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Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao… all irrelevant

Anyone who has ever watched a debate between a theist and an atheist has seen this familiar scene: 1) the atheist points out that religion, despite its claims to inform human morality, has been (and continues to be) responsible for many atrocities and moral outrages; 2) the theist counters that the greatest mass murderers in the history of mankind (usually some combination of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Mao) were atheists; 3) the theist wins the argument (note: step 3 may or may not be completely made up). Like the sun rising in the morning, the leaves changing colour in autumn, or the Rapture happening two days ago (remember how awesome that was?), this line of argument is so predictable as to be almost laughable.

There are so many flaws with this argument that it makes the head spin, so I am going to try and walk you, the reader, through them sequentially.

Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Mao were atheists

This is debatable. Leaving aside Hitler for a moment (who was baptized Catholic and used Christian religious imagery extensively as the justification for his racist political ideology), there certainly have been leaders that have killed many of their own people, many of whom were openly atheist. However, none of the people that are commonly listed (and some that are less commonly mentioned like Idi Amin, Fidel Castro, and Kim Il-Sung) left religion out of the picture. Instead of worship of a supernatural deity that speaks directly into the ear of the leader, these men simply bypassed the middle man and pronounced themselves akin to the deity.

Without exception, if you look at how these men ruled their countries, they made themselves a figurehead and object of worship. Even today, there are pictures of Castro and Guevera plastered all over Cuba. Idi Amin was Uganda and erected a quasi-religious framework around him; ditto for Stalin (but even more so). Pol Pot and Mao, arguably the closest to being truly atheistic dictators, still installed themselves as nearly-supernatural beings whose word was divine law; in the case of Kim Il-Sung this is quite literally true. Strictly speaking, this doesn’t qualify as atheism. There is a world of difference between saying “there are no gods” and “I am a god”. It exploits the seemingly-innate propensity of human beings to subjugate themselves to something – far closer to the religious position (“I speak for the gods”) than the atheist position.

But, even if that were true…

Let’s pretend for a moment that we can accurately label the above listed dictators as being atheists (in the interest, perhaps, of avoiding being inaccurately accused of using the “No True Scotsman” fallacy). The argument is still invalid because the crimes these men committed were not done in the name of atheism. Whereas theistic murderers often use religious scripture and theological ‘reasoning’ to justify why suchandsuch group of people are deserving of the end of a sword, I know of no examples where someone has said the following:

Because there are no gods, we have the right to murder/oppress this group.

Such a statement would be on par with the justifications that come from religiously-justified crimes against humanity (“God hates fags”, “Unbelievers deserve hell”, “Jews killed Jesus”). And while there have been many atrocities that have happened for non-religious reasons, it is not reasonable or consistent to classify anything that is not pro-theistic as being atheist. The statement “there are no gods” could be twisted to support the murder of people if one was particularly psychopathic, but I don’t think it ever has.

But, even if that were true…

But let’s for a moment imagine that someone unearthed such an example, where the lack of god belief was used as a justification to commit a crime against humanity. Even then, this argument would have no value, since atheism is not a morality claim. The whole purpose of raising the atrocities committed with religious justification is to poke holes in the argument that religious faith is the source of morality, or that adherence to religious codes makes humanity more moral. If this were the case, it would be a rare exception that religious fervor could be twisted to serve a genocidal purpose – people’s faith would steer them away from the clear evil of mass murder.

The fact that even ‘atheistic’ mass murderers used the trappings of religious adherence and unwavering faith to rally people to their clearly immoral cause suggests that, if anything, religion makes people less moral. At least it seems to be useful in getting people to short-circuit their critical thinking faculties and engage in behaviour that, if they were to sit and think rationally about it (or, in hindsight) they would rightly recoil from. Even so, the cup of religion overfloweth with claims of superior morality – claims not supported by the available evidence. Atheism has no such morality claims; it is simply the lack of god-belief. It is entirely incidental (or, more likely, due to a third variable like propensity for independent introspection) that atheists are less likely to murder, rape, etc.

