Monday, August 27, 2012

Why couldn't there be mass killings in the name of atheism?

When atheists were in control of governments, in the Communist world, there was plenty of mass killing. You can certainly be a racist with or without religion. (Hitler didn't exterminate Jews for religious reasons, for examples). Human nature, not religion, seems to be the reason why we do evil things to one another. Ideologies, religious or otherwise, can serve as a pretext. But at least with Christianity, killing without justification is against one of the Ten Commandments.

If you  thought that the worst thing in the world was religion, you thought the end justified the means, and you had the power to do something to get rid of it, you could decide to commit atrocities to free the world of religion. Why couldn't this happen? What is there about the rejection of religion that would prevent this? Doesn't all the evidence point the other way? Why think atheism would give us all nothing to kill or die for? 

No one has ever come close to explaining to me how the abandonment of religion would do anything to eliminate man's humanity to man. 

51 comments:

Karl Grant said...

The modern atheist movement can't, in fact they're living proof wars, discrimination, hatred, intolerance, etc... won't die out if religion vanished. Just look at one little thing Meyer's said:

I have to be very careful to keep my description of values general, and be clear that I’m not dictating them to you, but describing what I see emerging as a consensus, because otherwise I’ll be pilloried by my own kind. We’re a pitiless bunch.

When the leader of a group is afraid to voice his opinions for fear of reprisal from his followers you know you are dealing with some pretty intolerant, petty, aggressive and vindictive people. If religion is destroyed they will still be intolerant, petty, aggressive and vindictive. Hell, they've turned on Meyers already because of a cartoon bunny rabbit.

B. Prokop said...

Solzhenitsyn noted that Shakespeare's worst villains would fall apart after the third corpse or so, whereas the Stalinists could contemplate piles of victims without a qualm. The difference, he wrote, was that his contemporaries worshiped at the altar of expedience. Their logic (in the absence of a Higher Authority) couldn't be faulted.

No, were the atheists ever to grasp the reins of power in the west, the body count would surely be immeasurable. And since every revolution inevitably devours its own, chief among the victims would undoubtedly be fellow atheists.

BeingItself said...

Of course atheists have and could commit mass murder.

Most atheists now days are also Humanists of some sort. A commitment to Humanism does preclude mass murder.

Doug Benscoter said...

BeingItself, I think most of us will agree with you that most atheists don't approve of mass murder. The most interesting direction this discussion takes us, in my opinion, is over the origin of humanism. Why think human beings have any more worth than brute beasts?

B. Prokop said...

I'd really like to believe you, BeingItself, but "commitment to humanism" is a thin reed indeed to hang onto. Many of history's greatest atrocities have been committed in the name of enlightened humanism. Take the case of Antiochus Epiphanes (ruler from 175-164 BC). He was the brightest star of the most advanced, enlightened civilization the world had known to that time - the product of centuries of the greatest philosophies, the most brilliant literature, the best of upbringings and the finest education. Heir to the most humane empire ever seen... until he became the most bestial tyrant imaginable. A description of his crimes would surely disgust you. And all in the name of progress, enlightenment, and civilization! His Reign of Terror was for the Good of Humanity!!!

BeingItself said...

Doug,

Your question presupposes that something can have inherent value, which is incoherent.

A tiger cub is worth more to the tigress than a human baby is worth to the tigress.

If your question is what has more inherent value a human baby or a tiger cub, then my reply is your question makes no sense.

Karl Grant said...

BI,

Your question presupposes that something can have inherent value, which is incoherent.

And you are assuming there is no such thing as inherent value without demonstrating why. Simply saying it is incoherent does not cut it.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Hi Victor,

Why couldn't there be mass killings in the name of atheism?

I suppose there could be, but then I suppose there could be mass killings in the name of... a lot of things. It depends on what it means to do something "in the name of" something else. On this point, I have a question: what does it mean to perform an action A "in the name of" X?

Does it mean the agent shouts the words, "In the name of X!", and then does A? Does it mean the agent believes X and does A? Does it mean A is logically required by X? Or that it is impossible to condemn A if one believes X? Does it mean that performing A somehow benefits those who believe X?

When atheists were in control of governments, in the Communist world, there was plenty of mass killing.

Was this done "in the name of atheism"? How?

