bookmark_borderAtheism and the difference between consistency and entailment

(redated post originally published here on 20 November 2011)
At Jeff Lowder’s suggestion, I’m re-posting this 2008 post from my own blog here.  Although the referenced blog, The Country Shrink, no longer exists, I have replaced the links to refer to copies of the posts at the Internet Archive.

A Christian rural psychologist has posted on his blog about “some psychological aspects of atheism,” where he claims that:

[Atheists] tend to not be able to understand that their position means “anything goes,” with respect to morality. If there is no God, then there is no objective thing as morality. It’s all subjective… They always find some way to justify the fact that they practice at least some moral principles. Whether they think it’s biologically ingrained through millions of years of evolution or morality is simply “adaptive in allowing the species to survive.” Most often; however, they have never even considered the logical consequences of atheism and morality.

He also engages in some armchair theorizing about atheism being caused by absent fathers, being intolerant, etc., all without any reference to empirical evidence. (And given the recent Pew Forum survey results where one in five self-reported “atheists” say that they believe in God or a higher power, I think any study of atheists needs to make sure that it’s dealing with people who actually know what the word means.)
But the quoted passage is completely off-base. Atheism is a denial of the existence of gods. That entails the falsity of divine command theory as a basis for morality, but not much else. Most philosophers have rejected divine command theory as an adequate basis for morality since Plato wrote the “Euthyphro” and asked the critical question, “is the pious [or right] loved by the gods because it is pious [right], or is it pious [right] because it is loved by the gods”? Either fork of the dilemma leads to bad consequences–if the former, then there must be some other ground for moral rightness than because the gods will it to be so, and so the gods themselves are unnecessary. If the latter, then the gods could make acts that we consider to be clearly immoral into right actions according to whim. The latter seems more consistent with the morality of the Bible, since God is depicted therein as commanding murderous acts including the killing of women and children, but it is simply a “might makes right” philosophy of morality. But I think the former is clearly the right horn of the dilemma to grasp–morality is not something which requires gods.
Now, there are certainly atheist philosophers who have argued that atheism precludes more than the divine command theory. The atheist philosopher J.L. Mackie, in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, argues against morality being objective properties of the world on the basis of their “queerness.” And I think he is probably right at least to the extent that moral properties are not human-independent properties. My view is that there are certain basic values, held by most human beings and evolutionary in origin, essential to social organization and beneficial to our survival and thriving, which objectively entail moral consequences for us, composed as we are and in the environment (physical and social) we find ourselves in.
But my view is not important for confronting the claim of the quoted passage. All atheism means is the denial of the existence of gods. It is not a complete worldview, it is simply a single component in an infinite number of possible consistent worldviews. An atheist can, like J. M. E. McTaggart, believe in reincarnation and immortality. An atheist can believe in the paranormal, in ghosts, in supernatural beings other than gods. An atheist can be a nihilist, a relativist, a utilitarian, a contractarian, an existentialist. An atheist can be a conservative, a liberal, a socialist, an anarchist, a monarchist, a libertarian, a Marxist, or hold any other possible view of political philosophy that doesn’t entail the existence of gods. All of these views are consistent with atheism, meaning simply that no contradiction is produced by the combination of the views.
Amorality and nihilism are consistent with atheism–it is certainly possible for an atheist to hold that there are no moral truths, that there is no difference between right and wrong. But mere consistency is not the same as entailment–it does not follow that if you are an atheist, it logically follows or is necessary to hold such views. Yet that’s what the quoted author is falsely claiming to be the case.
Note that amorality and nihilism are also consistent with theism–and in my opinion, both are possible for theists whichever horn of the Euthyphro dilemma is grasped. If the ground of what is morally right is something independent of the gods that does not exist, even while gods do, then that’s an amoral theism. And if all there is to morality is what the gods will it to be, that makes morality dependent upon the values of the gods–if the gods choose to be amoral or nihilists, then again there’s amoral theism.
The Christian psychologist goes on to write (citing this very blog for the quote):

Now, I have only seen or read about one logically consistent atheist…..Jeffrey Dahmer. There have been philosophers, I know, who have come to this logical conclusion. But I’m talking about someone who logically practiced what he believed.

“If a person doesn’t think there is a God to be accountable to, then—then what’s the point of trying to modify your behaviour to keep it within acceptable ranges? That’s how I thought anyway. I always believed the theory of evolution as truth, that we all just came from the slime. When we, when we died, you know, that was it, there is nothing…” (1)

So said Dahmer.

