Saturday, April 14, 2012

Can Evil Derive from Atheism?

I’ve argued that for propaganda purposes, many New Atheists whitewash the social consequences of atheism, ignoring more pessimistic forms like Nietzsche’s existentialism and Lovecraft’s cosmicism. Moreover, scientific atheists lack respect for philosophy and thus have low standards of argument in nonscientific debates, including the inevitably philosophical debate between atheists and theists. These two deficits combine to produce the howler that is the New Atheist’s frequent response to the theist’s tedious rejoinder to the Problem of Evil, the rejoinder being that in the last century atheists are responsible for their own horrifying measure of evil (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, etc). This response to the classic theistic problem of evil, that a benevolent God wouldn’t allow so much natural and human suffering and therefore doesn’t exist as defined, takes the form of the Tu quoque fallacy, amounting to the childish outburst, “Yeah? Well so are you!” The problem of evil for theists isn’t just the pragmatic one, that religion has caused much violence and is thus especially dangerous given advances in weapons of mass destruction. The heart of the problem is that exoteric definitions of God, which rely on weak metaphors, are bound to be absurd. The facts that not all evil derives from religion and that atheists too can be evil have no bearing on that problem.

But one New Atheistic response to this counter-charge is highly revealing and annoying. The response seems to originate from Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion, in which he says that even were Stalin and Hitler both atheists, their atheism would have been as causally relevant to their evil as the fact that they both had moustaches. “What matters,” he says, “is not whether Hitler and Stalin were atheists, but whether atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. There is not the smallest evidence that it does” (309). And at the end of that section, Dawkins, the brilliant writer that he is, might have birthed the meme so often repeated in these discussions, that “Individual atheists may do evil things, but they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism” (315, my emphasis). 

Note the difference in Sam Harris’ handling of the issue in his book, The End of Faith, in which he blames evil on faith in irrational dogmas. Either secular or religious ideologies, he says, can turn people into depraved killing machines, but this just testifies “to the dangers of not thinking critically enough” about either sort of ideology (231). Indeed, Harris avers, “Genocidal projects tend not to reflect the rationality of their perpetrators simply because there are no good reasons to kill peaceful people indiscriminately” (79). In its own way, this response is just as wrongheaded as Dawkins’.

The Path from Atheism to Evil

Return, though, to Dawkins’ declaration that there’s no evidence that atheism influences people to do bad things. The fallacy here is the assumption that the theist’s comparison of atheism and religion as full-fledged causes of evil points only to the axioms of either way of thinking. Take the Crusades, the Inquisition, or al Qaeda terrorism. Those evils don’t follow just from the most elementary religious beliefs of either faith. Just because Jesus rose from the dead, doesn’t mean Muslims should be exterminated, and just because God is Great and Muhammad was his prophet, doesn’t mean Jews and Americans should be slaughtered. You’ve got to add many implications and natural consequences of basic beliefs about God or his absence to find causes of specific acts of religious or nonreligious violence. With regard to Christianity, you have the Catholic destruction of pagan society and thus of the local rationalist tradition, as well as the literalists’ victory over the Christian Gnostics and the exploitation of the religion by the Roman Empire, and thus the elevation of the pope as an absolute power. These developments laid the groundwork for a Christian form of totalitarianism, and thus ushered in the corresponding horrors. In cases of recent Muslims’ terrorism, riots, and oppression of women, you have the rise of secular and Christian nations coupled with the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th C., and the subjugation of Muslims by dictators allied with the non-Muslim powers. Recent Islamist violence and retreat to fundamentalist certainties are obviously flailing retaliations against the humiliation of proud Muslims.

As for atheism, the connection between violence and atheism’s mere basic assumptions is particularly irrelevant, since atheism is defined negatively as the denial of theism. This hardly means that there’s no natural path, though, from atheism to ways of thinking that cause atheists to perform evil acts. The fact that atheists have diverse ways of culturally applying their rejection of theism is also of no consequence, since theism, too, manifests in a diversity of religions. What, then, is the path from atheism to evil? It’s just the Nietzschean and cosmicist path I’ve been discussing at length in this blog. From atheism follows the rejection of our more naïve wishes and delusions about perfect justice, a happy afterlife, an ultimately meaningful life, and a home for humanity in the arms of a personal cause of the physical universe. Once those delusions are done away with, the atheist faces the threats of existential angst and horror in the face of our evident predicament. (See Happiness.)