You can certainly be a racist with or without religion. (Hitler didn't exterminate Jews for religious reasons, for examples). Human nature, not religion, seems to be the reason why we do evil things to one another. Ideologies, religious or otherwise, can serve as a pretext. But at least with Christianity, killing without justification is against one of the Ten Commandments.

Yes, "killing without justification is against one of the Ten Commandments." I agree, but I have always thought this point was overrated. From a pragmatic perspective, what matters is whether people who believe the Ten Commandments are less likely to kill people without justification than those who don't.

If you thought that the worst thing in the world was religion, you thought the end justified the means, and you had the power to do something to get rid of it, you could decide to commit atrocities to free the world of religion. Why couldn't this happen? What is there about the rejection of religion that would prevent this? Doesn't all the evidence point the other way? Why think atheism would give us all nothing to kill or die for?

I'm sympathetic to your point, but the worry I have is this. This discussion seems to envision people as moral philosophers attending a colloquium on the moral point of view. If someone contemplates a course of action that is inconsistent with their moral philosophy, all that needs to happen is for another philosopher to point this out, and then the first philosopher will not perform the action. I'm not sure this is a realistic view of human rationality.

What is there about the rejection of religion that would prevent this?

Furthermore, there is another thing that strikes me as very odd here. Allow me to explain. On a theistic view of ethics, whether one ascribes to pure voluntarism (pace Ockham), Adams's modified divine command theory, or something else, it is common among theists to regard morality as having a deep connection to God.

What strikes me as odd is the further view that atheists must similarly regard morality as having a deep connection to the non-existence of God. But this doesn't follow at all. Off the top of my head, I can't think of one single atheist who thinks that way about morality. So, by my lights, the question, "What is there about the rejection of religion that would prevent this?" is the wrong question. A much better question would be this: "On what normative basis would an atheist condemn mass killings?"

No one has ever come close to explaining to me how the abandonment of religion would do anything to eliminate man's humanity to man.

Did you mean to write "man's inhumanity to man"?

Victor Reppert said...

"Man's inhumanity to man" is an expression I used to hear a lot growing up. I was thinking about how to re-express it without using sexist language, but couldn't think of anything.

Again, the overall context of this discussion is the thesis that religion causes violence, or makes it more likely, or something like that. There are atheists out there, who actually believe this bunk. A good example would be this quote from Steven Weinberg.

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Again, the overall context of this discussion is the thesis that religion causes violence, or makes it more likely, or something like that. There are atheists out there, who actually believe this bunk. A good example would be this quote from Steven Weinberg.

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.


Ah, the context is very helpful.

I am inclined to think that there is a sense in which both you and Weinberg are correct.

Weinberg's statement can be interpreted a couple of ways. One way, which I'll call the "strong" interpretation, is the idea that religion makes violent behavior much more likely than it would have been otherwise. That seems doubtful to me.

Another interpretation, which I will call the "weak" interpretation, is based upon the insight that theistic beliefs can provide an extra type of motivation for behavior that isn't available otherwise. The only reason a person might have to perform some action might be the belief that God has commanded it. This is true even if the theist's belief is false.

As the saying goes, "Perception is not reality, but it might as well be reality, since people make decisions based upon their perception of reality."

A related quotation is this one from Benjamin Netanyahu.

"To understand the true dangers of Islamic militancy, we can compare it to another ideology which sought world domination - communism. Both movements pursued irrational goals, but the communists at least pursued theirs in a rational way.

Anytime they had to choose between ideology and their own survival, as in Cuba or Berlin, they backed off and chose survival.

Not so for the Islamic militants. They pursue an irrational ideology irrationally - with no apparent regard for human life, neither their own lives nor the lives of their enemies. The Communists seldom, if ever, produced suicide bombers, while Islamic militancy produces hordes of them, glorifying them and promising them that their dastardly deeds will earn them a glorious afterlife.

This highly pathological aspect of Islamic militancy is what makes it so deadly for mankind."

rank sophist said...

Jeffrey,

Political motivations can send people on similarly murderous, suicidal paths. Consider Breivik, for instance. A kind of immortality comes with being a national hero, even if one disbelieves in an afterlife.

Also, it's important to remember that nihilism, a not-so-rare byproduct of atheism, can inspire killing sprees and suicide. Columbine would be a good example. Nihilism and its resulting loneliness is particularly volatile when combined with mental illness. On the other hand, religion--which by and large teaches peace--acts against loneliness and hopelessness, and it provides a cultural support structure that atheism simply does not have.

