Monday, November 17, 2008

Are the Four Horsemen Any Less Deluded?

Dawkins, Harris, Dennett, and Hitchens all claim that religious believers are deluded. So they may be. But are they themselves any less deluded?

Consider what the so-called "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" believe.

They believe (amongst other things) that:

1.) Religious belief on a large scale can be eradicated;

2.) Religion is what, more than anything, causes evil;

3.) The world would be a much better place if everyone were atheist and embraced a strictly scientific worldview.

But - how is this not obvious? - one has to be extremely credulous, if not actually delusional, to believe any of these three things. The Horsemen want everyone to be more skeptical, but their own beliefs are only possible because they have suspended their own skepticism. In this sense, they are but mirror images of religious believers themselves.

After all, there is no reason to believe that "religion can be eradicated"; for there is no reason to believe that religion arises from anything other than innate features of the human psyche (hence its ubiquity in the human family). So to believe that "religion can be eradicated" is like believing that "sexual attraction can be eradicated" or that "inferring causes from events can be eradicated". It is to believe in magic; the only thing that history and psychology - let alone common sense - tells us is that the only way to "eradicate religion" is to eradicate human beings. (Interesting, given the humanitarian pretensions of all four.)

There is also no reason to believe that "religion" causes evil, or even that that phrase has any real meaning, not least because in the end it is very difficult to pin down how we should even define "religion" (in contradistinction to "ideology", say). Should Catholicism be considered a religion, but Marxism not? What about Buddhism or Confucianism, which have no god figures? What are our definitions? This is not a pedantic point; it is a necessary one when we are talking about causation from a social science perspective, for even under the very best of circumstances it is very difficult to establish causes for human actions. Ambiguous slogans like "religion causes evil" do not cut it.

What may make more sense, I think, especially given the fact that the human brain is seemingly hardwired for creating cosmological narratives (whether theist or non-theist), is to draw a distinction not between "religion" and "non-religion", but between unjustified beliefs (which may be theist or non-theist) or justified beliefs. So maybe it would get us a little farther to say that unjustified beliefs, rather than religion, cause evil.

The problem with this, though, is that whereas the claim "religion causes evil" is essentially meaningless, the claim "unjustified beliefs cause evil" is obviously untrue. There are innumerable unjustified beliefs which may inspire very good behaviour. (It is perfectly possible to be inspired to share our food with the hungry by the belief that elves, or the ghost of Elvis Presley, will reward us if we do).

Worse is that justified beliefs can inspire us, or at least license us, to do evil. Consider that evolutionary theory on its own terms, in the end, makes it essentially impossible to attribute some sort of cosmic value to human life while denying it to, say, slime mould. So, we would kill off bothersome slime mould with a jug of Clorox without a second thought; why then, confining ourselves to a purely biological theory like evolution, should we think think twice about killing off a bothersome human being (other than for fear of incarceration)? Logically speaking, staying within biology, I'm not sure there is a good reason.

Put another way - is there anything at all, in the most justified biological beliefs we can have, that allows us to say that Jeffrey Dahmer did something "evil"? I don't think so - biology, after all, doesn't even pretend to tell us anything about good or evil.

The point here is, I'm not sure how justified versus unjustified beliefs in any way correspond to good versus evil behaviour. And the bigger point is, if they do not so correspond, then neither does science correspond to goodness. The claim that it does is only wishful thinking on the part of people incapable of religious belief, because the alternative (that maybe there is no solution to the problem of human evil) is too horrible for them to contemplate. But this is only as much to say, again, that believing that religion causes evil, or that we can be saved through science (see below), is itself an unjustified belief, if not a genuine delusion.

Lastly, and especially given the history of the last century, there is no reason to believe that the world would be a better place if everyone were atheist. All of the same atrocities and more which have been justified by theist thinking, can be justified with non-theist thinking - and have been. Here is just one simple, not-so hypothetical, example.

If we begin with the belief, as does Dawkins (see the first couple of pages of "The God Delusion"), that:

Premise 1.) Creating heaven on earth (obviously a good thing) is possible;

and then we posit that

Premise 2.) Religion is making the creation of heaven on earth impossible;

we can conclude that

Conclusion 1.) Religion must be neutralized or eradicated - for the good of everyone.

And indeed, this is just what all four of the writers mentioned say.

So then, what would our next syllogism be?

P3.) Religion must be neutralized or eradicated;

P4.) The actions of certain people - e.g., missionaries, priests, publishers of Bibles, activist believers - are impeding our effort to neutralize or eradicate religion/establish heaven on earth;


C2.) The "bad" actions of these "enemies of heaven on earth" must be stopped.

And what would next syllogism be?

