you're reading...
Atheism, morality, Religion

Christian Philosopher: It’s About Morality

James S. Spiegel claims we have a morality problem. His new book, The Making of an Atheist, proposes that atheism is really just rebellion against God’s morality.

He admits that it could appear unseemly or offensive to suggest that a person’s lack of belief in God is a form of rebellion. But he said in a recent interview with the Evangelical Philosophical Society that he was compelled to write the book because he is convinced that “it is a clear biblical truth.”

Well, this is a real problem, isn’t it?  This paragraph illustrates very clearly just how faith based reasoning facilitates and exacerbates irrationality.  If someone wanted to test the theory that atheists have a moral problem, they could easily do so.  There are data everywhere in the scientific literature.  But that’s not what Spiegel and his believers want to do.  Instead, they go to their preconceived facts and reinforce them under the guise of scholarship.  I mean… James Spiegel is a professor.  So this book is about facts, right?  If a professor says atheists have a problem, then he has good reasons for saying so.

It’s a neat little psychological trick.  I used to do it all the time, so I’m quite familiar with it.  If you read my post, Us and Them, you know the first part of the maneuver.  I was afraid of other people because I believed they were evil, and my subconscious converted the fear to righteous piety.  In my mind, my refusal to integrate myself into the social scene was not fear — it was piety.  Once righteous indignation had taken a firm hold, it became easy to see any “evidence” that I was wrong as an elaborate deception, either from those nasty atheists or Satan himself.

On the other hand, it was easy to embrace what I already believed.  And there were plenty of books whose authors had solid credentials.  When this majority opinion was parroted by everyone I knew and by respected Christian authorities, it was nearly impossible to voice disagreement, either intellectually or emotionally.  In fact, it became kind of a foregone conclusion.  Why even question it?  It was so obviously true that it would be a waste of time to question it.

And in a nutshell, this is what Spiegel is either doing or facilitating.  By citing the Bible as his authority, he is giving the distinct impression that evidence doesn’t matter.  He’s promoting the acceptance of what feels right as opposed to what the evidence says.

“The rejection of God is a matter of will, not of intellect,” he asserts.

And here we are again.  The assertion of free will.  I’ve shown before that Free Will of the sort that would be useful for Christian theology is impossible.  The nutshell version goes like this:  We are our brains, and our brains are essentially algorithms that process what we experience.  We cannot help but believe what seems to be true.  So what Spiegel is suggesting is one of two things.  Either atheists are aware that there is a god, and that he dictates morality, and are choosing to go to hell, or atheists don’t believe in god.

Do you see how emotionally appealing this choice is to Christians who already believe atheists are awful people?  Again, I’m familiar with the reasoning because I used to use it.  It goes like this:

“It’s obvious that there’s a god.  The evidence is everywhere.  All you have to do is look at life and its complexity, and all the miracles, and the evidence from the Bible, and the fulfilled prophecies in the Bible.  So since it’s so obvious that god exists, atheists can’t really believe there’s no god.  So they must be willfully rebelling against him.  Which is either evil or insane.  And in either case, it’s good for me to keep my distance from them.”

Clever, isn’t it?  Do you see how the faith based reasoning builds upon itself, reinforcing itself against any evidence whatsoever?  Once this belief is ingrained, it’s easy to justify it further.  Sin, it is claimed, is a poison that builds up in the unbeliever.  The more they sin, the more they become ingrained in their sinful ways, and the harder it is to see the truth of god’s creation.  Eventually, their sin accumulates to the point that their whole being is pervaded by evil, and they are incapable of coming to Jesus.  They will twist anything they see so that it is literally impossible for them to see the truth.  That’s why it’s really, really important that the true believer not give them the opportunity to poison his mind with their lies.  Better to just preach to them and stop listening when they start talking.

I’m not kidding, by the way.  I was taught this stuff as a teenager.

“Atheism is not the result of objective assessment of evidence, but of stubborn disobedience; it does not arise from the careful application of reason but from willful rebellion. Atheism is the suppression of truth by wickedness, the cognitive consequence of immorality.