Militant Islam is indeed deadly, but is it really as terrifying as the mentally ill gunmen swarming the US right now? I'd say that they present an even more immediate threat to national security, in fact. I don't think tying religion to violence is as cut-and-dried as you make it sound. Humans will kill each other in large quantities no matter what happens.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Rank Sophist --

Political motivations can send people on similarly murderous, suicidal paths. Consider Breivik, for instance. A kind of immortality comes with being a national hero, even if one disbelieves in an afterlife.

I agree.

Also, it's important to remember that nihilism, a not-so-rare byproduct of atheism, can inspire killing sprees and suicide.

The claim that nihilism is a "not-so-rare byproduct of atheism" is just that: a claim which requires support. I don't find evidence for that in your post.

Columbine would be a good example.

A good example of what, precisely? It's not an example related to atheism.

Nihilism and its resulting loneliness is particularly volatile when combined with mental illness.

I hadn't thought of a possible connection between a philosophical belief (nihilism) and the emotional feeling of loneliness. It's an interesting idea.

On the other hand, religion--which by and large teaches peace--acts against loneliness and hopelessness, and it provides a cultural support structure that atheism simply does not have.

It all depends on how one defines "religion," but I think I agree with you, at least with respect to organized religion.

Militant Islam is indeed deadly, but is it really as terrifying as the mentally ill gunmen swarming the US right now? I'd say that they present an even more immediate threat to national security, in fact.

Whoa, I never claimed that religious violence was more common than mental illness-related violence or other forms of violence. I honestly have no idea what is more common; I would want to research the data before making any claims about that.

I don't think tying religion to violence is as cut-and-dried as you make it sound. Humans will kill each other in large quantities no matter what happens.

I agree with the second sentence. Regarding the first sentence, I'm puzzled why you think I consider it a cut-and-dried issue. My point was that the unique resources of theism can motivate behavior in ways that atheism cannot. This seems to be a double-edged sword. Religion can inspire great good but also great evil. I take it as a given that the majority of religious people do not commit religious-based violence.

Cale B.T. said...

Hi Mr Lowder, rank sophist wrote, " nihilism, a not-so-rare byproduct of atheism, can inspire killing sprees and suicide. Columbine would be a good example." to which you replied "[the Columbine shootings] are not an example related to atheism."

The following is an excerpt from the journal of one of the shooters from the Columbine High massacre

"when [I will carry out my massacre] people say things like, "oh it was so tragic," or "oh he is crazy!" or "It was bloody!" I think, so the f**k what, you think thats a bad thing? just because your mommy and daddy told you blood and violence is bad, you think its a fucking law of nature? wrong, only science and math are true, everything, and I mean everyf**kingthing else is man made."

While the writings of the shooters are often inconsistent, I think that nihilism brought on by scientism was undoubtedly a significant factor for at least one of the shooters in this case.

Crude said...

Victor,

Why think atheism would give us all nothing to kill or die for?

Perhaps we can reach a compromise with our atheist interlocutors.

Let's put aside the question of whether atheism has served as a motivator to mass killing, brutality, oppression, etc.

How about we ask whether anti-theism - a hallmark of the Cult of Gnu, New Atheism generally, and frankly western atheism itself - has been such a motivator? Is anti-theism divisive? Does it encourage scapegoating? Tribalism? Hostility? Violence?

Crude said...

As an aside, I think one of the problems when talking about atheism in this context is that obscure, odd forms of atheism start to pop up inevitably - like, say, quasi-atheist Neoplatonist creations, where you have atheists who believe in The Good, or even an afterlife, or... etc. Which start to seem a lot more like theism than atheism

The combination of atheism and what typically passes for materialism seems more apt, especially since that's the most popular modern brand.

Doug Benscoter said...

BeingItself, what's incoherent about saying a thing has inherent value? Your examples suggest that there is no objective moral law. If this is the case, then how is humanism morally superior to neo-fascism?

im-skeptical said...