P5.) The "bad" actions of these "enemies of heaven-on-earth" people must be stopped;

P6.) Those "bad" actions can be stopped by either punishing the people doing them, or, if it comes to that, killing them;


C.3) Missionaries, priests, activist religious believers, e.g., should be punished or even killed.

Now, if it not an evil thing to punish or kill people just because of their beliefs, I don't know what is. Yet I have shown how easily it is to come to just that conclusion without ever invoking the concept of God. It is only a matter of logic, given once we begin with certain (atheist and utopian) premises.

And of course, this wasn't really a hypothetical. It was this same reasoning which licensed the persecution of religious believers in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, etc.

AND - it is quite close to the reasoning which leads Sam Harris himself, in "The End of Faith", to suggest that there are certain beliefs which are so bad, that people should be killed just for having them. This is the same Sam Harris who wrote an entire book about how rotten religious belief is, not least because it leads to atrocities like killing people for having the wrong beliefs! (This isn't the only contradiction in Harris...).

It is a comforting fantasy that there is an ultimate solution to the problem of human evil. Theists have their preferred solutions (Jesus will come again, everyone should convert to the "one true religion", etc.), and non-theists have theirs (science can rid the world of hunger and oppression, everyone should convert to atheism, etc.).

But neither theist nor non-theist "solutions" have any basis in evidence or experience. The beliefs of the Four Horsemen are no less delusional in this respect than those of religious believers, of which they are but a mirror image. Along these same lines, there does not seem to be any correlation between whether a belief is theist or atheist, and the goodness or evil of the actions it inspires. Although, if there is any large-scale correlation, the 20th century suggests atheists (and religious skeptics) would come out worse. At a small level, the Sam Harris atheist argument for "killing people for their beliefs", which I put in syllogism form, gives a small indication of why. So does the Clorox slime mould example.

So, where does that leave us?

To find out, tune in next time for another episode of "A Lone Ignoramus Tries to Understand Everything in the Entire Universe"!


Rich McCue said...


I read a book a few months ago by Chris Hedges that you might enjoy. It's called "I Don't Believe in Atheists". His basic premises are that:

1. Every human has the capacity for evil in them, and religion alone cannot be blamed for the world's ill's.

2. Many of the great mass murders throughout history has been perpetrated by people pursuing Utopian dreams. In his view the "New Atheists" are fundamentalists in their own right, and are pursuing Utopian dreams if they believe in moral progress of humanity if more people become atheists.

I think he makes some good points. You can get some insight into his thoughts in this interview on the Point of Inquiry podcast:

b. said...

It's inherent in us to seek, to ask questions. the fundamental questions-"who am I?" and "why am I here?". Science, philosophy, religion, all constructs to try and make sense of this, our world, ourselves. We look for answers to unanswerable questions. We try to compartmentalize into black and white, good and bad. We subjectively blame the other guy, the other group, the other belief- when all we really want is some basic understanding. I've always liked Spinoza's theory: the concept of a personal relationship with God comes from the position that one is a part of an infinite interdependent "organism". Spinoza taught that everything is but a wave in an endless ocean, and that what happens to one wave will affect other waves. He believed that God is infinite, and therefore must contain an infinite amount of attributes, basically that God is everywhere, in everything and everyone.
We all have the capacity for good, evil, love and hate. We all have the choice of what to believe and what not to. It's not so black and white... right or wrong.
Personally I wouldn't want to live in a world without mystery, without the questions. That's the fun- that we get to live our way to the answers.

Anonymous said...

I certainly hope you are not intimating that Hitler was an atheist with this comment:

Yet I have shown how easily it is to come to just that conclusion without ever invoking the concept of God. It is only a matter of logic, given once we begin with certain (atheist and utopian) premises.

And of course, this wasn't really a hypothetical. It was this same reasoning which licensed the persecution of religious believers in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Cambodia, etc.

Hitler, who claimed again and again in speeches that "I am a Christian," who sent his soldiers into battle with their belt buckles emblazoned Gott Mit Uns, "God With Us," who in fact derived his borrowed justifications for extermination of the Jews from the New Testament itself, could not rightly be called an atheist, nor could his cause be said to have been championed under the banner of atheism.

No, his was a fully Christian ethos that he adapted and integrated to become part of his cult of the Third Reich.

Tal said...


You have half a point.

Hitler died a Catholic in good standing. He exploited a reservoir of anti-semitism which was itself partially inspired by and shaped Christianity. As you note, he also at times publicly claimed to be a Christian.

However, despite his public rhetorical strategies, Hitler, following Nietzsche, disdained much of Christianity for its passivity and weakness. His ideology was an amalgam of (Dionysian/Wagnerian) Nietzscheanism, social Darwinism, and a strange folk occultism (hence his consultation with astrologers, at least early on, his attachment to the mandrake root, etc.). The truth is that there was very little of anything resembling Christianity in Hitler's actual worldview.