But even if that were true

Even if we, for the sake of argument, granted all of the above (untrue) assumptions – that atheistic dictators committed their crimes from a position of atheistic moral authority – this argument would still be completely worthless. The issue of whether or not atheism is nice has absolutely no relationship to whether or not atheism is true. Even if we were to grant that atheists are just as shitty are theists, that doesn’t say anything about which of the two positions of correct – all it says is that people suck. Making the assertions that morality comes from the divine assumes the existence of the divine. Failure to demonstrate the existence of the divine (we’re still waiting, by the way) completely invalidates the theistic moral position. Saying that theists are super-nice doesn’t mean that the gods exist any more than saying atheists are shitty people does. Both positions are entirely orthogonal to the central claim of whether or not gods are real.

In summary

I’m honestly not sure why this argument is perceived to carry any weight in a serious debate. Surely respected theists are aware of Godwin’s Law, and while I hold out no expectations for people debating issues on Reddit or on someone’s Facebook wall, I would imagine that enough people have at least thought through their position long enough to realize that such an assertion has no bearing whatsoever on their position. And yet, keep your eyes and ears open for the next big debate between an atheist and a believer – I’ll be willing to bet cookies that the rotting, shuffling corpse of this thoroughly-useless argument will rise again and attempt to devour the brains of the audience.

Remember, aim for the head.

TL/DR: People are often pointing out that some of the greatest mass murderers in history are atheist. Even if they were, they didn’t kill in the name of atheism. Even if they did, atheists don’t make claims of superior morality because of atheism (whereas religion does). Even if they did, that is irrelevant to whether or not atheism is true.

Comments

  1. Andrew Stocker says

    Ian;

    Fairly good commentary, as usual. I’d be more careful in my argument, as I believe that you are arguing above that Atheists, strictly speaking, cannot subsume logic to ideology. If so, you are arguing for a being of pure reason, which I would argue, doesn’t actually exist.

    That being said, look at the last six months of the Second World War, and it could be argued that the Nazis purposefully persued a strategy of ‘Fuck you, we are going to screw the world’ (Gotterdamerung – the Death of the Gods from Wagner’s work; more actually, the gods are already dead, we’re fucked either way). I’ll buy the Hitler as god/messiah theory up until about 1944, but the wheels came off late ’44 and early ’45: the Germans knew they had already lost, and were no longer fighting for their ‘god.’ Examples of this abound, but the most famous instance was with the 5th SS Panzer Division ‘Wiking’ – an armoured division composed mainly of Scandanavian troops, who were wiped out in Vienna in the closing days of the war: they went down fighting because they were doomed either way (members of the Waffen SS under the rank of Lt Col were shot by the Russians out of hand at the end of the war); and decided, en-masse, to go down fighting, not because of a belief in some false god.

    Again, if you look deeply enough, there is almost always some example to refute any other example. I’ll buy your argument, if you concede that there is no such thing as a perfect atheist.

    Andrew Stocker

  2. says

    If by ‘perfect atheist’ you mean ‘perfect skeptic’ then I will absolutely concede that. Skepticism (100% rationality at all times) is definitely an ideal to aspire to, not an achievable goal. People do horrible things for non-theistic reasons all the time, and I’m certainly willing to concede that too. I guess the point was simply that it is very easy to find examples of theistic beliefs being used to defend and inspire immoral acts, which is in stark contrast to the claim that theism leads to morality.

  3. says

    To your first point – and here’s what you said, that I will focus my response on: “Strictly speaking, this doesn’t qualify as atheism.” Disagree. Strictly speaking, it does indeed qualify as atheism. No theist dictator would proclaim him/herself as god. Because they believe in a god, and they know they are not it. Only an atheist dictator can proclaim him/herself as a god, because they know that god does not exist. That said, dictators could very well install themselves as iconic cult figures and encourage idolatry. That is more about manipulating human dynamics and achieving mind-control over the masses, than it is about their own personal belief in existence or non-existence of a supernatural power. What you’ve done here is created a straw man – since you could not conclusively prove that those guys were atheists, you’ve extended the argument to say: “oh but since they behaved like gods and kinda sorta created a religion around themselves, they were theist”. Sorry pal, that’s not what belief in god is. Belief in oneself as god (even if that were true in the case of Mao et al.), does not automatically imply belief in a supernatural, omniscient, ominpotent, omnipresent power responsible for the creation of the universe, no matter how drunk with power one is. In short, there is no evidence to prove that they were theists, but there are ample pointers that suggest that they might have been atheists.

