the principle, “thou shalt not condemn” are very intent on using the tool of condemnation against those who condemn. In fact, their protests quite often take the form, “Condemnation never works, you idiot!”

More importantly, when I hear people make the moral charge that we ought to be nice to religion, the first thought that comes to my mind is, “What about its victims? Who is going to be nice to them?”

In order to for me to obey this principle of being nice to religion, I have to turn a cold shoulder to the women living in home-prisons their entire lives with their fathers, brothers, and husbands serving as guards and jailers.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to teenage girls killed for dishonoring the family, and to children with treatable illnesses who die or are left permanently disabled by treatable diseases or as the victims of religious practices.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to those who would be killed just for expressing an opinion that a particular religion is false, or for expressing the opinion that those who assert that a particular religion is false ought not to be shot.

I also have to turn a cold shoulder to those who are afraid to express their true opinion on a matter, or who are caused to adopt an opinion not because it is true but because anybody who would have disagreed with it remained silent out of fear of being shot.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to children with brains and the capacity to put them to productive use understanding the world around us who have that potential slammed shut by the idea that they should instead have “faith” in blatant falsehoods.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to the people who would have otherwise been able to benefit from the discoveries that those minds would have made if those minds had been trained to understand the world as it is.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to people dying of preventable disease because of a religion that tells them not to use a condom or seek a blood transfusion or that prayer is an effective substitute for penicillin – and for the widows, widowers, and orphans they leave behind.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to those living in a war zone as different groups fight for control of land that “God gave to us and us alone.”

I have to turn a cold shoulder to those made worse off by ill-informed government policy made by people who refuse to admit to basic scientific facts about the origin and nature of life, the geological history of the earth, and the threats that we face from space, from our environment, and at our own hands.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to the homosexual not permitted to marry his or her partner and not permitted to adopt a child.

I have to turn a cold shoulder to the civic-minded atheist effectively barred from public office or positions of public trust due to a cultural prejudice – one that is perpetuated by a government that has adopted a pledge and motto grounded on this anti-atheist; pro-theist bigotry.

Please note: Nowhere above did I mention the past crimes or the past victims of religion. The people who are to be condemned for inquisitions, crusades, witch hunts, and other historic acts of barbarism carried out in the name of God are dead. It is entirely unjust to blame people today for policies and practices that others carried out that the people today do not endorse.

I classify the beliefs responsible for the harms listed above under the category of “epistemic negligence“. People who commit this moral crime are much like the drunk driver whose physical act of negligence puts innocent people at risk. We owe just as much niceness to these people as we owe to the drunk driver who slaughters a family four. The drunk driver’s intent may have been merely to get home, but he did so recklessly, and he inflicted a huge cost on others.

However, in saying this, there are at least three constraints that we have many and strong reasons to adopt among those who criticize religion.

Constraint 1: Avoid the bigot’s fallacy and other derogatory overgeneralizations. Using these types of claims not only displays and promotes a lack of respect for truth, it is also unjust to accuse people of wrongs who are not guilty. Keep one’s “not nice” comments tightly focused on those who actually deserve condemnation.

Constraint 2: Obey the principle of freedom of speech. The only legitimate response to words are words and private actions (where private actions are actions one can perform without justification, such as deciding where to shop, what to buy, what to watch on television or not watch, etc.). Violence is not a legitimate response to mere words – which is exactly why blasphemy laws are a moral failure.

Constraint 3: In an open society, the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign; never violence. The purpose here is to prevent disagreements from degenerating into civil wars – which they are very prone to do. We are going to settle our disagreements with ballots, not bullets.

And the idea that “it is great to condemn the theist who steps outside these boundaries, but we must turn a deaf ear to the atheist who commits the same moral crimes” is simple hypocrisy.

All too often, people engage in activities harmful to the peaceful interests of others and offer as their defense, “But this is my religion. You must respect my religion.”

No. I do not. A religion that has its followers acting in ways harmful to the peaceful interests of others deserves no respect. Religious or not, these people deserve the same condemnation as anybody else who harms or threatens the peaceful interests of others.