We’re merely clever mammals. Therefore, some of us are lucky to live well, others are not and they suffer horribly; some of us are selfless, others are predatory. Both nature at large and human societies in particular are only partly hospitable to what most of us would call the good life, because life evolved mindlessly from non-life and thus is guaranteed no security, and that very mindless process now involves the mutation of genes which creates a variety of body-types to survive in various environmental conditions. So nature is unfair and far from ideal, from a naïve human perspective. There’s no deus ex machina, given atheism, and we can hardly anticipate salvation from our own virtues since those are as natural as the universe that contains black holes which swallow whole galaxies and that hurled a meteor into the Earth and annihilated billions of creatures. If we’re made of stardust and not of some transcendent spirit that belongs in another realm, our history is bound to exhibit the same mysterious pattern of creativity and destruction that bespeaks the horror of our source.

To be sure, most atheists optimistically set about creating a secular society as a refuge of laws for those interested in peace and happiness. Few atheists dwell on thoughts of the Nietzschean implication of atheism, that morality is foolish without God, or of the cosmicist one that if the universe isn’t fundamentally friendly to us, we’re all horribly alienated whether we know it or not. But other implications of atheism are that the universe is likely natural and thus that the brain is crucial to our identity. If we look at a person’s brain, we find much activity of which she’s not remotely conscious, and this activity can still affect her behaviour. Thus, the path from atheism to evil needn’t follow along mere conscious lines of thought, let alone ending with the atheist’s most fundamental assumptions. An atheist doesn’t have to be thinking explicitly of atheism when she acts evilly, for atheism to be the root cause.

Take, for example, the role of individualism in modern societies. As the political philosopher John Gray argues, the idea that each individual has inherent worth may derive from the theistic principle that we each have an immaterial essence made in God’s image. (See his book, Black Mass.) At any rate, modernists put a rationalist spin on individualism, inspired by the Scientific Revolution. But the point I want to stress is that individualistic societies can develop in opposite ways, depending on whether the individuals are theists or atheists. In medieval Christian societies, an individual’s worth was attributed to the everlasting spirit’s relationship to God. Any concession to freedom of thought or action in the present life would have paled in significance to the need to ensure the spirit’s safe passage to heaven after physical death, which latter task in Europe was thought to require the regulation of earthly life by the Catholic Church. Even were there more freethinking traditions in medieval Europe (beyond heresies like Catharism), the rational calculation for theists would have been to suffer in the present life for great reward in the hereafter--and suffer most medieval Christians did, in great abundance.

Now turn to modern individualism in its purest expression, which is the New World culture of the United States. Here we find not asceticism but hedonism, libertinism, pragmatism, and what Morris Berman calls the hucksterism of the American identity, the infantile and self-destructive expectation of infinite progress in the form of material wealth, delivered by technoscience. (See Berman’s book, Why America Failed.) Americans hold their individual freedoms to be sacred, but they interpret their right to live as they personally choose without any recourse to theistic principles. That is, they calculate that it’s best to live for happiness in the here and now rather than living in anything like a Christ-like fashion, and this must be because, regardless of their politically correct lies to pollsters, they don’t actually have theistic beliefs. (See Christian Chutzpah. There are some exceptions, such as the Mennonites, but they’re vastly outnumbered by this-worldly individualists who merely pretend to be Christian theists.) What this means is that all the business-oriented evils done by Americans, such as the genocide of Native Americans, the slave trade of Africans, the mass imprisonment of African-Americans, the torture and exploitation of nonhuman animals, the export of weapons around the world, the patronage of foreign oppressive regimes, and the overuse of the world’s nonrenewable resources are attributable not just to the faith in personal liberty, but to a nontheistic version of that faith.  

