Is It Morally Irresponsible to Believe in a God?

by Luke Muehlhauser on November 10, 2009 in Ethics,Guest Post

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The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moral theory, 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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Is it morally irresponsible to believe in a God?

I have spent my first two posts as an invited regular contributor to this blog applying desirism to the ethics of belief. I thought I should apply those principles to what seems to be a dominant theme of the so-called New Atheists. This is the view that belief in a God itself is morally irresponsible and such a person deserves condemnation and ridicule.

I am going to argue that this is not the case. A morally responsible person can believe in God.

In order to get to this conclusion that belief in God itself is morally objectionable, many new athists start with the premise that it is immoral to hold any belief without evidence. This was the dominant theme of Sam Harris’ book The End of Faith that kicked off the new atheist movement. The end of faith meant the end of the moral legitimacy of accepting claims without evidence.

The claim that we should only hold beliefs that we have reason to accept as true is absurd. It demands that which is impossible. If the new atheists think that all of their beliefs are grounded on an application of pure and unbiased reason they are sadly mistaken. They are just as mistaken to think that this is a standard that can be imposed on others.

Where do those first beliefs come from? Does it make sense to hold that a creature with no beliefs can take the first belief and hold it up to the light of reason in order to decide whether or not to accept it? This would be absurd.

There might be some genetic component to our early beliefs. They could be encoded into our brains by our genes. At the very least the methods by which experience creates belief has a strong genetic component. These beliefs are not being held up to the light of reason. The only thing they are being held up to is the light of cause and effect – molded by years of evolution that would have gladly embraced a (biologically) useful fiction over truth.

We cannot start to hold our beliefs up to the light of reason until we have accumulated quite an extensive stockpile of beliefs and beliefs about beliefs.

When we finally gain this ability to hold our beliefs up to the light of reason, what do we do?

The only option that we have at our disposal is to hold each belief up against the stockpile of other beliefs that we have acquired and are acquiring, to look for inconsistencies and irregularities, and to look for the best way to resolve those irregularities. In other words, the light of reason itself is powered by these beliefs we acquired prior to gaining the ability to reason. Our ‘evidence’ in these cases is the arationally adopted beliefs of our childhood.

Not only is it the case that the fuels for our ‘light of reason’ are beliefs that were adopted by authority, we simply do not have the time to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason. This is particularly true given the fact that every time we change a belief we call into question all of the beliefs that link to it. Changing our mind requires starting our review over again. There is no way that is going to happen in the real world.

So, we are going to have to do two things.

First, we are going to have to revert to methods for acquiring beliefs that are less reliable than reason would defend, but which allow us to acquire reasonably relaible beliefs much more quickly than reason allows.

burning_buildingConsider this scenario. You are inside of a burning building. You need to escape. In two minutes the fire will kill you. Do you stand there and hold all of your beliefs up to the light of reason to make sure that you have made no mistake even though the process will take hours? Or do you make a snap judgment based on a cursory examination of the available evidence that used methods faster than reason but less reliable?

The people who choose the second option live longer.

However, this is just an extreme example of a choice that all of us make every day. I need to decide what to eat for supper. I will assume that the meat in my turkey sandwich is uncontaminated. That belief is not based on a thorough evaluation of all of the available evidence. I am gambling – making the assumption that a little bit more reason and evidence applied to the question is too unlikely to affect the outcome to be worth the investment.

Second, we are going to have to choose which of our beliefs we are going to evaluate first. Like a hospital flooded with patients after a major earthquake, we are going to have to form belief triage. We need to divide our beliefs into groups – those that need immediate attention, those that we can look at later when we have some time, and those that we are going to simply give up on because we will never have the resources we need to evaluate them.

The morally responsible person has a simple criterion to use to determine which of his beliefs he is going to hold up to the light of reason first. Those are the ones that will have the greatest effects on the lives and well-being of others. Those beliefs that have few implications for what we do and how we affect others can be put aside until the more dangerous.

On this measure, a belief that a God exists can be pushed far down the scale of evaluation. The proposition “a God exists” does not tell us anything about what we should do, nor does it imply any conclusion about how we should treat others. A person is perfectly within his moral rights to declare, “This is one of those beliefs I acquired on authority as a child. It is harmless. I am going to hold onto it. In the mean time, I will devote my attention to those beliefs that have more pressing real-world implicaitons.

A person who flies a plane into a skyscraper, or votes to pass legislation harmful to the interests of homosexuals trying to establish permanent and secure loving households in Maine is not just saying that a God exists. He is saying a lot of other things, some of which has implications for the way he treats others. He may not have an obligation to review his belief about whether or not a God exists, but he has a serious obligation to review those beliefs that are relevant to the harms he seeks to impose on others.