Except… it is the result of objective assessment, and anyone who cares to study the natural sciences and a little bit of logic will be able to reach the same conclusion if their emotions allow it.  But readers of this book aren’t going to compare the evidence.  They’re not going to learn how to evaluate scientific data because scientific data is always wrong when it contradicts what is obviously true.

This is how FOX News and Christianity™ and Rush Limbaugh sell their wares.  They simply say what is “true” loudly and often.  Loud is a sign of emotion, folks.  Repetition without explanation is a sign of a weak foundation.

“In short, it is sin that is the mother or unbelief.”

Isn’t this familiar?  We should be afraid of atheists because they’re evil.  And since 80% of the most successful and prominent scientists in the world are atheist, we should definitely not trust them.   (That’s a colloquial statistic, not a real citation.  I’m speaking for the Christian.)

Drawing from Scripture, Spiegel says the atheist’s problem is rebellion against the plain truth of God, as clearly revealed in nature. The rebellion is prompted by immorality, and immoral behavior or sin corrupts cognition.

I have a confession to make.  I had not read this article when I started writing today’s entry.  I’ve been reading, quoting, and making my comments as I go along.  I have just read the previous quote for the first time, and I’m patting myself on the back a little bit for being able to predict everything in the article just from the first paragraph.  Like I said, I’ve already lived this.  It’s nothing new.

The author explained to EPS, “There is a phenomenon that I call ‘paradigm-induced blindness,’ where a person’s false worldview prevents them from seeing truths which would otherwise be obvious. Additionally, a person’s sinful indulgences have a way of deadening their natural awareness of God or, as John Calvin calls it, the sensus divinitatis. And the more this innate sense of the divine is squelched, the more resistant a person will be to evidence for God.”

Scary how I nailed it, isn’t it?

Spiegel, who converted to Christianity in 1980, has witnessed the pattern among several of his friends. Their path from Christianity to atheism involved: moral slippage (such as infidelity, resentment or unforgiveness); followed by withdrawal from contact with fellow believers; followed by growing doubts about their faith, accompanied by continued indulgence in the respective sin; and culminating in a conscious rejection of God.

And here’s where it gets really nasty.  Any evidence he sees in any atheist around him will just continue to bolster his belief.  Never mind that half or more of his Christian friends have had affairs or held grudges.  Whenever an atheist “sins,” it is clear evidence that they are morally depraved.  It’s just obvious.  In a particularly nasty bit of pretzel logic, the theist will impose his own morality on atheists who do not share it.  If an atheist woman has had an abortion, she has sinned in the eyes of the believer, even if she believes abortion is the moral thing to do in her situation.  If she has premarital sex, it’s evidence.

Of course, there’s an out when the atheist points out that Christians do these things just as much if not more than Christians.  It’s a neat little variation of the No True Scotsman.  Whenever a member of the flock does something morally reprehensible, they are “backsliding.”  They are reverting to their unsaved ways when they were blinded by the poison of sin.

This is a really awesome defense.  It’s better than the more familiar NTS Defense, where it is claimed that the offender was not a “true Christian.”  That defense is good when it’s another denomination, or the church across town, but it gets stickier when the sinner is a respected member of the apologist’s own flock.  With the modified NTS Defense, any Christian’s immorality, no matter how horrifying, can be explained as backsliding, thus avoiding pesky theology debates.  Instead, the collective ire of the community can be focused on those damnable atheists who insist on putting their sin all over tv and billboards and the liberal media.

Examining the psychology of atheism, Spiegel cites Paul C. Vitz who revealed a link between atheism and fatherlessnes

And then the “evidence.”

Some of the atheists whose fathers died include David Hume and Friedrich Nietzsche. Those with abusive or weak fathers include Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire and Sigmund Freud. Among the New Atheists, Daniel Dennett’s father died when Dennett was five years old and Christopher Hitchens’ father appears to have been very distant. Hitchens had confessed that he doesn’t remember “a thing about him.

This is a very clever half-ad-hominem.  Part of the mythology of American Christianity is the belief in a strong “Biblical Family” in which the father is the lynchpin that keeps everything flowing in a godly direction.  Most evangelicals and fundamentalists are strongly opposed to the feminist notion that children can be raised in single parent families without suffering undue psychological or financial distress.  (Of course, there are real consequences to being raised in single parent families, but that’s another issue.)  They often look down on divorced women, and strongly encourage them to remarry for the sake of the children.  (Again, I’ve lived this.  It’s a fine description of my own family.)

