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Atheists Still the Most Unpopular Minority Group:

As this recent Gallup survey shows, atheists continue to be America's most unpopular minority group. Gallup asked respondents the following question:

Between now and the 2008 political conventions, there will be discussion about the qualifications of presidential candidates — their education, age, religion, race, and so on. If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [insert group name], would you vote for that person?

Fully 53% state that they would not vote a for an atheist candidate nominated by their own party, as compared to 43% who would refuse to vote for a homosexual candidate, 24% for a Mormon, 12% for a Hispanic, 11% for a woman, and single digit percentages who would refuse to support a black, Jewish, or Catholic candidate. Although the Gallup survey doesn't include these groups, Pew surveys conducted in 2005 show that 38% of Americans are categorically unwilling to support a Muslim candidate of their own party, and 15% feel the same way about an Evangelical Christian.

Some of this opposition to candidates from particular groups may be a result of using information short cuts rather than simple bigotry. For example, a survey respondent might be opposed to an atheist candidate not because he has anything against atheists as such, but because he knows that most atheists are political liberals; he doesn't want to support a candidate that is on the political left, and as a result of "rational ignorance" (discussed in my recent article here) he doesn't want to take the time to study the candidate's issue positions in detail.

Unfortunately, however, it is likely that bigotry is the main factor, even if it is not the only one. After all, the survey asks whether voters are willing to support a candidate from a particular group nominated by their own party, and the party is unlikely to nominate someone whose ideology is greatly at variance with that of the party's base. Moreover, the percentage of respondents unwilling to support a black or Jewish candidate is negligible, despite the fact that these two groups are probably even more overwhelmingly made up of liberal Democrats than are atheists. The Gallup survey also indicates that those unwilling to vote for an atheist candidate include 33% of self-identified liberals, and 52% of "moderates;" these two groups are unlikely to categorically reject an atheist candidate merely because they perceive them as liberal.

Finally, it is worth noting that the 53% figure for those unwilling to support an atheist presidential candidate of their own party is statistically indistinguishable from the 50% who, in another recent survey said they had a "mostly" or "very" unfavorable view of atheists, and the 51% who believe that "[i]t is necessary to believe in God in order to be moral and have good values" (see here). The 50% figure, by the way, is much higher than that for any other other minority group, with Muslims a distant second at a 31% "mostly" or "very" unfavorable rating.

Thus, it is likely that a high percentage of those unwilling to support an atheist candidate for the presidency even if that candidate were nominated by their own party do so because of a generalized prejudice against atheists, not because they are relying on information shortcuts.

As I have argued in the Legal Times Article linked above, and here , the widespead prejudice against atheists is in large part due to the false perception that atheism is equivalent to immorality or moral relativism. Since this post is already getting too long, I'm not going to explain in detail why this widespread view is wrong. However, for those interested, I covered that issue in the Legal Times article and in the post linked in the first part of this paragraph.

Oh my word (mail):
I think further explanation is highly warranted regarding your bigotry allegation.

Whether or not one believes that God exists is quite a fundamental aspect of one's world view that potentially affects every aspect of one's decision process. Further, there is a difference between atheism and agnosticism. It is completely rational for someone to think that agnosticism is acceptable but to have a major problem with someone who denies the possibility of a Creator God. If one thinks that atheism is irrational, then doggone if it's not pretty important to wonder whether the person is fit to be given such huge power as president.

This is far deeper than liberal/conservative.

For the record, I believe in God but would not have a problem with an atheist as president. I just sharply question whether it's bigotry for someone to have such a concern. That's painting with the same broad brush that you accuse the anti-atheist of using.
2.20.2007 7:52pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Beat me to it... If we were talking about taking an atheist's children away I'd call it bigotry... but voting for one? Way over the top. At what point ARE we allowed to simply disagree?
2.20.2007 8:00pm
Mho (mail):
An athiest would consider it more than ironic to be accused of irrationality by those who profess faith. I think bigotry is the more likely answer.

It's a deep pschological mystery to me how those who believe in God can't begin to understand how anyone else cannot, and those who don't believe in God can't understand how anyone else can.
2.20.2007 8:03pm
Joe Burnstin (mail):
There may be an additional reason that the explanation is not bigotry. When one thinks of the question of an atheist for president one may consider not the atheists he may know personally, but those who are "public" figures. Many of those are proudly anti-religious and even more strongly anti-christian. With that image in mind the polls cited are perhaps more understandable.
2.20.2007 8:11pm
marghlar:
Beat me to it... If we were talking about taking a[] [jew's/muslim's/buddhist's] children away I'd call it bigotry... but voting for one? Way over the top. At what point ARE we allowed to simply disagree?

Insertion used to demonstrate appalling bigotry.
2.20.2007 8:14pm
Mark Field (mail):
I suspect that responses in some categories may reflect that people know what the "right" answer is. They understand they aren't supposed to admit to bigotry against Jews or Blacks. That doesn't mean they actually will vote for them, and this hidden factor can skew polls by a few percent. But with atheists there's no recognition that discrimination against them is "wrong", so respondents don't hesistate to say so.

I hope it's obvious from my post, but I'm sure the number of people who wouldn't vote for Jews or blacks remains much smaller than the number who wouldn't vote for atheists. I'm just commenting that the relative distance between them may be somewhat exaggerated.
2.20.2007 8:18pm
marghlar:
Joe, you'll have to explain to me how that's different that saying you won't vote for a black candidate because most of those blacks you see on the news are uppity activists who have it in for white people.

It's not like these atheists on the news are running around persecuting Christians for their beliefs; they are just publicly disagreeing with Christianity, and encouraging people to believe what they believe.

Good for goose = ?
2.20.2007 8:20pm
Shelby (mail):
If one thinks that atheism is irrational, then doggone if ...

As opposed to, say, any other belief structure? It's easier to argue that having a religious faith, of any particular sort or of any kind in general, is irrational, than it is to argue that atheism is irrational.

On another but equally relevant note, I can't remember ANY Demcratic or Republican presidential candidate who didn't have any "irrational" views, even leaving religion out of it. If "not irrational" is your touchstone, don't vote at all. As any economist will tell you, THAT's rational!
2.20.2007 8:20pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Sorry... don't see the appalling bigotry. A person's religion says a lot about the person, and refusing to vote for someone who disagrees with me on a fundamental issue like religion is not bigotry. The fact that you think it is says a lot about how devalued the word has become.
2.20.2007 8:21pm
fishbane (mail):
If we were talking about taking an atheist's children away I'd call it bigotry... but voting for one? Way over the top.

Do you consider it bigotry if I were to say I would never consider voting for a Catholic? Would that change is I said 'Jewish' instead?

Granted, there can be reasons other than bigotry for holding such opinions, but given the widespread dislike of athiests, religious bigotry is likely the best explanation.
2.20.2007 8:21pm
marghlar:
So, just to be clear here, you would say it is not bigoted for a person to state that he would never vote for a Jew?
2.20.2007 8:25pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Correction: I don't say it IS bigotry for a person to state that he would never vote for a jew.

No fair switching the goalposts.
2.20.2007 8:26pm
The Emperor (www):
It would have been interesting to see the question posed with "agnostic" instead of "atheist." There seems to be a visceral reaction to "atheist," with some pre-conceived notions of who such people are.
2.20.2007 8:26pm
marghlar:
I'm not sure I see the difference between those two statements...but whatever. Either way, it's a creepy idea. Toleration forms a huge part of the core ideas of this republic, and to say you refuse to vote for someone solely because their religious beliefs differ from yours is not exactly the height of toleration. The Founders were against establishment, restriction of free exercise and religious tests for public offices for a reason. The only reason I can see for preferencing members of your own faith above all others is because you want that faith imposed on everyone else; Locke shredded the logic underlying such an idea a long time ago.
2.20.2007 8:35pm
Mark G.:

Thus, it is likely that a high percentage of those unwilling to support an atheist candidate for the presidency even if that candidate were nominated by their own party do so because of a generalized prejudice against atheists, not because they are relying on information shortcuts.


I have a serious problem with the part I quoted above. First, as people have mentioned, a person's faith says a whole lot about the person himself. It's not a prejudice, it IS the information. People choose their faith, and they choose to live it. If someone chooses to live by a faith requiring strict practices and personal sacrifice, that says a whole lot about that person. If someone chooses a religion based primarily on literal textualism, that too gives me information as a voter.

This is called informed voting. In an age when I'll never meet a candidate, I can't imagine a better criterion for judging a candidate than the religion he chooses to live his life by. The only way to see this as "prejudice" or "bigotry" is to believe that all faiths, including atheism, are essentially the same, which, as a person of faith, I reject.

Atheism has the additional singular quality of believing in the non-existence of God. This means, inescapably, that the atheistic candidate believes in a framework of of the universe, of humanity, of good, of evil, of life itself, that is fundamentally different than my own. This is not a trivial or factor. Nor is it something to be shrugged off as a "prejudice" or "bigotry".

Tell me, what else, if not a disagreement about the very nature of existence might be more important to me as a voter?
2.20.2007 8:36pm
Anonymous Hoosier:
Most Americans have a sufficiently ecumenical view of the world that they have adopted some form of the view that mostadherents of other mainstream faiths have simply found their own path to God -- the same God that they believe in.

Unfortunately for atheists, there is no filter through which their beliefs can be reconciled with those of believers. As a result, religious people rightly see atheists as people who are wrong about one of the central facts of the universe and human existence. Sorry, Ilya, but I just don't see how voting against someone who you view as totally wrong is any form of "discrimination." I wouldn't vote for someone who believed the world was flat, either.
2.20.2007 8:37pm
Ted Frank (www):
Is refusal to vote for an atheist "bigotry"? What about refusal to vote for a Scientologist? A member of Nation of Islam? Would it be bigotry to oppose the appointment of a candidate for Commissioner of the FDA by noting that she is a Christian Scientist?

In each of these cases, religious choice reflects a certain world view, and I think voters can reasonably conclude that that world view sufficiently differs from their own and their expectations for the office that they're voting for that subscribing to that world view disqualifies them from consideration. I wouldn't vote for a socialist for president.

People choose to be atheists, and atheism reflects a world-view that many voters simply find problematic. I'd certainly prefer it if people didn't find atheism problematic, but it seems at least as intolerant to identify this objection as "bigotry" rather than an honest intellectual disagreement, and doesn't seem to be a productive means of reducing that 53% figure.
2.20.2007 8:39pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
The difference between the two statements is that I'm not the one asserting motivations to 54% of the public when the question is open at best. If you really believe that line about imposing my faith on everyone else, then we're done here. Sorry.

If voting against people with ideas I disagree with is intolerant, then I don't want to be tolerant. I guess I'm just a bigoted against liberals! :)
2.20.2007 8:39pm
Anonymous Hoosier:
Emperor:

"Atheist" is generally assumed to mean: dead-certain that God does not exist. "Agnostic" is generally assumed to mean: doesn't know if God exists (as I understand it, a wrong view -- the better description being "the answer to whether God exists is unknowable"). Faith is so intertwined with doubt in most people's experience in the physical world that they feel a kinship with "agnostics" as they understand them. What they don't understand is how one can be certain that something so much a part of their lives does not exist.
2.20.2007 8:46pm
marghlar:
Dan, the thing that turns it from a reasonable opinion into bigotry is making it categorical. It's one thing to say that the fact that someone is a muslim gives me a reason not to vote for them, it's another to say that I would never vote for a muslim. The categorical nature of the statement indicates that something deeper is involved than one's anticipation of how that person will act in office.

The line about imposing beliefs was meant to demonstrate the fundamentally irrelevant nature of religious beliefs as a qualification for government in a pluralistic society. The only reason we should care whether a methodist or a lutheran is running the government is if we want the officeholder to be imposing one or the other set of views on society.

It isn't voting against people you disagree with that is intolerant; it is making voting decisions solely on the basis of someone's religion, regardless of any other set of beliefs or abilities that person might hold, that is intolerant.
2.20.2007 8:47pm
marghlar:
Ted, I think what you are missing is the categorical part of the response I adverted to above. The fact that someone is a Scientologist is surely relevant to my assessment of their qualifications. But to say that, regardless of their being well-qualified, and regardless of my belief that they wouldn't use the office to promote Scientology, I would never vote for such a person, seems to smack of intolerance.

For a person's beliefs to be important evidence of their qualifications is perfectly acceptable; for them to completely decide the question is disturbing.
2.20.2007 8:52pm
Erisian23 (mail):
As is typical, H. L. Mencken owns it up: "We must respect the other fellow's religion, but only in the sense and to the extent that we respect his theory that his wife is beautiful and his children smart."

Atheist: I respect your right believe in fictitious beings.
Theist: Ummm, thanks. Who are you?
Atheist: I'm running for President. So tell me again, why do we allow churches to qualify as non-profits for tax purposes?
Theist: I am so not voting for you.

Personally (aka unscientifically), I suspect many theists assume that atheists in general have little or no regard for theism, having come to the opposite conclusions re the big guy(s)/gal(s) in the sky. It's not a far step from there to conclude an atheist can/will act against (or merely without regard for) a theist's perceived best interests.

The survey seems to confirm that many people hold religion as more important than political affiliation and fear attacks from (perceived) anti-religious outsiders, which doesn't seem too terribly surprising.
2.20.2007 8:52pm
BobNSF (mail):

At what point ARE we allowed to simply disagree?


What if you don't disagree about anything else? If a candidate should happen along who supports every policy you support but happens to be an atheist and, for that reason, you refuse to vote for him/her, what does that make you?
2.20.2007 8:53pm
marghlar:
"Atheist" is generally assumed to mean: dead-certain that God does not exist.

This, of course, is a very poor description of what most atheists believe; most atheists would say that they believe that an entity that corresponds with the standard theistic descriptions of god probably does not exist. Most atheists do not claim infallibility on this question; rather, they claim only that the weight of present evidence and reason supports their position.
2.20.2007 8:54pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
Interesting post. However, I think there are some serious problems in Somin's argument. I want to highlight certain things Somin wrote in his Legal Times article:


It is indeed sometimes appropriate to show hostility toward
people because of their reprehensible beliefs, as in the case of Nazis or Communists.


Could libertarianism be considered a reprehensible belief to some? For those who think libertarianism is a reprehensible belief, is hostility towards libertarians appropriate? If not, why not?

Somin goes on to distinguish political ideology from religious ideology, overall suggesting that hostility towards individuals is at least sometimes acceptable due to their political ideology, but not due to their religious ideology.

The political ideology/religious ideology distinction Somin makes is weak. If hostility towards an individual based on his or her beliefs is appropriate, there doesn't seem to be a good reason to exclude religious beliefs. Is it appropriate to exhibit hostility towards communists, who may or may not be relatively powerless and harmless, versus people who beleive in human sacrifice (like the Aztecs, for example) or polygamy (like Mormons back in the day) which one might view as threatening and harmful. I don't buy it. A better view is that simple categorization of beliefs as religious versus non-religious is inadequate to explain when hostility towards individuals for their beliefs is justified.


It is simply not true that atheism implies a rejection of moral values. There are numerous ethical theories, including Kantianism, Confucianism, and utilitarianism, that do not require belief in God. Studies show that atheists have lower crime rates and lower rates of social pathologies such as teen pregnancy than theists do, and that atheists are on average less likely to hold racist views.


Actually, from a Kantian perspective, utilitarianism is not a system of moral values, but is actually a form of moral relativism. Perhaps more sophisticated forms of utilitarianism can escape this largely justified charge. But in any case, even sophisticated utilitarianisms near exclusive focus on consequences might nonetheless strike a Kantian as lacking in moral discernment.

Further, as Somin mentioned, atheists are more affluent than average. Since many crimes are motivated by economic gain, we would expect atheists to commit less crime due to their better economic conditions. If money has a diminishing marginal utility, the gain from stealing is lower and we would expect those who are well off to engage in such behavior less often, even if they were morally typical.

It is not enough merely to have "lower crime rates" or "lower rates of social pathologies such as teen pregnancy." If one merely behaves in conformance with law and intelligent social practice, but not for good reasons, that is not virtuous and it is not moral. That is, if the only thing keeping an atheist from robbing a bank is affluence and the only thing keeping them from raping their neighbor is fear of getting caught, and the only thing keeping them from getting pregnant as teens is calculated self interest that does not, as Somin writes in his Legal Times article, "refute the claim that atheists are uniquely immoral." To be moral, one needs to do more than merely obey the law. If you obey the law merely because of fear of getting caught or fear of consequences to yourself, that law abiding behavior does not refute the claim that you are immoral.


Like Jews, atheists have median education levels above the
national average. Yet there is not even one openly atheist member of Congress, despite the fact that atheists are at least 3 percent of the population, more than the percentage of Jews.


Unlike Jews, atheists are not well-organized. This alone can explain their lack of political power. Which shows that Somin has failed to really demonstrate that prejudice explains the lack of atheist political power. The more persuasive piece of evidence regarding political dislike of atheists is the number of people who self-report being unwilling to vote for an atheists, rather than the actual number of atheists in office.

All this brings up my next question. Somin has argued that being an atheist does not imply that one is morally relativistic. In other words, if someone is an atheist, it does not mean with 100% probability that they are morally relativistic. But this does not really address the issue, which is whether they are probabilistically more likely to be morally relativistic compared to other groups. That is, it may be the case that atheists are more likely to gravitate towards moral relativism thus atheism might be a good "information shortcut." Somin must do more if he is going to refute the information shortcut idea.

This brings me to my final question. Are atheists more likely to be libertarians? To the extent that libertarians think human dignity is defined by consent alone, they are moral relativists. After all, under this view, there are no (or very few) substantive actions that are categorically unacceptable if consent is forthcoming.

Do atheism, libertarianism, and moral relativism go together? That is, if you have one, are you more likely to have another?

Now, that is an interesting question.
2.20.2007 8:55pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Would it be bigotry to categorically refuse to vote for a pro-life person? If not, please distinguish the two.

I'm sure you're elevating religion to (pardon the legalese, but it's convenient) "protected class" status. It's not. I don't disagree that at some point, discrimination against a religious belief becomes "bigotry," hence my earlier comment about taking their kids away, but we're talking about VOTING for them! I can categorically refuse to ADD MY POLITICAL SUPPORT to a person who holds beliefs contrary to mine without being called a bigot, can't I? If not, then I really don't care if I'm called a bigot anymore because the word is meaningless.
2.20.2007 8:55pm
Respondent (mail):
Professor Somin,
Your article says Congress has one member who is a conservative Republican homosexual. Who is he/she, and what district does he/she represent?
2.20.2007 8:56pm
scote (mail):
Boy, it really must suck to be the Hispanic lesbian atheist candidate...

"A person's religion says a lot about the person, and refusing to vote for someone who disagrees with me on a fundamental issue like religion is not bigotry."

Gotta disagree here. Not trusting atheists is biggotry. Atheism is not a religion nor is there any one such thing as "Atheism." It means many things to many people. From its roots, "atheism" means "with out god." However, we are all atheists, whether we are atheists in regards to Ganesha or Zues or the god of Abraham. The people we generally call "atheists" just believe in one less god, and for that they are hated and distrusted. That is bigotry.

Clearly atheists are the last group that it is PC to hate.
2.20.2007 8:57pm
marghlar:
Of course, Viscus, you should also remember that it is completely consistent to be a ethical Kantian and to believe that God does not exist.
2.20.2007 8:59pm
Cornellian (mail):
Sorry... don't see the appalling bigotry. A person's religion says a lot about the person, and refusing to vote for someone who disagrees with me on a fundamental issue like religion is not bigotry. The fact that you think it is says a lot about how devalued the word has become.

Personally, I don't think a person's religion says much of anything about the person, per se. Virtually every strain of human behavior, good and bad, has its examples among people of every type of faith, or lack thereof.
2.20.2007 9:00pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
But is it per se bigotry, cornellian?
2.20.2007 9:02pm
marghlar:
Would it be bigotry to categorically refuse to vote for a pro-life person? If not, please distinguish the two.

I'm not sure if it's bigotry (because that term tends to connote discrimination on race/gender/religion sort of lines) but I think it is reprehensible. If one believes that a candidate is well-qualified, that he would promote views similar to the voters while in office, and that conflicting views that he holds would not interfere with his ability to perform the duties of his office in an acceptable manner, then it is intolerant (even if not bigoted) not to vote for him solely on the basis of that disagreement.
2.20.2007 9:02pm
Cornellian (mail):
Your article says Congress has one member who is a conservative Republican homosexual. Who is he/she, and what district does he/she represent?

If he's referring to an out, Republican member of Congress, I'd guess he's referring to Arizona congressman Jim Kolbe, though I thought Kolbe didn't run for re-election last November. If he's referring to closted Republican members of Congress, there are probably several, certainly in the House, possibly one or two in the Senate.
2.20.2007 9:03pm
Jeff R.:
I think that a lot of it has to do with our (as a populace) wanting to elect people who believe that, eventually, they will be Judged by a power they cannot possibly fool or deceive. Which is a reason for prefering theist leadership that one could rationally hold even if one were athiest onesself...

(Similarly, we (again, as a populace) have a strong preference for candidates with both spouces and offspring not because we think that that makes them or indicates that they are better people, but rather because we want our leaders to have hostages to the long-term fortune of the country and world...)
2.20.2007 9:04pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Thanks, marghlar... at least now I know I can walk away from this thread. No offense, but we're like two ships passing in the night here.
2.20.2007 9:04pm
David Hecht (mail):
"As I have argued in the Legal Times Article linked above, and here po, the widespead prejudice against atheists is in large part due to the false perception that atheism is equivalent to immorality or moral relativism."

Sorry, that's just nonsense on stilts.

You wouldn't call a black person who refused to vote for a redneck Southerner in 1955 or 1960 a bigot, would you? You'd call him a rational voter who doesn't want to vote for someone who hates him and everything he stands for.

Atheists assert a truth-claim about God--that He does not exist. This truth-claim is not only in direct opposition to the one I make--that He exists--but is further supplemented by other truth-claims that religion is evil--indeed that it is the source of most of the world's ills.

Not what you believe? Too bad...the public face of atheism is Richard Dawkins and his like...aggressive attackers of the believing majority. And his arguments are equally "unsupported" in a "scientific" sense, since the proposition that God does not exist is not only not falsifiable, it's logically unprovable (as you cannot prove a negative).

If I have to carry the can for Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, atheists have to do the same for Richard Dawkins e tutti quanti.

If you want to call me a bigot for categorically rejecting those who would silence me and mine in the name of making the world safe...feel free: after all, it's (still) a free country.
2.20.2007 9:05pm
Ken Arromdee:
This is called informed voting. In an age when I'll never meet a candidate, I can't imagine a better criterion for judging a candidate than the religion he chooses to live his life by.

In a sense that's true, but it doesn't change anything. If I refuse to vote for a black because I think blacks are stupid, that is both 1) "informed" voting, because I'm using the candidate's race as evidence for some trait that affects how well the candidate can do his job, and 2) bigotry. At the same time.

If a candidate's religion demands that he eats babies, and I decide not to vote for him on that basis, that isn't bigotry.

If a candidate is Jewish, and I believe that Jews eat babies, and I decide not to vote for him on that basis, that *is* bigotry.

Yet both of these are judging the candidate by the way he lives his life. The difference is that the first judgment is based off of truth, and the second one is based off of a bigoted belief. Judging someone by the way he lives his life is bigotry if your conclusions about how he lives his life make bigoted assumptions. This is also true of judging atheists by the way they live their life. At some point, the judgment must be based on the bigoted assumption "atheists are less moral than believers".
2.20.2007 9:06pm
Cornellian (mail):
I wonder if the relative lack of willingness to vote for atheists is a function of their extreme lack of visibility. We see plenty of black, jewish, catholic etc. elected officials, and over times, decades, possibly even generations, people gradually get used to that and so the prospect of such a person running for office doesn't arouse much opposition. In other words, the category has become a known quantity, and people from that category get judged on their merits. I can't think of any member of Congress who admits to being an atheist. Such people if they exist are completely invisible, far more so than gay people, who have several members of Congress. I don't think atheists are likely to move up in that poll until we've had a lot of years of exposure to elected atheists, such that they too become a known quantity and people are willing to judge them on their merits.
2.20.2007 9:07pm
marghlar:
I'm sure you're elevating religion to (pardon the legalese, but it's convenient) "protected class" status. It's not. I don't disagree that at some point, discrimination against a religious belief becomes "bigotry," hence my earlier comment about taking their kids away, but we're talking about VOTING for them! I can categorically refuse to ADD MY POLITICAL SUPPORT to a person who holds beliefs contrary to mine without being called a bigot, can't I? If not, then I really don't care if I'm called a bigot anymore because the word is meaningless.

Well, religion was a protected class before there were protected classes; it's a first amendment value, not a fourteenth amendment one. But we aren't talking about law, we are talking about what private behavior is or isn't blameworthy. I tend to think we have a duty when we vote to support the candidate we believe will maximize societal well-being, so from that perspective, it is blameworthy to refuse to vote for a candidate solely on the basis of a reason which is not very relevant to that consideration.