It is quite possible to believe in a kind and loving God who would be happy to see the homosexuals He created in loving and secure relationships, fully accepted as equal members of the community, and who despises the act of flying airplanes into skyscrapers. And that He hates both things for the same reason, because they involve people bent on causing misery and suffering for others in His name. So it is not belief in a God that is the problem, but the other beliefs that some people tack onto their belief in God.

Moral irresponsibility, then, is not found in a belief in God. To find moral irresponsibility we look for the beliefs directly related to those acts in which a religious person (or a non-religious person) causes grief to others. Even if a person who values doing harm to others professes a belief in God, it still makes sense to ask why they made the choice to believe in a God that smiles on those who cause grief to their peaceful neighbors.

Belief in a God, then, is not a morally irresponsible act. In order to be an irresponsible belief, it must be a recklessly adopted belief that aims to ‘justify’ behavior that does harm to one’s peaceful neighbors. “At least one God almost certainly exists” doesn’t imply anything about how one treats one’s neighbors. The morally irresponsible beliefs, then, are the beliefs that people tack onto their belief in one or more gods. It is found in the idea that, “My God smiles upon me when I bring grief to my peaceful neighbors, and so I will do so, in the name of God.”

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Kip November 10, 2009 at 7:04 am

I completely disagree. For some reason, I think you think most people can believe in God without that belief affecting many other beliefs. I think you’re wrong. The belief in God supports many other beliefs. The belief in the particular teachings of the holy book, inspired by that god, would directly follow. I suppose you could try to get everyone to become a deist, and then a belief in god wouldn’t matter so much. However, it seems to me that going to the root of the false beliefs is a much better strategy.

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 7:07 am

If someone believed they had an invisible friend that was telling them to do bad things, should we 1) try to convince them that they are misunderstanding their invisible friend; their friend really wants them to do good things, or 2) try to convince them that their invisible friend does not exist. Option #1 seems ridiculous to me, yet it is what you seem to be recommending.

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majinrevan666 November 10, 2009 at 7:28 am

Kip: If someone believed they had an invisible friend that was telling them to do bad things, should we 1) try to convince them that they are misunderstanding their invisible friend; their friend really wants them to do good things, or 2) try to convince them that their invisible friend does not exist.Option #1 seems ridiculous to me, yet it is what you seem to be recommending.  

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People don’t have to be convinced that they are misunderstanding their “invisible friend”‘s instructions.
Most Christians do it whenever they open a bible.

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 7:31 am

majinrevan666:
People don’t have to be convinced that their are misunderstanding their “invisible friend”’s instructions.
Most Christians do it whenever they open a bible.  

This is obviously false.

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majinrevan666 November 10, 2009 at 7:34 am

Kip:
This is obviously false.  

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How else do you explain the liberal interpretation of stories like Jepaths daughter?

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 8:06 am

majinrevan666:
How else do you explain the liberal interpretation of stories like Jepaths daughter?  

It seemed to me that you were saying that most Christians convince themselves that they are misunderstanding their invisible friend’s instructions when they open their Bibles. (I just re-read what you wrote, and that does seem to be the most straight forward interpretation.)

It now appears you are saying that most Christians misinterpret what the Bible says in ways that are harmless. This is probably more correct than before, but there are obvious exceptions, and regardless is not the main point of my dissent.

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Alex November 10, 2009 at 8:52 am

I agree with most things in this argument except with what I see as the crucial move – the claim that belief in God is inconsequential enough to push into an “unimportant” category. This is probably true for most prosocial and moderate forms of religion, but not for fundamentalists.

I think Sam Harris’ main point in his book was that religious beliefs are no different than other beliefs, and thus have consequences that can’t be underestimated. That’s why religion can’t be a private matter for anyone, any more than someone’s beliefs about, say, vaccination are a private matter.

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Jeff H November 10, 2009 at 9:02 am

While I see the point of saying that simple belief in God is not the problem, I have to agree with Kip that it’s likely impossible to untangle these beliefs from one another. I have no problem with people who believe in benevolent, loving Gods, but it doesn’t make sense to ask people who believe in hateful Gods, “Why don’t you believe in a benevolent one?”

Alonzo says: “Even if a person who values doing harm to others professes a belief in God, it still makes sense to ask why they made the choice to believe in a God that smiles on those who cause grief to their peaceful neighbors.”