In other words, I think his few public expressions of Christian faith are best explained by the fact that he became chancellor of a deeply Christian nation, and so was under the necessity of dealing with that fact while attempting to sell the nation on his own cobbled together ideology. That ideology ultimately rejected not only the core components of Christianity, but traditional Western ideas about God.

So I would say that Hitler paid public homage to Christianity under necessity, while explicitly seeking to replace it with a new religion with himself at the centre, representing ideals and doctrines in conflict at least with the mainstream German Christianity of the time (the glorification of war, killing off the disabled, etc.)

So, even though National Socialism was not explicitly atheist in the way Soviet communism was, I do not think the evidence shows in any way that Hitler had a "fully Christian ethos"; and certainly, and more to the point, much of what the Nazis did was justified explicitly by reference to contemporary science (eugenics, etc.), and ultimately, in opposition to long-standing religious notions about God. That is just a fact.

Anonymous said...

You said:

So I would say that Hitler paid public homage to Christianity under necessity, while explicitly seeking to replace it with a new religion with himself at the centre

Precisely. A religion. Not the absence of religion, but religion.

Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, "I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord..."

What atheist "fights for the work of the Lord"?

From 1922 to 1939 his speeches were rife with Christian imagery and rhetoric. In Passau, 27 October 1928, he said, "We tolerate no one in our ranks who attacks the ideas of Christianity... in fact our movement is Christian."

No atheist, championing the cause of atheism, would say anything like that.

However you want to characterize his amalgam of Christianity and Paganism, the fact remains that this belief system was from its very basics theist. It still recognized a supreme creator.

This was not atheism. An atheist, under the banner of atheism, would not extensively justify his actions using religious imagery, nor sanctify them quoting scripture, nor send his soldiers into battle proclaiming "God With Us." He would equip them with belt buckles reading "We Don't Need You Anymore, God" or "We Can Do It On Our Own, Thanks Anyway." And an atheist would not, at every chance, invoke "the Lord" in carefully-crafted speeches or in his writing.

I am not entirely certain what you mean when you say the "evidence" is not there, when even a surface survey of his speeches or of Mein Kampf abundantly proves otherwise.

Call it warped Christianity whirled together with a jingoistic cult devoted to his own ego, but do not call it atheism.

Tal said...
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Tal said...
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June said...

This is a very interesting discussion.I'm enjoying it.

Anonymous said...

You say that the Nazis justified their atrocities emphasizing fully secular ideologies, but I simply must point out that the entire framework for those ideologies was based upon the idea of the Jew as the killer of Christ and the spawn of the Devil – why else the emphasis upon an “Aryan” Jesus and upon carrying out “the work of the Lord,” (borrowed as it was from German Protestantism in the days after the Versailles Treaty, where preachers were literally preaching a “war theology,” and where an overtly-religious ideologue like Eckart would so capture Hitler’s admiration that he ended Mein Kampf with a tribute to him.)

Hitler wrote Mein Kampf not as an atheist, or an agnostic, or as a believer in a remote and abstract deity, but rather, as one who believed in an active, engaged divine power. Hitler referred to God as the “Lord of Creation”, spoke of the necessity of “obeying His Will,” and made many references to Jesus as the “one true God”, and emphasized the centrality of Jesus’ teaching to the Nazi movement, not once, but many, many times over the years. Space simply does not permit me to post the literally dozens of pertinent quotes, but I would highly recommend Steigmann-Gall’s excellent work, The Holy Reich.

The question here, though, was of your characterization of Nazism as atheistic. In fact, Hitler despised Marxism, and with it, the inherent nihilism and atheism. In a speech in Berlin on 24 October, 1933, he said of Marxism and Christianity, “We were convinced that the people need and require this faith [Christianity]. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” Hitler also delivered a speech in which he promised to restore "family...honor and loyalty, Volk and Vaterland, culture and economy" and recover "the eternal foundation of our morality and our faith." He further declared a "merciless war against spiritual, political, and cultural nihilism." As well, you had people like Goebbels stating, “The struggle we are now waging today until victory or the bitter end is, in its deepest sense, a struggle between Christ and Marx.” In addition, the party statement of the NSDAP was unequivocally Christian: “We demand freedom for all religious confessions of the State, insofar as they do not endanger its existence or conflict with the customs and moral sentiments of the Germanic race. The Party as such represents the standpoint of a positive Christianity, without tying itself to a particular confession.” This is the infamous “Positives Christentum”, positive Christianity – which can never be seen as atheistic. I am frankly baffled that you would characterize it as such.