And when your actions (even in the voting booth) are indicative of a pervasive hostility to a particular group of people based on their religious beliefs (and by that I mean hostility to the people, not merely their beliefs) then yes, I tend to view that as bigoted.
2.20.2007 9:08pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

This brings me to my final question. Are atheists more likely to be libertarians? To the extent that libertarians think human dignity is defined by consent alone, they are moral relativists. After all, under this view, there are no (or very few) substantive actions that are categorically unacceptable if consent is forthcoming.


I this is a rather expansive view of moral relativism. The consent of another is an external condition. Is the difference between sex and rape morally relativistic?
2.20.2007 9:09pm
pedro (mail):
I doubt that atheists are hated with the intensity with which other minority groups are--but we are indeed painted with a broad and irrational brush. It is an incredible failure of imagination on the part of some of the commenters here to suggest that because X is an atheist, X cannot possibly be a good president, regardless of X's policy positions and qualifications.
2.20.2007 9:11pm
marghlar:
Cornellian, might it be true that atheists are politically invisible because they Americans are incredibly hostile to the idea of atheists in government?
2.20.2007 9:11pm
Ken Arromdee:
You wouldn't call a black person who refused to vote for a redneck Southerner in 1955 or 1960 a bigot, would you? You'd call him a rational voter who doesn't want to vote for someone who hates him and everything he stands for.


The black person who refuses to vote for the redneck bases that on true beliefs of how rednecks behave.

The believer who refuses to vote for the atheist bases that on false, bigoted, beliefs, about atheists.

Just because the two situations can be described in a grammatically similar way doesn't make them similar.
2.20.2007 9:12pm
Rich Rostrom (mail):
Jewishness and blackness are intrinsically independent of social or political principles. They are not voluntary choices reflective of the chooser's philosophy. (Religion is somewhat. But usually it isn't and we agree to disregard it in those cases, and often when it is chosen.) Atheism is such a choice, and people consider it a marker for the person's general outlook.

Yes, the vast majority of Jews and blacks are liberals, but there are well-known specific examples of Jews and blacks who are definitely not liberal, and even distinctly conservative: Rice, Powell, Thomas, Connerly, Keyes; the "neo-conservatives" (who are perceived to be all Jewish). A pollee can easily imagine a Jewish or black candidate who represents the conservative position; or is socially conservative enough to be acceptable to centrists and moderates (Lieberman).

But there are few if any prominent examples of conservative atheists. Atheism is perceived as a choice which places the chooser with cultural radicals - with Queer Nation, Peter Singer, riot grrls, and bigots of the Amanda Marcotte stripe.

Jews and Christians agree to disagree about religion. Jews never condemn Christianity as such; prominent Christians (the Pope!) explicitly approve Judaism. Moslems are in trouble because they are seen as intolerant.

Atheists are also seen as intolerant. Attacks on Christmas displays or the minuscule cross in Los Angeles' emblem. Some very prominent atheists (Dawkins, Dennett) don't just reject religion, they condemn it ferociously. Militant atheists like Marcotte often condemn not only religion but traditional culture in general.

And there are no counter-examples. There are "libertarian conservatives" who disclaim God, and support gun rights and lower taxes, but most such are too libertarian about pornography, dope, abortion, immigration, and same-sex marriage to get anywhere in American politics. There are no visible "Atheists For Life" or "NASCAR rationalists".

So it makes sense that a lot of Americans won't vote for a hypothetical atheist.
2.20.2007 9:13pm
Daniel Chapman (mail):
Ok I lied... I can't resist responding to that one... Where did the premise of "pervasive hostility" come from? It's no wonder you see bigotry when you start from there.
2.20.2007 9:13pm
The Emperor (www):
Hoosier,

I know there's a difference between "atheist" and "agnostic." I was just curious how people would react to "agnostic." Should have been more clear in my post.
2.20.2007 9:13pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Refusing categorically not to vote for a Jew, say, because of their refusal to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus is, I suppose, not strictly bigotry. Whereas refusing to vote for a Jew because they have horns, for example, is.

I strongly suspect that the refusal to vote for atheists by and large is more like the second type of bias.
2.20.2007 9:15pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Oh My Word,

Can you tell us how athiesm effects "every aspect of one's decision process?" How does the decision of the athiest differ from that of the believer? On what issues would the decisions differ? Would all believers make the same decision on these issues? Is there a single issue on which all believers make the same decision? Is there a single issue on which all athiests make the same decision? What issues?
2.20.2007 9:15pm
liberty (mail) (www):
I think you make some good points, but I have a few qualms.

1. Atheism is a belief system and a choice usually, not an upbringing, ethnicity or heritage, so it can't be compared with some of the other groups apples to apples.

2. For this reason, it is also rational and not bigotry or bias - if I don't want a president that believes aliens invented the Internet, or that beleives the Earth is 6000 years old or that believes Kim Jong Il is a good man, well I should be choosing my president according to beleifs. So, while it may be disappointing to some of us that people want their president to be religious, it is perfectly valid for people to use the candidate's religion as a factor.

3. Re rational ignorance, you say "Unfortunately, however, it is likely that bigotry is the main factor, even if it is not the only one. After all, the survey asks whether voters are willing to support a candidate from a particular group nominated by their own party, and the party is unlikely to nominate someone whose ideology is greatly at variance with that of the party's base."

But a given candidate will have some and not other things in common with their party. I will be more likely to vote for a Republican if I knew he or she was not religious or less religious, and less likely if he or she is evangelical or strongly religious. Why? Don't I trust that they will have the same beliefs as me considering they are Republican and not Democrat? No. I, as a libertarian, will be more likely to agree with a less religious Republican.

4. Also you say "Moreover, the percentage of respondents unwilling to support a black or Jewish candidate is negligible, despite the fact that these two groups are probably even more overwhelmingly made up of liberal Democrats than are atheists." -- But there is nothing inherant in being black or Jewish that would indicate that you must be liberal. If you ask someone "would you vote for a black person if he or she were conservative?" and the person asked has an easy time imagining a conservative black (there have even been some on tv!) whereas you ask a social conservative religious person whether they could vote for a conservative atheist and they will tell you that its a contradiction in terms. They can't imagine it and so they won't say yes.

5. Finally, it is well known that people lie on this kind of test. They know that they are supposed to be colorblind and unbiased and so you ask whether they could vote for a conservative black and they will say yes because it doesn't go against their conservatism and they are supposed to be okay with a black president. They feel no such obligation to lie about voting against an atheist - there is no societal rule that we must accept atheist presidents. You can call this bigotry of our society and it may be, but if people are lying about the other minorities then there is no proof that the bigotry is much worse about atheism - it could just be quieter. Hopefully this isn't a major factor of course.
2.20.2007 9:15pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Er, uh, refusing to vote for a Jew (not "not"), that is.
2.20.2007 9:16pm
qetzal (mail):
Anonymous Hoosier wrote:


[R]eligious people rightly see atheists as people who are wrong about one of the central facts of the universe and human existence. Sorry, Ilya, but I just don't see how voting against someone who you view as totally wrong is any form of "discrimination." I wouldn't vote for someone who believed the world was flat, either.

The existence of (a) God(s) is certainly not a "central fact" in any objective sense. And your analogy to a flat earth is fallacious. There is overwhelming objective evidence to show that the earth is not flat. The same is not true regarding God's existence.

"Atheist" is generally assumed to mean: dead-certain that God does not exist.

I agree that some people assume that. However, others use atheist to mean a lack of belief in God. There's a difference in not believing in God, and believing there is no God.

Bertrand Russell described it as being a "teapot atheist." I don't believe there is an undetectable china teapot orbiting around the sun between Earth and Mars, but I can't prove there isn't, and I'm not "dead certain" none exists.

Nevertheless, I agree that many people responding to the poll might assume "atheist" means what you describe.

Finally, I understand and accept that many religious people may consider atheism a legitimate factor in choosing a candidate. I think you make a good point that to a religious person, someone of another faith could be someone who just found a different path. Further, I agree that it's reasonable for a religious person to consider a candidate's atheism as potentially relevant.

But I also agree with marghlar. If you could never consider voting for an atheist, no matter what their other qualities, then it's incumbent on you to show why atheism all by itself makes someone unfit for office. Otherwise, it's bigotry.
2.20.2007 9:20pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Viscus:
You say "To the extent that libertarians think human dignity is defined by consent alone, they are moral relativists. After all, under this view, there are no (or very few) substantive actions that are categorically unacceptable if consent is forthcoming."

But I am not sure how that is morally relativistic. It can be a moral absolute that there must be informed consent and free choice, that every society must protect the basic dignity of humanity by respecting inalienable rights of life, liberty and property. It is not relativistic if this crosses all cultural, religious and national boundaries across all history. Just because the moral standard involves consent and hence outcomes may differ does not make the morality itself relative.

It is one standard, like democracy is one standard whether the people vote in Democrats or Republicans for example.
2.20.2007 9:25pm
elChato (mail):
I think people are just being more honest in the case of atheists, whereas they are not likely to openly admit, even to a pollster, they would not vote for someone from a racial or religious minority. Sorry to say, but I think a black candidate would do worse than these polls suggest; and perhaps a Jewish candidate as well.

I live in Louisiana and an Indian-American was in the gubernatorial runoff in '03-- he lost in large part because turnout softened dramatically among the white rednecks whose conservative ideology was quite well aligned with his.
2.20.2007 9:29pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Approximately 53% of those who said they would not vote for an atheist spell the word "athiest"
2.20.2007 9:33pm
Randy R. (mail):
I can't believe the discussion has become one of judging a person for political office based on his or her beliefs about God. Certainly, that would be pertinent for election of Pope, or Bishop or something other ecclesiastical. But political office? Why should anyone care at all what a person's religion or lack of one matter? The President of the US does not regulate religion, nor does he issue edicts on that nature of worship or some such thing.

No, he makes foreign policy, makes recommendations to the Congress regarding whether the budget for the military will be increased, or for the National Parks. He talks with other world leaders, he uses the bully pulpit, mostly for economic reasons, and so on. What does it matter whether he is an atheist or not? Frankly, anyone who would think religion or lack of matters in the voting of a president is basically an idiot. It's like voting for a guy because you think he would make a good drinking buddy. A person's religion can't even give you a sense of where he stands on basic issues: there are Espicopalians who support same-sex marriage, and those who don't. Ditto for the Mormons. You might as well say good looking candidates are more trustworthy. Talk about irrationality!

In RandyWorld, every candidate's religion would be his own business, and not that of anyone else's. Then you might actually have to listen to what a candidate says, and review his or her voting records, instead of just applying meaningless labels to them.
2.20.2007 9:48pm
Latinist:
A few basically unrelated comments:

1. Worth noting a difference between the list of how many people wouldn't vote for various minority groups, and how many have a generally unfavorable view of them: homosexuals are not a category in the second list. I'll bet they'd give atheists a run for their money, as they do in the wouldn't-vote-for list; they'd probably at least take second place away from the Muslims.

2. I think you could have a clearly non-bigoted objection to an atheist presidential candidate: you might believe that the existence of God ought to be taught in public schools, or that it's an important duty of the president to pray for his nation, and those might be the most important political issues to you. It's certainly possible to have reasonable problems with those beliefs; but someone who held them could pretty reasonably expect that no atheist candidate would support his position on those issues.

3. Some people seem to be defending the claim that atheism can't provide a rational basis for morality. Question: so what? How many moral people are moral because they've logically proved the value of morality from their metaphysical beliefs, whatever those are? What about a political candidate who believed in God, and believed in an objective system of morality, but hadn't actually done the philosophical work of deriving the second belief from the first? Would that be an unacceptable candidate? If not, what's wrong with an atheist who's irrationally moral?
2.20.2007 9:51pm
Frater Plotter:
A thought:

Most atheists don't go on TV and say that Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus are irrational. Most atheists don't go on TV at all.

Most atheists have family members who are religious, and love and care about those family members.

Most atheists don't spend a lot of time thinking about religion ... or about atheism, for that matter. Most atheists are, simply put, irreligious: they're just like anyone else, except they don't have a religion.

As a group, in the United States, atheists don't get in trouble with the law as often as Christians do, and they tend to be better educated. Both of these facts probably have more to do with demographics than with individuals, though.

Most atheists would be rather baffled by the idea that not believing in gods would mean having no morality. After all, most atheists do not run around stealing and raping, any more than most Christians or Jews do. Most atheists have more or less the same notions of what is right and wrong as most religious folks do, with one big exception: religious folks tend to think it's wrong to disbelieve in their religion.
2.20.2007 9:51pm
Counterfactual:
I wish the people arguing that automatically voting against atheists is not bigotry because it is based on the candidate's value system would name one actual duty or function of the President that an atheist President would do less well because he is one. Telling me he must be a bad President because he will be a moral relativist is not an answer, both because atheists are not necessarily moral relativists, and because being a moral relativist does not necessarily make you a worse President (moral relativism not being a synonym for having bad ethics personally or publicly). I can say I would never vote or a communist or nazi (or a liberal or conservative) because a person being one of those tells me what he thinks about certain important public policy issues. Telling me someone is a Christian or an atheist basically tells me nothing about their political views.

I agree that the survey is probably skewed by the fact that the most public atheists are promoting what might be called anti-God policies, such as taking his name out of the pledge of allegience or off the money, but there are at least some, shall we call them traditionalist atheists, who are ok with leaving those things alone as a token of respect to the past. So I am back to where I started, what is one thing that an atheist President would necessarily do less well than a religious believer? If you don't have a specific answer, but still would never vote for one, then you are a bigot.
2.20.2007 9:51pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
liberty,

It is morally relativistic because anything is allowed as long as there is consent. There are no substantive actions that would be considered to violate human dignity per se.

It is not relativistic with respect to the consent, but with respect to all substantive actions. Any substantive action can be considered is okay, as long as their is consent. This is definitely morally relativistic.
2.20.2007 9:54pm
SmokeVanThorn (mail):
OK - now I get it. If you won't vote for the people Arromdee disapproves of, your reasons partake of "Truth," but if you won't vote for somebody Arromdee approves of, your reasons are "false" and "bigoted." So when it comes to voting, just ask yourself - "WWAD - what would Arromdee do?"
2.20.2007 9:59pm
liberty (mail) (www):
I actually think its pretty weak to call it bias. If I ran for president I would certainly expect people to hold my families atheism up as evidence I am fringe in this country. Its no more bias than the fact that they would recognize that the atheism was related to socialist beliefs and they would ask me about those. I would expect to have to defend (or disown) my fringe background.

But its not bigotry. 99.9% of Americans would call me "Christian" just because I have no Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist etc in my family-religion-tree and if you go back far enough you can shake out a Christian. I guess I just see beliefs as distinct from background, and I don't think people have a problem with atheist heritage except to defend why your family had certain beliefs. I certainly defend my right to judge candidates on their religious beliefs along with all other beliefs.
2.20.2007 10:04pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
HLSbertarian writes:


I this is a rather expansive view of moral relativism. The consent of another is an external condition. Is the difference between sex and rape morally relativistic?


I think a critical question when it comes to sex is whether one party is using the other person to get off, versus interacting with them as an end. If someone does not consent, you can bet that they are also being used. So, consent is necessary, but not sufficient, for sexual interactions to not violate human dignity.

It is possible to use someone sexually without raping them. I think libertarians are moral relativists because they would deny this, thinking that any action is acceptable as long as consent is forthcoming.
2.20.2007 10:10pm
Freddy Hill (mail):
Given the results of this poll, any candidate that would admit to being an atheist would demonstrate an almost unbelievable degree of stupidity.

I must confess that I'm a bigot when it comes to presidential stupidity, and therefore I would not vote for such a candidate.
2.20.2007 10:13pm
Cornellian (mail):
Cornellian, might it be true that atheists are politically invisible because they Americans are incredibly hostile to the idea of atheists in government?

It's circular, one might say the same thing about gays 50 years ago or Catholics 100 years ago. Eventually, for atheists to reach acceptance, one has to start having openly atheistic elected officials, common enough and visible enough that people are no longer shocked that someone is an atheist and are willing to consider them on their merits. Will that happen any time soon? Probably not.
2.20.2007 10:13pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

It is morally relativistic because anything is allowed as long as there is consent. There are no substantive actions that would be considered to violate human dignity per se.

It is not relativistic with respect to the consent, but with respect to all substantive actions. Any substantive action can be considered is okay, as long as their is consent. This is definitely morally relativistic.


Viscus: Once again, I take issue with how expansively you define moral relativism. What counts a "substantive action?"

We don't outlaw the substantive action of shooting a gun -- we outlaw the substantive action of shooting a gun when it is aimed at someone's head, and the shooter is not acting in self-defense, and is in control of his body, etc.

We don't outlaw the substantive action of picking up a $100 bill and walking away - we outlaw taking that money when it belongs to someone else, and that person has not given you permission to take it, etc.

Most on point: we don't outlaw sex -- we outlaw rape.

Consent vel non of another is a fairly ubiquitous part of criminal laws which are not normally labeled morally relativistic.

Can you clarify what you mean by a "substantive action" and whether you consider the examples above exercises of moral relativism?
2.20.2007 10:14pm
CJColucci:
Could someone please explain what, exactly, it is that one can reasonably claim to know about a person's moral character and likely behavior in public office based on nothing more than his or her not believing in a deity? And while we're at it, what, exactly, it is that one can reasonably claim to know about a person's moral character and likely behavior in public office based on nothing more than his or her believing in a deity?
2.20.2007 10:14pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"So I am back to where I started, what is one thing that an atheist President would necessarily do less well than a religious believer? If you don't have a specific answer, but still would never vote for one, then you are a bigot."

tell me one thing that a president that believed the world was flat would do less well than one that believes its round. Trade? Foeign policy? Maybe, but if Air Force One takes him there, it doesn't really matter if he doesn't know how. What about one who beleives that the Earth is only 6000 year old, or 230 years old - hey, maybe nothing existed before America. Can't name a specific policy? What if the candiate is a Scientologist? Or believes in aliens?

Just think about all the beliefs a candidate could have that might change your view of them-- your view of their ability to lead, your view of their broader belief system and the way they may choose policies, your view of their thought process, what shapes their morality, world view, etc. You can't judge any person - politician, friend, employee - without taking into account the beliefs of the person.

Should we take their word for everything even if we can't ask about a specific policy - or should we try to understand the person more broadly by understanding their world view? Its absurd to ignore it and pretend it means nothing.
2.20.2007 10:16pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
I should clarify. I do not think that all libertarians are moral relativists. I only think that they are to the extent that they think human dignity is defined by consent alone. I don't want to make strawmen out of libertarians with different ideas.
2.20.2007 10:17pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

I think a critical question when it comes to sex is whether one party is using the other person to get off, versus interacting with them as an end. If someone does not consent, you can bet that they are also being used. So, consent is necessary, but not sufficient, for sexual interactions to not violate human dignity.

It is possible to use someone sexually without raping them. I think libertarians are moral relativists because they would deny this, thinking that any action is acceptable as long as consent is forthcoming.


Now it's a little clearer to me that we may be on different tracks. I think of libertarianism as purely a political belief system. There are many philosophical (and perhaps even religious) trains that can lead one to political libertarianism. Many libertarians believe in a large difference between which actions are immoral and which should be proscribed by gov't (consider objectivism).

I think you might be extrapolating backwards from the political beliefs to a philosophy that isn't there, or at least that many libertarians do not share.
2.20.2007 10:20pm
marghlar:
Viscus, you seem to be missing the point on the moral relativism issue. Being a moral relativist means believing that different moral standards apply based on differences in culture or other social factors. You have not suggested any reason for us to think that most atheists believe that. One can be an atheist Kantian. Utilitarianism is not a relativist ethical position; it asserts that everyone is subject to the same rule (although that rule is defined at a very abstract level, and can be varied in the way it applies to facts).

You seem to take the philosophically indefensible position that all ethics that are not deontic are relativistic. That is simply false. Utilitarianism is explicitly universal; it is believed by its proponents to apply to all people, in all places at all times.
2.20.2007 10:23pm
HLSbertarian (mail):
Viscus: Saw you last comment after I posted. Without getting into the messy discussion of what "human dignity" means, I'll just say that I can see your point as it relates to libertarians who believe that moral actions are coextensive with permitted actions.
2.20.2007 10:24pm
Evelyn Blaine (mail):
Viscus,

You're using the term "moral relativism" in a very non-standard way. Generally, a moral relativist is taken to be someone who believes (1) that there are no robustly universal action-guiding moral facts and (2) that moral judgments always and only express group-relative norms. Someone who says that an act that A performs on B is morally wrong just in case B does not consent *is* making a claim about a universal moral principle; it's just a claim that you disagree with. (Nobody actually holds a consent view that simplistic, of course, but you get the idea.) Using "moral relativism" for this kind of garden-variety first-order disagreement blurs the important distinction between metaethics and normative ethics.
2.20.2007 10:27pm
marghlar:
Liberty, you must get tired, setting up so many straw men. There is an enormous difference between the belief that the earth is flat and the belief that a deity probably does not exist. It is the difference between believing something that is explicitly false given a massive body of evidence, and believing something about which practical certainty is far more elusive. Indeed, when you can provide to me a principled basis why atheism is more similar to flat-earthism than is any major religious belief system, I'll start to take you seriously.

If you want to have a serious conversation about this, pick a topic on which reasonable people can and do disagree, and then explain to us why one particular belief on that topic ought to exclude a person from consideration for public office.
2.20.2007 10:29pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):

Most atheists don't go on TV and say that Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus are irrational. Most atheists don't go on TV at all.

Most atheists have family members who are religious, and love and care about those family members.

Most atheists don't spend a lot of time thinking about religion ... or about atheism, for that matter. Most atheists are, simply put, irreligious: they're just like anyone else, except they don't have a religion.
All very true. The difficulty is that most people's opinions about atheism are strongly influenced by the ones that do get lots of public attention--such as those who assert that the sight of a Ten Commandments monument in a public park causes them physical pain:

Plaintiff Elizabeth Ash is a resident of La Crosse. She does not attend meetings or events held in Cameron Park because she does not want to view the monument. She does not use banks near the monument. When driving downtown, she avoids streets that would take her past the monument. She has stopped going to Cameron Park to sit in it and read books. When she does see the monument, she feels marginalized and has experienced physical pain. [emphasis added]
Is it fair to assume that every atheist is Madelyn Murray O'Hair or similar deranged or dishonest people? Not at all. But nor is it terribly surprising, when the atheists that the ACLU works on behalf of are such astonishing pieces of work.
2.20.2007 10:30pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Whether or not one believes that God exists is quite a fundamental aspect of one's world view that potentially affects every aspect of one's decision process.

A person's religion says a lot about the person, and refusing to vote for someone who disagrees with me on a fundamental issue like religion is not bigotry.


As an atheist, a lot of this stuff scares me. Two things.

#1) Note that the poll posited an OTHERWISE WELL-QUALIFIED candidate. No person has identified a single issue where being an atheist would cause someone to vote in a certain way in our secular government.

I'm an atheist, and I would fight like hell to defend freedom of religion, but religious people would never ever ever vote for me just because of the label.

#2) I know it is established political fact, but voting for the person "most like me" is still a terrible idea. If you want to see you in office, run yourself. Otherwise, try asking which of the candidates will actually do the best job. (Several of the commentators virtually admit that they would vote for a theist over an atheist, even though the atheist would agressively back political causes they believe in.)

Daniel Chapman:

Would it be bigotry to categorically refuse to vote for a pro-life person? If not, please distinguish the two.

OK, easy. You have identified a political issue where you differ with the politician in question. Private religious belief is not supposed to be political. (Ex. The no religious test clause of the Constitution.)

David Hecht:

Not what you believe? Too bad...the public face of atheism is Richard Dawkins and his like...aggressive attackers of the believing majority. And his arguments are equally "unsupported" in a "scientific" sense, since the proposition that God does not exist is not only not falsifiable, it's logically unprovable (as you cannot prove a negative).

David, if you had read a word of Richard Dawkins then you would know that your words are utter BS. In fact, I think he spends about half a chapter of "The God Delusion" explaining exactly why he doesn't argue that God doesn't exist because you can't prove a negative.

Counterfactual:

Nicely put.
2.20.2007 10:34pm
Elais:


Is it frightening to think that the only thing that stands between a religious person and that person committing a crime is a book?
2.20.2007 10:40pm
liberty (mail) (www):
marghlar,

"Indeed, when you can provide to me a principled basis why atheism is more similar to flat-earthism than is any major religious belief system, I'll start to take you seriously."

I certainly can't! I happen to think, like my other examples (e.g. 6000 year old Earth) that the religious tend to have the more difficult to support theories.

I wondered whether someone was going to make that mistake which you are making- that I am claiming atheism is an unsupportable or bizarre belief. If you go back and read my posts you'll see that I never made this claim and rather that I am on the other side - I would find it hard to vote to vote for a young-Earth bible type.