It’s not really much of an argument when you think about it.  When we remove the assumption that god and Biblical morality are true, the connection between atheism and fatherlessness — if it exists — becomes rather banal.  Since we’re talking about science now, we don’t have a connection between atheism and immorality, so things break down quickly.  But for the Christian, the connection is very clear.

  1. Atheists are immoral.
  2. Atheists don’t have fathers.
  3. See?!  Atheists are immoral.

It’s not quite an ad hominem, but it’s another way of reinforcing a faith based belief with “evidence.”  Since it’s obvious (Biblically) that the father is supposed to be the head of the Christian household, it stands to reason that families without fathers would have problems with morality.  Since there are lots of atheists who come from fatherless families, or “morally deficient, ungodly fathers,” we have just validated our theory.

“These moral-psychological dynamics make it possible to deny the reality of the divine without any (or much) sense of incoherence in one’s worldview.”

Projection, anyone?  I hope I’ve done a good job of explaining the typical rationalizations that allow a believer to hold onto the image of an atheist as a degenerate evil monster.  This is what we’re fighting against.  In my previous three entries, I’ve tried to examine the uphill climb we atheists are facing.  We don’t just have one misconception to defeat.  It’s really a web of dogma and faith based belief, and each tenet has its own self-reinforcing mechanism for preventing the intrusion of contradictory evidence.

This is why I think it’s largely futile to try to change social reality with reasoned arguments.  The Christians we’re trying to convince already have built in defense mechanisms against reason and science.  And the cornerstone of these defenses is the deeply rooted fear of atheists and atheism.  So long as this belief persists, any reasoned argument we make will be perceived as the work of the devil.  Literally.

So we’re back to the old catch-22.  So long as faith based reasoning persists, science based reasoning will have no foothold.  That, as I have said over and over, is what is so dangerous about faith.  The proof that atheists aren’t monsters is all over the world.  There’s plenty of data.  We really shouldn’t even have to debate this.  There is no debate at this point.   But because of faith, there is still plenty of belief.

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article about how fear makes it extremely difficult for Christians to even begin to question their faith in a meaningful way.  Of course, this little presentation is another angle of the same story.  The xenophobia that accompanies piety isn’t buried very deep.  The belief in the moral depravity of atheism is a very convenient facilitator for the fear of atheism and pretty much anything else that doesn’t line up with an individual Christian’s view of what constitutes Biblical morality.

So I think we’re right back where we’ve been for the last several entries.  Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and bloggers like me are here for the atheists.  Most of my readers are atheists, and most of the people who’ve read the big name atheist authors were probably at least leaning towards atheism before they picked the books up.  Sure, there will be a few people whose minds will be changed by the logic.  Mine was, after all.  But in the long run, the Christian existence is dominated by emotion and emotional reasoning.  We atheists have to find ways to make it emotionally difficult for the Christians around us to think of us as monsters.

It’s a tough uphill climb.  There’s a double standard attached to us.  When a Christian is immoral, it’s blamed on atheists.  When an atheist is immoral, it’s blamed on atheists.  So there will be a lot of the more authoritarian Christians who just aren’t going to be swayed.  But the data indicates that the majority of Christians in America are not dyed in the wool fundamentalists.  They’re at least somewhat moderate.  These are the people we need on our side.  We need them to realize that even though our ideas may be threatening to them, it’s not fair or moral to portray us as evil.  I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do on this front.  I’m not really sure how we need to go about doing this.

What about you, fellow atheists?  Any ideas?

Advertisements

Discussion

15 thoughts on “Christian Philosopher: It’s About Morality

  1. I think the first thing we have to realize a couple things and that it is VERY important to realize and why I constantly want atheists to evaluate things.

    Oh and before you get your panties in a knot, I’m not neccesarily saying you make the claim [though I think you sometimes make of them], however some atheists do.