The common myth among theists seems to be that atheism is some kind of religion. It's not a system of beliefs. It's not a cause for which someone would wage battle. They always like to point to atheists who have done terrible things, like Stalin. Stalin didn't kill all those people in the name of atheism. He had other motivations, like an extreme lust for power, which isn't unique to atheists by any means. I particularly resent the theists' attempt to blame the Jewish holocaust on atheism. As though pitting a Christian nation against a Jewish minority wasn't something fundamentally religious in nature.

I don't particularly agree with Victor's quote of Steven Weinberg. The world has its bad guys. Many of them are religious, and some of them are not. But I see absolutely no evidence to support the notion that atheism causes people to do evil things.

Crude said...

The common myth among theists seems to be that atheism is some kind of religion. It's not a system of beliefs. It's not a cause for which someone would wage battle.

See, this kind of thing makes atheists into practically non-existent beings. By this standard, every group from the American Atheists to the Cult of Gnu to Secular Web has nothing to do with atheism.

If the idea that atheism promotes certain beliefs or mandates certain conclusions is a myth, it's apparently a myth among atheists as much as or more than theists.

im-skeptical said...

Crude,

If I ever decided to join this cult you speak of, my affiliation with it might give me some ideological bent. Many atheists do have some group affiliation, but simply being atheist does not imply any group membership or ideology. The only thing you might infer about atheists is that they have made a decision to reject religious teachings.

Crude said...

im-skeptical,

Many atheists do have some group affiliation, but simply being atheist does not imply any group membership or ideology.

You're going to have extreme trouble arguing that American Atheists, Secular Web, Project Reason or various other groups have neither group membership nor ideaology.

Hell, gnu+/Atheist+ explicitly has an ideaology.

The only thing you might infer about atheists is that they have made a decision to reject religious teachings.

I've seen atheists deny even this - where there's no 'decision' involved, with atheism as mere lack of belief. But again, this would mean that the American Atheists, etc have next to nothing to do with atheism. In principle, given those standards, an atheist could support everything from prayer in school to an out and out theocracy - so the various atheist advocacy groups actually are disconnected from atheism.

That leads to some very interesting results.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

Crude -- One quick nitpick: the Secular Web / Internet Infidels are not a membership organization. They have no members.

Okay, I said it was a nitpick.

Laura said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mike Darus said...

"they have made a decision to reject religious teachings"

How about this for a creed for atheism (I stole most of this but fixed it up a bit):
We believe in not believing anything.
We believe in evidence and are convinced there is no evidence for anything we are not believing.
If someone suggests there is evidence, we believe it is not real evidence. Real evidence requires personal validation.
We believe in the morality that says everything is OK as long as you don't hurt anyone (specifically, directly, and intentionally). Hurting others unintentionally is definitely OK..

We believe in the right to full sexual expression before, during, and after marriage (rape and pedophilia excepted).
We believe that taboos are taboo in any particular cultural context.

We believe that all religions are basically the same. Their differences are petty and nonsensical. Any religion that does not believe in compulsory heaven for all is just plain mean.

We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Except, anyone who decides that a religion is true is clearly deluded.
We believe that there is no absolute truth or objective morality. It is wrong to think that there is. Furthermore, these sentences are not incompatible.
We believe in the rejection of creeds, and the flowering of individual thought. We deny that any creed or part of a creed was once an individual thought.

SteveK said...

The common myth among theists seems to be that atheism is some kind of religion. It's not a system of beliefs. It's not a cause for which someone would wage battle."

If that is your position then atheism also provides no benefit, or good. Such a conclusion would require that atheism is a cause for which someone would wage a battle -- a battle to do good things that benefit humanity. You've flatly said that is a myth.

So what is atheism good for? Nothing apparently - at least according to you.

rank sophist said...

Jeffrey,

Actually, my reference to Columbine was related to nihilism--a fairly well-accepted theory about the shooters. Cale's quote further supports this view. I figured that they were atheists as well, but this was not related to my point.

As for the connection between atheism and nihilism: this was made by Nietzsche himself. He didn't believe that it was a necessary connection--he and his modernist followers, like Sartre, argued that nihilism should be fought against. Nevertheless, philosophers of this lineage were aware of the ever-present specter of nihilism that hangs on the outskirts of atheism. This is all I was saying.