    To your seond point – and here’s what you said, that I will focus my response on: “Because there are no gods, we have the right to murder/oppress this group.” Disagree. That is not the logic at work here.The logic of these dictators is something along these lines: “I have the freedom to do whatever I want, without being accountable to anyone about it. For whom can I possibly be accountable to, given that there are no gods, and I am the most powerful of all living beings?” The point here is about accountability to moral values (or an authority that embodies them). Most people (perhaps not all) are likely to behave differently when they find that are not accountable for their actions. Useful to remember that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you’re a theist, it follows that you hold yourself accountable to (your idead of) god for your actions. If you’re an atheist, you experience no such restrictions on your actions. You are free to commit whatever creepy crimes your imagination can conjure. You don’t commit those crimes reading out of the ‘book of atheism’ because none such exists. All you do, instead, is to unleash the monsters within you. IMO that is what all those guys did. The only exception is, if you’re a ‘principled’ atheist – one who lives by a secular moral code. Then you hold yourself accountable to your own self and your sense of right and wrong. But to none other. So you see, atheism can indeed be liberating … in the “wrong” way.

    To your third point – I agree with your statement that “atheism is not a morality claim”. But then you use the straw man you created in your first point to go ahead and infer that because these dictators sorta kinda created a religion around themselves, and because that religion is flawed, it shows that religion makes people less moral. Again, what they’ve created is a cult, not a religion. There is a world of difference between the two. Cults may be prone to immorality, but even if that is the case, it doesn’t prove that all world religions are prone to immorality.

    To your fourth point – and here’s what you said, that I will focus my response on: “The issue of whether or not atheism is nice has absolutely no relationship to whether or not atheism is true.” Fair enough. My counter is simply this: for a mass of 7 billion people to live in peace and prosper, we need a culture that focuses on “nice” rather than “true”, should the two not coincide. Not everybody is mature enough to handle the moral responsibility and accountability for their actions that comes along with atheism. The truth (of atheism) indeed sets people free, and that freedom, in the case of a mass of immature people full of ethnic, racial and other prejuidices, can be very dangerous. A “nice” belief system of morality, on the other hand may not be so dangerous. Truth can be the enemy of nice, in this case. A secular moral code – or a social contract – can prevent a “Bellum omnium contra omnes” and hence that becomes a pre-requisite to unleashing the truth on the masses. If we want to convert 7 billion people to the reality of atheistic truth, let’s first make sure they can handle it, that the world won’t degenerate into lawless chaotic anarchy. Till we get to that stage, let’s go with “nice” instead of “true”. There are many truths about the universe we still haven’t uncovered – such as dark energy and dark matter. Let the non-existence of god be one such, till the “unwashed masses” (for want of a better word) reach the right level of maturity.

    P.S. Since you’re so astute as to be able to gauge what positions theists and atheists take in arguments – can you guess what I am?

  4. says

    Thank you for your well-thought-out comment. I will do my best to address it piecemeal.

    First point
    No, it is not a straw man to separate elevation of human beings to gods from atheism. Atheism is the response to the claim ‘there is a god’. To make positive claims about reality beyond that transcends the bounds of atheism in the strict sense (which is why I used the words ‘strictly speaking’). Yes, the men in question were probably atheists in the sense that they did not believe in the existence of a particular god, and it is fair to say that in that sense their self-worship existed in the context of atheistic thought. It is not fair, and frankly absurd, to assert that only atheistic dictators could self-elevate like that. There are countless examples of people who have done exactly that (Jim Jones, Akhenaton, Louis XIV, Nero, Caesar…) unless you mean to say that ‘strictly speaking’ they weren’t theists?

