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Re Dawkins' claim that theism leads rationally to evil
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Author:  TFBW [ Sat Feb 23, 2013 6:04 am ]
Post subject:  Re Dawkins' claim that theism leads rationally to evil

In a debate with John Lennox (see footage starting at around 1:08:45), Richard Dawkins asserts that there is a logical, rational path from religious belief to evil and violence, whereas no such logical, rational path exists from atheism to the same ends. It's a shame that the moderator doesn't let Lennox answer this in any detail, because I'm sure he would have made some good points. On the other hand, it gives the rest of us a chance to reply.

It's curious that Dawkins is so willing to accuse religious folks of being rigorously rational about doing evil things when he usually considers them the epitome of irrationality. Regardless of that, let's look at a snippet of his comments.

Richard Dawkins wrote:
I am not trying to say that religious people do bad things. I agree fully that Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot and Mao did terribly bad things. It may even be that atheism was an integral part of the Marxism which led them to do terrible bad things, if indeed it was their Marxism that led them to do bad things. What interests me is that I think there is a logical path from religion to doing terrible things, and I kind of touched on it in the last answer when I was talking about "faith" leading you to do things.

There’s a logical path that says, if you really, really, really believe that your God, Allah, whoever it is, wants you to do something -- and you’ll go to heaven, you’ll go to Paradise if you do it -- then it’s possible for an entirely logical, rational person to do hideous things. I cannot conceive of a logical path that would lead one to say, "Because I am an atheist, therefore it is rational for me to kill, or murder, or be cruel, or do some horrible thing." I can easily see that there are plenty of individuals who happen to be atheists, maybe even individuals who have some other philosophy which incidentally happens to be associated with atheism, but there is no logical path.

So, to be clear, he recognises (albeit faintly) that the great Marxist butchers of the 20th century (Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot) were at least associated with an ideology which incorporates atheism. His distinction is that although those people were the outstanding monsters of the 20th century, their reasons for being monstrous were not rationally derived from their atheism, whereas a firm belief that one's God wants you to do something atrocious, and will reward you for doing so, leads rationally to such an action.

There are two problems with this argument. One is that he's attributing an overly-specific set of beliefs to religious people -- or, more specifically, to theists. The other is that he's implicitly denying that atheism can act as a rational basis for any behaviour.

To illustrate, consider the possible belief, "I believe that God wants me to commit an atrocity." This is the kind of belief that has no parallel in atheism, because there is no equivalent authority figure to God in atheism. There might be other authority figures, but the nature of those authority figures would be entirely incidental, except to say that they would not be supernatural. To that extent, Dawkins has a point.

My point, however, is that it's far too specific a belief. The more general case is, "I believe that God wants me to do X." Atheism has no equivalent for this more general case for exactly the same reasons described above. X can be very good, very evil, or anywhere in between. It's disingenuous to claim that it's rational for a religious person (but not an atheist) to do hideous things unless you also recognise that this exact same reasoning applies to the good things one might do. If it's rational for a religious person to do bad things in the name of God's will, but not rational for an atheist, then it's equally rational for a religious person to do good things in the name of God's will, and likewise not rational for the atheist to do so. If we generalise Dawkins' logic, we reach the following conclusion.

Theism potentially provides a rational basis for any behaviour; atheism can provide a rational basis for no behaviour.

Dawkins simply makes theism look bad by illustrating this principle with loaded examples, focusing on the possible rational basis for evil acts under theism, while ignoring both the good acts, and the fact that atheists have no rational basis (in atheism itself) for any kind of behaviour. Further, note that theism only provides a rational basis for something when we both attribute that thing to the will of God, and that thing is the will of God. If you mistakenly attribute something to the will of God, then there's a flaw in your reasoning. Dawkins never considers the possibility that theistic reasoning might contain this kind of error. That's not surprising: as an atheist, he believes that there is no such thing as God's will, so he considers all such beliefs to be false on the grounds that there is nothing for them to be right or wrong about. So apparently he considers it entirely rational to act in accordance with one's beliefs even if those beliefs are false. That's a controversial characterisation of "rational" behaviour.

Dawkins' usual thrust with this kind of argument is to illustrate how we'd be better off without religion, because it promotes evil, and how scientific atheism (or atheistic scientism, as I prefer to call it) is the alternative. Clearly it's not, however: atheism provides no rational basis for any kind of behaviour, and so atheists necessarily invent some kind of religious principles on which to base their behaviour in order to fill that void. Those principles, such as the Humanist Manifesto, accommodate an atheistic worldview, but they are not rationally derived from atheism itself, and there is no particular reason to think that all atheists will gravitate to the same set of guiding principles.

While it's not possible to derive any kind of behavioural principles from atheism itself, there are many trains of thought which are quite reasonable in the light of atheism, and which lead to the kind of atrocities committed by the Marxist butchers of the 20th century. In the absence of any kind of higher authority, a person at the top of the totem pole can easily adopt the attitude that a thing is right because it is their will. That is, their own will can easily become a substitute for the "God's will" of theism. An atheist in such a position can easily shift to a form of autotheism -- not necessarily believing themselves to be divine, as such, but considering obedience to their will to be the highest possible good. It's doubtful that the Marxist butchers considered any of their acts of mass murder to be evil: they had reasons for what they did, even if it was "I will kill you for not supporting me".

Clearly Dawkins does believe that certain things are right and wrong, or good and evil, and thus he has beliefs regarding what constitutes decent human behaviour. He's quite strong on that subject, in fact -- thus his willingness to point the finger at religion as a source of evil. Given that his own attitudes can not rationally be derived from his scientific atheism (atheism can provide a rational basis for no behaviour), are they rationally derived at all? If so, then from what? It's about time he came clean on his religious beliefs. Actually, his religious beliefs are pretty clear: he's a secular humanist. He just needs to come clean on the fact that he's not really opposed to religion generally, but to theistic religion in particular. He's promoting his particular atheistic religion, and when he says "religion promotes evil", he means other religions promote evil.

His argument would be that much more honest if it were simply expressed as, "my religion promotes more good than your religion." Instead, he uses tortured logic and selective examples to pin the blame for all things evil on theism, and avoids the application of the words "faith" or "religion" to any of his beliefs, as though his beliefs were the only reasonable possibilities, whereas they can not possibly have a rational basis in atheism. I think he's kidding himself as much as everyone else.

Author:  IM2L844 [ Tue Jan 14, 2014 1:56 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Re Dawkins' claim that theism leads rationally to evil

I check in from time to time, hoping to read more. How's that book coming along? You know, self publishing is all the rage.

Author:  TFBW [ Mon Feb 10, 2014 3:05 pm ]
Post subject:  Re: Re Dawkins' claim that theism leads rationally to evil

I've mostly been posting on other blogs of late (using the ID "TFBW"). Sorry, no immediate plans to write a book.

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