    First, that this stuff coming from Religion is somehow unique. Atheists may say, “sure other groups show groupthink, but religion has a unique kind of group think”

    NO,NO,NO. What Spiegel is doing is classical Fundamental Attribution Error (FAE). It’s not a special kind of FAE, it’s not a unique form, it’s FAE.

    Why is this important? Because if we think of this as a UNIQUE or SPECIAL form of FAE, we’d be wrong. If it’s unique or special, then we won’t treat it as FAE and not do the things that would reduce FAE [such as the contact hypothesis]. Instead we’ll just do things that we think will treat the UNIQUE FAE and it won’t work. It just won’t.

    Religion doesn’t have unique cognitive biases. It has cognitive biases. It doesn’t magically turn the cognitive biases into something unique. So why would treating Religion as having unique type of cognitive biases help anything?

    So if you wanna know why I get pissed when atheists say the religion is a “unique form” of whatever, that’s why. It’s wrong, and it won’t get us anywhere.

    Oh and on a snarky note, I hope writing this article makes you realize why I constantly shove off your “It’s obvious” explanations.

    Posted by Alison | March 20, 2010, 5:57 pm
  2. Ok. Several points:

    1) I’ve never said that Religion or faith are unique errors. Let me say it for the ninetieth time. FAITH BASED REASONING is a UNIQUE CATALYST that facilitates and exacerbates existing errors and dysfunctions.

    Do you see how I built the case from interweaved FAITH BASED BELIEFS so that the FAE was locked solid with virtually no hope of being cracked from any kind of evidence at all? That’s what’s unique about FAITH BASED REASONING. It provides an umbrella under which evidence of any kind SHOULD BE REJECTED when it disagrees with the Faith Based Belief.

    2) There is a fundamental difference between the way atheists (even misguided ones) are approaching “religion causes X” and the way this Christian approaches “Atheism is caused by Y.” Even when the atheists are misguided, they are at least attempting to bolster their case with genuine, falsifiable scientific evidence. I agree with you that some atheists get so hung up on their pet theories that they also commit some FAEs. I’m sure I’ve done it before. However, we are at least trying to describe religion factually, and we’re trying to use the evidence to make the case.

    3) Let me say it for the 91st time. Faith based reasoning is a UNIQUE CATALYST, not a unique kind of reasoning error.

    4) 92. Faith based reasoning is not a unique kind of error. It is a CATALYST.

    5) Catalyst: [Something] that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 20, 2010, 6:53 pm
  3. Do you see how I built the case from interweaved FAITH BASED BELIEFS so that the FAE was locked solid with virtually no hope of being cracked from any kind of evidence at all? That’s what’s unique about FAITH BASED REASONING. It provides an umbrella under which evidence of any kind SHOULD BE REJECTED when it disagrees with the Faith Based Belief.

    Hamby, from what I understand you seem to think that faith based beliefs are seperate from FAE.

    That is you have FAE with faith based beliefs and that is worse than FAE without faith based beliefs.

    Now I assume you are using your definition of faith as believe despite lack of evidence or despite contrary evidence.

    What I don’t understand, and what I’ve been pointing out constantly, is that FAE generates people to ignore evidence. That ignoring evidence [faith based reasoning] isn’t external to FAE, IT’S PART OF FAE.

    When you say the faith based reasoning “locked in” FAE, you are correct, however that faith based isn’t external to FAE, it’s part of it.

    So how can ignoring evidence be external to FAE when IT’S PART OF FAE?

    5) Catalyst: [Something] that precipitates a process or event, especially without being involved in or changed by the consequences.

    This seems to say that you think that ignoring evidence [faith based reasoning] isn’t involved in FAE.

    [My logic is the that faith based reasoning is a catalyst in locking in FAE, and by your definition of catalyst, you think that faith based reasoning is not involved in FAE]

    I mean can you give an example of FAE without faith based reasoning? I will take what Spiegel is doing as an example of FAE with faith based reasoning though I can’t seem to distinguish it from other FAEs.

    Posted by Alison | March 20, 2010, 8:14 pm
  4. Hamby, from what I understand you seem to think that faith based beliefs are seperate from FAE.