However, just as I form opinions about the world views of politicians who believe or claim to beleive that the bible is literal and so forth, so I expect them to form opinions about my worldview based on my beliefs.
2.20.2007 10:43pm
Viscus (mail) (www):

Can you clarify what you mean by a "substantive action" and whether you consider the examples above exercises of moral relativism?


Often, consent is a necessary condition for human dignity, but is not sufficient.

With respect to criminal law, it makes sense to make consent a defense, to the extent that individual's motives for engaging in actions are not easily provable. In this way, consent can be considered an "information shortcut." We know that any sexual interaction without consent is one where one person is using another and thus violating them.

If we could tell with 100% certainty that someone was sexually using another person, I would have no problem punishing them, regardless of consent. (I might not make the punishment as harsh as for rape as without consent, since the psychological damage when there is no consent is probably more severe.) But the problem is that if we move away from consent, we might end up with a much higher error rate. Allowing consent as a defense is consistent with giving criminal defendants the benefit of the doubt and putting the burden of proof on the prosecutor. Some things are very hard to prove. One of them would be that X is using Y for sex. At the end of the day, it is more pragmatism that leads one to make consent a necessary element of rape, or that prevent one from defining a lesser crime of sexual using.

Libertarians are morally relativistic to the extent that they think that any action is morally acceptable as long as consent is forthcoming. That is, they don't believe that any substantive action is wrong if there is consent.

By substantive action, I mean any action that one takes, eliminating consent as a factor. X chopping off Y's hand with a sword is a substantive action. Y consenting goes to X's state of mind. In some cases, consent does justify X's action (a sword fight) in others, it does not (Y is depressed or thinks they deserve it for jaywalking, etc. and X knows that this is the reason Y is consenting).

The problem is not the specific argument that consent should be used as an information shortcut in certain circumstances. That would not make a libertarian or anyone else into a moral relativist. The problem is when they substantively think that any action can be justified when consent is forthcoming. That is, it is not possible to violate human dignity when there is consent.

Obviously, if one becomes more stringent about consent... there is no such thing as consent where someone agrees to let someone chop of their hand with a sword for jaywalking... then this becomes less of a problem. But then, consent becomes less of a thing having to do with agreement and more of a vessel for our moral judgments.

So, when I say that libertarians who think consent is a substitute for human dignity are morally relativistic, I mean it for those who define consent narrowly to mean agreement and have a relatively narrow definition of incapacity. If your argument is that people who want you to chop of their hand due to their guilt over jaywalking lack capacity, then you have moved away from the idea of consent as a substitute for human dignity and are in fact smuggling moral views into the concept of capacity. When you do so, you might as well be honest. You don't think it is right for X to chop of Y's hand for jaywalking, regardless of consent. Even if Y is completely sane and you would enforce any contract they chose to enter.
2.20.2007 10:50pm
marghlar:
However, just as I form opinions about the world views of politicians who believe or claim to beleive that the bible is literal and so forth, so I expect them to form opinions about my worldview based on my beliefs.

Of course that is true, but that isn't the subject under discussion. The issue isn't whether a belief contributes to our views of a person as a candidate, it's whether that view disqualifies them from consideration for office. I've never said that one's religious views should play no role in other's voting decisions, only that it is bigoted when they totally control that decision. You might be hesitant to vote for a young-earth creationist, but I assume that there is a set of other facts on which you might still choose to vote for that individual. By contrast, for a person to not believe that the Earth is round is pretty good evidence of a thought disorder in that individual, and would tend to constitute a prima facie reason not to vote them into office.

I just think we should be cautious of bad analogies.
2.20.2007 10:51pm
frankcross (mail):
A little OT, but I think the poll is bogus. I will wager that if an atheist agreed with people on their policy positions, that they would support him. Heck, I think you might see the religious right backing an atheist candidate, if he was the most anti-abortion, anti-gay, anti-separation of church and state candidate.

These expressed preferences are often unreliable. When people think of an imaginary atheist candidate, even one of their own party, they assume the guy must not agree with them.
2.20.2007 10:53pm
Respondent:
Cornellian,
This Wikipedia article asserts that Kolbe is a supporter of "abortion rights". While I'd be skeptical of any politically charged claims in the article, as it appears not to have been written form a NPOV, if the assertion is true, it would make the description of Kolbe as a "conservative Republican" difficult to justify, unless Kolbe is to the right of center in the Republican party in the vast majority of issues. (I believe that the article Prof. Somin liknks to was written before the midterm elections, so I wouldn't use his current status as a former congressman to argue that Prof. Somin was referring to someone else.)
2.20.2007 10:54pm
marghlar:
Prof. Cross,

What would you ask (or how would you test) to get more reliable indica? Also, even if as is often suggested survey data such as these tend to indicate norms more than they indicate attitudes, isn't it a problem that our society has such intolerant norms regarding atheists?
2.20.2007 10:56pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"I've never said that one's religious views should play no role in other's voting decisions, only that it is bigoted when they totally control that decision."

I just don't think its bigoted. It may be foolish. It may be a bad idea to vote based on any single given issue (be it abortion or war) or any given piece of information about a candidate (be it an affair he had or an abortion she had or a beleif he or she holds) but it isn't bigoted.

And I may think its as much a thought-disorder (or inability or unwillingness to be rational) that a candidate believes in a young-Earth as I would if they believe in a flat Earth. Either one might be cultish or superstitious to me -- and I have every right to hold that opinion and it isn't bigoted. I may be wrong - the person may be very rational in every other way - but that could be true of the flat-Earth person too.

It is a rational determination not bigotry that would make someone form this kind of opinion about a candidate based on their beliefs.
2.20.2007 11:02pm
Ilya Somin:
Beat me to it... If we were talking about taking an atheist's children away I'd call it bigotry... but voting for one? Way over the top. At what point ARE we allowed to simply disagree?

Would it be bigotry if someone were categorically unwilling to vote for a Jew, a Catholic, a black, a Hispanic? If not, why is the same view as to atheists different? People are certaily allowed to disagree. But others are entitled to criticize the basis of that disagreement, which in some cases may indeed be based on bigotry.
2.20.2007 11:03pm
Ilya Somin:
These expressed preferences are often unreliable. When people think of an imaginary atheist candidate, even one of their own party, they assume the guy must not agree with them.

Possibly. But why is this true of atheists to such a vastly greater extent than members of other groups, including relatively unpopular ones such as Muslims. Why do even 1/3 of self-described LIBERALS assume this about atheists, even though most atheists are probably liberal themselves? I suspect that bigotry is a big part of the explanation for the difference.
2.20.2007 11:06pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Daniel Chapman wrote:
Would it be bigotry to categorically refuse to vote for a pro-life person? If not, please distinguish the two.
Easy. To be "pro-life" is to take a position on an issue that plays a significant role in our national politics and on which many people want to change the law. It is therefore relevant (not necessarily crucial, but relevant) to whether someone should hold political office. Under our Constitution, religion is a matter personal matter and not a political one.

That said, I don't think abortion rights activists should flat out refuse to vote for "pro-life" candidates. Many people in government do their jobs according to the law and not according to their own preferences -- religious or otherwise. But if a candidate states that he or she will work to curtail or eliminate abortion rights, that is as relevant to how he or she will perform the job as any other stated position.
2.20.2007 11:08pm
liberty (mail) (www):
Ilya: "If not, why is the same view as to atheists different?"

Because atheism is a belief, not a background. If I am unwilling to vote for anyone that believes the bible is literal (Earth is 6000 years old) does this make me a bigot? What if I think it speaks poorly of their ability to think rationally? If this is not bigoted, then how can you claim the reverse is bigoted? What if to some, atheism is a belief that speaks poorly of one's ability to think rationally or speaks poorly of something else (ability to act morallt for example)?

They might be wrong, just as I might be wrong, but neither is bigoted if its a careful determination regarding worldview which is based on the persons beliefs and philosophy - not their background, heritage, ethnicity, gender or race. Beliefs and philosophy are fair game -- these are things we should be basing our choice on.
2.20.2007 11:10pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar and Evelyn Blaine,

Here is a way to think of what I am saying about consent. Think of consent as procedural. Think of the actions that one takes after receiving consent (or not receiving consent) as substantive.

That any substantive action is okay under a libertarian view, as long as there is consent, renders it morally relativistic. There is no substantive action that is condemned when there is consent. Thus, in some context, all substantive actions are okay.

So, if one lives in a different culture, and in that culture consents to be tortured and sacrificed for jaywalking, this would be okay. That is morally relativistic, under a fair definition of the term.

marghlar,
As far as utilitarianism being morally relativistic, some forms of utilitarianism are morally relativistic for reasons different from the reasons that some forms of libertarianism are morally relativistic. Some libertarians have the view that consent will justify any substantive action. That is morally relativistic. Clearly, from a utilitarian standpoint, the question is not whether there is consent, but whether the action will result in the greatest good for the greatest number. Thus, a utilitarian may condemn an action that a libertarian would allow and vice-versa.

Utilitarianism is morally relativistic in the sense that it focuses on the maximization of the good. Now, some forms of utilitarianism could escape moral relativism by suggesting that the good is fixed and universal across cultures and societies. However, when utilitarianism makes use of a subjective utility function, where what is good varies from person to person and from culture to culture, then the label morally relativistic is justifiably applied to it.
2.20.2007 11:12pm
Ilya Somin:
Professor Somin,
Your article says Congress has one member who is a conservative Republican homosexual. Who is he/she, and what district does he/she represent?


At the time, it was Jim Kolbe of Arizona, who has since retired. Steve Gunderson of Wisconsin, who retired a few years earlier was another example, though if I remember right less conservative than Kolbe.
2.20.2007 11:13pm
logicnazi (mail) (www):
As a pragmatic matter I think this is the result of the lack of atheist fuss/indignation.

People's religious beliefs (not including atheism) are treated with the same kind of kid gloves that race, gender, country of origin and (in some circles) sexual orientation. In non-political contexts (hiring/social contexts) you can add political viewpoint (democrat, republican, libertarian). So I think it is informative to ask what do these categories have in common.

The answer, it seems to me, is that they are all categories where critiques provoke strong fiery outraged reactions. Knock someone for being black or Irish and you could have a fight on your hands. Imply that women are less competent, Muslims are violent or gays are evil and you could find someone screaming in your face and the evening ruined for everyone.

In short certain categories become off limits for criticism because enough of the group would rather ruin things for everyone than let an insult to their group go unchallenged. It is the social version of the riots about the muslim cartoons but far more insidious. If you think there is even a 10% chance that someone is going to chew you out at a party for a casual remark even the most principled individual is likely to hold their tongue. I mean of all the people on this board who feel strongly that homosexuality is evil and wrong how many do you think wouldn't shy away from voicing it at a party with gay people?

This is why I feel that atheists are getting the shaft because they don't make enough of a scene. If the Jew is asked to eat pork or a muslim asked to partake of the host everyone knows they would refuse even if they must make a scene so no one asks. Yet the fact that atheists everywhere bow to politeness and try to avoid hurt feelings has the net effect that people aren't dissuaded from criticizing or imposing on them.

Sure there is a very small minority of atheists who overreact and take this too far but if more atheists reacted to insults, slander and requests with the same ferocity that the faithful did it would pretty quickly become socially unacceptable to diss atheists and eventually people would actually stop thinking it.
2.20.2007 11:14pm
Ilya Somin:
Unlike Jews, atheists are not well-organized. This alone can explain their lack of political power. Which shows that Somin has failed to really demonstrate that prejudice explains the lack of atheist political power.

It explains why they have less power than Jews, but does not explain their TOTAL lack of representation in Congress or other branches of government. BTW, most of the Jews in Congress were elected from majority non-Jewish districts, and do not function primarily as representatives of Jewish interests.
2.20.2007 11:14pm
Ilya Somin:
I should clarify. I do not think that all libertarians are moral relativists. I only think that they are to the extent that they think human dignity is defined by consent alone. I don't want to make strawmen out of libertarians with different ideas.

Belief in consent as the foundation of morality is not moral relativism. Consent is itself an absolutist value. Moreover, most libertarians are not in fact contractarians, or at least not contractarian all the way down.
2.20.2007 11:15pm
Ken Arromdee:
OK - now I get it. If you won't vote for the people Arromdee disapproves of, your reasons partake of "Truth," but if you won't vote for somebody Arromdee approves of, your reasons are "false" and "bigoted." So when it comes to voting, just ask yourself - "WWAD - what would Arromdee do?"

Although philosophers also like to use the word, I'm speaking of "truth" in the sense of factual accuracy. It just *isn't true* that Jews eat babies; people who believe that believe it out of bigotry.

And if you really need to ask "what would Arromdee do" when trying to figure out if "Jews eat babies" is true, we'd all be better off if you didn't vote at all.
2.20.2007 11:18pm
Ilya Somin:
Is refusal to vote for an atheist "bigotry"? What about refusal to vote for a Scientologist? A member of Nation of Islam? Would it be bigotry to oppose the appointment of a candidate for Commissioner of the FDA by noting that she is a Christian Scientist?

In some cases, such as the NOI (and to a lesser extent Christian Science), belief in a particular religion commits the believer to a particular set of political stances. If you vote against them because you oppose those policy positions, that is not bigotry. However, as I have emphasized time and again, atheism does NOT commit the atheist to any particular policy positions. Therefore, categorical opposition to all atheists is likely - at least in most cases - to be based on bigotry - either on a bigoted hostility to atheism as such or on a bigoted assumption that atheism necessarily entails morally reprehensible positions that it in fact does not entail.
2.20.2007 11:19pm
Ilya Somin:
I suspect that responses in some categories may reflect that people know what the "right" answer is. They understand they aren't supposed to admit to bigotry against Jews or Blacks. That doesn't mean they actually will vote for them, and this hidden factor can skew polls by a few percent. But with atheists there's no recognition that discrimination against them is "wrong", so respondents don't hesistate to say so.

I agree completely. But I don't think this factor even comes close to fully accounting for the 10 fold difference between the numbers who wouldn't vote for an atheist and those who say they wouldn't vote for a black. Even if the true number of racists or anti-Semites is twice as high as the polls show, it would only get us to 10% not willing to vote for a black, and 14% not willing to vote for a Jew.
2.20.2007 11:21pm
Ilya Somin:
There may be an additional reason that the explanation is not bigotry. When one thinks of the question of an atheist for president one may consider not the atheists he may know personally, but those who are "public" figures. Many of those are proudly anti-religious and even more strongly anti-christian

I doubt there are very many atheist public figures that are well known to the general public, or indeed any. There are certainly fewer such than Muslim public figures that are seen as anti-Christian, Jewish public figues that are viewed similarly, or black public figures taht are considered anti-white. Yet none of these groups has negative ratings even approaching those of atheists.
2.20.2007 11:25pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
Ilya Somin writes:


Belief in consent as the foundation of morality is not moral relativism.


I am afraid it is moral relativism. It one thing to say it is an important part of morality is one thing, but to say it is the foundation is another. Making it the foundation any substantive action permissable, regardless of evil motive as long as consent is forthcoming. It definitely is morally relativistic.

Ilya Somin:

Moreover, most libertarians are not in fact contractarians, or at least not contractarian all the way down.


To the extent that libertarians move away from consent as the sole factor or as the practically only important factor or the overwhelmingly most important factor to be considered, they might move away from being morally relativistic. I think in fact many libertarians look at consent as overwhelmingly determinative. To the extent they do, it is fair to say they are morally relativistic, because this view renders nearly any substantive action permissable.

Overall, the precise countours of belief among actual libertarians is an interesting empirical question.
2.20.2007 11:25pm
Lev:

When she does see the monument, she feels marginalized and has experienced physical pain. [emphasis added]


I can understand "marginalized", but "experienced physical pain" is evidence of being a nut.

The poll seems to me to of a genre that we have in the political arena all the time, the generic like/dislike poll, frequently taken of a supposedly random sample of adults, less frequently of registered voters, even less frequently of actual voters.

Example, from pre 2004: In the next election would you prefer the Democratic candidate or President Bush.

You get the idea. The preference was for a Democratic, until a specific person was named - Dean or Bush, Edwards or Bush, Kerry or Bush, etc.

I don't see that this question:


If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [insert group name], would you vote for that person?


Is any different because people, except for yellow dogs, don't vote for "a generally well-qualified person" because "a generally well-qualified person" does not appear on the ballot.

A specific named person appears on the ballot, and the general question is, it seems to me, too general to be useful as an indicator of anything in particular.
2.20.2007 11:26pm
marghlar:
However, when utilitarianism makes use of a subjective utility function, where what is good varies from person to person and from culture to culture, then the label morally relativistic is justifiably applied to it.

I have to disagree. You are confusing the extensions of utilitarianism with its moral rules. An ethical theory is relativist if the standards for what make actions good or bad are not universal. The type of utilitarianism you refer to, preference utilitarianism, is universal, in the sense that it gives you the same rule for what makes actions good or bad in all circumstances: do not do that which violates the weight of human preferences (weighted for strength) among the group affected by the action. That rule is entirely universal; it is the same in all places and all times. It is true that some actions may be moral in some circumstances and immoral in others, because the theory is highly contextual, but that is a difference in extensions, not rules.

What you object to in utiltiarianism could be better described by some other term than moral relativism, which really doesn't work here. Utilitarianism is less "rule-driven" than Kantian ethics, because it involves more inquiry into context and consequences. But that doesn't mean it isn't universal; it just means that it's rules interact with context in a more complicated way that makes it harder to state hard and fast rules about application. The principle remains universal; it's the application that varies.
2.20.2007 11:28pm
Ilya Somin:
religious people rightly see atheists as people who are wrong about one of the central facts of the universe and human existence.Sorry, Ilya, but I just don't see how voting against someone who you view as totally wrong is any form of "discrimination." I wouldn't vote for someone who believed the world was flat, either.

"Totally wrong" about what? From a Christian perspective, Jews and Muslims are "totally wrong" about the divinity of Jesus Christ, which to believing Christians is "one of the central facts of the universe and human existence." Would that justify a categorical refusal to vote for a Jew?

From a Catholic perspective, Protestants are "totally wrong" about the authority of the Pope, which conservative Catholics see as a "central fact . . . of human existence." Would they be justified in categorically refusing to vote for Protestants?

If not, why is the case of atheism different from any of these examples?
2.20.2007 11:29pm
Kevin Murphy:
Bet you "smoker" would have scored lower.
2.20.2007 11:34pm
marghlar:
Viscus,

Reading your response to Prof. Somin, I see you are still using these terms in a highly unusual way. I'd suggest that you start with the Stanford Encyclopedia entry on moral relativism. I think it will make it clear why your usage confuses many of us. Reading your more recent posts, it seems like you use MR as a descriptor for any ethical theory that isn't deontological.
2.20.2007 11:34pm
theobromophile (www):
There are no visible "Atheists For Life" or "NASCAR rationalists".

So it makes sense that a lot of Americans won't vote for a hypothetical atheist.

There are Libertarians for Life and Feminists for Life, off the top of my head, neither of which profess any faith. "Women deserve better than abortion," isn't exactly, "Be fruitful and multiply."

Kolhberg's theory of moral development is silent on religion Interestingly, one can be immoral and religious (but do the right thing out of reward/punishment) or be an atheist and be at the highest level of morality: acting for the good of the entire human race. I see no difference, morally, between the atheist who refuses to commit a crime based on a cost/benefit analysis and a religious person who refuses to commit a crime based on a cost/benefit analysis, albeit one involving the afterlife more so than prison.

As an anti-abortion, pro-religion atheist, I take offence at the results of this poll. I understand that I'll spend a lot of my life fighting the Peter Singers and Amanda Marcottes of the world - who believe in infanticide and cannot even fathom that abortion is morally reprehensible - but I'm still be upset that my atheism is seen as a disqualifying factor for political (or judicial? perhaps?) office.

The fear, of course, is that atheists lack any grounding in traditional Judeo-Christian principles. (Of course, this seems to say quite a bit about people who cannot fathom an internal moral compass.) I've often been asked how, as an atheist, I can be pro-religion (easy: if we can discriminate against religion, we can discriminate against atheism; besides, Christianity does great things for its followers, objectively), anti pre-marital sex (again, easy: objectively, having sex with someone and not wanting to raise his child is just stupid - not to mention other mental &physical ramifications), or anti-abortion (easiest of all: ever walk through a prenatal ward?). The shock that other people express at an atheist who holds these views, based on nothing more than an objective examination of her world, is really at the root of the 53% figure.

Atheism is, in many ways, a religion. I was born Catholic but simply do not believe in the ways that religious people do, and I find it distasteful and immoral to attend Mass for its own sake, rather than out of belief. I can no more "unchoose" my atheism than a Jew could unchoose his religion. Church attendance is a choice; belief is not.
2.20.2007 11:34pm
Ilya Somin:
The political ideology/religious ideology distinction Somin makes is weak. If hostility towards an individual based on his or her beliefs is appropriate, there doesn't seem to be a good reason to exclude religious beliefs.

I didn't say that religious beliefs SHOULD be excluded from consideration. Rather, I said that it was wrong to categorically reject a candidate solely because he or she belongs to a particular religious group. If he has religious (or secular) beliefs that commit him to a particular set of odious policy conclusions (such as genocide, human sacrifice, and so on), then that is good reason for hostility. But merely being an atheist (which commits one to no particular public policy platform) or being a Christian, Jew, etc. (which in and of themselves do not lead to odious commitmennts, though that may not be true in the case of particular variants of these religions) is not enough.
2.20.2007 11:34pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Two comments:

First, a person who insists the world is flat thereby demonstrates that he is either unable or unwilling to let facts shape his perceptions of the world. He is thus irrational by definition. It is reasonable to expect that he will make other decisions without regard to the facts. It is perfectly reasonable to vote against a candidate who has demonstrated a stubborn refusal to let facts affect his decision-making. Indeed, it would be unreasonable to vote for a candidate who has displayed this trait, since he might never make any decisions rationally. Belief in a flat earth thus is highly relevant to a person's qualification for any job, not just the presidency.

Second, why do so many of you call atheism a matter of choice? Do you think atheists just decided one day that they'd rather not believe in God? Can you think of anything that you believe just because you chose to believe it? We believe things because we the evidence tells us those things are true, not because we dislike the alternatives.
2.20.2007 11:35pm
Cornellian (mail):

Libertarians are morally relativistic to the extent that they think that any action is morally acceptable as long as consent is forthcoming. That is, they don't believe that any substantive action is wrong if there is consent.


Incorrect. Libertarians may believe that any number of things are morally objectionable, despite consent. They just don't make the automatic leap from "morally objectionable" to "should be prohibited by the government." They may take that position for any number of reasons, such as that government isn't very good at enforcing that particular type or morality, or that freedom of choice is a greater moral good than prohibiting a bad choice, or for any number of reasons other than that the behavior is morally acceptable.
2.20.2007 11:35pm
Cornellian (mail):
Cornellian,
This Wikipedia article asserts that Kolbe is a supporter of "abortion rights". While I'd be skeptical of any politically charged claims in the article, as it appears not to have been written form a NPOV, if the assertion is true, it would make the description of Kolbe as a "conservative Republican" difficult to justify, unless Kolbe is to the right of center in the Republican party in the vast majority of issues.


When did "conservative" get redefined such that one's position on abortion outweighs virtually all other issues combined?
2.20.2007 11:37pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"We believe things because we the evidence tells us those things are true, not because we dislike the alternatives."

Except, of course, for those people who stubbornly refuse to let facts get in the way.
2.20.2007 11:41pm
Ilya Somin:
There are no visible "Atheists For Life" or "NASCAR rationalists".

Actually, columnist Nat Hentoff is a prominent atheist who is also very pro-life (having written numerous articles on the subject).

I don't know anything about NASCAR, but I suspect that there are atheist NASCAR fans, as well as rationalist ones (not all of whom are also atheists).
2.20.2007 11:42pm
theobromophile (www):
<blockquote>
"Totally wrong" about what? From a Christian perspective, Jews and Muslims are "totally wrong" about the divinity of Jesus Christ, which to believing Christians is "one of the central facts of the universe and human existence." Would that justify a categorical refusal to vote for a Jew?

From a Catholic perspective, Protestants are "totally wrong" about the authority of the Pope, which conservative Catholics see as a "central fact . . . of human existence." Would they be justified in categorically refusing to vote for Protestants?

If not, why is the case of atheism different from any of these examples?
</blockquote>

While I don't agree that atheism vis-a-vis theism as a worldview is fundamentally worse than Protestant vis-a-vis Islam, I would hazard to guess that it is because Protestants, Catholics, and Jews were all raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition and accept many of those principles. While they may not accept, say, the divinity of Christ or the infallibility of the Pope, they do accept the underlying principles (Ten Commandments, etc). Those are more important to how he runs his life (and, by extension, would work in political office) than the particulars of the religion. The religion is shorthand for moral principles, not a specific belief system; atheism would be shorthand for rejecting the Judeo-Christian principles.