Or consider Hitler’s pseudo-Nietzschean spin on Darwinism. Whether Hitler was privately a Christian or an atheist is relatively unimportant. Nazism as a whole may have inherited its anti-Judaism from Christianity, but the Nazi quest for earthly power, to celebrate the strong’s triumph over the weak, is perfectly legitimate as an expression of atheism. Atheism, of course, is just the belief that there are no gods, but the reasons atheists give against theistic religions are scientific and philosophical, the greatest fruit of which is the naturalistic worldview. There are no gods because gods are supernatural, and modern knowledge is based on sense experience and reason, not on revelation, wish fulfillment, or the authority of ancient tradition. According to the positive definition of atheism, as a scientific, rationalistic, naturalistic worldview, all known living things are animals, as explained by biologists and chemists. Darwin added the evolutionary theory of biological design, which emphasized the role of death in the environment’s “selection” of viable species. Rather than in an Edenic paradise or a best of all possible worlds, life occurs under harsh conditions in which animals must struggle for survival to pass on their genes.

Nietzsche and Herbert Spencer extrapolated from Darwin’s biological theory to the social sphere, with Spencer in particular praising the virtues of unregulated economic competition as those of the most natural way of organizing society. To be sure, his inference committed what’s now called the naturalistic fallacy, but this is neither here nor there since there’s no need for the path from atheism to evil to be a logically rigorous one. Remember, according to the atheist’s naturalism, we’re just animals; therefore, reason for us isn’t necessarily sovereign. An atheist is free to be irrationally inspired by Darwinism to justify a pitiless view of the best society as one that lets nature take its course, just as the whole irrational rigmarole of exoteric theism is needed to get religious violence off the ground. (See Theism.) After all, if natural selection has the power to design the panoply of biological wonders, why not let that same power rule in the formation of societies? Why not dispense with Christian, slave morality and submit to nature, like the ancient pagans? Nazi rhetoric, about the glory of war and of the obligation to eliminate the weak, derived its emotional power from atheistic wonder at the magnificent inhumanity of natural evolution’s creativity. Once again, then, atheism is the ultimate source of Nazism. I hasten to clarify that my point isn’t that atheism and Nazism are equivalent or that all atheists should be Nazis. No, my point is just that, like hedonistic individualism, Nazism is one potent way of avoiding the angst and the horror that haunt any atheist who confronts the fact of our existential predicament which atheism does entail.

Evil “in the Name of” Atheism?

What of Dawkins’ assurance that secular dictators don’t commit their evil acts “in the name of atheism”? This is just sophistry, benefiting from the evasively negative formulation of atheism. The reason why a Christian crusader thanked Jesus as he plunged his sword into a Muslim child’s belly or why a Muslim terrorist chants his mantra that God is great as he flies a plane into a building full of civilians, is that the theistic cause of violence works by encouraging egoism in light of anthropocentric projections. Theistic evildoers are proud because they believe they’re mighty children of God, destined to spend eternity in paradise. By contrast, the atheistic cause of violence works by necessitating schemes to retain the atheist’s sanity in light of the ever-present threat of confronting atheism’s existential implications. While theists childishly bang away at their pots and pans, overjoyed that they should be so lucky to have a divinely written life manual, atheists need to conceal from themselves and from others atheism’s destructive potential. That’s one reason Nietzsche is such a controversial figure even in atheist circles: defying the convention that secular humanists can freely borrow Christian values while trashing their theological basis, he proclaimed that atheism has socially revolutionary consequences--and as if to prove his point, he even lost his sanity shortly before he died.

So of course atheistic evildoers don’t shout that they murder or plunder the environment for selfish profit in the glorious name of Atheism; atheists are at least unconsciously horrified if not consciously terrified by our existential plight, given that there are no supernatural gods, and their evil is accomplished in the name of fleeing from the truth of atheism. Postmodern, secular individualists distract themselves with material goods, to avoid contemplating the unfairness of life and our greater alienation. The Nazis devised a pantheistic religion, worshipping the champions of natural forces, the mightiest beasts who conquer the weak to achieve a sort of Taoist unity with cosmic creativity. (Similarly, current libertarians deify the free market and worship oligarchs as the freest individuals. See Liberalism and Libertarianism.) By deifying and celebrating the evolutionary forces that make life a heroic struggle, Nazi pagans likewise distracted themselves from the grimmer implication of atheism, that organisms are absurd byproducts of mindless forces and nothing more. In Nietzschean terms, Nazis sought to overcome that harsh fact by inventing an original system of values that affirms the brutal reality of natural life. But like Nietzsche himself, who outlined a substitute religion of the Übermensch, the Nazis didn’t affirm so much as flee from atheistic naturalism. (Contrast their arrogant and deluded secular religions, for example, with the more tragic one I sketch in Postmodern Religion.)