    Why is this so difficult? Faith is the worldview which holds that things which contradict logic and science are not only possible, but exist on a more important level than science and logic. Faith based reasoning is reasoning which starts with the assumption of that worldview. What you seem to be saying is that Faith is a kind of fundamental attribution error, and I disagree with that. FAE refers most specifically to the over-valuation of disposition in an agent. That is not what Faith is. Faith is the worldview which permits belief in a God to whom a FAE can be directed.

    This seems to say that you think that ignoring evidence [faith based reasoning] isn’t involved in FAE.

    Of course FBR can be a component of an FAE. But that’s just what it is. It’s a contributing factor. It’s not equivalent to an FAE.

    I mean can you give an example of FAE without faith based reasoning? I will take what Spiegel is doing as an example of FAE with faith based reasoning though I can’t seem to distinguish it from other FAEs.

    Sure. Just pick any old naturalist off the street. Run any FAE test on them. When the predicted occurrence of FAE still shows up, you’ve proven that FAE and FBR are different. Naturalists do not believe in things for which there is no evidence. They just subconsciously misinterpret the evidence in front of them. They *think* they’re relying on evidence and making an empirically correct judgment of the natural world. They’re just mistaken.

    A person using faith based reasoning can do something a naturalist cannot. He can look at a mountain of evidence for something — evolution, for instance — and reason with perfectly sound logic that the earth is actually 6,000 years old despite the fact that the conclusion defies evidence. This is a different kind of reasoning than unconsciously believing what another person says even though there’s no direct evidence that the opinion is genuine.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 20, 2010, 11:21 pm
  5. But just so you don’t get the feeling that I’m here to twist you panties and to get back on track:

    It’s a tough uphill climb. There’s a double standard attached to us. When a Christian is immoral, it’s blamed on atheists. When an atheist is immoral, it’s blamed on atheists. So there will be a lot of the more authoritarian Christians who just aren’t going to be swayed. But the data indicates that the majority of Christians in America are not dyed in the wool fundamentalists. They’re at least somewhat moderate. These are the people we need on our side. We need them to realize that even though our ideas may be threatening to them, it’s not fair or moral to portray us as evil. I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do on this front. I’m not really sure how we need to go about doing this.

    What about you, fellow atheists? Any ideas?

    I’ll say in reference to my first point of this being FAE you seem to be on the right track in your previous entry that atheist simply have to be out. This of course derives from the contact hypothesis. It is also very important that civility is maintained. [So I think we’ll have to lock Kevin up in a closet or something until this blows over]

    I did make a passing mention of the contact hypothesis in my first post, but I should have highlighted it more than just ragging on the atheist movement.

    Holy shit, I think I just used a rational, empirical, reasoned, approach into the psychology of religion in order to better the atheist movement!

    Posted by Alison | March 20, 2010, 11:30 pm
  6. Hamby, I was typing my comment as you posted yours and hence didn’t see it until I clicked submit.

    But as I said I should’ve just focused on the reducing prejudice against atheist, not rag on the atheist movement.

    While I do still see errors, I want to stand aside my ragging and just focus on “the reducing the bad views” thing.

    Posted by Alison | March 20, 2010, 11:41 pm
  7. In regard to what Alison is saying, I think she is correct about FAE being an important piece of the problem—however, I have to agree with Hamby that faith makes any FAE even more insidious. Think of this: plenty of rational thinkers fall into the trap of FAE all the time, despite (or perhaps even due to?) their ability to reason. Thing is, when presented with valid arguments depicting a more accurate reality, they can correct the FAE. Now toss faith in there and you just can’t get traction, everything bounces off. Alison’s argument would be true if all FAE was faith based rather than merely being due to false assumptions—there is a difference.

    Since you asked for ideas, Hamby, here’s a thought. I think such atheist leaders as we have should push for inclusion in events/forums which now typically include religious figures. As in whenever there is an issue that involves a moral debate, a few religious figures are trotted out to somehow give things the stamp of “moral” approval. We should be demanding, politely, a place at the table. That being said, can you imagine a politician having the guts to openly associate in this way with an avowed atheist?