If that makes sense.
2.20.2007 11:42pm
AppSocRes (mail):
Atheism is based on the logical fallacy that it is possible to prove the ontological non-existence of something, e.g., G-d. To understand my point, consider a less contentious issue: Imagine someone who argues that nowhere and at no time in the universe has there ever existed a creature with the properties commonly ascribed to a unicorn. Only if this person has existed in every space-time coordinate of the universe where a unicorn might have existed is he entitled to make this assertion. Atheists, therefore, have a fundamental misunderstanding of logical thought processes. I wouldn't vote for one just on that basis. Agnostics, on the other hand have a logically tenable position. Even more so born-again Christians and mystics who believe in G-d because they have personally experienced the phenomenon.
2.20.2007 11:43pm
marghlar:
Second, why do so many of you call atheism a matter of choice? Do you think atheists just decided one day that they'd rather not believe in God? Can you think of anything that you believe just because you chose to believe it? We believe things because we the evidence tells us those things are true, not because we dislike the alternatives.

Absolutely right. Anyone who wishes to emphasize the choice component of religious beliefs should ponder seriously whether they could decide, right now, to believe other than they do, and actually believe otherwise as a result. I doubt that most muslims are capable of choosing, in the absence of a change in their evidence, to suddenly become atheists, just as I'm unable to suddenly choose to start belieivng in a deity absent new reasons for that belief.

Casual assumptions of pervasive doxastic voluntarism are perhaps the most frequent and pernicious epistemological errors made in everyday life.
2.20.2007 11:43pm
gasman (mail):
With atheists flying planes into buildings, having sex scandals sponsored by bishops, warring in ireland, denouncing gays while paying for gay sex, it's no wonder that they are the most hated and feared group in the country.
2.20.2007 11:47pm
marghlar:
Atheism is based on the logical fallacy that it is possible to prove the ontological non-existence of something, e.g., G-d.

Wrong. Almost no atheists believe that they have deductive proof of the non-existence of deities. Rather, they have inductive (and hence, fallible) reasons to believe that deities do not exist. I don't claim to know almost anything about the external world to 100% certainty; but I can be very confident about a great number of things that I can't prove deductively.
2.20.2007 11:48pm
RM:
I think people are missing the point (though maybe someone said this above). The most compelling argument to me is that when you're voting for a hugely powerful, political office whose occupant is almost a monarchical symbol of the country, you're entitled to take a person's character, divorced from any specific issue, into account. The religious person who refuses to vote for an atheist, I take it, is saying that he sees the atheist's freely chosen belief system to be a moral failing which makes him less likely to behave in the right way when an issue he hasn't previously considered comes up, or makes him a less appropriate symbol of america. From that perspective it's like refusing to vote for a supremely competent avowed thief, from the religious guy's perspective. Seems reasonable to me, even if I dont' really agree.
2.20.2007 11:49pm
Cornellian (mail):
Atheism is based on the logical fallacy that it is possible to prove the ontological non-existence of something, e.g., G-d.

Not exactly. Dawkins isn't an idiot and he has an answer to this common objection. He says he is an agnostic in the sense that he can't disprove the existence of a Christian God (anymore than he can disprove the existence of your unicorn or any other counterfactual). However, in that sense everyone is agnostic towards the existence of Zeus, Odin etc. as no one can disprove their existence either. However, we have no difficulty believing that none of the gods of Greek or Norse mythology actually exist, despite the inability to prove their non-existence. Dawkins says he's an atheist towards the Christian God (or any other god) in the same sense that people are atheists with respect to the gods of Greek and Norse mythology.
2.20.2007 11:51pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"you're entitled to take a person's character, divorced from any specific issue, into account...which makes him less likely to behave in the right way when an issue he hasn't previously considered comes up"

This was the point I was trying to make above. Well said. Whatever the belief system or worldview that you disagree with is, it is absolutely your right - and doesn't imply bigotry - to consider it when determining whether someone will do a good job later in office when a new issue comes up.

"or makes him a less appropriate symbol of america."

This is another interesting issue and does seem a matter of opinion without implying bigotry - though one might certainly argue that an atheist would make an excellent symbol for America.
2.20.2007 11:55pm
theobromophile (www):
If the same level of proof were required of theists, they would also be deemed to be illogical and irrational. After all, their belief in some diety hardly translates directly into the belief in, say, the infallibility of the Pope. If that rationale were extended to theists, you would only find agnostics to be rational.

IMHO, atheists need only find the extant religions as being, on the balance, less believable than believable, in order to be rational. We need not prove that no God has ever existed anywhere in the universe, but rather demonstrate that no religion in the world is objectively rational.
2.20.2007 11:55pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
AppSocRes wrote:
Atheism is based on the logical fallacy that it is possible to prove the ontological non-existence of something, e.g., G-d.
Not true. To be an atheist is to believe that God doesn't exist, not to be certain of it or to believe God's nonexistence can be proven.

I don't believe the events portrayed in the Star Wars movies really happened. I cannot prove that they didn't, but my belief is perfectly reasonable and is almost certainly correct. You surely don't believe those things really happened either, so by your logic you must believe that they are provably false. Or am I missing something?
Even more so born-again Christians and mystics who believe in G-d because they have personally experienced the phenomenon.
Now your logic is truly failing you. That these people experienced something they believe was the presence of God does not mean they are correct. Countless millions of people used to believe they were looking at God (or at least *a* god) when they looked at the sun. Those beliefs were sincere but mistaken. Are those who believe they have experienced the Judeo-Christian God on any better logical footing? Since you're the one arguing that it is atheism that is illogical, you must believe the answer is yes. I'm curious to hear you explain that belief.
2.20.2007 11:57pm
Cornellian (mail):
The most compelling argument to me is that when you're voting for a hugely powerful, political office whose occupant is almost a monarchical symbol of the country, you're entitled to take a person's character, divorced from any specific issue, into account. The religious person who refuses to vote for an atheist, I take it, is saying that he sees the atheist's freely chosen belief system to be a moral failing which makes him less likely to behave in the right way when an issue he hasn't previously considered comes up, or makes him a less appropriate symbol of america.

I don't think anyone disputes that a voter may, for example, refuse to vote for a Catholic candidate on the grounds that the Catholic's "freely chosen belief system" is a "moral failing" which "makes him less likely to behave in the right way when an issue he hasnt' previously considered comes up." Voters are free to vote on whatever basis they wish, the question is whether the choice I have just described is a morally objectionable choice. It's not a complete slam dunk that it is morally objectionable if one buys the rational ignorance theory, but if it is morally objectionable with respect to the Catholic, it should also be morally objection with respect to the atheist.
2.21.2007 12:04am
liberty (mail) (www):
I love how you only have to barely breathe the word "atheist" to get 120+ posts in 4 hours, one every two minutes, while most other posts don't get that total in a week.
2.21.2007 12:05am
RM:
Cornellian - like I think someone said above, the moral objectionableness of refusing to vote for the catholic depends on why you do so. Let's say you're an atheist who thinks anyone who truly believes bread turns literally into the body of God is a loon, and can't be trusted with power. Or that you're an atheist who thinks the idea that various apocalyptic demons might galumph into existence at any moment and signal the end of the world is crazy, and so the evangelicals who believe that truly shouldn't be voted the nuclear keys. I don't see how either of those is morally objectionable. I would argue with both premises, because I personally don't think beliefs held by so many people can, on their own, betoken irrationality, but I don't see any reason why someone else wouldn't come to the opposite conclusion. But if my hypos aren't objectionable, then the religious person's reaction is equally fine.
2.21.2007 12:15am
Ilya Somin:
The most compelling argument to me is that when you're voting for a hugely powerful, political office whose occupant is almost a monarchical symbol of the country, you're entitled to take a person's character, divorced from any specific issue, into account. The religious person who refuses to vote for an atheist, I take it, is saying that he sees the atheist's freely chosen belief system to be a moral failing which makes him less likely to behave in the right way when an issue he hasn't previously considered comes up, or makes him a less appropriate symbol of america.

The question, of course is whether it's right to regard being an atheist as a "moral failing." It is in fact just as wrong to do so as to regard being a Jew, a Catholic, or a Mormon as a "moral failing." Views of this type with respect to Jews, Christians, etc., are right considered bigoted. If that conclusion is correct (and I of course believe that it is), the same point applies to comparable anti-atheist views.
2.21.2007 12:16am
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
RM wrote:
The most compelling argument to me is that when you're voting for a hugely powerful, political office whose occupant is almost a monarchical symbol of the country, you're entitled to take a person's character, divorced from any specific issue, into account.
And what, exactly, does being an atheist reveal about a person's character? What does a belief in God tell us about the believer's character? A person's character is best demonstrated by his actions and, to a lesser extent, by his statements and writings. His religion tells us virtually nothing.

From that perspective it's like refusing to vote for a supremely competent avowed thief, from the religious guy's perspective.
No it isn't. An avowed thief has actually demonstrated via his actions and his words that he is a person of bad character who does not respect the rule of law. This is not at all like presuming an atheist must be such a person, let alone refusing to reconsider that presumption in light of evidence to the contrary.

Do you believe it is reasonable to presume that a person must have a bad character if he is an atheist? I hope not, because that is the very definition of bigotry.
2.21.2007 12:16am
marghlar:
I find it remarkable that we can seriously suggest that what facts a person believes tells us anything about that persons' character. Our beliefs are probably largely outside of our control, and moreover, it is a strange to suggest that coming to a conclusion on the basis of a good faith inquiry into available evidence and arguments can be a moral failing in any sense.
2.21.2007 12:28am
RM:
Hoffman Wrote: Do you believe it is reasonable to presume that a person must have a bad character if he is an atheist? I hope not, because that is the very definition of bigotry.

----
As my second post above makes clear, (it was posted after the various responses), most of the 53% group presumably thinks that the atheism *is* the bad character, and need not be evidenced by anything else in particular. That is, they've decided that anyone who has considered the same bits of evidence that they have and has come to such a ludicrous (to them) conclusion must have something wrong with them, and shouldn't be elected to high office. Assuming that's the analysis people did, whether conciously or not, I have a hard time seeing it as bigotry.
2.21.2007 12:28am
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
RM:

Germans used to believe Judaism was bad character. Do you have a hard time seeing that as bigotry, too?
2.21.2007 12:31am
Ilya Somin:
most of the 53% group presumably thinks that the atheism *is* the bad character, and need not be evidenced by anything else in particular. That is, they've decided that anyone who has considered the same bits of evidence that they have and has come to such a ludicrous (to them) conclusion must have something wrong with them, and shouldn't be elected to high office. Assuming that's the analysis people did, whether conciously or not, I have a hard time seeing it as bigotry.

If people assumed that Christianity or Judaism "IS the bad character," wouldn't that be evidence of bigotry against adherents of those religions? If so, the same can be said of those who make a similar assumption about atheism.
2.21.2007 12:32am
Cornellian (mail):
Cornellian - like I think someone said above, the moral objectionableness of refusing to vote for the catholic depends on why you do so.

I can see objectionable and non-objectionable reasons, so I suppose not voting for a Catholic isn't automatically either, and one might say the same about not voting for an atheist.

Supposing one read news accounts of bishops threatening to withhold Communion from Catholic politicians who didn't vote the Catholic party line on various hot button social issues, and suppose you believe (not unreasonably) that receiving Communion is generally important to Catholics, such that the threat of being deprived of it is a genunine threat. Suppose one is a Protestant and one doesn't believe the Catholic party line on any number of issues - you think abortion is a tough call, not something to be prohibited in all circumstances, you think same sex marriage is a good idea, you think the death penalty is, on balance, a worthwhile thing to have in a justice system. The candidate himself tends to dodge these issues on the campaign trail, preferring to campaign on a platform of fiscal responsibility. Is it morally objectionable to not vote for a Catholic out of a concern that he'll cave under pressure from Catholic bishops to implement the Catholic party line once he's in office?
2.21.2007 12:33am
Elliot123 (mail):
Does anyone get the idea some religious folks are bothered by the idea that the behavior of the average atheist is really no different than that of the average Christian?
2.21.2007 12:35am
Cornellian (mail):
Does anyone get the idea some religious folks are bothered by the idea that the behavior of the average atheist is really no different than that of the average Christian?

Not entirely identical - I seem to recall reading recently that Evangelicals have a higher divorce rate than atheists. Perhaps they ought to be bothered by such differences in behavior.
2.21.2007 12:40am
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar,

I think we must simply agree to disagree. Let us look at the definition of moral relativism to which you refer:


The term 'moral relativism' is understood in a variety of ways. Most often it is associated with an empirical thesis that there are deep and widespread moral disagreements and a metaethical thesis that the truth or justification of moral judgments is not absolute, but relative to some group of persons.


The first thing to note is that term is "understood in a variety of ways." If you have a narrow definition that you dogmatically adhere to, that is fine. But I am not so interested in having a dogmatic argument about vocabulary.

Two things about the definition. It focuses on "justification of moral judgments." But what I am focusing on are the moral judgments themselves, not merely the justifications. In the end, if the criticism of an idea as being morally relativistic matters, it is because it renders morality non-universal, specific, and particular. You may think it primarily matters that the justification varies. I do not. I think it also matters when the results drastically vary, even if the simplistic justification is constant. If a moral theory allows you to chop off someone's hands if they consent (some forms of libertarianism) or throw a minority to the lion for the pleasure of a large crowd (some forms of utilitarianism) I don't think that there is a "universal justification" for such immoral actions matters.

Here is my definition of moral relativistic philosophy:
"A philosophy that leads to deeply conflicting judgments concerning morality, depending on the particular individuals or culture is morally relativistic."

Since in fact libertarianism will lead to deeply conflicting judgments concerning morality depending on consent, I think it is right to call it morally relativistic. There are no limits to the substantive acts than one can take, if there is consent. That it is theoretically true that anyone who consents is subject to having their hand cut off, in fact and in practice, only particular individuals will in fact consent, and this will often be a function of culture and upbringing.

Since some cultures and societies will approve of throwing minorities to the lions for the enjoyment of the majority under preference utilitarianism, while others cultures and societies will condemn such actions, since utility functions are certainly partially a function of culture and upbringing.

I will stick to my definition of moral relativism. I think it is more significant than yours. Does it matter if another society has the same justifications for their moral judgments as yours, when in fact those moral judgments consist of approval for throwing minorities to the lions and chopping off the hands of people who consent due to their guilty conscience after jaywalking? I think not. Since your definition of moral relativism fails to apply the label moral relativism in situations where it is most deserving and sensible to apply it, I reject it.
2.21.2007 12:47am
Jerry F:
What I find most interesting on this issue is that atheists are in fact overrepresented at the highest levels of government. Atheists include at least one recent President (Clinton), one recent major presidential candidate (Dean), one current presidential candidate who may well become president (H. Clinton) and four Supreme Court Justices (Stevens, Breyer, Souter, Ginsburg). I strongly suspect (as do many conservatives) that atheists comprise *at least* one half of the Senate Democrats and one third of Democrats in the House. Of course, many or most people on this list would never admit to their atheism, precisely because they would not win elections if they did. And I am sure that many atheists with more integrity (including, but not limited to, objectivist types) refuse to masquerade as Christians in order to get elected. This is sad, because many open atheists would be more deserving of political power than the so-called "Christians" whose political positions make a mockery of everything that Christianity stands for.
2.21.2007 12:49am
marghlar:
Not entirely identical - I seem to recall reading recently that Evangelicals have a higher divorce rate than atheists. Perhaps they ought to be bothered by such differences in behavior.

I wonder how much of that is the anti premarital sex thing. If I wasn't allowed to take a car for a test drive before buying it, I'd be more likely to be disatisfied with the product later on. Not that I'm suggesting that most Evangelicals abstain nearly as much as they urge others to; rather, I think they have drastically foreshortened courtships, given their urge to legitimize their sex by associating it with a marriage.

I've known some fantastically ill-considered marriages driven by this phenomenon. By contrast, I have very little experience of bad marriages between avowed atheists.
2.21.2007 12:51am
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Jerry F:

What evidence do you have that any of the people you list is an atheist?
2.21.2007 12:55am
Elliot Reed:
I don't quite get the people who would refuse to vote for a young-earth creationist for a national position like President. Young-earth creationism is relevant to more or less no policy issues other than high school science classes, which are not exactly the federal government's principal responsibility. A fellow liberal who happened to be a young-earth creationist would easily win my support over a fellow atheistic evolution-believer who happened to agree with George W. Bush on most policy issues.
2.21.2007 12:56am
Cornellian (mail):
Atheists include at least one recent President (Clinton), one recent major presidential candidate (Dean), one current presidential candidate who may well become president (H. Clinton) and four Supreme Court Justices (Stevens, Breyer, Souter, Ginsburg).

Evidence?
2.21.2007 12:57am
marghlar:
Alright Viscus, you can stick to your quirky, non-standard usage if you like. But to avoid confusion, you should let people know beforehand, so you avoid having to go through this discussion again. Let people know: "When I use the term moral relativism, I don't mean it in the standard philosophical sense, but rather, I intend it to refer to any ethical system that is significantly contextualized, i.e. any system that approves of some sorts of primary conduct in some circumstances but not others."

The reason you should do this is that there is a standard set of understandings that go along with the term, and you will confuse people if you use it in an anomalous way without warning. Under your definition, I'm not sure that all libertarians are moral relativists* (* indicates your usage), because many come to libertarianism from natural rights perspectives that are highly rigid and universalized. That being said, utilitarianism is a form of moral relativism* because it is contextualized in exactly the way you describe; thus, Millian liberals (who are similar in many respects to modern libertarians) could properly be labelled MR* because they base their political philosophy on utiltarian ethics.

In the end, however, I don't really see what the big deal is with saying something is MR*. Why should I care if a moral rule is context-dependent, as long as it consistently produces good outcomes?
2.21.2007 1:01am
Counterfactual:
- RM

I suggest that thinking that people who disagree with you are, by definition, always guilty of ludicrous thinking and therefore should be, in practice, barred from the government is a shining example of bigotry. If a large group of voters decided that short candidates showed ludicrous judgment in deciding not to wear lifts so they looked taller and therefore resolved to never vote for a candidate that looked short, you would not consider this to be anti-short bigotry?

The question is not whether large number of voters think atheism shows ludicrous and even evil thinking. Obviously they do. The question is whether this belief among these voters is correct, or is it an example of bigotry in action? If it is not correct, why do voters think it anyway? Could it be because they are mislead by prejudice?
2.21.2007 1:05am
Elliot Reed:
marghlar - the great thing about MR* is that it allows you to selectively use the scary-sounding term "moral relativism" to describe virtually any moral view you disagree with.
2.21.2007 1:09am
Elliot123 (mail):
Jerry F,

How do we identify the 50% of Senate Dems who masquerade as Christians yet are really atheists? Or, how do we identify the 50% of Senate Dems who profess to be Christians and really are Chrstians?

If we apply the same test to all the people in the country who profess to be Christians, what percent would actually be atheists? What percent would actually be Christian?

What percent of all the people in the US are really atheists? Christian?
2.21.2007 1:10am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Cornellian,


Libertarians may believe that any number of things are morally objectionable, despite consent. They just don't make the automatic leap from "morally objectionable" to "should be prohibited by the government."


First, different libertarians believe different things. I am limiting my suggestion that libertarians are morally relativistic to those who think that human dignity cannot be violated when there is consent. And I think moral relativism can be something that is a matter of degree. So, the more you tend toward this sort of thinking, even if you don't adopt it as an absolute matter, the more morally relativistic you are.

Second, no one that I know makes the leap from "morally objectionable" to "should be prohibited by government" in all circumstances. This is hardly a unique attribute of libertarians.

However, if someone argues that no morally objectionable action that involves consent should be prohibited by government, it is probably a fair inference that the person does not really believe that actions involving consent are morally objectionable. It is not as if punishing actions where consent exists will be more difficult or problematic than when consent exists. For example, there is nothing difficult about passing and enforcing (and thus no plausible libertarian argument against) a law the prohibits one from chopping someone elses limbs off when such chopping is not justified by any external circumstance other than consent.

If someone says that they are against passing laws against chopping of the limbs of people in such circumstances, it is a fair inference that their opposition to passing such laws is because they do not find such chopping morally objectionable, rather than a concern about administrative challenges. In general, it is correct to be suspicious of someone who says that there should be no laws against actions that are consented to, because such laws do not always present administrative difficulties. I think you need to look at such laws on a case by case basis.

Indeed, the administrability argument actually applies far beyond consent. Some actions that are not consented to and are morally objectionable cannot really be enforced effectively. For example, some sicko who stands too close to an attractive woman in a subway, invading her space. If someone only sees administrability problems when consent exists, then we can conclude the true concern of the individual is consent.
2.21.2007 1:10am
Cornellian (mail):
Shouldn't any reasonable moral system be relative? Do we really want a moral system in which lying is always wrong, regardless of whether the lie is for the purpose of defrauding someone or for the purpose of protecting someone whose life is in danger?
2.21.2007 1:12am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Correction.

I wrote:
It is not as if punishing actions where consent exists will be more difficult or problematic than when consent exists.

It should be:
It is not as if punishing actions where consent exists will always be more difficult or problematic than when consent doesn't exist.
2.21.2007 1:13am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Cornellian,


Shouldn't any reasonable moral system be relative? Do we really want a moral system in which lying is always wrong, regardless of whether the lie is for the purpose of defrauding someone or for the purpose of protecting someone whose life is in danger?


I think your point here goes to the problem of language.

Murder is not merely the intentional killing of another.

Murder is the unjustified and inexcusable intentional killing of another. (Not in self-defense, not due to necessity, not because of insanity).

If you had a more sophisticated definition of lying, it could be considered absolute. Obviously, a very simplistic definition does not work, like "no lying" does not work. You have to use more words to describe the principle.
2.21.2007 1:18am
Elliot Reed:
Cornellian - maybe reasonable people can disagree about lying. But just substitute another verb and you quickly get left with two possible absurd and nonrelative points of view. Is protesting the government always morally right or always morally wrong?
2.21.2007 1:19am
jim:
First, I don't think that we can interpret this data to imply a categorical rejection of ever voting for an atheist candidate. As hypothetical as you make the question, people still live in the real world and these results probably mean only that in the current political climate, 50% of people would not vote for an atheist. I find that point to be crucial.

Second, I reject the idea that the only valid judgement of a politician is one based on his/her final answers to policy questions. Politicians cannot always be trusted to remain fast in their stated positions, and new issues will always come up. It is not illegitimate to ask whether a candidate's fundemental worldview harmonizes with your own. Personally, it is difficult to see the circumstances that would lead me to voting for a Presidential candidate who did not appear to share what Sowell calls the "Constrained Vision."

Third, I think the difference between a postive atheist and a religious person in terms of fundemental worldview is understated by the comparison between Protestant and Catholic views of the Pope. Faith of any variety can be a transformative power that bestows a new lens with which to view the world.

Fourth, a claim of bigotry is fundementally a claim about the morality of a persons intentions, not the results of their actions. It is possible for discrimination to be bad (that is, to have negative social consequences) without it being bigotted. For that, the discrimination need merely be a bad judgement rather than one made with malice.

Fifth, even if this is bigotry, consider that it may yet be a manfestation of a larger force that is beneficial. It may simply be a resistance amoung voters to change, and that is not a categorically bad impulse.

Sixth, even when I was an atheist I did not understand the difficulty some atheists have with the lack of atheist politicians. If you feel that end-results on issues are paramount, then the religion of the politician should be unimportant.
2.21.2007 1:26am
Cornellian (mail):
I would say that protesting the government is sometimes morally right and sometimes morally wrong, and if that's moral relativism, them so be it, moral relativism seems like a good thing. What would be an example of a non-relative moral system?
2.21.2007 1:27am
Cornellian (mail):
Lying is sometimes justified, sometimes not = moral relativism.

Unjustified lying is always wrong = moral non-relativism.

Seems to me like word games that aren't really describing anything different.
2.21.2007 1:34am
jvarisco (www):
I think it is hard for people whose entire moral system is based upon religious belief to accept that someone without such a belief could have a similar system.

I would be curious how pagans would be treated, but my guess would be that similar prejudice would exist.
2.21.2007 1:35am
Jerry F:
I have no solid "proof" of the atheism of any of the people I mentioned. If solid proof existed (e.g., a tape recording where Hillary admits to masquerading as a Christian to get votes), that would probably be quite damaging to the politician's career. But I do believe that a close examination of a politician's rethoric and political stands can say a lot about someone's true beliefs. E.g., Dean claiming that "all white Christians think the same and they all look the same". Obviously Dean doesn't believe that he thinks the same way as the people he is referring to here, so he pretty much admits to not being a "white Christian". And since he clearly is white, if he is no white Christian, he is no Christian.