And their answer will be, “Because that’s the God that actually exists, duh.” People don’t shop around for Gods like they do at a supermarket for tomatoes. They are convinced that one particular God is real, and so they “choose” him. In reality, it’s not a choice at all. The character of the God they believe in is tied up in the “beliefs [they] acquired on authority as a child,” and thus they are not harmless. I don’t know what the best way to get rid of these beliefs is, but it’s not by convincing them to just believe in a better God.

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ayer November 10, 2009 at 9:59 am

The following principle seems to be lurking in the substructure of your argument: “Those beliefs which have been held up to the light of reason have the most justification.” But this principle itself has not been held up to the light of reason–how could it since doing so would be self-referential? So why is this principle not self-refuting?

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Derrida November 10, 2009 at 10:17 am

Alonzo Fyfe: The only option that we have at our disposal is to hold each belief up against the stockpile of other beliefs that we have acquired and are acquiring, to look for inconsistencies and irregularities, and to look for the best way to resolve those irregularities.  

Only if you start out with the belief that consistency is important. The problem with this “coherency” method is that you can make pretty much any belief system cohere if you make enough assumptions, such as that the law of noncontradiction does not hold. Down this road madness lies.

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Hermes November 10, 2009 at 10:17 am

Want to run that one through once more Ayer?

A re-write or a retraction seems in order.

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Alex November 10, 2009 at 10:20 am

ayer: You’re funny. The principle would only be self-refuting if it would say that beliefs that haven’t been held up to the light of reason are false. That’s absurd, and the principle doesn’t say or entail that. But the principle – that you’re more justified in trusting your beliefs about something you’ve thought about – seems to follow from the presupposition that your rational faculties are at least slightly more reliable than random guessing.

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ayer November 10, 2009 at 10:38 am

Alex: “presupposition that your rational faculties are at least slightly more reliable than random guessing.”

And what is your justification for that presupposition? That you determined it by use of your rational faculties?

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Alex November 10, 2009 at 11:21 am

No. It’s just an unavoidable one, on any worldview. But notice how you swapped from an accusation of self-refutation to one of circularity. I second the demand for a retraction.

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ayer November 10, 2009 at 11:38 am

Alex: No. It’s just an unavoidable one, on any worldview. But notice how you swapped from an accusation of self-refutation to one of circularity. I second the demand for a retraction.  

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I hereby deny your demand. Unavoidable? That’s your argument?

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Bill Maher November 10, 2009 at 12:11 pm

Is Kip a troll? I can not tell

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 12:16 pm

Bill Maher: Is Kip a troll? I can not tell  

au contraire

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Hermes November 10, 2009 at 12:29 pm

Ayer, your own words defeat your own argument as you make it.

Do you have something more interesting than the daily special on a plate of solipsism?

Cut the nonsense and crazy talk.

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Alex November 10, 2009 at 12:40 pm

ayer:
I hereby deny your demand.  

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Wonderful. Then explain how you get “all beliefs that haven’t been held up to reason are false” (which is necessary for you to make the accusation of self-contradiction) from “all beliefs that have been held up to reason are more justified.”

And to illustrate “unavoidable,” try to account (on whichever worldview you prefer) for the accuracy of your rational faculties without appealing to them.

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Scott Scheule November 10, 2009 at 12:46 pm

ayer: “The following principle seems to be lurking in the substructure of your argument: “Those beliefs which have been held up to the light of reason have the most justification.” But this principle itself has not been held up to the light of reason–how could it since doing so would be self-referential? So why is this principle not self-refuting?”

Perhaps you could explain, because it escapes me at the moment, why self-reference should entail self-refutation? What’s to keep us from examining the “light of reason principle” by its own lights and, perhaps, declare it good and valid?

Hermes: Ayer, your own words defeat your own argument as you make it. Do you have something more interesting than the daily special on a plate of solipsism? Cut the nonsense and crazy talk.

There are fewer indications more indicative of a weak point in one’s argument then an attempt to patch it with a flashy turn of phrase. I assume most of us are smart enough to know something about verificationism criticisms and induction problems. Waving one’s hands and looking the other way isn’t going to defeat those arguments.

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Hermes November 10, 2009 at 1:47 pm

It’s not my responsibility to analyze accurately the claims that someone else hasn’t formulated properly — and likely on purpose.

They have to step up before anyone should spend that type of effort.

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Thomas Reid November 10, 2009 at 2:16 pm

Are you using “belief in” to mean “one believes God exists”, or something else?

If it is the former, then why is the belief or nonbelief a moral question at all? Rather this type of belief would be either true or false. It seems that actions (murder) and thoughts (coveting) could be worthy of moral evaluation, but not a belief that God exists.

If it is the latter, can you clarify what this is? Is it trust, obedience, etc?