The “what’s the point” question is easy to answer–there are clearly consequences for us to our own behavior regardless of any accountability to God. Sane, rational people desire to live good and happy lives, rather than follow the example of Dahmer. Even leaving God out of the picture, where is the slightest appeal in following Dahmer as a model of rational living? I see none.
But the position this psychologist takes opens up an obvious question that he doesn’t notice–God isn’t accountable to anyone. Why should God be good, instead of acting maliciously, callously, and evilly, in the absence of any accountability to anyone? According to this psychologist, the answer should be that God should rationally act as an omnipotent Jeffrey Dahmer. Having no greater God to hold him responsible, he should not be bound to any code of morality, his word should be valueless, and every action based on the whims of the moment without regard to any future consequences.
That should be considered a reductio ad absurdum of his position. Either there are rational reasons to not act like Jeffrey Dahmer independently of being held accountable to a higher being, or God behaves irrationally by not acting like Jeffrey Dahmer. (Or perhaps, given the content of the Old Testament, God does act like Jeffrey Dahmer.)
UPDATE: I’ve engaged in further argument with the psychologist in the comments of his blog, as have others.
UPDATE: After a few back-and-forth exchanges, I don’t think the psychologist means to talk about logical consequences of beliefs. I think probably the best reconstruction of his actual argument is something like this:
1. Human beings find it psychologically necessary to believe in an objective external source of morality. (In order to be happy, function well psychologically, etc.)
2. Atheism doesn’t provide such a source by itself.
3. Those whose worldview is composed entirely of atheism, without augmenting it with some objective external source of morality, have no psychological reasons to act in moral ways.
This is a much more plausible argument. He says something very much like (3), and goes on to say something to the effect that none of these substitutes are sufficient, and his reason seems to be along the lines that people’s choices for these substitutes are arbitrary or that they are not externally imposed. But his reasoning is faulty–the fact that people choose for themselves doesn’t mean that their choices are arbitrary (they can have good reasons), and external imposition seems to be irrelevant. Presumably he would agree that someone who converts to Christianity as an adult can have all of the psychological benefits he’s claiming for theism. And what of the thousands of other religions, sects, and interpretations that can be acquired from one’s parents or others? His argument doesn’t have any way of singling out Christianity (or any particular version thereof) as special in this regard. It seems to me that it really comes down to an argument about the social and psychological benefits of adopting the beliefs of one’s culture that most people accept–though I’m sure he doesn’t want to accept the cultural relativism that seems to me to be implied by his position.
UPDATE: The “Country Shrink” has resorted to “let’s agree to disagree” without even attempting to respond to the criticism of his claim that morality requires theism, nor has he responded to my attempted reformulation. Instead, he has asked whether my impressions of atheists differ from him–claiming the moral high ground, intellectual superiority, etc., to which I responded that I see that as most prevalent among atheists who were previously evangelical Christians, and that he’s likely attributing causes to the wrong place. I don’t think it’s caused by atheism as much as by reaction to Christianity.
UPDATE (July 6, 2008): The “Country Shrink” has made a followup post in which he takes a stab of sorts at addressing some of the philosophical arguments I made, but mostly by engaging in argument from ignorance and attempting to shift the burden of proof to me, even though he is the one maintaining that it is impossible for there to be any objective meta-ethical framework without gods. He also asserts (rather than argues) that incompatibilism is the correct position in the free will debate and that consciousness cannot be explained naturalistically. I don’t discern any actual arguments for either of those positions other than failure of imagination.

bookmark_borderI.I. Sponsors Internet Debate on God’s Existence: God or Blind Nature?

(redated post originally published on 9 July 2007)
After five years of planning, preparation, and work, the Internet Infidels will officially announce on July 1 the first installment of its “Great Debate” project, God or Blind Nature? Philosophers Debate the Evidence. (I’ve been given the OK to post this early.) The project, coordinated by agnostic philosopher Paul Draper, will present four written debates involving nine distinguished philosophers, each examining different areas of evidence for and against naturalism and theism. Each debate will appear two months apart, and will provide about a month of time for readers to submit questions to the debaters, which will then be answered on the site. The full debate will subsequently be published in book form.
The first debate, on “Mind and Will,” looks at the evidence for the nature of the human mind and free will. The participants for this debate are Andrew Melnyk, professor of philosophy and chair of the department at the University of Missouri-Columbia, Stewart Goetz, professor of philosophy and chair of the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Ursinus College, and Charles Taliaferro, professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College.
The second debate, on “Evil and Evolution,” examines the problem of evil and how the evidence for evolution impacts naturalism and theism. The participants for this debate, which will go online on September 1, are Paul Draper, professor of philosophy at Purdue University, and Alvin Plantinga, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame University.
The third debate, on “Science and the Cosmos,” looks at whether the universe provides evidence of design. This debate goes online on November 1, and the participants are Quentin Smith, professor of philosophy at Western Michigan University, and Robin Collins, professor of philosophy at Messiah College.
The fourth and final debate, on “Faith and Uncertainty,” looks at the question of “divine hiddenness”–if God exists, why does he seem to be hidden from so many human beings? This debate goes online on January 1, and the participants are John Schellenberg, professor of philosophy and religious studies at Mount Saint Vincent University, and Jeffrey Jordan, professor of philosophy at the University of Delaware.