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

BenSix January 13, 2011 at 5:08 am

Yep – I agree with all of this. A brief qualifier, though: while I feel no obligation to criticise religions in the mild tones that I’d condemn a rain shower, say, I’d still moderate my tongue around people who are (a) devout and (b) nice. This is for the same reason that while I don’t feel compelled to pay respect to monarchism I’d be cautious of dubbing the Royalty a hollow, empty, noxious sham before the kind of flag-clutching Grandmother who keeps Charles n’ Di crockery on her mantelpiece.

And, of course, because the more one lets one’s bile ducts and saliva glands dominate one’s rhetoric the more likely one is to say something foolish.

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Andrew January 13, 2011 at 8:35 am

I broadly agree, although I think it is fairer to criticise individuals rather than religions or religion in general. Religion is an abstract, not a coscious entity which directs its followers with intent, and can be divided into potentially infinite variations of belief, not all of which necessarily advocate the sort of things of which you give examples above. Also, religion can be positive – granting a sense of fulfilment and peace and an encouragement to live a thoughtful and moral life. I personally believe that religion is not the best way to gain these things, but it makes many people happy which is generally a good thing. However, some individuals according to their personal religious beliefs and their personal interpretation of some obscure text or other say and do horrific things and encourage and indoctrinate others to do so.

I believe that these individuals should be criticised, and their particular actions condemned, rather than religion itself. People are responsible for their own choices.

(I would like to add, on a different note, that our atheist rhetoric in the UK was rather less provocative with the slogan “There probably isn’t a God – so relax and enjoy your life!” which entirely failed to get anyone’s attention.)

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Citizen Ghost January 13, 2011 at 9:07 am

It may be quite reasonable to conclude that many religious leaders and authority figures don’t actually believe the truth of the religious doctrines they propound. (In the case of Christianity, there is some good evidence of this).

But still, “many” is not “all” or even “most.”

And so I agree that makes the statement “all religions are scams” is an overgeneralization. We can chalk this up to rhetorical excess but those concerned with truth and accuracy we should take better care to avoid such rhetorical excess. To me, that’s the real point.

And I agree that there’s no virtue in being “nice” to religion simply because it’s religion. This is the point that Sam Harris continually makes (it’s the point he makes best). A person’s views aren’t entitled to automatic respect or immunity from criticism simply because they are presented under the banner of “faith” or “religion.”

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smijer January 13, 2011 at 9:44 am

And I agree that there’s no virtue in being “nice” to religion simply because it’s religion. This is the point that Sam Harris continually makes (it’s the point he makes best). A person’s views aren’t entitled to automatic respect or immunity from criticism simply because they are presented under the banner of “faith” or “religion.”

The virtue is being “nice” to people simply because they are people, I think. Sometimes that includes being circumspect in our criticism of their religious ideas. You can criticize someone’s football team less fairly and more harshly than you can criticize their child-raising skills without being an asshole. It’s a matter of how personal the object of criticism is. That doesn’t mean that a person’s child-raising skills are immune from criticism. And having to be circumspect doesn’t imply that a person’s religion is immune from criticism either.

An additional advantage is that circumspect criticism requires the critic to engage the object carefully and reasonably, often leading to more accurate and helpful criticism.

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Kaelik January 13, 2011 at 10:10 am

Constraint 1: Avoid the bigot’s fallacy and other derogatory overgeneralizations. Using these types of claims not only displays and promotes a lack of respect for truth, it is also unjust to accuse people of wrongs who are not guilty. Keep one’s “not nice” comments tightly focused on those who actually deserve condemnation.

Do you believe we should abide by this constraint because doing so is the most effective method of accomplishing our long term goals, or because it’s the “right thing to do” and if the latter, what the fuck does that mean?

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Joseph January 13, 2011 at 12:00 pm

I have no problem when religion is kept as a private thing. People are entitled to their beliefs. But it’s a concern when those religious ideas become public policy. And that’s when the ”nice” gloves have to be taken off. We must insist that our public institution remain at all cost secular.

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Citizen Ghost January 13, 2011 at 1:05 pm

Smijer,

I’m in agreement with you, I think. But I don’t think the “virtue” here amounts to anything more than good manners. I would never purposefully antagonize someone simply on account of their religious beliefs. I would not intentionally insult them or belittle them.