Finally, by "clear-cut", I was referring to your discussion of a "weak interpretation", in which religion caused atrocities in a somewhat indirect way. I think that even this attribution is too much. People will always kill others regardless of their justifications. You have the Breivik-types, who kill to make political statements; the Nazi- and KKK-types, who kill for racial reasons; the communist-types, who kill to "free the common man"; the Columbine-types, who kill for fun; the militant Islam-types, who kill for the promise of an afterlife; the Christian crusader-types, who kill to drive out the "heathens"; the Virginia Tech-types, who kill because of elaborate, delusional fantasies brought on by mental illness; and on and on. As Reppert keeps saying, there is no Imagine-style paradise in which people have "nothing to kill or die for". Take away religion and some turn to nihilistic killing sprees; bring back religion and some engage in fanatical killing sprees. It's unavoidable.

B. Prokop said...

I actually do believe it is possible for an atheist to not have a set of beliefs. The problem is, however, (at least for people like im-skeptical and Papalinton, etc.) is that you would never, ever hear from such a person. He would never find anything worthy of commenting on. They would certainly never post to Dangerous Idea.

Sorry to anyone who'd like to have his cake and eat it too. But the moment you enter into a debate and/or conversation with a theist, you no longer have the ability to honestly claim you are free of beliefs or of a system of belief.

Victor Reppert said...

People do turn atheism in to a cause for which they could potentially be willing to kill or die for. People can have the same kind of devotion to atheism that they have to any religion. They can believe that "the end of faith" is a goal worth pursuing. People sometimes assume that heaven and hell make fanaticism possible, and since they are missing on atheism, it isn't possible to be a fanatical atheist. In Communism there was an equivalent to heaven, it was the socialist paradise promised by Marx, and people did kill and die for that. Hell for some atheists seems to be the obstruction of scientific progress, or religious taboos against certain types of sex behavior.

It is also possible for atheists to disregard solid evidence because of their anti-religious convictions. I see little difference between Todd Akin's refusal to accept the existence of pregnancies produced by rape and Richard Dawkins' claim that a religious upbringing does more harm that child sexual abuse. In both cases, the evidence against these claims is overwhelming, but ideology trumps inconvenient facts in both cases.

I do think that the Columbine case underscores another point, that the abandonment of traditional religious belief will not necessarily produce cheerful humanists. I remember when I was growing up there was a 18-year-old boy who killed 5 women with a knife at a beauty parlor, and what people could remember of him from high school was that he was an atheist. Now, there's nothing inevitable about this, but there is a route from atheism to nihilism to murder, and there is also the possibility of crimes of fanaticism to serve the end of faith and the advancement and glorification of science. Of course, there is also the religious justification for the 9/11 attacks, and for the crusades and wars of religion, but these are also not inevitable.

im-skeptical said...

Mike Darus has just confirmed what I said earlier about the myth of atheism. I think many theists just can't understand what it means to be free of religious belief, so they project their own dependence upon religion onto us atheists. If you want to know why I think it's good to be an atheist, I'd say it's because it gives me some hope of freeing my mind from superstition, dogmatism, and other forms of mumbo-jumbo. Perhaps some other atheists have a similar feeling. If so, they might even decide to form an association, but that doesn't mean it's some kind of religion.

ozero91 said...

I think labelling atheism as a religion is a stretch, but defining it as a "lack of belief" seems like an evasion. Whats wrong with just saying atheism is a belief that divine beings do not exist?

Mike Darus said...

"what it means to be free of religious belief"

You are right. I cannot conceive of anyone free of faith-base beliefs. I know beliefs when I see them. You can claim you don't adhere to anyone's official tenants, but no one is so original. We all have concepts about reality that go beyond empirical evidence. If you deny you have beliefs, you are fooling yourself but no one else. You may be comforted that your convictions are not "religious" because they differ from established "religions",congratulations, you just created a new denomination.

im-skeptical said...

Bob,

You make the mistake of thinking that a lack of religious beliefs implies a lack of any beliefs. This is another myth that seems to be widespread among theists. My lack of belief in your brand of god (or anyone else's) implies that I consider myself to be nothing but a blob of material with no intellect or opinions? Surely you can give me a little more credit than that.

And Victor, I still say that there is no evidence that anyone has ever committed an atrocity for the sake of atheism in and of itself. Marx had a commitment to achieving an ideal socialist or communist state, not the goal of freeing the world from religion.

ozero91 said...