Does Rationalism Prevent Atheistic Evil?

What of Sam Harris’ diagnosis of evil as caused by irrationality? In the first place, reason can be bent to the service of evil. For example, social Darwinian economics, which encourages the despoliation of the environment and thus potentially causes the extinction of all life, consists of mathematical models, often concocted literally by rocket engineers. The greedy Wall Street bankers, who in 2008 nearly sank the globally-integrated economy, are among the smartest, most highly educated Americans. The Nazis, too, boasted plenty of scientific justifications for their eugenic exploits. Just as psychiatrists today are biased by the pharmaceutical companies, and economists by the Wall Street institutions that fund think tanks and academic programs, and many engineers by weapons manufacturers, all selling their coveted intelligence to the highest bidder, scientists in the 1930s were biased by Nazi propaganda, tilting their research for powerful positions in their social hierarchy.

This raises a second point, which is that an atheist, and thus most likely a naturalist, has no business preaching pure rationality except as a sort of fairytale for children’s bedtime stories. Harris is surely well aware of the findings in the cognitive sciences, that our powers of reason are flawed by their evolutionary roles. David Hume was closer to the truth when he intuited that reason is the slave of emotions. So even were rational evil impossible, which isn’t the case, the ideal of peace through rationality would be irrelevant to the question of whether there’s a path from atheism to evil. Given atheism, humans are largely irrational animals. As I said, then, an atheist is free to devalue reason and to celebrate instinct, as did Hume and Nietzsche. That naturalistic psychology can lead logically to the evils of laissez-faire economics, of Nazi social Darwinism, or indeed of any secular dictatorship. Of course, scientific atheists are rationalists, but they exaggerate the extent of human rationality by way of outfitting their scientistic religion with myths and propaganda. The Enlightenment idea is that Reason conquers Superstition and leads to Progress through Science and Technology. But that modern metanarrative is an exoteric article of faith for secular humanists that’s especially useful in the secular whitewash of atheism. (See Cosmicism and Pragmatism.)

Nietzschean atheists have the esoteric insight to see through secular substitutes for religion and to appreciate that atheism poses the great danger not just of causing evil but of explaining why evil is inevitable for creatures in our existential predicament. An atheist dispenses with gross fantasies about the human identity and understands that we’re thoroughly natural creatures. Thus, the atheist appreciates that, as Harris says, people will commit evil acts because we’re desperate, selfish, irrational, and otherwise often vicious beasts. But an atheist must go further than just understanding the harsh natural facts, and create a fitting set of values. Again, scientific atheists laud Reason as our salvation, but there’s no necessary connection between atheism and rationalism. All that atheism guarantees is the more likely awareness of our actual existential plight, and as I said, the atheist must then choose how to respond to that likelihood. Many New Atheists flee to a relatively peaceful, science-centered religion (Scientism), which values democracy and capitalism and thus can be complicit in the sins of materialistic individualism. Many other atheists turn to pagan authoritarianism and revel in the drama of life as a heroic struggle for power, and their irrationalism is complicit in the horrors of corrupt secular dictatorships. As I say above, I personally opt for a different set of atheistic values.

But my point is that a scientific atheist merely begs the question when she says that atheism doesn’t cause violence because atheists value reason and reason is the antidote to evil. Reason is no such antidote, but even if it were, an atheist needn’t be a rationalist. Rationalistic atheists aren’t necessarily superior to Humean or to Nietzschean ones. Indeed, all atheistic values are rather desperate schemes to avoid the existential angst and horror that flow from the full appreciation that there are no supernatural gods. 

