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.)
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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