The 50% figure for Democrats in the Senate is really a minimum threshold. For all I know, virtually every nationally known Democrat could be a closet atheist, but I think that roughly 50% of them deserve the benefit of the doubt. My guess is that roughly half prominent Democrats (Senators or Governors) are atheists, and the rest are primarily Deists who believe in some form of higher power. (Qualification: A few prominent Democrats like Zell Miller and former Democrat Joe Lieberman have clearly shown their commitment to their religious faith beyond a reasonable doubt).

As for what percentage of the population are atheists, my understanding is that 85% of the population are Christians based on anonymous surveys. Atheists would be a fraction of the other 15%. I have no reason to believe that these numbers are not accurate; unlike politicians, most people don't have an incentive to lie on anonymous surveys.
2.21.2007 1:36am
Randy R. (mail):
"With atheists flying planes into buildings, having sex scandals sponsored by bishops, warring in ireland, denouncing gays while paying for gay sex, it's no wonder that they are the most hated and feared group in the country."

Which country could you possibly be talking about? The people who fly airplanes into buildings were most devoutly muslim. All the other stuff mentioned didn't involve any atheists either.

The person who claims that most Democrats are secretly atheist is part of the problem: People equate atheism with some vague notion of immorality. There is no evidence of course that this is true, but they brush all atheists as immoral creatures. That to me, is most definately bigotry.
2.21.2007 1:40am
HLSbertarian (mail):
Viscus: Where is this magical world where guilty jaywalkers line up to get their hands chopped off voluntarily? Many of us believe a society based more on individual consent would AVOID lots of hand-chopping that currently goes on.

Libertarians (and I'm both grossly generalizing here and trying to use your terminology) believe that individuals have a better idea of when their own "human dignity" is offended by hand-chopping than you do.

Also, I don't believe you've offered a satisfying way of distinguishing between what you call "substantive actions" (having sex without the proper Kantian spirit? chopping off a hand for jaywalking?) and the aspects you call procedural (consent?).
2.21.2007 1:46am
marghlar:
Jerry F., when you bring no data, citations, or even reasons (one can be hostile to many white christians without being an atheist, you know), you give know reason for anyone to agree with you other than an argument from an anonymous authority. You'll find very few people around here who will buy what you say solely because you say it. I doubt you could demonstrate with any satisfaction that even one of those people was an atheist.
2.21.2007 1:46am
Randy R. (mail):
"Faith of any variety can be a transformative power that bestows a new lens with which to view the world. "

So can science. So can a study of the great philosophers. So can the laugh of a small child. Anything, really, can create a transformative power that bestows a new lens with which to view the world. We call those things ephiphanies, and they can happen at any time to any person. Faith is not always a pre-req.

"My guess is that roughly half prominent Democrats (Senators or Governors) are atheists, and the rest are primarily Deists who believe in some form of higher power."

Oh oh! Let me guess! It just is SUCH a coincidence that most politicians you dislike JUST HAPPEN to be closet atheists, right? And that the vast majority of Republicans are, of couse, god-fearing, honest, moral Christians.

And you are a Republican. Right?
2.21.2007 1:50am
marghlar:
Lying is sometimes justified, sometimes not = moral relativism.

Unjustified lying is always wrong = moral non-relativism.


This is exactly the problem with MR*; it is either so restrictive that it is indefensible (lying, striking another, etc are always wrong in all circumstances, even to save another's life) or else it is so qualified that it is a language game, sneaking in context through elaborately contextualized rules rather than through rules that look to context for their application.
2.21.2007 1:51am
HLSbertarian (mail):
Jerry F: Do you you have there in your hand a list?

Cornellian: Your last comment is spot-on. It's just a language game, and no one's given a good reason why the consent of another is any different from any other contextual factor we use to decide when certain physical acts are right or wrong.
2.21.2007 1:54am
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar,

First of all, I think if someone took the point that "[t]he term 'moral relativism' is understood in a variety of ways" (from the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy) seriously, there would not be so much confusion. In fact, I am pretty sure you knew what I meant substantively before, hence your ability to see that my use of the word moral relativism was not equivalent to your own preferred use. As a general rule, I think it is best to be pragmatic, rather than dogmatic, when it comes to the use of terminology. Obviously, if this were an academic paper, I would define precisely what I meant by the term moral relativism, whether or not I was using your definition or my definition. I would also provide an argument for why my definition is the better one, given the distinctions that I think should be important. I am unlikely to go that far on a blog comment, however, unless necessary. Some level of misunderstanding among some readers is the constant and inevitable cost of brevity. Indeed, even in academic papers, where you can expect people to use much more care in explaining their particular use of words, some level of misunderstanding is inevitable.

You ask:
"Why should I care if a moral rule is context-dependent, as long as it consistently produces good outcomes?"

Actually, I think that any moral rule has to be context-dependent. That is, the intentional killing of another human being is not wrong if it in self-defense or due to insanity. Clearly, self-defense and insanity are particular contexts that are taken into consideration, and incorporated in the moral rule itself.

So, to answer you question, if you are concerned primarily about good outcomes, obviously there is nothing wrong with context-dependent rules. In fact, there is something wrong with rules lacking context, as those will systematically produce bad outcomes when applied in unforeseen contexts.

That moral relativism is context-dependent is not, in my view, the main problem with it. Good universal moral principles will also incorporate context, especially taking into account the limitations of language. The main problem with moral relativism is that it denies universal moral principles. You can have a rule that takes into consideration context, but is universal. There is no reason to think that universal rules must be simplistic.

The problem with morally relative types libertarianism and utilitarianism, from a consequentialist perspective (which appears to be the perspective you adopt implicitly in your question), is that they do not consistently produce good outcomes. As when libertarianism justifies chopping off someone's hand if they consent due to their guilt over jaywalking or when utilitarianism justifies throwing a member of some minority group to the lions for the entertainment of thousands. From a non-consequentialist perspective, they deny universal principles of morality. Those are the problems with these morally relativistic perspectives.
2.21.2007 2:19am
jim:
Regarding all this moral relativism stuff: will someone explain to me why it is so bad to hold moral values that one aknowledges are not irrefutably rooted in a rational belief?

For instance, I believe it is immoral to act in an irresponsible way, but I acknowledge that this is essentially just my belief. I could point to the consequential benefits of following that rule, but that just kicks the can down the road. Now I have to justify why I think certain results are good. For that matter I should probably justify why goodness factors into morality at all. Unless you want turtles all the way down, it seems like eventually you have to reach a point where you take some basic thing on faith and say that because some proposition seems right, that you will proceed as if you were certain it is.

On another point, I can see the problem if my acknowledgement of base uncertainty led to my refusal to apply any sort of moral standards whatsoever to others. I can see the problem if I said things could be moral or immoral depending on cultural location, even when that cultural location would not interact causally with the rule I was forming. What I cannot see is the problem in factoring in consequential factors into the formulation of moral rules. To me, consequences have moral implication. There seems to be no moral relativism in the commandment "always seek methodically to achieve the best long-term good."
2.21.2007 2:28am
advisory opinion:
marghlar schrieb:


Alright Viscus, you can stick to your quirky, non-standard usage if you like.


Snigger. Wait till you see his definition for "economic takings"* . . .
2.21.2007 2:34am
jim:

Anything, really, can create a transformative power that bestows a new lens with which to view the world. We call those things ephiphanies, and they can happen at any time to any person. Faith is not always a pre-req.


No argument there. I am simply maintaining that it is legitimate to judge a politician based on whether and which epiphanies he or she has had. Religious as well as non-religious epiphanies count, in my opinion.
2.21.2007 2:36am
edog:
A working morality can be derived from the golden rule (do unto others...) without any requirement of religious thought or belief. Humans across all cultures have been found to be capable of empathy and the realization that "if I wouldn't want this done to me, he probably wouldn't want it done to him."
2.21.2007 2:47am
jim:

From a non-consequentialist perspective, they deny universal principles of morality. Those are the problems with these morally relativistic perspectives.


Rather, consequentialism must deny the universality of certain specific principles of morality. It does not deny the universality of all principles of morality, as it must generally asert that its own base assumptions are universal moral principles.

Perhaps that is what you meant all along, but then isn't any non-consequentialist morality that doesn't hold the exact same set of categorical imperitives as yours "morally relativistic to the extent" that they differ? At that point what use is there in the term moral relativism?
2.21.2007 2:48am
Perseus (mail):
I'm an atheist, but I would not vote for candidate who is public about his atheism. To support my position, I could cite a long list of distinguished thinkers and politicians from Plato to the present who would be equally leery of public atheism because of the long-term danger it poses to the overall health of the body politic. One might disagree with this view, but it is not merely bigotry. And despite the breezy claim about there being ethical theories that do not require the existence of God such as Kantianism or utilitarianism, the ultimate grounding of these theories remains highly problematic precisely because they omit a divine lawgiver. Indeed, this is why Kant does in fact make the existence of God a postulate of practical reason (and he criticizes the ancient Greeks for omitting this postulate) because only a cause distinct from nature (i.e. God) could contain "the ground of the exact coincidence of happiness with morality."
2.21.2007 2:50am
Viscus (mail) (www):
HLSbertarian concedes my point about libertarianism:

Libertarians (and I'm both grossly generalizing here and trying to use your terminology) believe that individuals have a better idea of when their own "human dignity" is offended by hand-chopping than you do.


If this isn't an illustration of moral libertarianism, I don't know what is. I am supposed to be skeptical about my own ability to say that this situation is morally problematic? I don't think so.

This illustrates the importance of taking moral stands against immoral behavior and rejecting moral relativism. I reject the idea that I can never know that this sort of behavior violates human dignity, which you put in quotation marks.

HLSbertarian has certainly contributed to my argument, illustrating both why it is proper to label libertarians of this sort morally relativistic and why moral relativism is problematic.
2.21.2007 3:21am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Cornellian writes:


Lying is sometimes justified, sometimes not = moral relativism.

Unjustified lying is always wrong = moral non-relativism.


Consideration of context is not equivalent to moral relativism. This is nothing more than a strawman.
2.21.2007 3:26am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Advisory opinion is certainly dogmatic when it comes to words. Apparently, he has never opened a dictionary and seen *gasp* multiple definitions.

I imagine it will be a profound experience indeed when he opens up Webster's or the Oxford English Dictionary.
2.21.2007 3:33am
HLSbertarian (mail):

Consideration of context is not equivalent to moral relativism. This is nothing more than a strawman.


OK, good. Now please answer this: why is consent of another any different from any other contextual factor we use to decide when certain physical acts are right or wrong?
2.21.2007 3:33am
Mike Hamburg (mail):
I don't see how this is bigoted (which, you should note, requires an element of intolerance). I tolerate libertarians, but I disagree with their views and therefore don't want them running the country. It's the same with atheists. Of course, religion won't play into all their decisions, and to some degree they could persuade me by laying out their "moral issues" platform ahead of time. Therefore, unlike libertarianism I don't think it's worth a categorical rejection, but still, that's a matter of degree.

As for atheists vs non-Protestants (or whatever), atheism is about as far as you can get from pretty much any theistic faith: they disagree in the "most significant bit." However, an atheist seems less likely than a fundamentalist to take a strong and highly controversial stance on an issue, so I'd be more hesitant to vote for a fundamentalist of any faith.

Consider also: I would be (somewhat less) hesitant to vote for a Jew, for a totally different reason: a Jewish president would probably have a harder time in talks with Iran, and those look to be important in the near future. Is this bigoted?
2.21.2007 3:35am
jim:

I am supposed to be skeptical about my own ability to say that this situation is morally problematic?


Well that sort of depends on how limited your knowledge is, how potentially fallible you judgement and reasoning are, and whether your position will lead others of inferior judgemnt to act on their wrong assessments of this question.

Personally, I am a lot more skeptical about your ability to make moral judgements than I am about mine (nothing personal, but at worst you could be evil, and at best you aren't me). But I am willing to be more skeptical about my ability to make moral judgements if by doing so I can get everyone else to agree to as well.

It is not that I think you or I "can never know [what] behavior violates human dignity" I just think that you or I will be wrong sometimes, and that those times will be unknown to us, so we must practice some forebearance to avoid the costs of those mistakes when they come.
2.21.2007 3:43am
David M. Nieporent (www):
HLSbertarian concedes my point about libertarianism:

Libertarians (and I'm both grossly generalizing here and trying to use your terminology) believe that individuals have a better idea of when their own "human dignity" is offended by hand-chopping than you do.

If this isn't an illustration of moral libertarianism, I don't know what is.
I believe that's what people have been trying to tell you. :) You don't know what is.

Moral relatavism is the belief that there are no universal rules applicable to all people. Libertarianism (in the sense you're using it -- "consent libertarianism") is the belief that there is a universal rule applicable to all people: consent is the touchstone for evaluating all actions.
2.21.2007 7:02am
Viscus (mail) (www):
David Nieporent,

I think we have already been through this definition game enough. I have my definition of moral relativism, and I have my reasons for that definition, which I have explained. Based on the definition of moral relativism I am using, libertarianism that equates human dignity with consent is morally relativistic.

Perhaps you would like to use a different word for what I am describing. I personally think the phrase moral relativism gets at the idea here. The substance remains the same, regardless of word choice.
2.21.2007 7:12am
Viscus (mail) (www):
jim,

Personally, I am a lot more skeptical about your ability to make moral judgements than I am about mine.

It is not about my moral judgments. To make it about my individual subjective views is just a back door way of advancing moral relativism, instead of moral universalism.

Let us get specific. Are you going to argue that it is okay for you or anyone else to chop someone's hand off when they consent due solely to their guilty feelings over jaywalking? This is immoral as a universal principle.
2.21.2007 7:17am
jim:

The problem with ... libertarianism ... is that [it] do[es] not consistently produce good outcomes.


I don't see this as a problem. The world does not consistently produce good outcomes. Quite the opposite. No moral or ethical system can change this. Trying for perfect justice in an imperfect world inevitably creates its own evils.

I would rather see a smaller number of bad outcomes be directly produced and sanctioned by my ethical system than see a larger number of bad outcomes produced by the world itself. If implimenting that ethical system causes the act to occur, the ethical system is responsible for the act even if it condemns that act.
2.21.2007 7:32am
Viscus (mail) (www):
HLSbertarian asks:

Now please answer this: why is consent of another any different from any other contextual factor we use to decide when certain physical acts are right or wrong?


I am not saying that consent is never relevant as a factor in particular situations. If you chopped someone's hand in a sword fight, depending on the context in which that sword fight arose, I would think that implied consent would be a critical factor in evaluating the morality of your actions. I am not saying consent is never the difference between a given substantive action being right or wrong. I am saying that it is not and cannot be the sole factor. I am further saying that those who suggest it is the only factor have an impoverished view of morality that is essentially morally relativistic, because if consent is the sole factor, then any substantive action can be permissable, depending on the particular and culturally specific tendencies of individuals within a culture to consent to particular substantive actions. And to the extent that it is the overwhelmingly dominant factor, one is morally relativistic, when looking at that concept as a matter of degree.

I am not singling out consent as a forbidden contextual factor. Rather, I am criticizing those who insist it is the only relevant (or primarily relevant or overwhelmingly relevant) contextual factor for all substantive actions.

In effect, a problem with such a view is that it ignores other contextual factors which are critically important.

This sort of libertarianism is not the only type of moral relativism out there. The only reason I am focusing on consent in particular is not because I wish to discriminate against it as a contextual factor, but rather because I am criticizing a form of libertarianism that aggrandizes it excessively. (Just as I criticized a form of utilitarianism as being morally relativistic, but for different reasons having nothing to do with consent.)
2.21.2007 7:35am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Viscus:
Perhaps you would like to use a different word for what I am describing. I personally think the phrase moral relativism gets at the idea here. The substance remains the same, regardless of word choice.
I would like you to use a different word for it; since the phrase moral relativism has a different, and well-understood meaning, it doesn't get at the idea here. Moreover, the substance doesn't remain the same, because your argument is based upon the visceral reaction people have to the phrase "moral relativism," rather than to any reasoned argument. If you called it something other than moral relativism, you'd have to make a full-fledged argument rather than piggybacking on people's already-formed views about moral relativism.


It is not about my moral judgments. To make it about my individual subjective views is just a back door way of advancing moral relativism, instead of moral universalism.
Again, it isn't. If we apply your individual subjective views to everyone, that is moral universalism. (Yes, I know you don't want to hear that you're misusing moral relativism. Well, I don't want to hear you misusing it.) And if it isn't about your moral judgments, about whose moral judgments is it?
Let us get specific. Are you going to argue that it is okay for you or anyone else to chop someone's hand off when they consent due solely to their guilty feelings over jaywalking? This is immoral as a universal principle.
First, you keep using the word "okay," which is rather imprecise.

Second, let's put aside the fact that the idea of chopping off someone's hand for jaywalking seems absurd precisely because it is unimaginable that someone would demand to have their hands chopped off for jaywalking. Your conclusion -- that it is "immoral" -- is irrelevant to the question of whether it represents "moral relativism."

Third, let's take the situation at face value: we have a person who says, "Please chop off my hand." Your response is either, "No. He must be impaired and unable to consent to make such a request; therefore, I won't allow it" (which most libertarians would not have a problem with, at least in principle), or "No. Even though he's rational, my personal belief is that it's just wrong to chop off hands. I don't care what he wants; my desires are more important than his."
2.21.2007 8:33am
Alec (www):
The position that atheism, by virtue of being a choice, a worldview, a religious opinion, can be rejected in a presidential candidate because it reflects something about their approach to issues, is just untenable. At least if categorically refusing to vote for a Jew, a Catholic, Mormon, etc. is also seen as bigoted.

I also do not see how you contain that logic to chosen religion. Undoubtedly, there are some expierences that a black individual will have, because they are black in American society, that will shape their worldview. It may impact their reactions to, say, mandatory minimums in sentencing. And despite anything they say to the contrary, I certainly need not assume their actions in office will reflect campaign promises. If I take this into account as a negative, and categorically refuse to vote for a black person, am I not culpable of being a bigot?

Moreover, the choice argument is itself suspicious. You do not really "choose" to believe something. People choose to act in certain ways that reflect their beliefs (presumably, at any rate). Whether or not they "choose" to believe in God, or not in God, is something rather different.
2.21.2007 8:55am
A.C.:
There are two basic categories of atheist I would never vote for. In my experience (and this IS a summary of actual experience, not a prejudice before the fact), the majority of atheists fall into one group or the other.

The first is made of people who normally say they have no religion, as opposed to saying they are atheists. With a few exceptions, these people actually seem to have a "religion" based on personal ambition and economic activity. Things that are "right" are those that serve this particular faith, and things that are "wrong" do not. (Sometimes this is softened by claims that their economic activity is for the benefit of their children rather than for themselves.) Obviously, I do not want people like this in high political office because there is no way to tell WHAT they will do. They provide no yardstick for the rest of us to evaluate how they will react to new situations that arise. They may often talk like libertarians, for example, but I have seldom known them to hold back when they have the chance to use the government to secure some benefit for themselves. (Religious people may do the same, of course, but many religions provide the grounds for condemning such behavior. This means you can criticise the offender within his or her own value system.)

The other group is made up of people who have a much more coherent set of beliefs, but with whom I happen to disagree. They used to be the Marxists. Now they are often extreme environmentalists who want to see aggressive statist solutions to things. I put these folks in the same camp with those who want statist solutions to issues of consensual sex, and I reject them accordingly.

Of course it's theoretically possible for an atheist to fall outside those two groups, and at least one poster here has presented a personal belief system that does so. Well and good. That means I might vote for an avowed atheist in certain circumstances. But it doesn't change my opinion that I wouldn't vote for the overwhelming majority of atheists I have encountered.

The same sort of thing goes for Muslims. I wouldn't vote for the majority I've encountered, but there are a few members of the group who wouldn't bother me at all. And I do wish the sort of people I count among the "few" would become the majority in this case, believe me! That would solve the problem nicely.
2.21.2007 9:07am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Mike Hamburg-

I tolerate libertarians, but I disagree with their views and therefore don't want them running the country.

Which ones? What makes libertarians unqualified to run the country?
2.21.2007 9:11am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
jim-

There seems to be no moral relativism in the commandment "always seek methodically to achieve the best long-term good."

There can be a lot of moral relativism in that. The Nazis claimed they were doing it for the "good" of society when they started by imprisoning and sterilizing innocent Roma (gypsy) men. Nearly anything can be morally relativistic depending on how ou define your terms.
2.21.2007 9:16am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
A.C.-

They may often talk like libertarians, for example, but I have seldom known them to hold back when they have the chance to use the government to secure some benefit for themselves.

I don't know what you're referring to here, but keep in mind that libertarians have to defend their rights within the current government system. (1) Because generally that's the only legal way to do it; and (2) because they fund the system with their taxes even though they don't agree with it. So what I'm saying is it is not hypocritical for a libertarian to use the courts, call the police, etc. if that's what you're referring to.
2.21.2007 9:21am
Gary McGath (www):
If people think that a person's religious beliefs are an important part of his qualifications for public office, and therefore a person without religious beliefs is not suited for public office, then a person with "incorrect" religious beliefs should also be unsuited. Isn't believing in a false god just as bad as believing in no god, in the eyes of believers?

Yet a large proportion of those who would not vote for an atheist would vote for someone of just about any major religion, including Islam, which has a very bad track record lately. Are the people who say that a person's qualifications depend on relgious beliefs also saying that the accuracy of those beliefs doesn't matter -- that it's only important that a candidate <i>thinks</i> he's getting orders from God? This is a completely senseless position. People who blow themselves up and fly airplanes into buildings think they're acting on orders from God. Yet people apparently think that someone who believes that God has given him instructions -- <i>any</i> instructions -- is going to act more reliably than someone who doesn't think so.

Can one of you religionists who think that belief in any old god is a mark of value give me a coherent explanation of how you've arrived at this position?
2.21.2007 9:24am
jim:

To make it about my individual subjective views is just a back door way of advancing moral relativism, instead of moral universalism.


Subjectifying it isn't intended as a door to anything. Objectivity requires being apart from the subject and in the real world the implimentation of any moral view has consequences that themselves have moral implications.


Let us get specific. Are you going to argue that it is okay for you or anyone else to chop someone's hand off when they consent due solely to their guilty feelings over jaywalking? This is immoral as a universal principle.


My answer to this, which probably fits your definition of moral relativism but not mine, is that this is not wrong directly as a universal moral principle, but is wrong as the result of the application of a universal moral principle.

The problem with a rule allowing you to chop off someone's hands as long as that person consents is that such a rule would have decidedly negative consequences. People who had not or could not have consented would end up getting their hands chopped off. Additionally, the rule itself would likely be coercive. Whatever benefit there might be in allowing a small number of people the liberty of procuring hand-removal would be offset by the number of people who would get their hands cut off by some sicko. The way I weigh this moral ballance is by asking whether, behind a Veil of Ignorance where you didn't know if you'd have a hand-severing fetish, you'd choose to live in a world where there was a "no cutting off people's hands just because they consented" rule.

I suspect you will butt in here to say that the analysis is overly labored because there is nothing to be weighed: the "benefit there might be in allowing a small number of people the liberty of procuring hand-removal" is nonexistant. I would tend to agree, but I am aware of the problematic nature of factoring that assessment into the equation.

As a rule, I think a policy of trusting indivuals to determine what has value to them will produce fewer errors then a rule where I make that assessment. Both rules produce errors in determining which is actually of value, so the best I can hope for is to minimize those errors. Thus for the previous analysis I did not discount the value of consensual hand-chopping. (Actually, I'm straw-manning my position here slightly. A better solution is probably to trust individuals most of the time while eliminating the glaring errors that rule can produce. Your example falls into the category of glaring errors.)

Now, I see you next objection being, "but this is relativism, you are saying that in a hypothetical culture where lots of people wanted to get their hands chopped off, the scale would tip the other way, the benefits would outweigh the problems, and you'd allow consensual hand-severing." My response to this is basically that for this to be possible you have to assume that culture is essentially arbitrary, that it will not tend to express and manifest universal moral principles. I think that history and the evolution of culture do express universal principles. Perhaps a society could arise that promoted hand-removal, but judged against universal principles that culture would be an inferior culture, and time would tend to destroy or alter that culture. For the time such a culture existed, application of the ethical rules presented here would lead to error, but the judgement is still what leads to the fewest and least aggregious errors.
2.21.2007 9:25am
jim:
American Psikhushka


There seems to be no moral relativism in the commandment "always seek methodically to achieve the best long-term good."

There can be a lot of moral relativism in that. The Nazis claimed they were doing it for the "good" of society when they started by imprisoning and sterilizing innocent Roma (gypsy) men. Nearly anything can be morally relativistic depending on how ou define your terms.


What the Nazis did doesn't strike me as being moral relativism. It strikes me as just being wrong. My understanding is that the Nazis didn't do what they did because they thought morality was just a construct, they did it because they thought they were right.