As far as a working definition of religion, I see no reason to quibble with Dennett’s definition: “Religions are social systems whose participants avow a belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” While god-like status may have been ascribed to Hitler, no one would have defined him as being “supernatural.” And in no way did I describe religion to be on the level of a “cult of personality.” If you will go back and re-read what I wrote, I said “warped Christianity whirled together with a jingoistic cult devoted to his own ego.” I absolutely included Christianity as an aspect of Nazi ideology -- as I should have.

I can’t speak to Dawkins’ directly, as it has been several years since I have read his work, but in terms of a “cult of personality,” the distinction between supernatural and natural is this: while Elvis fans may worship him like a god, they do not believe that he is divine, or can save their soul, or is immortal. He was a natural man. If they did feel he was imbued with these characteristics or powers, they would be well on their way to creating a religion.

While you and I might quibble on the definition of religion, or choose to throw each others’ way quotes supporting our different interpretations of Nazi ideology, the fact remains that Nazism itself would never characterize its tenets, or its goals, or its very raison d’etre, as atheistic.

As a footnote, I would like to add that Steigmann-Gall, Carrier, and other scholars argue that quotes vilifying religion from Hitler’s Table Talk should be regarded as apocryphal, and therefore, spurious.

Tal said...


I deleted my subsequent comments here and incorporated them into a new post. There I specifically take issue with your assertion that Hitler had a "fully Christian ethos".

I look forward to your comments,


marg said...

Tal you say: "What may make more sense, I think, especially given the fact that the human brain is seemingly hardwired for creating cosmological narratives (whether theist or non-theist), is to draw a distinction not between "religion" and "non-religion", but between unjustified beliefs (which may be theist or non-theist) or justified beliefs. So maybe it would get us a little farther to say that unjustified beliefs, rather than religion, cause evil."

I think the "4 horsemen" would agree with you that the issue essentially boils down to having justified beliefs versus unjustified beliefs, however they have limited their focus religious unjustified beliefs. There is good reason for that. Religion is probably the most widely held organized belief affecting people’s decisions, controlling masses of people, impacting politics, affecting culture and supported with enormous amounts of financial backing and political pressure. Where they would disagree with you, I believe is that they wouldn’t say that atheism is a justified belief but rather it is a default position to the unjustified beliefs of religion. I don’t think they would say unjustified beliefs cause evil but rather justified beliefs are likely to lead to better, more reliable perhaps as well better moral decisions that reliance on unjustified beliefs in particular extreme fundamentalist irrational religious beliefs. Good reasoning is better for decision making than poor reasoning on average.

So unlike yourself I don’t think they treat atheism as a belief. I think they would acknowledge that little can be said about people who are atheists other than they all lack a god belief of any kind. I don’t think they’d claim anything can be assumed about an atheist’s moral values, their decision making abilities or how rational they are. And please don’t bring up Hitler, Stalin or any other atheist as if these people represent all atheists or the vast majority..unless you can provide a cause and effect relationship between their atheism and immoral behavior or inhumanity against other men.

Tyson said...

Sam Harris has posted a response to that criticism, and others, at

Specifically he states, "My discussion of killing people “for what they believe” (pages 52-53 of The End of Faith):

The following passage seems to have been selectively quoted, and misconstrued, more than any I have written:

The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

This paragraph appears after a long discussion of the role that belief plays in governing human behavior, and it should be read in that context. Some critics have interpreted the second sentence of this passage to mean that I advocate simply killing religious people for their beliefs. Granted, I made the job of misinterpreting me easier than it might have been, but such a reading remains a frank distortion of my views. Read in context, it should be clear that I am not at all ignoring the link between belief and behavior. The fact that belief determines behavior is what makes certain beliefs so dangerous.

When one asks why it would be ethical to drop a bomb on Osama bin Laden or Ayman Al Zawahiri, the answer cannot be, “because they have killed so many people in the past.” These men haven’t, to my knowledge, killed anyone personally. However, they are likely to get a lot of innocent people killed because of what they and their followers believe about jihad, martyrdom, the ascendancy of Islam, etc. As I argued in The End of Faith, a willingness to take preventative action against a dangerous enemy is compatible with being against the death penalty (which I am). Whenever we can capture and imprison jihadists, we should. But in most cases this is impossible."

Tyson said...

Chris Hedges and Sam Harris both squared off at a truth dig debate, found here:

I'm emerging from belief, and trying to look at the new atheists perspectives without any bias, but in this debate, and the follow up correspondence between the two, Sam Harris looks to me to wipe the floor with Chris' arguments.

Also, I'm not seeing the argument coming from new atheism as to static right and wrong. I see objectivity in working toward humanistic understanding of an improving moral environment. I don't see Harris making the argument that religion is responsible for all the worlds ills, but he is convincing on several that are. And just as Tal has identified that Hitler didn't perpetrate his offenses under the name of Atheism, I don't see the evidence that Pol and Stalin were advocating secular humanism in the place of religion.