But as you know, “insult” is in the eye of the beholder. If I were to say, “I believe that Jesus had no greater access to the divine than you or I do” or “I think some of the teachings of Jesus are positively immoral” those statement will insult people. They just will. (Never mind any number of items one might express concerning the Holy Prophet Mohammed).

Now I don’t seek religious people out JUST to declare those things, but when individuals make moral pronouncements (even innocently) equating their religiousity with some moral high-ground, I think the greater wrong would be to remain silent.

Yes, being “nice” is a virtue. But so is raising conciousness about a pernicious taboo and the dangers associated with the suspension of reason. Good manners are fine, but they should not ever trump freedom of conscience. So, as long being “circumspect” in our criticism allows for that, then I’m in agreement with you.

C.G.

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CG January 13, 2011 at 1:16 pm

I would probably go a little farther toward the “civility” end. If I have good cause to assert that some of Jesus’ teachings are immoral or that Jesus was no more divine than you or I (in the same way that I might have good cause to assert that your fly is open or you have a hole in your shoe), then I would likely do so in a circumspect way. But the mere fact that Jesus wasn’t divine or that certain of his teachings, understood correctly, may be immoral, isn’t sufficient cause for me to assert those things – in the same way that the mere fact that your fly is open or that you have a hole in your shoe isn’t a sufficient cause for me to assert those things.

I am certain that there are occasions when it is helpful to assist someone in recognizing errors in their thinking, so I’m sure there are occasions when it is called for to assert such things. But outside of those occasions, kindness prevents highlighting and insisting upon embarrassing personal flaws. If you dig.

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smijer January 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm

That last comment was from me. I intended to address it to CG, but it seems I made an embarrassing mistake. Sorry.

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citizen ghost January 13, 2011 at 3:32 pm

Smijer,

No worries. I “dig”.

But if I wrote a book, appeared on television or posted a blog in which I asserted that certain teachings of Jesus are not moral or if I offer the view (sincerely held) that the best explanation for many reported religious experiences is psychological delusion and/or suspension of critical thinking, people will be deeply offended (assuming I have an audience). And they’ll be offended and insulted even if I don’t name names or point fingers. And even if I write in the gentlest of tones.

There will be those who would prefer I keep such thoughts to myself. Should I do so in the interest of civility? Is that what being “circumspect” requires? I think not. If my honest view is that religion is a problem and a threat to freedom, I believe I have good grounds to say so even if I run the risk that some feelings will be hurt.

By the way, if my fly is open, I’d prefer if someone let me know.

Thanks for your reply.

C.G.

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Dave January 13, 2011 at 3:34 pm

CG,

Though I would consider myself more in the “confrontationist” camp, I would certainly never be a dick to a religious person in a social interaction or go out of my way to criticize their beliefs. If a religious person challenged me I would be honest and frank, but I would never try to deliberately piss anyone off. That said, the rules for social etiquette do not apply equivalently to a political or cultural movement, or any type of activism for that matter. Though Hitchens may be aggressive towards religion in his books and in debates, I doubt he would deliberately try to piss off his christian brother at a thanksgiving dinner. There are times for passionate and aggressive rhetoric (i.e. in debates or books or interviews or essays on the subject) and there are times to bite your tongue (i.e. when your friend’s girlfriend tells you she works for a megachurch). Let’s not confuse these two realms. They’re rarely confused in politics (I’m sure there is much friendliness across the political divide) and it is only the result of a weird cultural double standard that they so frequently get confused when it comes to the atheism-theism debate.

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smijer January 13, 2011 at 4:34 pm

CG – Again, if there is sufficient cause to assert these things, then doing so circumspectly is in order.

I’m not completely sure that an “honest view that religion is a problem and a threat to freedom” necessarily rises to the level of sufficiency. It doesn’t for me. To my mind, a strongly reasoned case which best accounts for all of the available evidence (of the honest belief), together with a well-reasoned belief that these assertions will have an ameliorating effect would be sufficient cause. Or possibly something somewhat short of that, depending on various calculations of certainty about the honest belief, estimates of the possible good that the assertions could do, balanced against the potential harm of offense (which I expect would be small, given our pre-determined efforts to be circumspect).