I don't claim that the imperative I wrote cannot be the basis of truly horrible belief systems -- in fact I percieve that it exists on a slipperly slope -- I only claim that the imperative is not the basis for moral relativism.
2.21.2007 9:36am
liberty (mail) (www):
Viscus: "That it is theoretically true that anyone who consents is subject to having their hand cut off, in fact and in practice, only particular individuals will in fact consent, and this will often be a function of culture and upbringing. "

You definition of moral relativism is unorthodox, but lets use it for a moment. I think your argument about libertarianism is still flawed, because human nature is one and the same across all cultures when a people are free.

In a society which protects and defends rights - using consent as the ultimate arbiter - you won't find such differences as a people cowed into believing that they must have their hand chopped off for some dictatorial icon. They won't be scared into it except in extreme circumstances such as all voluntary cults, like suicide-pact cults which will exist in any society but which tend to be very rare in more free societies. It is not all-voluntary if there is a ringleader who is engaged in fraud or coercion of course.

In non-libertarian cultures, you have a higher probability of people being willing to consent to such things: women willing to be punished if they show their face by accident or if they are raped, technically because of religion but really because of a non-free society based on anti-libertarian rules which doesn't use consent as an arbiter. In a free society, women won't tend to consent to such things, though strongly religious people may consent to other kinds of restrictions.

So, while libertarianism might say that in a truly free libertarian society if people decide to join suicide cults and hand-chopping cults of their free volition they should be allowed to do so; they also will recognize that this will be much less likely to occur in such societies - and horrible or not, perhaps it is one's free will. We must protect the free will, that is the high moral purpose. If that means people will make terrible decisions such as using heroin and becoming an addict, or joining a voluntary suicide-pact cult, so be it.

So, it is an interesting question though I still don't think it can be labelled moral relativism.
2.21.2007 9:38am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

It is morally relativistic because anything is allowed as long as there is consent. There are no substantive actions that would be considered to violate human dignity per se.

False. I can't speak for libertarians, but most I have encountered have pretty reasonable definitions of human dignity. They usually believe in violence only for self-defense. And they usually believe that people shouldn't be injured, including crazy people. So your guy with the sword is a strawman. The average libertarian wouldn't chop his hand off because they don't believe in pointless violence and they don't believe in injuring people. (Especially crazy people, as someone making that request obviously has some problems.)

I think a critical question when it comes to sex is whether one party is using the other person to get off, versus interacting with them as an end. If someone does not consent, you can bet that they are also being used. So, consent is necessary, but not sufficient, for sexual interactions to not violate human dignity.

This is up to the parties involved. If one party lied to the other, then you might have a point. But if the parties were honest with each other your point doesn't come into play. There are one night stands that stop there. There are one night stands that result in long term relationships. There are one night stands that result in marriage. Those things are dependent on the parties and their compatibility.

And by this is not limited to libertarians, this is how many relationships proceed. (And I'm not saying that everyone engages in one night stands all the time.)

It is possible to use someone sexually without raping them. I think libertarians are moral relativists because they would deny this, thinking that any action is acceptable as long as consent is forthcoming.

Most libertarians don't deny this. On the other hand it is common for one party to claim they were used or mistreated because they were rejected. And note there is a double standard here - women can claim they were used but men are just supposed to shut up and be happy they were graced with the woman's presence. So it doesn't matter if the guy was being used while a goldigger was waiting for a guy with more money.

If we could tell with 100% certainty that someone was sexually using another person, I would have no problem punishing them, regardless of consent. (I might not make the punishment as harsh as for rape as without consent, since the psychological damage when there is no consent is probably more severe.) But the problem is that if we move away from consent, we might end up with a much higher error rate. Allowing consent as a defense is consistent with giving criminal defendants the benefit of the doubt and putting the burden of proof on the prosecutor. Some things are very hard to prove. One of them would be that X is using Y for sex. At the end of the day, it is more pragmatism that leads one to make consent a necessary element of rape, or that prevent one from defining a lesser crime of sexual using.

This is predicated on the presumption that people can't have sex for its own sake.

And most libertarians, including myself, believe in consent AND honesty. I'm not going to lie to someone just to get them into bed - and I don't. That way I don't have any liability for "sexual using" as you put it, because I am honest and upfront about everything.

I have had acquaintances that told women they loved them just to get them into bed, and I thought it was somewhat underhanded. That's why I don't do that kind of thing myself. And I have no doubt that I have less opportunities because I am honest and upfront, but I do it because it is the ethical thing to do. (I realize some people think any nonmarital sex is not "ethical", but I, and many people disagree with them.)

I think we get it, Viscus. You really hate the fact that a lot of people have nonmarital sex. And you think that anytime this is happening the man is using the woman. All I can say is that a lot of people disagree with you and not all men that have nonmarital sex are users.

And this is by no means limited to libertarians - there are people of all political stripes feel this way.

Also, I hope you realize that there have been many religiously based moral/ethical codes that were/are highly relativistic. There are religious people that think they are justified in taking the money of nonbelievers, believe nonbelievers are not entitled to the same rights and protections, etc. In fact, I tend to think natural rights based codes tend to be safer and more stable because proponents of natural rights tend to apply them universally and are less tempted to play favorites for people that share the same religious beliefs.
2.21.2007 10:15am
liberty (mail) (www):
"I reject the idea that I can never know that this sort of behavior violates human dignity"

So you as philosopher king know better than I do whether I want to chop off my hand? What if I can't explain it to you but I must, against all advice of doctors and politicians? And then what if it turns out that my hand contained a tumor after all and I was right to chop it off?

The universal morality of allowing people to make their own choices is not problematic - people will make mistakes, but let people make their own mistakes. If instead you say that the universal moral should be something else, you run the risk of deciding on morals which are later realized to be too restrictive: immoral dress or sex acts or types of religious practices, etc.

The problems with defining a non-consent-based morality and especially society are far more numerous and significant than those of a uuniversal consent-based one, of which all you have named is the unlikely circumstance that people will line up to get their own hand chopped off. People tend to be accused of being "too selfish" and looking out only for their own self-interest, yet you are concerned that in a society which presupposes this and bases itself around contracts, agreements and consent will be more likely to fail? This was the same mistake of the communists. You have to understand human nature - human nature is at its core an animal nature: we watch out for our own survival and for our pack. We are also rational - and I don't agree with Ayn Rand on everything, but she explains how this universal nature of humans is important too.

Once you see that humans are selfish and rational, you understand why a consent-based society (which therefore enforces contracts) is much more likely to be conducive to morality than one which assumes something else-- such as that people are altruistic and will want to work for the collective (communism) or that people can't take care of themselves and must be told by philosopher king / religious figures / dictator what they do.
2.21.2007 10:15am
William Tanksley (mail):
This discussion has missed a strong data point -- that people's actual votes do NOT track abstract polls like this one. This poll is asking (no matter HOW it's worded) how you'd vote with regards to a person whose only known feature is that they're (atheistic/black/Jewish/Mormon/etc). No actual candidate is like that, and no human can make a rational decision on such grounds -- but the pollster "insists", so an irrational decision is made anyhow (since that's the only possibility).

Let me be clear: deciding to vote for someone because they are an atheist is exactly as irrational as deciding to vote against that same criterion.
2.21.2007 10:34am
Viscus (mail) (www):
jim,

I really enjoyed your argument. The Rawlsian idea of hypothetical consent behind a veil of ignorance trumping particular and actual consent is a not the sort of libertarian argument I am going against. If that is your sort of consent, I think it is much more defensible, which does not mean that I am endorsing the idea. In effect, it leads to the sort of situation I would prefer, which is a nuanced view as to when particular and actual consent should matter and when it should not. That you use Rawlsian meta-consent to aid you in arriving at that nuanced view does not strike me as particularly objectionable. It certainly is not the libertarian view that I was objecting to. Overall, perhaps it is immune to the charge of being morally relativistic, since as you suggest, under a veil of ignorance, no culture would in fact adopt a consent equals human dignity rule.

To quibble a little bit, I do disagree with the following:

As a rule, I think a policy of trusting indivuals to determine what has value to them will produce fewer errors then a rule where I make that assessment.


I would not adopt a single categorical rule, I would adopt multiple rules that take into consideration the systematic cognitive biases that people tend to exhibit. For example, endowment effects, confirmation bias, etc.
2.21.2007 10:36am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
jim-

I don't claim that the imperative I wrote cannot be the basis of truly horrible belief systems -- in fact I percieve that it exists on a slipperly slope -- I only claim that the imperative is not the basis for moral relativism.

Well using your imperative as a basis for a horrible belief system is a form of moral relativism, isn't it?
2.21.2007 10:40am
Riskable (mail) (www):
Everyone keeps talking of bigotry, moral values, and beliefs. Yet I've yet to see one person in this discussion mention ignorance.

I propose that it is simple ignorance that compels people to categorically dismiss atheists as worthy political candidates. Most people have absolutely no idea what atheism means. The general views that I've observed are that many people (mistakenly) think that atheists...

A) Are united in some way.
B) Know each other and "hang out" in the same way religious people do (functions, meetings, Sunday church equivalents).
C) Have lots of things in common.
D) Work together--as a group--to push agendas (like a PAC or religious group).
E) Are immoral/have no morals/cannot act morally (because they don't believe in their own brand of religion which is presumed to be the only way to be moral).
F) Are communists (I've only heard this from baby boomers).
G) Are Nazis (because they mistakenly believe that Hitler and/or the Nazi party in Germany were atheist).
H) Wear their atheism on their sleeve the same way religious people do (when was the last time you saw someone wearing a gold chain around their neck with an atheist pendant?).

These are all categorically false. Very few people are actually taught about atheism (or even other religious beliefs) so it is not surprising to me that they would not vote for an atheist. Whatever their view of atheism is, it is most likely very uninformed and based on nothing but rumor and word-of-mouth BS either directly observed or overheard from actual bigots in their communities.

I blame the media and our school systems. The media loves to categorize things and report on controversy. When was the last time they asked the religion of someone who, say, was helping rebuild homes after hurricane Katrina? Or the religion of criminals they interview from time to time? It just doesn't come up unless it is a controversial aspect. They're not going to report that the local homeless shelter isn't associated with any particular religion or that the latest fireman hero happens to be an atheist. Atheism and secular dealings are neutral and uninteresting by definition. It is rare indeed that these things will make the news.

Then there's schools... It is rare to find a class on world religions in high school that states matter-of-fact what various religions believe. If high schoolers were actually educated about various religions and atheism, there probably wouldn't be so much hostility towards atheists.

-Riskable
http://riskable.com
"There is a big difference between believing in something without evidence and believing in something in spite of evidence. The first is blind faith which is unwise but not necessarily harmful. The second is illness and should be treated as such."
2.21.2007 10:41am
Randy R. (mail):
"With a few exceptions, these people actually seem to have a "religion" based on personal ambition and economic activity. Things that are "right" are those that serve this particular faith, and things that are "wrong" do not. (Sometimes this is softened by claims that their economic activity is for the benefit of their children rather than for themselves.) Obviously, I do not want people like this in high political office because there is no way to tell WHAT they will do. "

Exactly. And there are numerous protestant churches that teach this. One needs only to turn on the TV to find pastors with Rolex watches telling us that Jesus wants us to be successful, and that riches are evidence of God's blessing. Which is a very good reason why I would never vote for any religious person who comes from any of those denominations.
2.21.2007 10:41am
Viscus (mail) (www):
American Psikhushka,

Unfortunately, I do not have time to respond to your comment fully, even though it does in fact deserve such a response. However, I did want to disagree with one thing you said that I think is way off.


You really hate the fact that a lot of people have nonmarital sex. And you think that anytime this is happening the man is using the woman. All I can say is that a lot of people disagree with you and not all men that have nonmarital sex are users.


This is a bizarre inference not supportable from anything I actually said, and in fact, does not reflect my actual views.
2.21.2007 10:41am
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

This is a bizarre inference not supportable from anything I actually said, and in fact, does not reflect my actual views.

Not at all, you expressed some very strong views on the subject. But if you'd like to clarify your views please do.
2.21.2007 10:52am
Viscus (mail) (www):
liberty,

In your first response, it seems that you are arguing pragmatically for a liberty-respecting society rather than a libertarian society. These things are different. One can have a liberal spirit, that is, a tendency to respect other people's individual desires thinking that most of the time those desires are in fact worthy of respect and the libertarianism I am criticizing, which is excessively focused on consent. Often, in fact, deployed as a defense by someone who abuses another, in fact against the individual's interests.

liberty writes:

So you as philosopher king know better than I do whether I want to chop off my hand? What if I can't explain it to you but I must, against all advice of doctors and politicians? And then what if it turns out that my hand contained a tumor after all and I was right to chop it off?


In my hypothetical, I made it clear that chopping off one's hand was not motivated by necessity, but rather guilty feelings due to jaywalking. So, your tumor example is nothing more than changing the hypothetical. Obviously, if you must chop off your hand due to a tumor, I don't see that as objectionable.

liberty writes:

Once you see that humans are selfish and rational, you understand why a consent-based society (which therefore enforces contracts) is much more likely to be conducive to morality than one which assumes something else.


This sounds like the musings of a reactionary, who is disillusioned to discover that people are often selfish in contrast to their previous idealistic views concerning their perfectability, but then overreacts and concludes they are completely selfish. I think you need a more balanced view of humanity. In part, this certainly would be a source of our disagreement. I am not denying that people are often selfish. But that is not all they are. People are really more complex than that. Furthermore, individuals can be socialized to some degree to behave non-selfishly. They also can be socialized to be more selfish. Which is not to say that they are infinitely malleable one way or another.
2.21.2007 10:59am
Viscus (mail) (www):
Over at my blog, I have a post that goes into an example of a libertarian view that I claim is morally relativistic, based on a NYTimes article. I would post it here directly, but besides being long, it is probably too far off topic and there are enough strands of thought in these comments as is. Anyway, read it if you are interested.
2.21.2007 11:09am
Gary McGath (www):
William Tanksley writes: "This poll is asking (no matter HOW it's worded) how you'd vote with regards to a person whose only known feature is that they're atheistic/black/Jewish/Mormon/etc)."

Actually, no. It asks, "If your party nominated a generally well-qualified person for president who happened to be [insert group name], would you vote for that person?" It's specifying other known features: that the person had been nominated by the party to which the polled person belongs, and that the nominee is "generally well-qualified."
2.21.2007 11:25am
liberty (mail) (www):
"I think you need a more balanced view of humanity. In part, this certainly would be a source of our disagreement. I am not denying that people are often selfish. But that is not all they are. People are really more complex than that. Furthermore, individuals can be socialized to some degree to behave non-selfishly. They also can be socialized to be more selfish. Which is not to say that they are infinitely malleable one way or another."

I certainly do not think that people are totally selfish. In fact I am often accused of being too optimistic about the good nature of people, i.e their willingness to contribute to charity. In a volunteer contracts-based society, the better outcomes arrives when people are of a giving nature.

However, what I pointed out which is key is that the core of people contains a kernel of selfishness - we will tend to defend ourselves (and children) even if it involves killing another person (self-defense); we will tend to expend effort for personal gain that we would not expend for a collective; we will tend to choose things toward our own self-interest such as the lower priced good (profit-maximizing).

Knowing this core of human nature helps one to realize the results of societies based on various assumptions. A society will work best that recognizes this core, and does not depend on altruism or ignore people's desire to serve their own interest and that of their family, and the best society will also allow people to express their otherwise generous nature as well (such as allowing people to give to charity or volunteer medical help) but which does not depend on it.

A philosopher-king or religious society where you decide what is moral, rather than allowing people to decide for themselves ignores the fact that people have their own self-interest at heart and won't generally consent to something which goes against it, it would also be ignoring people's core desire for freedom to make such choices as they believe to be in their own self-interest. A lawless society that did not care whether people violently abused other people and cut off their hands would also be ignoring human nature. A society which defends people's rights to make contracts and which enforces these contracts, which protects voluntary consent and requires consent, takes all of human nature into account and will tend to work best.
2.21.2007 11:26am
Dave N (mail):
Frankly, I agree with the posters above who have explained that the public's negative reaction to "atheism" has to do with the militant atheists--Newdow, O'Hare, etc. who are/were not merely atheists but militantly anti-religionm wanting to ban all expressions of religion in the public square.

In other words, I believe many people will not vote for someone who they think will be openly hostile to their own religious beliefs.

I would suspect that if a candidate said, "I have no personal religous preferences" that wouid satisfy the average voter and that voter would not give it another thought.

On the other hand, to most voters, a politician saying, "I am an atheist" would imply an alignment with Newdow and his ilk--and be disqualifying.
2.21.2007 11:30am
Elliot Reed:
The first is made of people who normally say they have no religion, as opposed to saying they are atheists. With a few exceptions, these people actually seem to have a "religion" based on personal ambition and economic activity. Things that are "right" are those that serve this particular faith, and things that are "wrong" do not.
I second what Randy R. said above about the "gospel of wealth" preached in many American Protestant churches. But I have bad news for you, which is that selfishness is the overriding concern of most religious people too. If the religious were in the business of turning the other cheek, loving their neighbors as themselves, selling all they have and giving to the poor and trusting God to provide, etc., I might grant that you have a point. But they're not. Politicians (which are who we're talking about) are particularly bad on this score.
2.21.2007 11:35am
Elliot Reed:
Frankly, I agree with the posters above who have explained that the public's negative reaction to "atheism" has to do with the militant atheists--Newdow, O'Hare, etc. who are/were not merely atheists but militantly anti-religionm wanting to ban all expressions of religion in the public square.
You do realize that this is a complete distortion of Newdow and O'Hair's views, right? And the tendency to see conspiratorial threats where they're not there is a classic sign of bigotry.
2.21.2007 11:43am
JosephSlater (mail):
Riskable: Bravo, I agree completely.

If nothing else, I hope this thread has shown that atheists have a wide range of political and ethical views, much like theists have. So, unless you want certain views specifically and exclusively associated with certain theist doctrines (mandatory prayer in schools; a ban on teaching evolution) enforced by government, it's hard to see how it's not bigotry to oppose atheists running for public office categorically -- at least if we accept that saying "I won't vote for a Jew, or a Christian, or a Molsem" is bigotry.

And while this has been said before, it's worth repeating that atheism does NOT mean some sort of Absolute Complete Certitude that no God exists or has ever existed. It means that I don't go around genuinely wondering about whether the Christian, Jewish, or Moslem god exists, just like I don't go around genuinely wondering if Zeus or Thor exists. I suppose I could be wrong, just like I suppose I could be wrong about a number of things I assume are true where the evidence leads me to one conclusion. But to me, "agnostic" means somebody who is in some way that matters not convinced one way or the other. And that ain't me. Guess I won't be President after all.
2.21.2007 11:56am
CJColucci:
The entire "rational" case for refusing to vote for atheists is the theory that knowing that someone is an atheist gives you insight into his religion, world view, or moral system and that the insights so gained give you good reason to withhold your vote. But atheism is a religion/world view/moral system in the same sense that not collecting stamps is a hobby. You can't get to where you want to go from there. What these poll respondents, and many commenters, think they know when they know someone is an atheist they do not, in fact, know. They are making it up, much as other types of bigots make things up that might, if true, be reasonable grounds for withholding one's vote from, say, Jews, blacks, women, or whatever. It isn't the reasonableness of the asserted grounds for withholding the vote that makes you a bigot, it's the made-up stereotype. What's hard about this?
2.21.2007 12:14pm
Mr L:
You do realize that this is a complete distortion of Newdow and O'Hair's views, right?

Is it? Newdow was alleging that the phrase 'under God' in the pledge was traumatizing his daughter to the point of justifying a ridiculous and expensive lawsuit to have it stricken, not to mention equating the 'In God We Trust' on the currency with segregation of all things. And O'Hair's own son accused her of being, well, the 'complete distortion' you just ridiculed. Plus there's guys like Dawkins who can definitely be described (correctly if possibly unfairly) 'militantly anti-religion'.

People don't like these guys because they're jerks, because they place pet peeves over shared tradition while hiding behind the Constitution or precedent, and because (in the case of general critics like Dawkins) they're incredibly dishonest -- after all, why aren't other unshared and unverifiable hypotheses (and there are many expressed in our legal system) being similarly savaged?
2.21.2007 12:15pm
gasman (mail):
Theists are almost appoplectic at the idea of atheism/agnosticism. (ignore for a moment the straw man arguments theists create by rigidly defining atheism; it is curious that they seem to know more about atheistic beliefs than the atheists do)
What seems to gall theists most is the observation that atheists/agnostics generally behave quite well. Without any supernatural monitoring we do onto others as we would have them do unto us. We never kill, torture, maime in the name of not-god. Among atheists/agnostics the teen pregnancy rate is average, educational acheivement is above average, and there have been no major sex scandals as have plagued catholics and evangelicals for decades (if not centuries).

I have found it strange that believers stray from teachings so readily. If the christian denomination that you adhere to states that premarital sex is forbidden fruit punishable by damnation, then why are fornication rates upwards of 95%? Without any threat to my soul whatsoever I chose to live chaste until marriage and have been faithful for 15 years; my divorce rate is zero and will stay that way.

Theists just hate it when by objective measures of 'sin' non-believers do as well or better. But then this might be nothing more than selection bias; people who need religion to keep their baser instincts in check seek religion.
2.21.2007 12:33pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Mr. L:

While I'm not sure that I would bring a lawsuit about it, why do we have "In God we trust" written on our money? (Historically, it was to stick it to those commie bastards! Ha Ha! Showed them!) But in God we atheists do NOT trust, and the inference that everyone in the country is Christian is insulting at the least. The whole point of the message was, "We are religious, you are not, therefore we will triumph."

As far as Dawkins, I'm not sure what you mean by "militant". I've never in my life heard him get angry or raise his voice. If you mean "agressively argues," then I think you're being mighty selective. Do you hate everyone else who agressively argues something? (Which includes, at the least, all politicians.) Or is it just those who argue points you dislike?

As far as 'why don't they go after other unverifiable hypothesis' - well, a person only has so much time in their life. Most people pick issues and run with them. If I work for Greenpeace, I may not have time to write books about voting rights. I see this criticism as baseless. (It's similar to "You can't criticize me for doing bad, because others do bad and you aren't criticizing them all.")

But to answer your question, religion is an exceptionally prevalent and powerful delusion, probably the MOST prevalent. Perhaps that is why it is a good place to start.
2.21.2007 12:33pm
Gary McGath (www):
George Bush, Sr., used addition of the line "one nation under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance to justify his notion that atheists should not be considered citizens. Words like those do have significance and can be and are exploited by demagogues. The US government should not have a statement of religious belief at its motto. There are many other issues I consider more pressing, so I'm not campaigning at the moment to have that motto revoked; but it should be revoked. Legislators should not be using alleged divine guidance as their standard of conduct.
2.21.2007 12:41pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

Over at my blog, I have a post that goes into an example of a libertarian view that I claim is morally relativistic, based on a NYTimes article. I would post it here directly, but besides being long, it is probably too far off topic and there are enough strands of thought in these comments as is. Anyway, read it if you are interested.

That isn't libertarian. The lawyer they interviewed was just coming up with a statement to try to make his clients look good. And the situation the woman and her fiance was in certainly couldn't be considered "consensual" - assault, drugging, raping, threats, etc. In fact, it sounds like you could go after the whole operation with civil and criminal RICO (racketeering) statutes.

So those are the views of some wackos and their apologists, it certainly isn't the view of most libertarians.
2.21.2007 12:53pm
Chris Bell (mail):
Gary McGath points out George Bush, Sr.'s quote that atheists aren't "citizens or patriots." Good point Gary. Can you imagine the outrage if he said Blacks/Jews/Homosexuals aren't citizens or patriots!

Here's another example. An atheist girl refused to say The Lord's Prayer with her basketball team before a game, as seen on this YouTube video. Instead, she said the pledge (and presumably left out "Under God".)

She was kicked off the basketball team. This was NOT a religious school or anything like that. (But it was Oklahoma). Her family, the Smalkowskis, eventually won a lawsuit.
2.21.2007 1:10pm
DaveN (mail):
I pointed out the Newdow/O'Hare militancy as to why many Americans won't vote for a professed atheist. For my pains, I was accuse of bigotry and ignorance by Elliot Reed--who provides not a whit of evidence that I am wrong OR responds at all to my larger point that most Americans honestly wouldn't care if a person said "I have no religious preference" and instead are reacting to the militant atheists who are militantly anti-religion.
2.21.2007 1:11pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
liberty writes:


A philosopher-king or religious society where you decide what is moral, rather than allowing people to decide for themselves ignores the fact that people have their own self-interest at heart and won't generally consent to something which goes against it. (bold added)


I definitely disagree with you. I have seen people do things that go against their own self-interest and in favor of other peoples' self-interest too often to believe that it is generally true that people won't consent to things that go against their own self interest.

Not only that, people have systematic cognitive biases. So, even when individuals are trying to advance their self-interest, these cognitive biases get in the way. So, it is possible for someone to take advantage of someone else by taking advantage of these sorts of biases.