    Second point
    Citations are grossly needed for your assertion that people behave better when they believe than people who do not believe. The evidence, such as it is, certainly does not support your conclusion that theists hold themselves accountable to their god. I could make the exact same argument that says that the Christian doctrine of forgiveness of sins makes people more likely to rape and murder, since they know that believe in Jesus is sufficient to secure everlasting delight in heaven. It is certainly the case that suicide bombers and other ‘martyrs’ believe that their murderous ways are divinely warranted. There is again an extra step between “there are no gods” and “therefore I have supreme license to engage in any behaviour I wish.” What I hear far more commonly from atheists is “there are no gods, and therefore we are all responsible to each other because my wishes do not matter more than another’s.” Again, however, that kind of positive ethical claim goes beyond the realm of atheism, and tends more toward secular humanism.

    Third point
    Please explain to me the difference (besides numbers) between a religion and a cult. To me those words are essentially synonymous.

    Fourth point
    To be completely honest with you, I find your fourth point ethically monstrous, as well as woefully at odds with observed history. To say that the scientific truth should be kept from people because they are not responsible enough to handle it is a profoundly disturbing statement. If we have to live on this planet with each other, we ought to make our decisions based on what is rather than what we think it would be nice if it was. It would be nice if the only reason people got sick was because of evil deeds they had committed. It would certainly provide us with a convenient scapegoat explanation for the plague. Should we therefore refuse medical care because they deserve it, or does it matter that our response to illness is based on science rather than wishful thinking? That is, in fact, the approach we did take in the middle ages – how did we suddenly become ‘mature’ enough to handle germ theory? My contention is that we didn’t become more mature, we became more informed and adapted our policy based on reality. The level of paternalistic arrogance required to sit in judgment of what truths humanity is “ready” to learn is the stuff of cartoonish science fiction supervillainry, or at least I thought it was until I read this comment.

    I never claimed to be able to gauge theists from atheists in the absence of a declaration of belief. I merely react to what I’ve heard. Both atheists and theists alike are capable of making sloppy arguments.

  5. says

    1. I agree that theist dictators could also self-elevate, but I would say that theist dictators would not cross a line – the line that separates them from (who/ what they recognize as) god. That’s their “glass ceiling” if you like. Atheist dictators have no such glass ceiling, since they recognize no such thing/ being as god. The argument that “Mao was a theist – because he expected to be worshiped as a god, although he didn’t believe in one” simply doesn’t make sense. It is a straw man that has been created just to excommunicate Mao from the atheist club and show him to be just like all other religious leaders/ theistic dictators. You basically want to disassociate atheism from the responsibility of some 50 million deaths, any which way you can. I get it, but atheism can’t escape so easily!

    2. As I’ve said before, there are atheists with a secular moral code and there are atheists with no moral code of any kind. The latter will seamlessly go from “there is no god” to “therefore I have supreme license to engage in any behaviour I wish”. OTOH the former will think “there are no gods, and therefore we are all responsible to each other because my wishes do not matter more than another’s”. Similarly, there are theists who mostly align their behavior with the type of rectitude prescribed by their religion, and there are theists who will forever be caught in the vicious circle of “sin” followed by “penance”. Either way, both types of theists recognize accountability to what they consider a “higher power”. Some religions provide loopholes that clever theists leverage to “game the system”. Other than those exceptions, religions by and large aim to streamline human behavior.

    Citations are needed for this? Look at the history of mankind and how we have held together and grown in size. If religion promoted lawlessness we would’ve exterminated ourselves by now. It is only recently (20th century onward) that the exceptions (i.e., clever theists “gaming the system”) have become more significant in percentage of the population.This problem could be solved by plugging those loopholes in religion that gamers exploit – in other words, by religious reform. This situation is no different from rogue bankers causing a financial crisis by exploiting regulatory weaknesses. To prevent recurrence of such financial crises, you need to fix those weaknesses, not eliminate the banking industry!

    3. Generally speaking, religions are more institutionalized (i.e. not dominated by a singular personality), they have a history of many centuries – doctrine and scriptures going back many years, they have strong traditions and rituals, they have a well-defined moral code of conduct for followers, that prescribes “how to lead a good life” (almost all aspects of it) and most importantly their concept of god/s transcends human limitations (in other words, while god/s can assume human forms, humans can never be god/s).