The Folly of Theism

Recently, I’ve been highly critical of certain forms of atheism. I want to close, though, with an assurance that in my view, however disappointing scientific atheism may be, little appalls me more than exoteric theism. The cowardice, gullibility, self-righteousness, and narcissism of theists are palpable and repellent. Many centuries ago, when rationalist traditions were scarcer and less spectacularly confirmed, naïve theism could be forgiven as much less grotesque and ridiculous. Today, in wealthy, educated countries, there’s no such excuse. Indeed, within the last several decades, traditional monotheistic religions have had to retreat from those places, with Christianity especially spreading to the global South, where people are poorer and less informed about scientific naturalism. Without the oppressive dictatorships in the Muslim world, which thrive on the ignorance of their populations, Islam might already have reformed, which is to say secularized, itself. With technologically-driven globalization, the Arab Spring and the great concentrations of youths in contemporary Muslim populations might still indicate an imminent emasculation of that religion.

You’d think that the shame of being so transparently retrograde would dissuade Christians and Muslims from clinging to their outdated creeds and worthless religious practices. But the Churches have responded to their growing irrelevance in Europe, East Asian democracies, and North America by spreading their outrageous bastardization of Jesus’ “gospel” to Sub-Saharan Africa (Jesus’ “good news” being actually the terrible news of Gnosticism). Dishonouring yourself with the personal weaknesses required for the more inane theistic expressions is one thing, but actually taking to the streets to protest anything on such religious grounds, publicly professing your faith by means of archaic jibber jabber, or killing in the name of your fictional god is an abominable crime against good taste, if nothing else.  

As I’ve said elsewhere, Eastern religions are more mystical, philosophical, and naturalistic, and therefore less objectionable. (See Scientific and Philosophical Atheism). What’s praiseworthy about mysticism? Well, mystics are humbler than the theists who lean on anthropocentric images of the divine. Mystics are what Western philosophers call mysterians, which means they’re dubious of the potential for rationally understanding everything there is to know. Mystics stay true to the religious dread of our perilous and lowly position in the universe, an attitude that fosters the highly praiseworthy virtue of humility. Mystics have a lofty perspective on life, often detaching themselves from worldly concerns and living ascetically, demonstrating their freedom from egoistic delusions. These aspects of mysticism aren’t wholly laudatory, but at least mystics have a modicum of intellectual integrity, whereas exoteric, literalistic theists carve their minds into a thousand walled-off fragments for fear of the reckoning were they to strive harder to prove the consistency of their implicit naturalistic postmodernism and their premodern monotheism.


  1. Ben,

    An interesting post, but some of your thoughts leave me with questions.

    As I read this entry, and as I have read posts that dip into similar trains of thought, I have noticed a couple things that cause my to think differently than you on subjects related to atheism and morals.

    You said:

    "As I said, then, an atheist is free to devalue reason and to celebrate instinct, as did Hume and Nietzsche. That naturalistic psychology can lead logically to the evils of laissez-faire economics, of Nazi social Darwinism, or indeed of any secular dictatorship."

    I disagree that we are free to do so because reason must have arisen naturally, and while instinct is present in all animals, reason is only present in the highest forms of life we know. To ignore reason then, is to ignore one of the highest things that nature has given, and hence reveal we wouldn't really be valuing the same things as nature if we were to ignore it (So could we really call it naturalism then? Nature gave us instinct and we value that, but nature gives us reason and we are free to devalue it why? How is that not cherry picking naturalism?).

    I think naturalistic worldviews need to take into account that the highest forms of life have things like reason and empathy. 

    Empathy for me is central to my concept of morality. Again I will use the same argument that I used for reason, higher forms of life have empathy and lower forms do not, so in a Darwinistic framework, empathy is more valuable than instinct.  

    If empathy and reason have more weight in a naturalistic system than instinct, it is hard for me to see how a naturalistic framework could promote evil, at least rationally. In fact reason and empathy are the reason that people in 1st world countries still perceive the horror of our "existential situation" as you call it. If we had no empathy, it wouldn't be so horrifying, because hey it isn't happening to us and our own suffering is fairly minimal, and if we had no reason, well we would still be in the bliss of ignorance. 

    On a side note, if you only had time to read a single books worth of Nietzsche's writing, what would you reccomend?

  2. Jkx,

    Thanks for reading.