As someone who used to work in sales, believe me, I have learned first hand that consent can be manipulated for one's own advantage. Emphasize the benefits, deemphasize the costs. Get the customer/victim to like you personally. Focus on the benefits. Give the customer a free gift which is not worth very much, so that they feel obligated to reciprocate by buying your product.

I think it is just silly to think that it is arrogant to make basic moral judgments. Indeed, how are you any less of a philosopher king by saying that consent is what should matter? If you had your way, real people would have to live with that rule, like it or not.
2.21.2007 1:25pm
marghlar:
I definitely disagree with you. I have seen people do things that go against their own self-interest and in favor of other peoples' self-interest too often to believe that it is generally true that people won't consent to things that go against their own self interest.

The problem here is the crabbed and probably undertheorized notion of what constitutes "self-interest." I would argue that any voluntary choice we make is made in our "self-interest," because by definition it is an expression of what we prefer in our particular circumstances. Acting charitably towards others is not necessarily against our self-interest, because it maximizes our utility in that situation. Sending your kids to a good school benefits both the child and the parents' well-being. Unless you limit "self-interest" to some sort of purely financial form of self-benefit, you will have a hard time explaining why it is that you think there are so many non-self-interested choices being made in the world.
2.21.2007 1:31pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
American Psikhushka,


So those are the views of some wackos and their apologists, it certainly isn't the view of most libertarians.


First of all, I have not made any empirical claims about the number of libertarians who take consent to be the only basis for human dignity i.e. morally relativistic libertarians.

Second, it is my contention that a consent is all the matters libertarian would have to approve of most, but not all, of the situations described in the article. Why? Because crew members are free to leave. If you don't like the abuse, you can leave. If you stay, you have consented to it.

Third, I don't know what the ideological leanings of the lawyer in question are. But when he says, "[T]o be brutally frank with you, abuse is like beauty. It's in the eyes of the beholder," it is reminscent of the claims made by the subset of libertarians who are morally relativistic.

You know, those who put quotes around human dignity, so that it is "human dignity" and quotes around abuse, so that it is "abuse." To them, "abuse" is in the "eyes of beholder." Who are we to arrogantly assert that something is abuse, as long as there is consent.

So, whether or not the lawyer is actually a libertarian, he is expressing an idea that could just as well be expressed by a morally relativistic libertarian.
2.21.2007 1:33pm
marghlar:
As someone who used to work in sales, believe me, I have learned first hand that consent can be manipulated for one's own advantage. Emphasize the benefits, deemphasize the costs. Get the customer/victim to like you personally. Focus on the benefits. Give the customer a free gift which is not worth very much, so that they feel obligated to reciprocate by buying your product.

This is also something that preference utilitarianism can deal with quite well; it need merely posit that we ought not to encourage others to make choices that we know they would not prefer if they had a more complete set of information about the subject matter under decision.
2.21.2007 1:39pm
advisory opinion:
"viscus" writes:

I imagine it will be a profound experience indeed when he opens up Webster's or the Oxford English Dictionary.


You look at Webster's or OED for your definition of "economic takings"?

An amusing thought. I can see why you're confused.
2.21.2007 1:40pm
Colin (mail):
I pointed out the Newdow/O'Hare militancy as to why many Americans won't vote for a professed atheist.

No, you claimed, "Newdow, O'Hare, etc. . . . are/were not merely atheists but militantly anti-religionm wanting to ban all expressions of religion in the public square."

Elliott is correct, that is an egregious misrepresentation. Newdow, for instance, wanted to be free of what he characterized as coerced participation in a religion he doesn't share. You obviously don't like his efforts, but it's absolutely untrue (although unfortunately quite common) to pretend that he wants "to ban all expressions of religion in the public square." Newdow couldn't care less if you pray or say "Merry Christmas" in public. You'll be taken more seriously, I think, if you avoid wild-eyed and obviously false rhetoric among people who have followed the issue and appreciate the shaky nature of yoru claims.
2.21.2007 1:42pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar,

If all actions are in our self-interest, the term has no significance. It is like "revealed preferences." Whatever we do, we prefer, by definition. The problem with this definition is that it has low utility, since it does not allow us to make distinctions that we otherwise would.

There is this thing called discipline. That is when you refrain from doing something that you prefer, based on some higher ideal. Now, you could say that being disciplined is actually a preference, but then you lose an important distinction. Why choose a definition that leads to the loss of an important distinction??? The distinction between following inclination and principle is a good one.

Whatever the case, your expanding the definition of self-interest to include that which I would not include does not change substance at all. You say it is self-interest. I say it is putting yourself in a position where you might be taken advantage of primarily for the benefit of someone else. But, even if you prefer the word self-interest, that has no bearing on policy whatsoever. Individuals who behave in this way leave themselves vulnerable to being used and abused by others. You might argue that this sort of thing should only happen once. And you would be right, in an idealistic sense. Except that in the real world, often people get themselves into destructive relationships and patterns, allowing themselves to be systematically be taken advantage by users who manipulate them. You can't justify the behavior of the users by saying that the kind and unselfish behavior in question is actually the same as self-interest and thus somehow morally equivalent.
2.21.2007 1:42pm
marghlar:
advisory opinion: not to mention that viscus hasn't provided even a single source that supports his usage of the term, after being provided with important examples opposing it. MR* is a purely idiosyncractic usage of the phrase "moral relativism", which captures nothing other than Viscus's belief that that phrase should be used, not in its standard senses, but rather to denote anything that isn't Kantian deontic ethics.
2.21.2007 1:45pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar writes:

"This is also something that preference utilitarianism can deal with quite well."

Preference utilitarianism has its own problems. But my focus here is on the problem of morally relativistic libertarianism where human dignity is considered equivalent to consent. That sort of utilitarianism cannot deal with this problem, since the transaction was justified based on consent.

Obviously, there is an information problem here. But the libertarian I am talking about does not consider consent invalid merely due to imperfect information, especially since, in the real world, perfect information is rarely forthcoming.
2.21.2007 1:49pm
advisory opinion:

You are confusing the extensions of utilitarianism with its moral rules.


Mangling? Don't mangle "viscus"'s meaning* please. You shouldn't try to impose standard meanings on "viscus", who is oblivious to standard definitions. In fact, how dare you do such a thing! It's an affront to his incompetence.

:)
2.21.2007 1:49pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
I wrote:

That sort of utilitarianism.

I meant:
That sort of libertarianism.
2.21.2007 1:50pm
Riskable (mail) (www):
I'm curious: When did the word "militant" apply to anyone who brings forth a lawsuit?

Newdow's lawsuit (to remove "under God" from the pledge) was merely meant to defend his own right to raise his children without government-mandated theistic indoctrination (i.e. having his kid pledge allegiance to theism every day). It was thrown out on the grounds that he is no longer raising that child. Therefore; his right to protest the treatment of her as such is moot.

If the issue were to come up in court again, I'm hoping that people's immediate reaction won't be that it is an attack on religion. It is a defense against it. To call Newdaw militant for trying to defend his right to raise his kid free from theism in a public school system that is supposed to be inherently secular is rather extreme.

A *real* militant atheist would actually be quite funny: "This message is to you theists... Yes YOU! Your non-adherence to not believing in not believing is not acceptable! You must accept the truth of the non-existence of an omnipotent not-being and not accept non-evidence. Reject the non sequitur of things which are not knowable and not natural. Together we'll make non-belief in not-existing gods not-so-uncommon."

Being vehemently opposed to religion and verbally attacking it in public is not militant atheism. It is militant anti-religiosity.

-Riskable
http://riskable.com
"I thought to myself, 'What would an atheist-Christian argument be like if the arguments were reversed?' Probably something like, 'Atheism is the only path to salvation! You must accept the truth into your heart or you will burn... Unbelievers.'"
2.21.2007 1:51pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

Second, it is my contention that a consent is all the matters libertarian would have to approve of most, but not all, of the situations described in the article. Why? Because crew members are free to leave. If you don't like the abuse, you can leave. If you stay, you have consented to it.

According to the article - no, they are not free to leave. They are threatened, they are beaten, they are on the road with little or no money, etc. So consent doesn't follow at all, it's a coercive, criminal situation.

Third, I don't know what the ideological leanings of the lawyer in question are. But when he says, "[T]o be brutally frank with you, abuse is like beauty. It's in the eyes of the beholder," it is reminscent of the claims made by the subset of libertarians who are morally relativistic.

Name the claims that statement is reminiscent of. Sounds like a straw man.

So, whether or not the lawyer is actually a libertarian, he is expressing an idea that could just as well be expressed by a morally relativistic libertarian.

You keep saying this, but you don't provide any evidence. It doesn't sound very libertarian to me.
2.21.2007 1:52pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

Second, it is my contention that a consent is all the matters libertarian would have to approve of most, but not all, of the situations described in the article. Why? Because crew members are free to leave. If you don't like the abuse, you can leave. If you stay, you have consented to it.


The article you cite expressly mentions the crew members being lied to, especially about the eventual benefits of continued membership. This is outright fraud, which for every libertarian I know would negate the consent.


Third, I don't know what the ideological leanings of the lawyer in question are. But when he says, "[T]o be brutally frank with you, abuse is like beauty. It's in the eyes of the beholder," it is reminscent of the claims made by the subset of libertarians who are morally relativistic.


The only "argument" I can glean from this part of the post is that since this wacko lawyer's wacko rant reminds you of libertarians that you think are MR*, those libertarians would necessarily agree with this wacko rant and thus are MR* wackos themselves. In other words, you think libertarian views are nuts, and since you find other nuts "reminiscent" of them, they must all be in the same bowl.
2.21.2007 1:52pm
marghlar:
There is this thing called discipline. That is when you refrain from doing something that you prefer, based on some higher ideal. Now, you could say that being disciplined is actually a preference, but then you lose an important distinction. Why choose a definition that leads to the loss of an important distinction??? The distinction between following inclination and principle is a good one.

Why choose the definition? Because the term is inapt to other uses; your usage suggests (incorrectly) that we have no personal interest in acting charitably or with self-discipline, and that is just obviously false.

I think the distinction you are working with elides important distinctions. So, I would say that some decisions you would regard as un-self-interested are in fact self-interested actions that involve choosing temporary suffering in pursuit of a longer-term preferred outcome. Other acts you would lump into the same set are self-interested actions that involve conferring a benefit on others in order to obtain the emotional satisfaction that comes with producing pleasure in others and satisfying commmunity norms.

I think it is important to focus on real distinctions, and not use terminology that is misleading.
2.21.2007 1:53pm
advisory opinion:
marghlar, word games like this aren't new to him. When cornered, he simply reshapes his definition for what he wants a standard term to mean . . . and then claims that he is under no obligation to use standard definitions, while berating you for not using HIS non-standard concoctions! The cheek.
2.21.2007 1:53pm
Q the Enchanter (mail) (www):
Side query: As an atheist, I find it's a useful epistemic rule of thumb to skip over arguments whose author writes "G-d" instead of "God." Does this make me a bigot?
2.21.2007 1:54pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
American Psikhushka,

Overall, they are free to leave. Jennifer Steele stayed for 7 months voluntarily. Just because you do not like your alternatives, that does not invalidate your consent. Imagine the individual who must pay $1 million for a drink of water or suffer medically serious dehydration. That the individual in question does not like their alternatives to consenting does not render their consent invalid.

That these crew members don't have the most convenient form of transportation to exactly where they want to go right this second, doesn't mean they don't have a choice. They have feet. They can walk away. They can run away. They can call 911. Surely, they are able to leave when no one is watching them. They are not monitored 24/7. In the long-run, they can figure out a way to obtain more sophisticated transportation to wherever they like to go. It might be inconvenient, but you can't seriously argue that mere inconvenience of an alternative renders consent invalid. That they did not leave as soon as they had the opportunity means that they consented to stay. Typically, they have many opportunities to leave. But they don't.
2.21.2007 2:02pm
scote (mail):
Frankly, I agree with the posters above who have explained that the public's negative reaction to "atheism" has to do with the militant atheists--Newdow, O'Hare, etc. who are/were not merely atheists but militantly anti-religionm wanting to ban all expressions of religion in the public square.

As others have pointed out, atheists are not trying to remove God from the "public square," they want the government to be religiously neutral by staying out of endorsing any religion or group of religions. The government != the "public square."
2.21.2007 2:13pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar,

First, your definitions don't really address substance. You have not explained any substantive benefit from ignoring the distinctions I put forth. That you can reframe things and use different definitions is evident. So what?

Second, I reject your overly broad definition of self-interest as lacking in utility and accuracy. Obviously, it is not possible to ascertain motives completely, but I know from personal experience that I have taken actions to benefit others with no expectation of reward or acknowledgment and for its own sake. Not because it makes me feel warm and fuzzy either, but because I think it is the right thing to do. Now, if you can't relate to this yourself, I think it might say something about your character.

Discipline is not just about consequences. One takes actions that are in alignment with their ideals regardless of whether the long-term consequences yield greater benefits than the short-term costs. Not all short-term sacrifices are motivated by a desire for long-term gratification. If you don't understand this, you don't understand discipline in a very important sense.

Indeed, if you don't understand what I am saying about discipline, you are nothing more than Pavlov's dog. A world where our only choice is to maximize utility, either short-term or long-term, is not a world where we have choice or free will. I don't see the point of even discussing morality if that is your view. Morality in a world without choice is meaningless. If that is your view of humanity, because this reflects your own tendencies, fine. There clearly is no possibility of us reaching agreement. Obviously, you would not see the utility in a definition of self-interest that is narrow enough to make these important distinctions, simply because you have never experienced the significance of such distinctions in your own life.
2.21.2007 2:15pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
Viscus-

Imagine the individual who must pay $1 million for a drink of water or suffer medically serious dehydration. That the individual in question does not like their alternatives to consenting does not render their consent invalid.

This strawman again.

Actually, it can render a consent invalid. Inflicting suffering on someone using severe deprivation can be considered duress, which can void a contract. Plus there are other problems, if you are keeping someone from going to the sink to get a drink you are probably falsely imprisoning them.

As far as the work crew goes: No, they were threatened and assaulted into staying. The article stated that they got beaten when they even talked about quitting. They even put the one guy in the hospital - and got everyone to lie about it. Sorry, that doesn't constitute consent - they were forced to stay through violence and intimidation.
2.21.2007 2:22pm
DaveN (mail):
I was explaining WHY many Americans will not vote for an atheist--I have never said that was MY position (I generally don't give a tinker's damn about a person's religious beliefs). For that I am "wild eyed."

My references to Newdow and O'Hair have to do with their public comments that were blatantly anti-religious. When many people think of "atheism" they think of Newdow, O'Hair, and their ilk.

As for "under God" and "In God We Trust," it the atheist who is making the mountain out of the molehill. Neither the inscription on coinage nor two words in the Pledge of Allegience establish anything resembling a religion.

As for removing religion from the public square, Time reported that Newdow planned on saying "Objection" to "God Save this Honorable Court" at the Supreme Court (part of the Court's tradition for time immemorable), objected to Franklin Graham saying a prayer at President Bush's invitation at the Presidential inauguration, etc. Those are the works of someone, to use my term, are militantly atheist--and it is this kind of militancy that will cause many Americans to vote against an atheist.
2.21.2007 2:27pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

Now, if you can't relate to this yourself, I think it might say something about your character.


Listen: Just don't do that.


A world where our only choice is to maximize utility, either short-term or long-term, is not a world where we have choice or free will.


It's a world where we can explore and define what brings us the most utility. How much choice such a world entails depends on how widely or narrowly you define the things that count as bringing a person utility. You've defined them quite narrowly, so you see such a world as slavish. As marghlar pointed out, that narrow definition is neither necessary nor desirable to many of us. But any time we approach semantics we seem to get nowhere, so maybe we should drop this one.
2.21.2007 2:28pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
HLSbertarian,

If someone lies to you and you stay for only a month, maybe even two, perhaps that would negate consent. If you stay for longer than that, I don't think consent is negated. By then, you should realize that they aren't playing straight with you.

If you think that consent isn't valid after months of deception when any reasonable person should know that the promises of big money aren't going to be forthcoming, then you are obviously smuggling concepts of morality into the concept of consent, rather than making it a matter of strictly choice. I must say that I approve! You are not the sort of libertarian I am primarily criticizing. However, you might as well be honest and say that it has something to do with the substantive morality of the situation independent of consent and that you are in fact smuggling substantive morality into your definition of consent.

By the way, I don't think all libertarians are wackos. I do think libertarians who think consent is all that matters are moral relativist wackos, however. Furthermore, it not merely that this guy is a wacko that reminds me of libertarian wackos. If he was a communist wacko, I don't think I would make the association. No, it is the similarity of what he is suggesting, that there is "abuse is in the eyes of beholder." Really, there is no substantive thing called abuse, there is only consent. Sound wacko moral relativist libertarian to me.

Of course, just because I don't think all libertarians are wackos doesn't mean I am letting non-wacko libertarians off the hook either. Moral relativism and wackoism are a matters of degree. The more you think that consent is all that matters, the closer you are to the wacko/moral relativist end of the libertarian spectrum.
2.21.2007 2:36pm
A.C.:
American Psikhushka -

Using the courts and police in ordinary ways is fine. It's the people who lobby for special government favors that bother me, whether it's favors for a particular industry or favors for a particular population group. Some of this is inevitable, of course, but I like to see it tempered by some belief system other than "I'm superior so I'll decide what goes."

Elliot Reed -

It's me you quoted there, although Randy R may have said something similar. I agree with you that the Gospel of Wealth is a particularly offensive interpretation of Christianity. There's nothing wrong with encouraging people to work well at their jobs, or even to get educated for better ones, but this can be taken too far in modern American society. Working hard is a virtue. Frugality is a virtue, if it doesn't go overboard. Greed is a vice, or even a sin. The criticism is right there within Christianity, so someone who claims to be a Christian and then advocates unrestrained greed can be attacked as a hypocrite. The person who says "but greed is actually a good thing" cannot be, and that is the problem.

Note that having specific problems with atheists in public office does NOT translate to accepting all interpretations of religion as equally valid. I reject some interpretations of religion as well as the two types of atheism I mentioned above.
2.21.2007 2:44pm
Elliot Reed:
As much as I hate to agree with Viscus, he's pretty much right about "self-interest." To take an easy example of someone acting against their self-interest, consider a depressed person. I've suffered from depression, and it's easy to get into a position where you know that getting out of bed and doing something will make you feel better than lying and bed and thinking about how miserable you are. But somehow you don't do it anyway. I submit that any definition of "self-interest" that makes lying in bed, not going to therapy, etc. in the "self-interest" of a depressed person is obviously wrong.

There's a common confusion about "utility" here. In the economic sense, "utility" is a mathematical construct. It need not correspond to any psychological or mental state, such as "happiness," "satisfaction," or "enjoyment" or any combination thereof. A rock could be described as maximizing utility provided that its movement in the gravitational field is describable in terms of some well-ordering. That economic utility corresponds to something recognizable as self-interest is a (false) empirical claim.
2.21.2007 2:48pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
HLSbertarian,

I will go wherever reason and logic takes me. I am sorry, but certain general statements about all people does logically implicate the speaker.

If I say
(1) All actions by all people are self interested.
(2) I am a person.

We can conclude
(3) All of my actions are based on self interest.

Except, that I have nearly direct access to my own motivations, but I don't have direct access to the motivations of others. So, if you say (1) and (2) it implies (3), but presumably one is an inference from your own experience, and thus might not be true. Why would you think that all actions by all people are motivated by self-interest if this wasn't true for yourself??

Maybe it is not pleasant to point this out, but I do not think you do anyone any favors by not pointing out the clear and logical implications of their statements. Either one must amend the statement that all actions by all people are self interested or one must admit that all of your own actions are self-interested.

If someone doesn't know what it is like to do something for another person or in to act in accordance with principle for its own sake, without regard to consequences and regardless of whether taking such actions makes you feel good, that person is living an impoverished life. Me not saying this doesn't make it not true. And yes, I do think this has character implications. Again, me censoring myself does not make this any less true.

So, I will go there.
2.21.2007 2:58pm
Elliot Reed:
My references to Newdow and O'Hair have to do with their public comments that were blatantly anti-religious. When many people think of "atheism" they think of Newdow, O'Hair, and their ilk.
The thing is that what you said is that Newdow and O'Hair want/wanted to "ban all expressions of religion in the public square." They are/were in favor of banning religious expression by the government, but not of having people arrested for promoting any religion in America's many literal public squares, or in the metaphorical public square that includes the mass media. Those are not the same thing at all and saying that they are is a gross distortion, like claiming that NARAL is in favor of banning childbirth or the Family Research Council thinks homosexuals should be executed without trial.
2.21.2007 3:09pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
HLSbertarian,


But any time we approach semantics we seem to get nowhere, so maybe we should drop this one.


I agree with this. Definitions are not something worth arguing about. There is no such thing as the "true" definition of a thing, at most there is the "standard" definition. What usually matters is that there is an understanding about what definition is being used, rather than that any particular definition is used.

That said, different definitions have different advantages and disadvantages, to the extent they allow different distinctions to be made more or less easily. These really aren't matters usually worth arguing about. (Of course, there is the question of what to do when someone challenges your definition, that is, they start an argument about your definition... It is at the very least hard not to get caught up in the argument, even if at the end of the day it is mostly meaningless and a waste of time. If we are smart, we will take HLSbertarian's advice anyway.)
2.21.2007 3:10pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
Elliot Reed,

"As much as I hate to agree with Viscus..."

Don't worry about it. Even the most incompetant dart board player is bound to hit a bullseye eventually if they throw enough darts. I must have gotten lucky. :)
2.21.2007 3:18pm
HLSbertarian (mail):

Except, that I have nearly direct access to my own motivations, but I don't have direct access to the motivations of others. So, if you say (1) and (2) it implies (3), but presumably one is an inference from your own experience, and thus might not be true. Why would you think that all actions by all people are motivated by self-interest if this wasn't true for yourself??


That's all well and good, but marghlar's argument with you was about what kinds of things that should be considered self-interest. If you want to make the argument that you have experienced things that he hasn't, and for this reason have superior understanding in this area, that's fine. But the additional step to his character has nothing to do with this argument.
2.21.2007 3:28pm
marghlar:
Viscus, as has been noted by others, my definition of self-interest clearly encompasses charitable actions, actions for the benefit of family, and even actions on the basis of principles. Indeed, the ethical rule I would propound, that no person should act in a way that will cause more harm than good, is a principle that I try my best to follow and urge on others.

If on the basis of that argument you want to start dragging in ad hominems about my character, then I am done with you.
2.21.2007 3:44pm
Deoxy (mail):
Atheism IS INHERENTLY morally relativistic.

It's veery simple: if there is no standard beyond man, then man can st his own standard. End of story.

Why is killing someone else bad? I've had this discussion before, heard many, MANY arguments about how morals can exist without a belief in God, etc, but they all boil down to th individual DECIDING what is moral. Murder is OK? Well, it is if I decide it is... who are you to say otherwise?

Atheists can indeed be moral; in fact, atheists who chose to be moral (by most people's understanding) not uncommonly do a bttr job of being moral than most anyone else. But that varies by the individual.
2.21.2007 3:47pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
HLSbertarian,

I have changed my mind. You are right.

First of all, one doesn't know if he is interpreting and understanding someone correctly or not, so one should give them the benefit of the doubt. Especially when you don't really know them personally, as would be the case here. When you misunderstand someone, even the most impecable logic can be flawed because it is based on false premises. We should be hesitant to impugn someone's character, unless especially sure of the validity of our premises.

To be perfectly honest, it was probably marghlar's tendency to agree with advisory opinion to an excessive degree rather than pure rationality that created in me an active desire to impugn marghlar's character. I apparently harbor some level of irrational animus towards advisory opinion, though I have made an active effort to suppress it, knowing rationally that his smartass remarks are meaningless. Given that my own motives are not pure in this matter suggests that my judgment concerning character here are less likely to be accurate.

Finally, marghlar's character is not very relevant to the conversation here, making my attack an inappropriate ad hominen attack distracting from rather than advancing the substantive conversation.

So, I agree. I should not have gone there.
2.21.2007 3:55pm
marghlar:
Atheism IS INHERENTLY morally relativistic.

It's veery simple: if there is no standard beyond man, then man can st his own standard. End of story.


A very common error; I would suggest that you familiarize yourself with the literature on the Euthyphro dilemma. Even Divine Command Theory requires a choice by individual moral agents; they must choose to regard the deity's commands as felt moral obligations. There is simply no moral system that does not require individuals to do their best to understand what the semantic content of "ought" is. All DCT does is specify one such answer; picking that answer is precisely as arbitrary as picking any other answer.
2.21.2007 3:59pm
JosephSlater (mail):
Deoxy:

But if I live my life in an attempt to do exactly as I believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Zeus, or any other allegedly god-like creature tells me to do, that's better, because it's not "inherently morally relatvistic"?
2.21.2007 4:00pm
marghlar:
Thanks, Viscus. If you'd like, we can discuss these matters further, now that you've taken my character off the table.
2.21.2007 4:01pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar,

I still think your missing something here. Namely, actions that are in accordance with principle (including good actions towards others) without regard to consequences.