I think the theist's frustration with the definitions of atheism has to do with "armchair" skepticism. The atheist can claim that they lack a belief in God, so they can dismiss theistic claims without having to provide a a positive case for athiesm or a defense for their own view. Theres no need to justify your belief when the belief isnt (apparently) there in the first place!

rank sophist said...

I'm in agreement with Colin McGinn on the definition of atheism. It's an active rejection--a firm belief that there are no gods. Agnosticism is a lack of belief. (Cite: http://www.theoreticalandappliedethics.com/#%21just-war-religion-issue)

im-skeptical said...

ozero91,

I agree to some extent. A person who does not assert some particular thing really is under no obligation to justify his lack of assertion. That being said, I think if you pick an atheist and a theist at random from the population of atheists and theists, you will find that the atheist is more likely to have some rational justification for his lack of belief than the theist has for his belief. The reason is that for most of us, we have given the matter some consideration and made a conscious choice to be atheists. That can't be said of the typical religious believer, who has grown up believing what he was taught.

Crude said...

That being said, I think if you pick an atheist and a theist at random from the population of atheists and theists, you will find that the atheist is more likely to have some rational justification for his lack of belief than the theist has for his belief. The reason is that for most of us, we have given the matter some consideration and made a conscious choice to be atheists.

This is unsubstantiated and silly, especially given how many prominent atheists became so at a damn young age, by their own reckoning.

That can't be said of the typical religious believer, who has grown up believing what he was taught.

Also unsubstantiated and silly, especially given studies of the changes in people's religious beliefs during their adult life - switching faiths, rethinking beliefs while remaining theist, etc.

But so long as we're just speculating, I think if you dig into the atheist population, you'll find A) a surprising lack of deists and quasi-theists masquerading as atheists, and B) a lot of politically ginned up people who embrace atheism for social/political reasons, ie, 'they see Christianity, particularly conservative Christianity, as a bulwark against political goals they desire, and react against such'.

Papalinton said...

Rank
"It's an active rejection--a firm belief that there are no gods."

Re McGinn, have a look at this video

rank sophist said...

Re McGinn, have a look at this video

I'm aware of McGinn's infantile objections to religion. Fortunately, it's possible to accept someone's good ideas while rejecting their bad ones.

Papalinton said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Papalinton said...

"Fortunately, it's possible to accept someone's good ideas while rejecting their bad ones."

Then you would understand why it is that I too accept about 5% of the teachings in the bible that espouse the universal humanist principles while rejecting the remaining 95% primitive superstition.

im-skeptical said...

Crude,

I should qualify my statement by clarifying who I mean when I refer to "atheists". It's not people who don't know what they think. It's not pagans or new-agers who might call themselves atheists for lack of something better to call themselves. It's not people like Leah Libresco who said she was an atheist but entertained some idea of morality coming from an external source that turns out to be God.

In my mind, an atheist is someone who has committed to the idea that he has no reason to believe in God.

Syllabus said...

"In my mind, an atheist is someone who has committed to the idea that he has no reason to believe in God."

That's terribly ambiguous. It just as easily applies to agnostics, and they're not the same things as atheists.

Jeffery Jay Lowder said...

On the definition of atheism, I find myself more in agreement with many theists than I do with many people who self-identify as atheist. When I use the word "atheist," I use it to mean someone who holds the belief that God does not exist. Someone who merely lacks belief in God's existence, without necessarily holding the belief that God does not exist, may be called either a nontheist or agnostic.

See here and here.

BenYachov said...


Feser's take down of McGinn is worth a read.

McGinn is a pre-Theist.

http://www.theoreticalandappliedethics.com/#!just-war-religion-issue

Dan Gillson said...

Feser's "take down" was hardly a take down, Ben. McGinn's essay was conversational, untechnical, and kind of funny. He stated that he found the question of God uninteresting because it seemed to him like believing in fairy tale things. He argued that, whether theist or atheist, we all disbelieve what we count as fiction, and, that after a certain point, an active disbelief is replaced by mere beliefs in other things. That's where McGinn is at, not anymore disbelieving, but believing other things. He's a post-theist.

So, having boiled down McGinn's essay into its component parts, it becomes clear that it is more of a confession than an argument, an extended shoulder-shrug that uses argument merely to get the point across. What is there to "take down"? Feser tries, of course; he argues that until McGinn really deals with the arguments advanced by theism, the best he can be is a pre-theist. That's just Feser saying that McGinn isn't a good enough atheist, and it's not much of an argument.