bookmark_borderPhony financial planner defrauds churchgoers

James J. Buchanan of the Christ Life Church in Tempe, Arizona, defrauded 30-40 people out of over $5 million over the last ten years. He claimed to be a financial planner, and took many people’s life’s savings, as well as money from the church. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office says it’s hard to tell where the money went, but it appears that he used some of it to pay off early investors in classic Ponzi scheme style, and spent the rest on himself. His fraud collapsed this March, after he refused to provide documentation to show where one investor’s money was, and that investor refused a payoff to stay quiet and went to the police.

(A previous discussion of religious affinity fraud at this blog.)

bookmark_borderBad news for agnostics?

While past studies have shown religious believers to be happier than nonbelievers, some new analysis shows that it’s not quite so simple. Luke Galen has found that the convinced non-religious are also quite happy, but people who are uncertain are the ones who are dissatisfied. Adam Okulicz-Kozaryn has analyzed data from the World Values Survey and found some more interesting details:

  • Religious people are both happier and unhappier. While a higher percentage of religious people report themselves as extremely happy than convinced nonbelievers, a higher percentage of religious people also report themselves as extremely unhappy.
  • Those who attend religious services and belong to religious organizations tend to be happier. And that’s whether or not they believe–in fact among that group, those with the stronger belief tend to be unhappier. So it’s the social aspect, not the doctrine, that promotes happiness. And this is further supported by:
  • The more religious a country is, the happier believers are, and vice versa. In religious countries, believers are happier; in nonreligious countries, nonbelievers are happier.

See more at the Epiphenom blog.

(Cross-posted to the Lippard Blog.)

bookmark_borderGeert Wilders’ film “Fitna”

Dutch Member of Parliament Geert Wilders’ film, “Fitna” (Arabic for “strife” or “challenge”), has been released, first on LiveLeak (from which it has been removed) and now on YouTube (below). The film depicts unethical statements from the Koran and by Muslim leaders, as well as photographs of terrorist atrocities committed by radical Islamists. The government of Indonesia has called for YouTube to remove the video, and it has provoked calls for boycotts of Dutch goods. This will no doubt serve to inflame Muslims, and to demonstrate once again that very few of them have the slightest comprehension of the secular concept of freedom of speech. Fortunately, there are some exceptions–a group of Arabs has called for a screening of the film in Saudi Arabia, followed by constructive dialogue about it.

What it will also demonstrate, I suspect, is hypocrisy on the part of some Christians who have criticized people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens for emphasizing the negative aspects of religion (and more specifically Christianity) while ignoring or minimizing the positive aspects. I suspect many such Christians will laud this video as an accurate depiction of the dangers of Islam and why it must be opposed, without recognizing that the Bible contains similar verses to the Koran about such things as killing unbelievers.

Note that P.Z. Myers at Pharyngula has called Wilders’ film “dishonest,” and there is much back-and-forth in the comments on his blog about the particular excerpts from the Koran, what they actually mean, and the context in which they were written. I hope that Taner can provide us with further illumination.

UPDATE (April 15, 2008): Kieran Bennett takes me to task for my sentence about Muslims. While I should have explicitly said “*some* Muslims,” and perhaps my “very few” was an unwarranted exaggeration, I think I was clear that I wasn’t talking about all Muslims. I have seen numerous examples, however, of even moderate Muslims in western nations who have demonstrated a lack of understanding of free speech on a par with many Christians’ lack of understanding of the separation of church and state.

bookmark_borderFormer religious right leaders recant

Rob Boston has a post at AlterNet, “Theocracy Rejected,” reporting on how and why Frank Schaeffer, John Whitehead, and Cal Thomas have publicly repudiated their involvement with the religious right. All three now challenge the idea that Christians should seek political power in order to impose their ideas on American culture.