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ayer November 10, 2009 at 2:26 pm

Scott Scheule: Perhaps you could explain, because it escapes me at the moment, why self-reference should entail self-refutation?

Yes, I meant to type “self-referentially absurd.” I appreciate the opportunity to clarify that.

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ayer November 10, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Alex: Then explain how you get “all beliefs that haven’t been held up to reason are false” (which is necessary for you to make the accusation of self-contradiction) from “all beliefs that have been held up to reason are more justified.”

You don’t seem to be familiar with the distinction between “justification” and truth/falsity. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_justification

Fyfe is attempting to justify belief with a criteria that is itself not justified (at least, he has not presented an argument as to why it constitutes justified knowledge)

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 2:47 pm

Thomas Reid: Are you using “belief in” to mean “one believes God exists”, or something else?If it is the former, then why is the belief or nonbelief a moral question at all?

Alonzo talks more about this here:

http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=4299 & here:

http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com/2009/10/religion-and-moral-responsibility-of.html

The difference is that he seems to think that god-belief does no harm, and leads to no harm, while alternative-medicine belief does. I think he’s wrong. God belief does harm. You cannot separate the god-belief of the Catholic church from the harm it does based on the holy book it thinks was inspired by God.

Here’s my argument, Alonzo: if you have any belief that you use for justifying behaviors toward other people, then that belief better have very strong justification. Otherwise, you are behaving immorally. You are hurting people for no good reason.

Further: People with strong beliefs in God use that belief ALL THE TIME to justify their behaviors toward other people. They are behaving immorally by not securing their beliefs.

Conclusion: People with god-belief, very often are behaving immorally by not securing that belief before using it as justification for their actions.

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lukeprog November 10, 2009 at 3:20 pm

ayer,

Yes, the principle HAS been held up to the light of reason, throughout all of history. The observations of history are that facts that are tested in certain ways, or in certain other ways held up to the light of reason, are more likely to be true and useable.

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lukeprog November 10, 2009 at 3:23 pm

“Is Kip a troll?”

Heck no.

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Thomas Reid November 10, 2009 at 3:26 pm

Kip: Here’s my argument, Alonzo: if you have any belief that you use for justifying behaviors toward other people, then that belief better have very strong justification. Otherwise, you are behaving immorally. You are hurting people for no good reason.Further: People with strong beliefs in God use that belief ALL THE TIME to justify their behaviors toward other people. They are behaving immorally by not securing their beliefs.Conclusion: People with god-belief, very often are behaving immorally by not securing that belief before using it as justification for their actions.  (Quote)

I don’t understand this argument. Would you call a belief in God moral, or immoral, if it provided justification to do what we ought? If you are arguing for “morality of beliefs” based on the morality of the actions they justify, then you would have to call the belief moral. But I suppose you don’t mean this?

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John Quincy Public November 10, 2009 at 3:34 pm

I’m with Thomas Reid on counting possible gods being outside questions of morality. But it is refreshing to see an Atheist thinker finally recognize that it’s ultimately low importance either way. Cheers, Alonzo!

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 3:50 pm

Thomas Reid:
I don’t understand this argument.Would you call a belief in God moral, or immoral, if it provided justification to do what we ought?If you are arguing for “morality of beliefs” based on the morality of the actions they justify, then you would have to call the belief moral.But I suppose you don’t mean this?

The belief is not moral or immoral. The failure to secure the belief that is being used to justify your harmful actions is immoral.

Alonzo discusses this in the articles I linked to. I’m just agreeing with him, and wondering why he’s not applying the same standard to god-belief when it clearly is used to justify harmful actions.

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Thomas Reid November 10, 2009 at 4:20 pm

Kip: The belief is not moral or immoral. The failure to secure the belief that is being used to justify your harmful actions is immoral.Alonzo discusses this in the articles I linked to. I’m just agreeing with him, and wondering why he’s not applying the same standard to god-belief when it clearly is used to justify harmful actions.  (Quote)

I see what you are saying. Yes, I’ve read those articles. I’m still thinking through what it means to “secure one’s beliefs” and any resulting implications of this concept when it comes to morality, so don’t have much comment on that.

In any event, we agree that the belief is either true or false, NOT right or wrong.

I would still like to hear Fyfe comment on my original question.

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John Quincy Public November 10, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Kip: The failure to secure the belief that is being used to justify your harmful actions is immoral.

That’s a nonsense for a rational Atheist. An Atheist that doesn’t believe in physics, sure. But not a rational one.