    Cults on the other hand are generally short-lived, centered around a single personality (or a very small group of people, who all exist in the same time-frame), have a comparatively smaller following (compared to world religions), have no unique history that unites them or traditions as such, not many common practices or rituals, and at best only a loosely defined behavioral code, with limited scope (i.e. which doesn’t necessarily address all aspects of “how to lead a good life”). Cults can be completely non-theistic and non-religious. Cults can morph into religions over a period of time, if they have a sustainable strategy and continuously provide their followers with solutions to life’s moral and social problems. I guess it could be said that Jesus Christ started out as a cult figure, in many ways.

    I would encourage you to research this further at wikipedia and other sources. It’s not just a play on words. And yes, they could be synonymous in certain situations, but that’s mostly as a figure of speech. For example, a near-fanatical adherence to Linux and open source could be described as a cult, or also as a religion. Same thing. These are just metaphors.

    Side note: It is useful to observe that Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) have a different concept of god than other religions (e.g. Dharmic religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism etc.). There are some religions that actually do not believe in a god in the Abrahamic sense – only in something akin to a state of enlightenment. There are some religions that are polytheistic (i.e., believe in multiple gods – e.g., ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Nordic and Hindu pantheons) and some that are pantheistic (i.e., do not believe in an anthropomorphic god, instead equate nature with god – e.g., Paganism, Taoism). Usually, in debates on theism, the religions being discussed are of the Abrahamic kind. People tend to forget that when they say “Religion” with a capital “R”, it also includes all kinds of other religions. Around 55% of the world population follows some Abrahamic religion. But the rest don’t! The atheistic argument needs to be crafted differently in these cases. One needs to be clear whether one is taking a position on god (which may not exist, in the Abrahamic sense, for some religions) or the religion itself (which is more akin to a philosophy and/or a way of life).

    4. Ethically monstrous. Hmm. You sound like a deontological absolutist. Well, OK then. I’m a teleological relativist, and I have no qualms in entertaining ethically monstrous propositions if they lead to the common betterment of most of humanity for now and for future generations. According to me the very purpose of ethics is that (yes, utilitarianism, but augmented with sustainability considerations). And please don’t straw man me all over again – do you seriously think I am recommending that people should “refuse medical care because they deserve it” or that I am opposing the fact that “our response to illness is based on science rather than wishful thinking?” Puhlease. Where did you get that from? Some canned arguments that atheists put together to counter theists, I suppose?

    All I am saying is that before you enlighten people with the truth about god’s non-existence, make sure they have the maturity to handle it. This is equivalent to saying – before you give your car keys to your teenage son, make sure he can drive, so that he doesn’t threaten life and/ or property. Sure, there has to be a first time for him to drive, and it can risky. Baby steps. Which part of this proposition is so difficult to understand?

    As long as majority of the 7 billion people look outside themselves for solutions – towards religious leaders and moral authorities; as long as these masses lack the skills to reason out things for themselves and develop their own framework for a “good life”; as long as the mass of humanity is in this present condition of intellectual dependence on thought leaders and prescribed frameworks, it would be best to focus on religion REFORMS that promotes the good stuff and purge out the bad part of religion, rather than eliminating religion altogether (which is what your idea of “spreading the truth” is tantamount to). Meanwhile, we could teach them how to think and be intellectually independent so as to develop their own sense of morality. Then, and only then, would they be ready to embrace atheism. Otherwise you are just opening the door to the possibility of more Maos and Pol Pots.

  6. says

    Additional thoughts (unsolicited advice alert)

    If you need to counter the argument that “people are often pointing out that some of the greatest mass murderers in history are atheist”, then I would recommend a more practical approach along the following lines:

    1. Acknowledge that some of the greatest mass murderers in history are in fact atheists. There is no point in opposing this fact. Your subtly nuanced counter-argument as outlined in this post will just not find traction and will not resolve the argument in the mind of the theist. Your theist will summarily dismiss it and walk away doubly sure they were right.

    2. Next, expose the hidden flaw in the theist’s argument: the implicit assumption that not believing in the existence of god is tantamount to giving up all sense of morality.