    Devaluing reason isn’t the same as “ignoring” reason. Even
    if only “higher” species have reason and empathy, that doesn’t mean those
    qualities should be valued. “Higher” doesn’t mean better, it means more complex
    or recent. Remember the naturalistic fallacy. Just because a quality is
    factually rare, doesn’t mean it ought to be valued. We have to choose what we
    value or what moral rules to follow. Scientific atheists celebrate reason, but
    atheistic naturalism is perfectly consistent with a celebration of the
    instincts that establish our continuity with the other animal species.

    Now, Humeans and Nietzscheans argue that even though we’re
    more rational than other species, we’re much less rational than we think we
    are. Cognitive science actually backs up that conclusion. There’s a laundry
    list of fallacies and biases we’re prone to, as psychological experiments have
    shown. Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain has a chapter that lists many of

    Anyway, my point isn’t that atheism prevents a rational
    defense of morality, but that atheism can be and has been the source of great
    evil, mainly because atheism puts us in touch with our dark reality as animals
    in an inhumane world that doesn’t care what we do. To deny that is to whitewash
    atheistic naturalism, typically for propaganda purposes.

    A single book by Nietzsche? Hmm, perhaps the most useful
    would actually be his set of unpublished notebooks, called the Will to Power,
    edited by Kaufmann, since that book’s the most comprehensive, covering all
    aspects of his thinking. On the downside, that book doesn’t give you his more popular,
    published formulations. If you’re into dramatic presentations, you could go
    with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I wouldn’t necessarily go with the Portable
    Nietzsche or some such anthology, since I’d find it annoying to have mainly
    selections from whole works. Yeah, I’d probably go with Will to Power or Thus
    Spoke Zarathustra.

  3. Enjoy your essays as always, will respond to one part:
    "we can hardly anticipate salvation from our own virtues since those are as natural as the universe that contains black holes which swallow whole galaxies and that hurled a meteor into the Earth and annihilated billions of creatures. If we’re made of stardust and not of some transcendent spirit that belongs in another realm, our history is bound to exhibit the same mysterious pattern of creativity and destruction that bespeaks the horror of our source."

    Being shared in nature hardly means an expected virtue must be a destructive tendency. We've the beavers and the wolves who share being mammals, and the tomato and the aphid that share the world of the living yet have contrary implications for us.

    While it would be unrealistic to expect perfect creativity without destruction, I think due to having observed humans creating things, we might rank ourselves as less comparatively destructive than a black hole or a meteor which hasn't built much (least as much as we've measured).

    We can certainly anticipate salvation, even if we should not put so much hope in it that we assume it certain. Our capacity for destruction is something we must also anticipate so that it can be managed while pursuing that creation.

  4. Ty,

    Thanks for reading. I’d just like to clarify the point I was
    trying to make. I didn’t say or mean to say that because we’re natural, we’re simply
    destructive or even more destructive than creative. I spoke rather of the “mysterious
    pattern of creativity and destruction” that indicates “the horror of our
    source.” What this means is that nature is mindlessly, carelessly, inhumanely
    creative and destructive. Black holes destroy but also create, by making room
    for new things to happen, just as the meteor that killed the dinosaurs made way
    for mammals.

    Most animals behave strictly as programmed, but we
    understand more of our situation and have some freedom in responding to it. I
    think atheism can cause evil in those who go virtually mad from knowing the
    horrible truth of atheistic naturalism.

  5. jkx,

    On second thought, Will to Power wouldn't be an ideal introduction to Nietzsche. Try Thus Spoke Zarathustra or perhaps Beyond Good and Evil. The thing about reading Nietzsche is that since he wrote aphoristically rather than systematically, it's more important to get the feel for his attitude to life, rather than trying to digest his doctrines. Most of his doctrines were meant to challenge the reader's will-power, not to construct an air-tight system of thought. The reason I say this is that you can get this feel for his attitude and for his style from pretty much any of his works. Zarathustra is probably the most entertaining and powerful, though.

  6. Well I suppose I agree with the fact that atheism could be the source of great evil, though I haven't read enough and don't know enough to agree that it has been. Not to say that it hasn't, I just am in no place to confirm it in the same way I am with theism.