A few quotes from each give the flavor:

Frank Schaeffer, son of Francis Schaeffer, from his book Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lives to Take All (or Almost All) Of It Back:

  • “Long before Ralph Reed and his ilk came on the scene, Dad got sick of ‘these idiots’ as he often called people like Dobson in private. They were ‘plastic,’ Dad said, and ‘power-hungry.'”
  • “There were three kinds of evangelical leaders: The dumb or idealistic ones who really believed. The out-and-out charlatans. And the smart ones who still believed — sort of — but knew that the evangelical world was sh*t, but who couldn’t figure out any way to earn as good a living anywhere else.”

John Whitehead, founder of the Council for National Policy with the support of Jerry Falwell, and of the Rutherford Institute, in his book, God Is A Four-Letter Word:

“Although it is a valued and necessary part of the process in a democracy, the ballot box is not the answer to mankind’s ills … And Christians who place their hope in a political answer to the world’s ills often become nothing more than another tool in the politician’s toolbox. Indeed, Jesus refused any type of involvement with political figures.”

Cal Thomas, former vice president of the Moral Majority, author of Blinded by Might: Why the Religious Right Can’t Save America, in a recent column:

The flaw in the movement was the perception that the church had become an appendage to the Republican Party and one more special interest group to be pampered. If one examines the results of the Moral Majority’s agenda, little was accomplished in the political arena and much was lost in the spiritual realm, as many came to believe that to be a Christian meant you also must be ‘converted’ to the Republican Party and adopt the GOP agenda and its tactics.

My favorite part of the article is this section quoting Schaeffer’s recognition of the importance of doubt:

“My basic beef with the Reconstructionists is that they could never end a sentence with ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m not sure.’ They always ended with ‘This is how it is.’ That level of hubris runs counter to Christianity,” Schaeffer remarked.
“To me, faith and doubt are interchangeable,” he added. “You live with that. When you reject pluralism and embrace the philosophy of the Reconstructionists, you’ve said, ‘Freedom scares me. I have to be right, and even though logically my life is too short to say I know anything, I’ll say I do. When I don’t have an answer for someone, I’ll shout them down.’ The writer and artist in me rebels against that.”

(Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

bookmark_borderThe new seven deadly sins

The Catholic Church has announced a new updated list of seven deadly sins for the twenty-first century, which are:

1. accumulating obscene wealth
2. polluting the environment
3. genetic engineering
4. drug dealing
5. abortion
6. pedophilia
7. causing social injustice

This has been a topic of discussion on the SKEPTIC mailing list, with many observing that the Catholic Church itself is guilty of several of these new sins. One wag (Barry Williams) observed that transsubstantiation seems a lot like genetic engineering. Another good question is why abortion is on the list, but genocide is not.

bookmark_borderPew Forum survey on American religion

A survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life of 35,000 Americans found that 44% of them have changed affiliations between “major faith traditions,” such as from Baptist to Methodist. 28% have switched between traditions.

Protestants make up a bare majority of Americans–51.3%.

16% classify themselves as not affiliated with any faith (despite only 7% being brought up that way), and 4% as atheist or agnostic.

Mormons account for 1.7% of the population, Muslims 0.6%, and Hindus 0.4%.

Those 18-29 were more likely to be unaffiliated with any religion than those over 70.

Catholicism has had the greatest loss of adherents, offset by Catholic immigrants, while the unaffiliated have had the greatest gain.

UPDATE (March 8, 2008): A Los Angeles Times op-ed by mathematician John Allen Poulos, author of the recent book Irreligion, argues that the number of unbelievers is probably underreported due to the general public’s mistrust of atheists.

bookmark_borderReeves, Louisiana ditches 666 prefix

After complaints from religious villagers for forty years, Reeves, Louisiana’s telephone prefix has been changed from 666 to 749. I added a smartass comment on the story that “In other news, Satan has announced that the Antichrist is now going by the number 749,” but a much better response comes from Daniel Rutter on the SKEPTIC list, who points out that the new prefix suffers from a very similar numerological difficulty, which you may see for yourself by multiplying 74 by 9. Doh!

Concerns about 666 as the “number of the beast” come from Revelation 13:18. In 2005, Oxford University researchers reported that the earliest known manuscript of that book of the Bible gives the number as 616 rather than 666, which is also the number given in another very early manuscript. One 11th Century manuscript gives the number as 665.