Papalinton said...

"Feser's take down of McGinn is worth a read."

Hardly, as Dan Gillson correctly notes.

And Feser's reason for imagining where McGinn gets it wrong?

"McGinn’s mistake is a very common one among contemporary atheists. Nor is it entirely his fault. Ever since William Paley presented his feeble “design argument, ......”

and then the catharsis,

"By the late twentieth century the tendency had even crept into academic philosophy of religion, leading to the partial displacement of the classical theistic conception of God by what Brian Davies (2004) has called a “theistic personalist” conception. This anthropomorphic conception of God is often read back into the arguments of older writers like Aquinas and he others mentioned above (who would have had no truck with it), severely distorting contemporary readers’ understanding of those arguments."

The ubiquitous 'theistic personalist' and 'classical theism' trope and old two-step shuffle, a fabriqué formulated from theo-logical musings unbounded by fact, unguided by proofs, nor founded on evidence. According to Feser, it's all the fault of the false and heretical ideas propounded by other christians who refuse to subscribe to the ineffable 'classic theist' model, and that McGinn would have seen and experienced the folly had he addressed his comments in the 'light' of 'classical theism'. This is not something of McGinn's making, mind you, and whatever the superstitious nonsense trotted out through the competing and conflicting ideas of christian belief, McGinn is perfectly entitled and warranted to challenge this nonsense whatever its form in the public domain, regardless of the sensitivities and stripe of a particular christian bibliolater. It is the responsibility of christians to internally sort out their definition of christian Scatology, not McGinn's. For Feser to cower behind this trope as a defense, or an attack on McGinn's perspective, simply underscores the paucity of evidence for the christian memeplex.

McGinn poignantly ends his article ["Why I am an Atheist"];

"Stories can, after all, be good, artistically, morally, without being true, that is, factual. There is no God, but the story of him has its attractions as a work of art (at least some of it does; not all of the God fiction is that useful). Living in that world, my state of belief with regard to God might include a good deal of make-believe in him, combined with adamant disbelief in his reality. My imaginative life already involves a lot of make-believe in relation to fictional characters, none of it confused with belief proper; I see no reason why I couldn't extend this attitude towards God, at least once other people stopped literally believing in him. I might then extract what is good in the concept, while discarding the metaphysical baggage. Religious language would then be more of a fun fiction than a cruel hoax, a kind of game."

Dan Gillson said...

Don't get me wrong: I think Feser's essay is worth reading; but I also wanted to disabuse our friend of his fanboyishness.

Crude said...

So, having boiled down McGinn's essay into its component parts, it becomes clear that it is more of a confession than an argument, an extended shoulder-shrug that uses argument merely to get the point across. What is there to "take down"?

See, I don't think this works at all. This strikes me as the sort of defense I see of Dawkins all too often - where, once you expose the fact that Dawkins' arguments in TGD either fail, or are "not even wrong", the response comes that Dawkins wasn't even trying to mount a serious argument against God's existence. Instead he was arguing against the lowest of the low of theistic arguments and beliefs, the sort of people who really believe that God is literally a man on a throne out in space somewhere.

Really, when your defense of McGinn is "well, the arguments and observations he were offering don't mean anything, it was just a personal confession...", that's no defense at all. It's a gutting of McGinn's essay, even if unintentional.

Feser tries, of course; he argues that until McGinn really deals with the arguments advanced by theism, the best he can be is a pre-theist. That's just Feser saying that McGinn isn't a good enough atheist, and it's not much of an argument.

I think it's a pretty significant claim, forcefully argued for. Again, your reading requires dumping any and all of the arguments made by McGinn as irrelevant and cashing out his words as mere confession: "I don't believe in God. Why not? Meh, the arguments don't matter here. Just saying what I am." If that were the case, Feser's reply - that McGinn hasn't even begun to think about the question properly - would go through.

The defense of "Yeah, McGinn doesn't have a response to the various arguments for theism, or any good arguments for atheism, but so what?" is no defense at all.

Dan Gillson said...