    I would like to come back to this quote, and I hope this doesn't feel like nitpicking.This particular sentence is where my sort of struggle becomes apparent to me:

    "As I said, then, an atheist is free to devalue reason and to celebrate instinct, as did Hume and Nietzsche. That naturalistic psychology can lead logically to the evils of laissez-faire economics, of Nazi social Darwinism, or indeed of any secular dictatorship." 

    In what sense is an atheist free to celebrate instinct? Do you mean free from worrying about what God will do to them? I suppose they are more free than a theist in this sense, but I don't think that they are free from every force that would keep them from living out their instincts. Also being a theist can mean being free from social pressures and often times solid reasoning, but that hasn't kept them from committing atrocities.

    Anyways, I know you are not defending theists so I don't want to come off saying that I think you are. I did actually read the article :)

    Honestly though I have a larger issue with this line of thought. And since you mentioned Hume, and it is semi-related...

    On the recent article you wrote disagreeing with Harris, you said:

    "But morality, like theism, might be irrational and thus either might be particularly fitting for us--as smart as we are compared to all other known species--considering that we’re animals nonetheless."

    As a context, you were discussing Harris and Dennet's hasty dismissal of Hume's is-ought problem. 

    Now in the first quote you say that "naturalistic psychology can lead logically to the evils...", and I am honestly at this point wondering how we can say anything related to morals can lead "logically" anywhere. I can't seem to find a way around Hume's is-ought problem, at least when moral statement's are involved. (Hopefully I am not being too exacting here, again I am not trying to nitpick, but this is significant for my current train of thought.)

    So how can atheism lead logically to evil, or not to evil?

    These questions could be naive, and the answers obvious...

    Also thanks for taking the time to suggest a book. I found 
    Thus Spoke Zarathustra  is free on kindle, so I am going to try and pick it up here soon. I did however cheat and read a rather entertaining attempt at a summary that I thought you might enjoy: 

  7. When I say that an atheist is free to celebrate instinct, I mean that atheism doesn't imply rationalism and that atheistic naturalism informs us that we're animals or thoroughly natural beings. All of this can inspire the atheist to choose values that emphasize our continuity with the other species or else nature's inhumane pattern of creativity and destruction. In other words, atheism can lead to social Darwinism, which was central to Nazism. Social Darwinism and atheistic naturalism form a coherent worldview, although the former is typically fallacious in itself.

    So on the one hand, I say that morality might be irrational, which would steer morality away from the naturalistic fallacy. On the other hand, I say atheism can lead logically to evil. When I was writing the latter, I actually saw the apparent conflict, but I was using "logical" in the broader sense of "reasonable, or to be expected." The point is that social Darwinism or egoistic individualism is a reasonably-expected consequence of atheistic naturalism, meaning that either pair forms a coherent worldview, and because we're largely irrational animals, we should expect that an atheist could be irrationally inspired by the above aspects of nature that lead to evil (nature's inhumanity, etc). Moreover, we should expect that an atheist could become desperate in finding an escape from the angst and horror caused by a confrontation with our existential predicament, which atheism entails. 

  8. That makes things a bit clearer for me, thanks. I figured maybe I was being a bit too exacting on the word logical, but this has helped me understand better.

    I think I generally understand now what you are saying,and hopefully it didn't take too much effort to get me there :) 

    I think though, that most of these criticisms could be aimed at just about any worldview. Not exactly of course, but if you are saying atheism could inspire people to do evil, I can't think of a worldview that I know of that wouldn't inspire someone to do evil.

    I think maybe though, the new atheist movement isn't interested necessarily so much on white-washing atheism, and claiming it would only inspire reason and not evil. I think they are more interested in promoting atheism as a necessary consequence of being reasonable and not so dogmatic and oppressive (as religion tends to be). I do think reason is sort of the chosen champion of the new atheists more than atheism (though I can't claim to speak for them all!)

    Since Harris has come up a few times, I will snag one of his quotes as an example:

    "People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable."


  9. New Atheists typically say that atheism is our salvation, since atheism is exceptional in being a force for good and not at all a force for evil. Of course, I agree that atheistic naturalism is a great improvement on what I call exoteric theism. My disagreement here is with the whitewashing of atheism and with those who downplay its existential implications which are made clear, for example, in Nietzsche and in Lovecraft. I invite those who think reason is our salvation to read my blog on the Curse of Reason.