    Posted by bill | March 21, 2010, 8:31 am
  8. Bill, thanks for the comments. I think you’ve made some really great points, and explained the difference between FAE and FBR better than I did. You’ve hit exactly what I’ve been trying to say when I call faith a catalyst. If we think of dysfunction as a fire, faith is lighter fluid. Fire happens, and some things are going to burn fast and hot, and some things are very resistant to flame. But you put lighter fluid on just about anything flammable, and it’s going to burn much worse.

    That’s what faith does. It exacerbates existing human dysfunction. (I’m taking the liberty of calling things like FAE a dysfunction.) And as you say, it provides the rationale for not fixing dysfunctions.

    BTW, I agree with you completely that we need to have atheists involved in public discussions, but getting there is really difficult. We can’t do FOX news. All they ever do is set us up, quote mine us, and then ridicule us when they’ve turned our mic off. MSNBC and CNN are less obviously biased, but they still know who butters their bread, and everybody’s afraid of pissing off the 70% majority.

    And yeah… what do we do with the politicians? Like it or not, the job of a politician today is to pander to the majority that elected him. So… what to do?

    Posted by hambydammit | March 21, 2010, 3:33 pm
  9. Alison, I’m really happy to hear you say that. You know I’m interested in truth, but at some point, I think there has to be some movement in the direction that seems best. Whether or not faith is an FAE, atheists have a problem with public image. It’s definitely not entirely our fault. We were the least trusted group in America back in the 50s. But it’s what we’ve been dealt, and we need to use our supposedly superior problem solving skills to figure out how to fix it.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 21, 2010, 3:36 pm
  10. When I told my christian mother that I was an atheist – she said, “Oh you are not really!” I know she knows I am not immoral, but it is beyond her belief that I do not believe. To her my atheism is a jolly divergence from which I will surely come back from.

    I am talking about a woman who has been a nurse for 40+ years. She is donating her body to science upon her death. She has a living will. Trust me, she has prayed and seen the prayers of others go unanswered in all too many cases. However, her ability to just “throw out” the possibility of an afterlife is …troublesome, personally and professionally. In my fantasies, I believe that my deceased father is in a happy place, with an un-diseased body. I KNOW it is a fantasy, but it makes me feel better. FAE for an atheist right?

    The special kind of FAE that allows one to throw out all truth, even of one’s own experience and knowledge – then substitute a FAE with the force and depth of religion – for zealots, enough to kill for – requires a “special” and “insidious” FAE… insidious is a good word here. Spiegel says atheists sin builds on itself until it is blind to god – and I think that xians’ beliefs build on themselves in the same ever deepening blindness.

    Posted by PaigeB | March 21, 2010, 7:52 pm
  11. Since I want to continue the discussion of faith and FAE etc….[mostly due to recent comments] , and want to stick to my promise, I created a topic on the Rational Responders forum which will cover all the issues in all the entries.

    http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/19993

    Posted by Alison | March 22, 2010, 2:19 am
  12. Thanks, Alison. I’ll give that a few days and check it out. I’m honestly not sure I have a lot to add, since I’ve made my position pretty clear, but I’ll be really interested to say what others are saying.

    Posted by hambydammit | March 22, 2010, 2:11 pm
  13. Scientific American March 2010: They did studies on the brain for believers and non-believers. “The finding adds to the mounting evidence against the notion, popular in the scientific community as well as among the general public, that religious faith is somehow different from other types of belief, explains co-author Sam Harris, also of U.C.L.A. In contrast to this assumption, he says, “Believing the sun is a star is rather the same as believing Jesus was born of a virgin.”

    Against the notion the fundies are different. It appears, according to this study they are not. I am not sure they measured for insidiousness.

    Posted by PaigeB | March 23, 2010, 12:08 am
  14. Against the notion the fundies are different. It appears, according to this study they are not. I am not sure they measured for insidiousness.

    Actually a study has been done on this, and the devoted showed the same level of intolerance/dogmatism/authoritiasm with coalition controlled for.

    Posted by Alison | March 23, 2010, 1:33 am
  15. Alison – would it help you if I just came out in plain english and said YOU WERE RIGHT? Sheesh arguing even though you scored a point…whatever meh ^^^ waves hand dismissively.

    Posted by PaigeB | March 24, 2010, 12:53 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow Me On Twitter!

%d bloggers like this: