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"!