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ayer November 10, 2009 at 5:32 pm

lukeprog: The observations of history are that facts that are tested in certain ways, or in certain other ways held up to the light of reason, are more likely to be true and useable.

“Useable,” perhaps (or as Fyfe says “molded by years of evolution that would have gladly embraced a (biologically) useful fiction over truth”); “true”, not so much.

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Alex November 10, 2009 at 6:41 pm

ayer: The distinction between justification and truth is exactly the reason why you can’t get from Fyfe’s principle to any statement that contradicts it (which is what a self-refuting statement is).

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 6:45 pm

John Quincy Public:
That’s a nonsense for a rational Atheist.An Atheist that doesn’t believe in physics, sure.But not a rational one.

Alonzo Fyfe himself wrote: (http://commonsenseatheism.com/?p=4299)

People in general – you and me – we all have reason to condemn the individual who fails to secure her beliefs, just as we have reason to condemn the rancher who fails to secure the load on his truck before heading into town. More of us and those we care about will live longer and happier lives if we could only get people to adopt a stronger interest in securing their beliefs.

We accomplish this, as a society, by praising those who take the pains to secure their beliefs and by condemning those who fail to secure their beliefs. This is no different than praising the rancher who secures the load that he takes into town by noting that he is a responsible and praiseworthy individual, and condemning the rancher who fails to do so.

Notice that the negligent rancher deserves our condemnation even if he should make it into town without killing anybody – in the same way that the drunk driver deserves our condemnation even if he makes it home without killing anybody. The moral fault rests in caring so little for the welfare of others that one is willing to create a risk of harm. Actual harm is simply one of the most reliable indicators that a person was willing to create such a risk.

Does god-belief have a risk of harm? I think history affirms this to be the case. And, from personal life experience, I know this to be the case. For whatever reason, Fyfe seems to be blind to this.

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ayer November 10, 2009 at 8:03 pm

Kip: Does god-belief have a risk of harm? I think history affirms this to be the case.

On that logic, history also affirms atheism to have a risk of harm (Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, etc.).

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Kip November 10, 2009 at 8:18 pm

ayer:
On that logic, history also affirms atheism to have a risk of harm (Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, etc.).

Atheism was not to blame for those. Faith was to blame in those cases, too.

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ayer November 11, 2009 at 5:58 am

Kip:
Atheism was not to blame for those.Faith was to blame in those cases, too.  

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Karl Marx: “Man makes religion, religion does not make man…This state and this society produce religion, which is an inverted consciousness of the world, because they are an inverted world…The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion…Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people…The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”

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Hermes November 11, 2009 at 8:17 am

FWIW: When Marx said religion was ‘the opium of the people’, he meant that it is a palliative — calming and soothing — not an illicit substance to be abused by the user.

Additionally, Marx himself was not on the list of baddies presented by Ayer that Kip responded to.

[ waits for expected replies ]

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John Quincy Public November 11, 2009 at 8:17 am

Kip: Atheism was not to blame for those. Faith was to blame in those cases, too.

So you have a scientific proof of Atheism then. Or is it just Faith? Even Luke, in defending Desirism for the nonce, proceeds honestly in his Faith in his theory.

Of course you’re a rational Atheist and accept that these things simply happened because the atoms were arranged that way. In which instance there’s no moral dimension to any of it. Not that you can help yourself; your atoms are just arranged that way.

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Hermes November 11, 2009 at 9:15 am

Neither atheism nor faith or variations of those words should be capitalized unless they are at the beginning of a sentence; they aren’t proper nouns.

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John Quincy Public November 11, 2009 at 1:18 pm

Hermes: Neither atheism nor faith or variations of those words should be capitalized unless they are at the beginning of a sentence; they aren’t proper nouns.  

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You mean “nor” not “or”, of course.

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Kip November 11, 2009 at 1:50 pm

Kip:
Atheism was not to blame for those.Faith was to blame in those cases, too.

To clarify… obviously I was not referring to a faith in god, here. However, it is clear that the problem was not that the people following these lunatics were skeptical, critical thinkers. On the contrary, these sheeple did not question what they were blindly following. They had faith.

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Hermes November 11, 2009 at 3:43 pm

You are correct in your criticism.

My point was more on content, not grammar.

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Sabio Lantz November 11, 2009 at 6:37 pm

I totally agree with Luke and Alonzo’s conclusions !!
Now, going through and evaluating some of the tacked on beliefs with theism would be interesting.
Presently, I am trying to learn a little about Atonement Theologies. Since this is key to Christian doctrines, I would love to see you or Alonzo apply your insights on these doctrines. I think Penal Substitutionary Theory (and the other Deontic theories) may prove immoral. I wonder about the others?

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