    Regarding Sam Harris' comment on dogma and reason, I'd say just that an atheist should expect natural animals like us to form dogmas and ideologies in support of atheistic naturalism, which is precisely the means by which atheism leads logically/reasonably/predictably to evil. That's how it happened in Nazism and that's how it's happening in materialistic individualism.

    Harris says that no society every suffers from being too reasonable. This is fatuous. Harris is forgetting what he says regarding the science of morality, that reason is value-laden. These values cause animals like us to become irrationally inspired, which leads Wall Street bankers, for example, to destroy in the name of rationalist individualism (i.e. selfish greed). If you take away the values and the emotions that colour the Enlightenment myths/ideologies of Reason, Reason becomes a computer's power of calculation, in which case Harris would be saying that the ideal society is one in which humans are reduced to machines.

  10. Ben,  After reading the article again I feel a bit silly. I guess I am not as good at retaining information as I thought, seeing as how you address the theme that Harris presents in that quote almost directly in the first few paragraphs.   Also, I went and read your entry: the curse of reason I found it most intriguing.  I started to comment here earlier, but realized I was really straying into the content of that post instead of the content of this one, and so I think I will save my comments for things related to the curse of reason for a comment on that post at a later time.  Correct me if I am wrong here, but I generally understand you as saying that true contemplation of the implications of atheism are horrific and maddening. People generally invent replacements for theism/religion to avoid dealing with the loss of theism and the implications of atheism. Also these replacements need not be rational because according to atheism/naturalism we are animals after all. One of these potential replacements could very well be social Darwinism, or other forms of evil and so there are clearly paths from atheism to evil. So far that is how I understand what you are saying.   Most the posts I have read on your blog seem to address these themes and their possible implications. Is there a post where you discuss how have you chosen to move forward in light of them, and your reasoning behind it?  Personally, (and perhaps I am just inventing a replacement for religion and my previous theism) I feel like my own belief system engages some of the implications of atheism. The concept of the "human condition" (or all the things that we share across humanity regardless of race/gender etc.) largely pushed me in the direction of atheism because I realized that Christianity made a mockery of it. We all had no choice in being born, or where or to whom. We will all suffer in our lives to varying degrees, and one day we will all die alone, and on top of all that we will have minimal idea as to what it "means" if anything, and hardly be able to understand/control much of it. It is truly horrific.  I think that a huge part of what it means to be human is engaging that information. Christianity rather makes an absolute mockery of it. Well, at least the Pauline version which as you so keenly pointed out is largely because Paul allows Jesus sacrificial death to supersede his ethical teachings. In one sense Christianity, and most forms of theism laughs at what is happening in countries like Africa. "God will sort it out in the end", relives us of any responsibility to be concerned for justice in this life, because the primary concern is for the next. How could a Christian even address their poverty without first revealing to them their larger problem that God hates them, and not only were the born into this world to suffer, but for not already accepting Jesus they will go on to suffer forever in the next world. Christianity is truly dehumanizing.  I feel like these things that make us human connect us in some way, and so I consider myself a "humanist", though that may not be the traditional thought behind that word. So I feel like there is a path from the implications of atheism that lead away from evil (though it certainly isn't the only path in either direction).

  11. jkx,

    I think you accurately summarize the themes of several of my blog rants. Remember, though, I'm not saying that all atheists ought to be irrational or evil. I'm criticizing the New Atheist's claim that there's *no* path from atheism to evil. Thus, I'm saying that there is *at least one* such a path, given the dark side of atheism that I've been exploring in this blog. Clearly, there are other paths that lead from atheism to happiness and morality, as in the case of secular humanism. I still explain this humanism in terms of what I call the religion of Scientism, but clearly this sort of atheism is preferable to Nazi social Darwinism.

    As for a blog rant of mine in which I discuss how I'd prefer to deal with the dark side of atheism, I do happen to have written just such a post. It's my Jan 2012 post, "Inkling of an Unembarrassing, Postmodern Religion." And I intend to further explore those more positive ideas.

    Thanks again for your interest in my writings.