I see a difference between McGinn's persuasive confession--I'm grasping for nomenclature for the purposes of making a distinction, bear with me--and Dawkins' argument in that, though he makes arguments of the same type as Dawkins, McGinn has a sort of ennui about the theism/atheism debate; he doesn't feel the need to address the arguments of sophisticated theism because he's bored by them. McGinn has earned the right to maintain his atheism by holding certain putative commonsense positions and their valid inferences. Frankly, Feser fails to make the case that McGinn should care, and that's why, in my view, Feser's argument ultimately fails.

Crude said...

he doesn't feel the need to address the arguments of sophisticated theism because he's bored by them.

Actually, McGinn gives the impression he's not even aware of what those arguments actually are.

McGinn has earned the right to maintain his atheism by holding certain putative commonsense positions and their valid inferences.

Really man, what you're coming across as saying here is that McGinn's position is reasonable because, and only because, he plays himself off as being ultimately apathetic to the whole debate. It doesn't matter that he's wrong about the arguments he does reject, it doesn't matter that there are whole classes of major arguments he ignores altogether despite their being the most prominent historical ones - you saw him as acting kind of apathetic, and darn it, that makes his position valid.

Again, I think this defense of McGinn doesn't add up to much of a defense - it basically says, "Yeah, he probably hasn't even looked at the best and historically most popular arguments for theism. But that's okay, because he's not trying to argue atheism is true or theism is false. He's just saying he's an atheist, the arguments for theism he's aware of don't work in his opinion, and he doesn't care to justify that or examine the best arguments."

Frankly, Feser fails to make the case that McGinn should care, and that's why, in my view, Feser's argument ultimately fails.

See, I think it's clear that Feser's goal wasn't to suggest that McGinn, personally, should care. I think it was to establish that McGinn hasn't really begun to argue for atheism, or against theism - ignoring whether he was right or wrong about the arguments he mentioned, he left classical theism entirely untouched. If the response is "That's right. But he just doesn't care.", I think the obvious conclusion is that Feser was right.

Dan Gillson said...

Feser's argument can't be right because it is just the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. As much as he think he can, Feser can't determine the quality or validity of McGinn's beliefs, much less the beliefs of anyone else. The rather sad reality is, McGinn owes it to no one to read and understand, and reply to sophisticated theist arguments. His failure to do so can't invalidate his atheism, or, as he puts it, his post-theism. Last word is yours.

Crude said...

Feser's argument can't be right because it is just the "No True Scotsman" fallacy. As much as he think he can, Feser can't determine the quality or validity of McGinn's beliefs, much less the beliefs of anyone else.

Feser can't do that in the sense of reaching into McGinn's mind, cataloging each and every mental twist and turn and justification Mcginn has had that has led to atheism, etc.

What Feser can do, however, is evaluate the arguments and reasons McGinn himself actually gives. That's exactly what he did in his exchange with McGinn. There's no "No True Scotsman" fallacy in play here - there's just the claim that McGinn, given his own statement, did not grapple with the oldest, most major (in the sense that they're the arguments of the Catholic Church, not exactly a small figure in these debates) views of and arguments for God.

If I dismiss idea X because defenders with novel arguments A, B and C didn't impress me, but I never so much as looked at the oldest, most serious and time-tested arguments for X, I think someone could fairly say that intellectually, I've got more work ahead of me. Now, I'll always have my work cut out for me because there's a whole lot of arguments out there, things to learn. On the other hand, I also don't pronounce on the truth or falsity of various things quite the way McGinn did.

The rather sad reality is, McGinn owes it to no one to read and understand, and reply to sophisticated theist arguments.

He doesn't - he can do what he likes. But the arguments he gives and the position he takes can still be evaluated.

Let's flip this: the average guy owes it to no one to read and understand and reply to sophisticated arguments for evolutionary theory. They can reject it and that is simply that. But if they pronounce on it and give their reasons, others can say - fairly - that they haven't really begun to engage the arguments for evolution.

His failure to do so can't invalidate his atheism, or, as he puts it, his post-theism. Last word is yours.

Feser didn't say that McGinn's atheism was "invalidated". He said his atheism was better described as pre-theism on the grounds of McGinn's understanding of the debate. McGinn is still, by Feser's right, an atheist - he's just failed to engage the classical arguments for God. Even you and McGinn don't seem to dispute that. I think you're attempting to salvage McGinn's position by making it not a question of intellectual thoroughness, but one of mere feeling - and I think if that's true, McGinn himself would reject your defense.

Anyway, this was a pleasant discussion, so have a good day.