I suppose one would need to look to one’s own ethical theory to inform a decision about whether and how to speak out on that subject. The ethical theory that Alfonso defends is desirism. :)

Dave, while I agree that the rules for social etiquette don’t exactly apply to public debate, it is also the case that public debate often becomes needlessly vicious and nasty – especially where it concerns politics and the politics of religion. I think a guide such as what I laid out in my last couple of paragraphs to CG would serve as a useful template whether the context was social interaction or public debate.

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Steven January 13, 2011 at 8:24 pm

Alonzo, while I agree with your personal calculations (though I’m still convinced that if the intentional audience had been as claimed, it is some-what justified, as it appeals only to irrational beliefs), I can’t help but note that they seem grounded upon subjectivity. Indeed, I can’t see how any of this can’t be reached by acknowledging that no morals exist as a part of objective reality and taht the best we can do is work out a social system that provides the best sense of justice as that ultimately increases everyone’s happiness, satisfaction, etc.

P.S.: What’s your take that all beliefs deserve respect until they show themselves disrespectful?

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Citizen Ghost January 14, 2011 at 5:02 am

Dave,

I’m in agreement with you. I actually don’t put myself in the “confrontationist” camp but certainly support the notion of challenging a taboo, especially one that stifles free and honest discourse. I think that public vs. private/personal distinction you make is a worthwhile one. A similar distinction might also be made between how you choose treat other individuals and the reaction others might have to the expression of your opinions.

Smijer,

I’m all for circumspection. Perhaps we simply disagree about what “circumspection” requires. I must admit that my own perspective comes not from contemplating how a particular meta-ethical theory informs what I would choose to say and not say, but rather from ideas held about “rights” and expression of ideas. (I grant that these ideas too must ultimately come from some meta-ethcial theory). So while I don’t intentionally seek to hurt anyones feelings, I’m concerned by the prevalance with which “hurt feelings” are held up as a reason to keep certain subjects off the table. It has a stifling effect on free expression and free thought.

And I don’t mean to carry things to an alarmist degree, but I’m concerned where all of this leads. There is a trend – internationally, we are seeing a groundswell of support for laws which prohibit blasphmey. This is absolutely toxic but it’s a perfectly logical measure if allow ourselves to give too much weight to accomodating hurt feelings.

C.G.

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cl January 15, 2011 at 2:46 am

Alonzo Fyfe,

In other words, condemnation plays a major role in morality.

Where is the empirical evidence justifying the condemnation you shower upon fans of spectator sports, smokers, and parents of obese children? If none can be provided, shall we conclude that you just kind of, you know… turn a cold shoulder to evidence when it comes to morality, and proceed by intuition?

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Strattford March 22, 2011 at 8:26 pm

Also, religion can be positive – granting a sense of fulfilment and peace and an encouragement to live a thoughtful and moral life. I personally believe that religion is not the best way to gain these things, but it makes many people happy which is generally a good thing.

I’m convinced that religion cannot be positive, because it’s not being nowadays and it never was in the past. However, I think religion will never cease to exist, unfortunately, but it can be legitimated based on civility and tolerance. The “make people happy” think is exactly my problem with religion. It’s affects other people, not just the one who found comfort on religion. If it was a convenience constrained to individuals, and conceived under the law, it would be no problem at all. But the fact is, the individual who preaches in the streets at night, spreading the good word to homeless living in the sidewalk, would not leave doesn’t matter what because he “knows better”. It’s the “right thing to do”. Now, give power to this individual and then you have a problem…

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Strattford March 22, 2011 at 8:54 pm

If I have good cause to assert that some of Jesus’ teachings are immoral or that Jesus was no more divine than you or I (in the same way that I might have good cause to assert that your fly is open or you have a hole in your shoe)

It’s interesting that every time someone argues in favor of faith, it’s done by comparing to another faith under convenient examples, or by the Confucius way (“…… is like a three in a beautiful garden” or “….. is the same thing to ….”). I mean, things that may be similar but only in a particular aspect, denying everything else that comprise/resulted the “think” itself. Confucius often did it in an attempt to describe subjectivity, feelings, abstraction, etc.

Now, assuming that there was a historical Jesus (there are nothing to assume that except our western scientific bias toward Christianity), there are nothing left regarding “moral values” and Jesus, that wasn’t absorbed or rejected. Moral values changes are generally positive as far as it goes in the opposite direction of the teaching you are referring to…

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