    3. Point out that those atheists were absolutely corrupted by the absolute power the wielded, that they had lost their moral compass, and that you do not support that kind of atheism.

    4. Emphasize that atheism does not mean the abandoning of ethical and moral guidelines on how to lead a civilized life that values tolerance and accords due respect to fellow human beings. Emphasize the importance of embracing diversity and pluralism in a heterogeneous society, as being most critical to peace on earth, regardless of whether or not there is a god.

    5. Assert that what you are advocating is “rational and moral atheism” and not “irrational and amoral atheism”. Explain that rational and moral atheism involves the development of intellectual faculties that will lead to a simultaneous recognition of two truths (not just one) – (a) god doesn’t exist (b) humans need to adopt principles of conduct that support a stable society which can make sustainable progress. (Note: these are two distinct truths that must be recognized together. The second is not a corollary of the first, and the view that atheism “automatically” or “implicitly” induces good behavior is incorrect. As you have pointed out, atheism is not a morality claim.)

    6. Illustrate as to what some basic principles for a secular morality or value system might look like (suggestive, not prescriptive) and show how these atheistic mass murderers of history violated these principles. Reiterate that therein lies their crime, not in atheism per se.

    Summary: Not only are Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot NOT irrelevant, but you can in fact make them even more relevant by citing them as examples of the wrong kind of atheism.

    Epilogue: A sick society of the kind we are seeing around us needs lessons in tolerance, more than it needs lessons in atheism. I’m saying here “A > B”, not “B is redundant”, nor “B is undesirable”.

  7. says

    1 – If we are dichotomizing atheist and theist, then yes you are more than likely correct that Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin were atheists. You seem to be willing to acknowledge that their atheism had nothing to do with their murderous ways (except in this “glass ceiling” thing that you’re entirely making up).

    2 – there are far fewer examples of atheistic dictators making that leap to “therefore I can kill”. The number of “therefore I can kill” theist dictators is innumerable, even if we only restrict our scope to the past 100 years. Your assertion that religion is good at building societies is ridiculous – there is a negative correlation between religiosity and pretty much every indicator that makes for a decent society.

    It is only recently (20th century onward) that the exceptions (i.e., clever theists “gaming the system”) have become more significant in percentage of the population.

    Okay, from this it is pretty clear that you have no idea what you’re talking about. Take a crash course in just European history, and you’ll find that religion has always been a corrupting influence that has undermined societal and scientific progress at pretty much every turn. They derived their license to abdicate their responsibilities from their belief that their ascendancy was proscribed by their god, and any sins they committed would be forgiven because it was for the greater glory of the church and the Creator. This is not a new phenomenon. And when faith is the weakness, then that is what needs to be reformed. If you want to promote a religion that removes religious faith from the equation, I’ll support that.

    3. Religion = old, big cult. Sure, I’ll accept that definition. They’re identical in every way that is meaningful. I do disagree with your assertion that devotion to an operating system can be an actual cult. Cults (and religions) make reality claims beyond what is testable by evidence – i.e., supernatural claims. In the absence of a supernatural claim about the nature of reality, you have neither a cult nor a religion – just an obsession.

    Your point about non-Abrahamic religions is well taken. If you poke through the archives you’ll see that I have published criticisms of Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Rastafari. My problem is not with a religion, it’s with religion itself. Specifically, the way that it suppresses critical thinking in order to sustain illogical belief.

    4. If you don’t care whether or not your beliefs are true, then we have nothing to discuss. I’m sure this sounds dismissive, but I cannot take you seriously if you don’t actually have a stake in demonstrating the truth/merit of your position. It simply becomes frustrating for me, and a masturbatory exercise for you. I have no interest in jerking you off.

    My position, as I stated above, is not a straw man – it is a logical conclusion made from the principles of your argument. If I decide that human society will fall apart when people discover a truth about the natural world, and keep such knowledge from them, then if I believe (as some do) that humans will act like animals when they learn we are simply animals, I should blame plague on ‘sin’. This is, in fact, what many theists are doing to this day. It may be convenient to keep people in line, but it will ultimately result in much unnecessary suffering. You would not, I’m sure, agree with withholding HAART medication from AIDS patients in order to keep homosexuality in check, and yet that ‘logic’ is identical in the position you are advocating. Monstrous. Which part of this proposition is so difficult to understand?

    I do not recognize your, or anyone’s authority to decide what humanity is ‘ready’ for. One could equally make the argument, given the way that religion is tearing many societies apart, that humanity isn’t ‘ready’ for religion. I am the custodian of my teenage son – I am responsible for his well-being. I am not the custodian of the human race. I’d have to be far more megalomaniacal than I am to assert such a right to keep certain truths away from the ‘unwashed masses’ (I still can’t believe you actually used that phrase) until they are mature enough. You apparently don’t have such a ‘glass ceiling’ check on your ego.

  8. says

    My position on what is a step forward for humanity has less to do with atheism and more to do with the things that you list above. My moral code is not derived from atheism; it is more or less what it was when I was a theist.

    Your points (in this comment, anyway) are valid and useful, and I will consider them in the future when making the argument about atheistic dictators. It is more or less where I was trying to arrive by the end – being an atheist does not guarantee the kind of outcomes we saw in Cambodia and Russia.

  9. says

    I’ve accepted some of your points, and you seem to have accepted some of mine. What follows is just for the sake of clarification (and I really don’t want to draw this out beyond a point).

    I have a background in technology and my approach to debate is well informed by the methodologies of scientific thinking. Nowhere have I said or even vaguely suggested that we should withhold the benefits of modern medicine from people suffering from illnesses. So any conclusion that you draw to that effect is either an inadvertent misunderstanding or a deliberate misconstruction (straw man). You know best, and it really doesn’t matter to me.

    I do have the habit of speaking loosely, and at times in a cavalier tone – not a good habit, I admit. To be fair, I did put “unwashed masses” in quotes and did follow it with a qualifier in parenthesis. Nevertheless I see that it is egregious and would be happy to redact that phrase. Thank you for helping me learn to be more careful with how I express myself.

    While on the subject of speaking loosely — you signed off your post with “Remember, aim for the head.” Should I take that literally and express shock that you actually said something like that? :) Kidding, of course. (See my point?)

    Commenting on lack of maturity is not the same as commenting on lack of intelligence, in my books. We all start from a position of immaturity and evolve towards maturity as we gain more experience with life – some are quicker at it, some are slower at it. There is no condescension in my approach here, even as I call people immature. It is a “human condition”, to borrow a phrase. What I do NOT do, is call people ignorant or stupid. That not only requires a big ego, it is downright rude. Of course, you may take the same view on my comment about maturity. To each his own.

    Taking a position on the human condition and the problems it creates, and being motivated to solve them and improve things …. ego is implicit in all of those actions and underlying attitudes. Believing that one is aware of a certain truth that others are not, and engaging with those others to convince them of it … ego is implicit in that too. In short, the task of engaging in debate, and the work of transformation of the world as it is – both already have ego built in, no matter how humbly one goes about public discourse or being a change agent. This is not a justification for anything I’ve said, just something for introspection and reconciliation with oneself.

    I have hurled no ad hominem criticisms at you – at worst, my tone has been sarcastic or sharply rhetorical. I haven’t used expressions like “you don’t know what you are talking about” and “your ego has no glass ceiling”. I am not offended by this, and I understand why you may think so. Maybe my uber-ego is too big to be threatened by such “cheap” criticism? :) Just kidding — before you take off on me for saying “cheap” (or on anything else in what I just said).

    Our exchange has been instructive in many ways, and I shall carry with me some good take-aways. Thank you.

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  1. […] Quote of the month from Crommunist is a perfect response and characterisation of people who argue against atheist positions from solely a position of utility rather than truth: “If you don’t care whether or not your beliefs are true, then we have nothing to discuss. I’m sure this sounds dismissive, but I cannot take you seriously if you don’t actually have a stake in demonstrating the truth/merit of your position. It simply becomes frustrating for me, and a masturbatory exercise for you. I have no interest in jerking you off.” [Source] […]

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