I don't see how an action that one undertakes without regard to consequences could be said to be self-interested. If your definition of self-interest includes that, then it includes every volitional act. Indeed, according to the broadest definition of self-interest, even actions that we take when we are plainly coerced are in our self-interest. Few things are as wise and self-interested as handing someone your wallet when they have a gun to your head when you lack any special skills which enable you to disarm him.

In any case, if you insist on using the word self-interest in its broadest sense, that is fine. I am wondering where you are going with that however. Surely, whether it is appropriate to take advantage of someone engaging in good acts and who is even willing to consent to our bad acts at their expense, perhaps due to their own insecurity, does not depend on whether the we label the good actor as acting in self-interest (very broadly defined) or not. Does it? Especially if your definition of self-interest includes actions taken by the good actor that are undertaken for their own sake, without regard to consequences.
2.21.2007 4:07pm
John M. Perkins (mail):
Maybe buried above, but at http://friendlyatheist.com/ subdirecty at /2006/12/11/religious-representation-in-congress/

Only six members of Congress, all Democrats, identify themselves as religiously unaffiliated: Reps. John Tierney and John Olver of Massachusetts, Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Mark Udall of Colorado.


And two of my co-religionists are both Congressional Con-men. Kent Conrad and John Conyers, are on shaky ground. Hmm, I campaigned for one for state tax commissioner, and invited the other to speak at the Jefferson County, Iowa pre-caucus fundraiser. Biased yes.

But event though I am unreasonably biased against Transcendental Meditationers, I have voted for one.
2.21.2007 4:11pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
marghlar,

I think we have just about killed this conversation. This thread is approaching 300 comments. For me, it is enough. If I recall, the original discussion point was atheism, now we are on a tangent concerning appropriate definitions of and implications of self-interest. A topic where it appears that our views are likely irreconciliably different.

-Viscus

P.S. I actually crafted my point about the ad hominen attack before I read your comment demanding that such attacks cease. I would never apologize merely because it was demanded.
2.21.2007 4:16pm
scote (mail):

Atheism IS INHERENTLY morally relativistic.

It's veery simple: if there is no standard beyond man, then man can st his own standard. End of story.
All morality is inherently relativistic. The whole idea that morality can be absolute is a falsehood. Even religions that claim to have absolute morality in their sacred texts still have to have those texts interpreted and applied by humans. Only if a divine being were to come down and enforce such morality in "deus" (in "person" just seems wrong...) with absolute consistency could the morality said to be absolute.
2.21.2007 4:16pm
marghlar:
I actually crafted my point about the ad hominen attack before I read your comment demanding that such attacks cease. I would never apologize merely because it was demanded.

Oh, that's cute. I didn't demand an apology, I just told you I wasn't going to talk to you anymore because you were behaving rudely. But if you now want to withdraw your apology for saying offensive things about me because I told you that they had offended me, I guess that is your own business.
2.21.2007 4:24pm
Elliot Reed:
Atheism IS INHERENTLY morally relativistic.

It's veery simple: if there is no standard beyond man, then man can st his own standard. End of story.
The obvious Euthyphro Dilemma problem aside, this is also an inaccurate characterization of atheism. Atheism is not the claim that "there is no standard beyond man"; it is the claim that there are no gods (or there is no reason to suppose a god exists, or some similar claim depending on your interpretation of the word). Why is the only possible "standard beyond man" a deity-set standard?

Also, you seem to be engaging in the additional fallacy of assuming that people believe all the things that logically follow from their other beliefs. Even if atheism did entail "relativism," it would not follow that all (or even many) atheists are relativists.
2.21.2007 4:27pm
liberty (mail) (www):
"Indeed, how are you any less of a philosopher king by saying that consent is what should matter? If you had your way, real people would have to live with that rule, like it or not."

This is like saying that a dictator and a person that prevents a dictator from taking power are equally dictatorial. Or like saying that the government that taxes you or jails you and the lack of government which doesn't tax you and doesn't jail you are equally coercive. Its absurd, you are accusing me of a sin of omission.

You might as well say that its coercive to allow people to make their own choices - be it about where to work, what to buy, whether and with whom to marry - because its just as coercive as a totalitarian society which decides all of this to force people to decide for themselves.
2.21.2007 4:36pm
CJColucci:
Atheism IS INHERENTLY morally relativistic.

It's veery simple: if there is no standard beyond man, then man can st his own standard. End of story.


And man does set his own standard, God or no. After all, it is we who attribute goodness to God and his alleged commands. It is we who decide something that someone claims to be God's command is, in fact, God's command by determining whether a good God (as we define it) would issue such a command. It is we who decide that some claimant to the title of God is or isn't God because, among other things, he does or does not appear to us to be good. Don't misunderstand; I don't criticize this. It seems to be an eminently reasonable procedure. But it is what it is, people deciding what is good and attributing that goodness to God, not God telling us what is or isn't good.
2.21.2007 4:40pm
Elliot Reed:
CJColucci - while I would quibble with "decide," that's mostly it. The believer has to figure out if "God" is a good god whose will should be obeyed or an evil god whose will should be opposed. Biblically-based Christianity is the ultimate moral relativism, holding as it does that whether genocide, mass rape, and the like are morally acceptable depends on what God says about them today.
2.21.2007 4:47pm
CJColucci:
Quibble accepted. Is there a word you'd prefer?
2.21.2007 5:11pm
Randy R. (mail):
Deoxy: It's veery simple: if there is no standard beyond man, then man can st his own standard. End of story."

Baloney. We have one book, called a Bible, that every Christian person purports to follow. Yet, we have dozens, perhaps hundreds, of different religions, most of whom have a slightly different moral standard.

Ex: There is a commandment, Thou shalt not kill. Pretty clear, right? But some religions say you can kill in war, others say no. Some say you can kill animals, some say no. Some say you can kill murderers, others say no. Some say you can mercy kill, others say no. Some say you can kill to prevent the deaths of many people, others say no.

Even as basic a moral standard as to whether it is okay to kill another human being is a subject of great subjectively and relativity. And that's not even getting into other issues of morality, such as whether you can eat pork or how to properly observe the sabbath. Or my favorite, that you can't sit on a chair that a menstuating woman has previously sat on. (Tied only with that other prohibition of wearing clothes made with both wool and cotton. What about polyester?!)

So basically, even a devoutly religious man still chooses which moral standard he wants. He is free to choose whatever religion best fits his moral standards.
2.21.2007 5:31pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Jerry F: As for what percentage of the population are atheists, my understanding is that 85% of the population are Christians based on anonymous surveys. Atheists would be a fraction of the other 15%. I have no reason to believe that these numbers are not accurate; unlike politicians, most people don't have an incentive to lie on anonymous surveys.

Lots of people lie to pollsters. Maybe they just don't want to admit they are atheists since there is too much oppoition to them. Maybe they want to seem part of the larger group of Christians. And if we can examine the rhetoric and stands of politicians to discern their hidden atheism, couldn't we do the same for the rank and file? What if their rhetoric and stands fall under your criteria for athieism, yet they still claim to believe in God?

On the other hand, maybe you are just wrong about the politicians?
2.21.2007 5:41pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Deoxy,

Have you considered the individual decides who is god and what he wants? He decides what book is written by god and what it means. He decides who speaks for god. Some religions have even decided their leader can't be wrong about theese things. You can't ever get away from the fact that individuals decide.
2.21.2007 5:48pm
Edward A. Hoffman (mail):
Deoxy wrote:
Atheism IS INHERENTLY morally relativistic.

It's veery simple: if there is no standard beyond man, then man can st his own standard. End of story.
Not so. To some extent morality is likely embedded in our genes as a result of natural selection. We consider it immoral, for example, to neglect our children because our genes won't be passed on if we do. People who make good parents are more likely to have children who grow up and reproduce than are people who don't, so natural selection would favor them. Revulsion at the thought of others neglecting children is also beneficial from an evolutionary standpoint as it will reduce the number of matings between good parents and bad ones.

A hypothetical intelligent guppy, though, would see things quite differently. Instead of rearing a small number of offspring, guppies simply produce so many young that predators will not be able to get them all. Once the newborn guppies are out of the mother's body she has nothing more to do with them. Guppies basically eat any moving thing that they can swallow whole, and they don't distinguish between their offspring and other bite-sized creatures. As a result, guppies often end up eating their own young. Thoughtful guppies would likely be put off by the idea of spending a large fraction of their lives tending to a small number of offspring because their evolution selected against this reproductive "strategy" and in favor of simply producing as many young as possible. Evolution would also favor those who are unwilling to pair off with a mate who would abandon this strategy, and a sense of revulsion would be a very effective way to accomplish this. Conversely, a sense of revulsion at neglecting the young would be disfavored since any guppies that feel that way would have a hard time passing their genes along to the next generation.

If I'm right that morality is at least partially built into our genes then is not a matter of choice. This would not make it any less effective than one imposed by a higher authority.

I should add that a sense of morality which comes from culture would evolve the same way as one which comes from our genes. A culture that tolerated child neglect would have a hard time competing against others nearby that did not and would either die out or adapt in order to compete better. While such standards of behavior might be "set by man" in a technical sense, they would be far from arbitrary. Instead, they would reflect the realities of life in social groups.
2.21.2007 5:54pm
Mike Hamburg (mail):
American Psikhushka-

Mike Hamburg-


I tolerate libertarians, but I disagree with their views and therefore don't want them running the country.


Which ones? What makes libertarians unqualified to run the country?


They're not "unqualified," per se, and that's more or less my point. Qualified or not, in the course of their jobs, they are likely to make political decisions based on libertarian ideals, which are not the same as my ideals, since I'm not a libertarian. Therefore, I personally do not want them to be in power, since I want those in power to make decisions that agree with my sensibilities (that is, after all, why I get to vote).

Gary McGath-

If people think that a person's religious beliefs are an important part of his qualifications for public office, and therefore a person without religious beliefs is not suited for public office, then a person with "incorrect" religious beliefs should also be unsuited. Isn't believing in a false god just as bad as believing in no god, in the eyes of believers?

Yet a large proportion of those who would not vote for an atheist would vote for someone of just about any major religion, including Islam, which has a very bad track record lately.


I at least would draw a distinction between fundamentalist believers (those who think that religious law should be the foundation of secular law, or who believe that religious "revelation" always takes priority over rational observation, or the like) and non-fundamentalists. I don't want a fundamentalist of any faith in high positions of power, because they are likely to make decisions that are intolerant or even downright irrational.

I also think that being atheist doesn't make someone totally unfit for office, it's just another reason not to vote for them. However, since a large part of what I want in a candidate lies in common beliefs, a theist from a different religion is more likely to share my religion-derived beliefs than an atheist. But maybe that's just my unitarian tendencies showing through.
2.21.2007 6:15pm
advisory opinion:

To be perfectly honest, it was probably marghlar's tendency to agree with advisory opinion to an excessive degree rather than pure rationality that created in me an active desire to impugn marghlar's character. I apparently harbor some level of irrational animus towards advisory opinion, though I have made an active effort to suppress it, knowing rationally that his smartass remarks are meaningless.


lol! Comedy gold.

And of course, my remarks are anything but meaningless.

The fact is that everyone has had problems with you purloining terms you are obviously ignorant about and making up your own definitions for them as you go along.

I was simply remarking on a pattern: Confusion about logical terms, legal terms, and now MR(*!) due to your persistent mangling of standard definitions. At some point you have to wonder if it's not really everyone else's fault but your own stubborn, willful incompetence in that regard that invites repeated corrections. Not unlike correcting a mule, as Mr. Nieporent has found to his dismay.

Perhaps some introspection is in order?

Oh wait - you accede to no demand. Pity.
2.21.2007 6:37pm
advisory opinion:

There is a commandment, Thou shalt not kill. Pretty clear, right? But some religions say you can kill in war, others say no.


Damn! Just War theory makes Christian injunctions against killing "morally relativistic"****. Oh well.
2.21.2007 6:41pm
Cornellian (mail):
There is a commandment, Thou shalt not kill. Pretty clear, right? But some religions say you can kill in war, others say no. I always thought that was a mistranslation and that it should have read "though shalt not murder" which isn't the same thing.

Even under "though shalt not kill" is a completely accidental killing a breach of this commandment? How about a failure to act to save someone else from being killed?
2.21.2007 7:16pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
There is a commandment, Thou shalt not kill. Pretty clear, right?
No, actually. It says Thou shalt not murder. Different word than "kill." You're citing a mistranslation.
2.21.2007 7:18pm
Elliot Reed:
Indeed, it is "You shall not murder." But that's actually useless moral advice, inasmuch as murder is morally unjustified intentional killing. All it rules out is the position that it's morally acceptable to kill with impunity in all circumstances. You need a theory of justified killing that the commandment doesn't provide. And if you have a theory of justified killing you don't need the commandment.
2.21.2007 7:28pm
ray_g:
"As for "under God" and "In God We Trust," it the atheist who is making the mountain out of the molehill. Neither the inscription on coinage nor two words in the Pledge of Allegiance establish anything resembling a religion. "

I am an atheist, and I agree that this is making a mountain out of a molehill, but by the same token so is all of the outrage over the idea of eliminating these phrases. Actually, I think that theists should be upset by many of the arguments for keeping these phrases, which seem to boil down to "it really doesn't mean anything". Isn't that more disrespectful than eliminating the phrases?
2.21.2007 7:43pm
Porkchop:
I suggest that one significant factor in the antipathy of believers toward atheists is that believers are simply offended that atheism trivializes a concept that seems to be at the core of the believers' identities. Atheism is the antidote for religious angst -- while believers worry over pleasing some deity or another, never sure that they are getting it right, atheists go on their merry way. I'm not worried about my eternal soul, because I don't believe that I have one. Some of my religious acquaintances seem to be very, very upset by my lack of concern over a question that they agonize over. The question concerning a moral basis for life only comes later, at least, in my conversations.
2.21.2007 8:26pm
scote (mail):
"As for "under God" and "In God We Trust," it the atheist who is making the mountain out of the molehill."

I'll have to disagree with you. These inclusions are hardly a molehill. While you can argue that they are not support of a particular religion, Christians routinely cite them as proof that the US is a Christian nation. Although nominally "God" could refer to any god, in practice it is understood that the citation is, in fact, referring to the god of Christianity especially since these two phrases were added to the Pledge and paper currency in the 50's as a counter to the "godless" (read "non-Christian") Communists.

The use of "God" in the pledge and on paper currency not only specifically excludes atheists it also excludes polytheistic religious such as Hinduism. It also excludes non-defied religions like Buddhism.
2.21.2007 8:41pm
Chris Bell (mail):
The day a serious Christian says they wouldn't mind having "In Allah we trust" or "In Shiva we trust" on our money is the day I will agree with them that it is meaningless. I think we should petition to have different religious included on the money on some sort of rotating basis....

Of course, people would throw a fit if that ever happened (not that it would). Why? What message is sent, and why is it so important that our nickles and dimes send that message?

It's just dumb from top to bottom.
2.21.2007 9:41pm
American Psikhushka (mail) (www):
A.C.-

Using the courts and police in ordinary ways is fine. It's the people who lobby for special government favors that bother me, whether it's favors for a particular industry or favors for a particular population group. Some of this is inevitable, of course, but I like to see it tempered by some belief system other than "I'm superior so I'll decide what goes."

Libertarians usually frown on this type of stuff. On the other hand, if a particular population group is having its rights violated, having its property stolen, etc. most libertarians would tend to think they had a point.
2.21.2007 9:56pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Anyone who has to use the inscription on a coin to advance an argument that the US is a Christian nation has a very weak argument.
2.22.2007 1:23am
Randy R. (mail):
David: It says Thou shalt not murder. Different word than "kill." You're citing a mistranslation."

Murder is intentional killing. So again the question: Is it murder if you kill a soldier who is an enemy? Is it murder if you intentionally killed Hitler in 1939 to prevent more deaths? Is it murder if you kill someone to spare them an agonizing death? is it murder if you kill someone solely because he murdered someone else? Is it murder if you kill a living sentient being that isn't a human being?

All these questions have different answers depending upon your religion. use whatever translation you like -- and the different translations show that there are even more ways to ask and answer such basic questions -- but the bottom line is that we have one Bible (with hundreds of variants) and hundreds of different religions that see things differently. How can that be if moral issues are so clear? The answer is that moral issues are never clear, and we each make up our own.

Heck, you don't even have to get to religious texts. Look at the arguments that are made over our own Constitution and what it really means. After 200 years of debate, and one clear document with no variations or mistranslations, shouldn't we all be able to agree on the meaning of every aspect of it by now? But no -- we are just as divergent on its meaning as any thing else in the Bible, or any other so-called 'authoritative' text.
2.22.2007 2:38am
David M. Nieporent (www):
Murder is intentional killing.
No, it isn't. It's unjustified (intentional) killing.
So again the question: Is it murder if you kill a soldier who is an enemy?
No. Which is why murder is not "intentional killing." Indeed, it would be absurd to claim that the commandment said that one shall not "intentionally kill," given that in other places in the Torah, G-d explicitly orders intentional killings.
2.22.2007 3:38am
Deoxy (mail):
"But if I live my life in an attempt to do exactly as I believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Zeus, or any other allegedly god-like creature tells me to do, that's better, because it's not "inherently morally relatvistic"?"

I didn't say it was better; it is easier for other people to come to grips with and live with because there is an official(ish) code that you are trying to follow. If that code says not to murder, most people claiming to follow that particular "allegedly god-like creature" will not murder. Someone who follows no such thing has no such restriction unless they simply choose to restrict themselves.

"Euthyphro dilemma"

Familiar with it; it does not change what I said. It doesn't matter WHY (for this discussion), it matters THAT. That is, short of a "higher standard" of some kind, a noticeable number of people have decided at some point or another that essentially everything we hold to be "immoral" was "moral". Murder? Yep, that, too.

"Also, you seem to be engaging in the additional fallacy of assuming that people believe all the things that logically follow from their other beliefs. Even if atheism did entail "relativism," it would not follow that all (or even many) atheists are relativists."

I may have seemed to; this is in a discussion of why atheists are disliked as a whole. Individual atheists may indeed do that, but that is an individual matter of choice, as opposed to something predictable.

Edward A. Hoffman: nice argument, but it says nothing about individuals; that is, any individual who does not acknowledge some "higher power" may choose his own morality as he sees fit. Your argument does not touch on that in the slightest.

I've seen all of these arguments before (with the exception of Edward A. Hoffman's, which was interesting but not quite relevant), and they don't hold up. Aren't there any NEW ones?
2.22.2007 12:30pm
Elliot123 (mail):
Deoxy: I didn't say it was better; it is easier for other people to come to grips with and live with because there is an official(ish) code that you are trying to follow.

I would agree religion might make life easier for the less intelligent folks who don't want to think for themselves. But, how about the more intelligent folks who do not shy from thinking for themselves?
2.22.2007 12:49pm
David M. Nieporent (www):
Familiar with it; it does not change what I said. It doesn't matter WHY (for this discussion), it matters THAT. That is, short of a "higher standard" of some kind, a noticeable number of people have decided at some point or another that essentially everything we hold to be "immoral" was "moral". Murder? Yep, that, too.
What do you mean, "short of a 'higher standard' of some kind"? Among those "noticeable number of people," many were people who had one of those "higher standards."
2.22.2007 1:46pm
Lisa Lorish (mail):
Ryan Anderson over at First Things recently posted on this topic after being interviewed by Paula Zahn on the same matter. Some good thoughts--

http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/?p=632
2.22.2007 2:27pm
JosephSlater (mail):
I said: "But if I live my life in an attempt to do exactly as I believe the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Zeus, or any other allegedly god-like creature tells me to do, that's better, because it's not "inherently morally relatvistic"?"

Deoxy said: I didn't say it was better; it is easier for other people to come to grips with and live with because there is an official(ish) code that you are trying to follow. If that code says not to murder, most people claiming to follow that particular "allegedly god-like creature" will not murder. Someone who follows no such thing has no such restriction unless they simply choose to restrict themselves.

I'm intrigued by your claim that you didn't say it was better, because it seems as if you do, in fact, think it's better.

As to the "code says people won't murder," two things. First, as several others have also noted, you then need to have mortal men determine what is an evil "murder" as opposed to what sorts of intentional killings are permitted. And there are obvious gray areas there, so the religious moral code isn't non-relative, if you equate "relative" with "people figuring it out by themselves."

Second, for your claim to have any real force, one would need some actual proof that atheists are more likely to murder (or do other objectively bad acts) than folks who believe in a God. I'm guessing evidence for that claim doesn't exist, and I'm guessing it doesn't exist because that claim is false.
2.22.2007 2:38pm
markm (mail):
Atheism is based on the logical fallacy that it is possible to prove the ontological non-existence of something. No, atheism is based upon the principal that the burden of proof is on those who claim something exists. Disproving the existence of just one thing is usually impossible. I'm not going to go around trying to disprove Odin, Zeus, Brahma/Vishnu/Shiva, Jehovah, the Invisible Pink Unicorn, whatever the heck it is Wiccans worship, and the thousands of other gods dreamed up by the human race. If you claim one of them exists, it's up to you to find some objective evidence - and a copy of a copy of a copy of an ancient text isn't evidence, nor is your own navel-gazing any evidence for me.

Some gods might be possible to disprove - if they are logically inconsistent. How can the Invisible Pink Unicorn be any color when it can never be seen? But then I remember all the books written to reconcile Free Will with the omniscience of the Christian God. How do you have Free Will when God knew 10,000 years before you were born that you're going to get drunk and fornicate next Saturday? Aquinas and Kant (IIRC) both came up with decent answers, the one that God exists outside of time and space so "before" or "after" is meaningless in describing how he knows something, and the other that free will exists in a subjective sense even in an objectively deterministic universe. (It sounded much better they way they said it - after I put in a full weekend studying a few sentences, that is... It's been 30 years since I had time to do anything like that.) So if similar brainpower was expended on the IPU, I suspect a way to reconcile Invisible and Pink would be found.

And then there's my grandparents' religion, one that has set a particular day for the end of the world at least a half dozen times, and seen the world not end on that day every time without losing their membership. I don't know if they're still making revised predictions or not, but if a religion can survive that much disproof, it's got nothing whatsoever to do with proof.
2.22.2007 4:49pm
marghlar:
Someone who follows no such thing has no such restriction unless they simply choose to restrict themselves.

You've completely missed the point re: Euthyphro. All assignment of moral value involves individual choice. If you want to regard divine commandments as the authority for what is morally worthy, that requires you to make a personal choice to view such commandments as moral (either by defining morality as nothing but the content of Divine Commands (Divine Command Theory) or by positing that divine commands further some extrinsically chosen theory of moral good, in which case you've already made an individual choice about what is morally worthy.

Simply put, we all have to decide what set of rules we are going to view as ethical. Nothing about theism provides a way out of this; theists just as much as atheists have to come up with personal answers to the questions "what does 'ought' mean? How do we determine what we ought to do in any given circumstance?"

Plato showed conclusively that theism doesn't absolve us from developing a theory of the good; we can either develop a trivial theory (Divine Command Theory, in which any of god's commands are good, even if he is asking us to rape, torture and murder) or else a separately conceived, substantive theory of the good, which we then must use to justify the argument that it is good to follow divine commands.

Saying that some people who didn't have a divine standard decided that murder wasn't evil is a non sequitur, because a multiplicity of theists have also decided that certain types of murder (of infidels or criminals) are not evil. You can't maintain the distinction you want without positing that all theists espouse a correctly moral set of rules. You have to justify the Ban, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Indian wars and the Holocaust. Theists murder all the time, and many of them say it was God's will. That is just one more reason to doubt that there is anything ethically revolutionary about saying that one's system of morals flows from Divine Commands; absent a clear way of understanding the detailed application of those commands, which religion never supplies, such a theory offers no advantages over individual moral education and thinking.
2.22.2007 4:54pm
markm (mail):
Riskable: "Everyone keeps talking of bigotry, moral values, and beliefs. Yet I've yet to see one person in this discussion mention ignorance."

Isn't making a judgment about something of which you are ignorant bigotry?
2.22.2007 5:00pm
DaveN (mail):
As a final note for this thread, a Congregationalist minister I knew once talked about the phone calls his church received when the sign board outside of his church announced the Sunday sermon as "The Atbeism of Christianity."

The early Christians were persecuted because they explicitly rejected the existence of the state gods--and in the eyes of Rome were thus "atheists."

I pass that along as an interesting note to close this thread.
2.22.2007 7:45pm
DaveN (mail):
As a final note for this thread, a Congregationalist minister I knew once talked about the phone calls his church received when the sign board outside of his church announced the Sunday sermon as "The Atheism of Christianity."

The early Christians were persecuted because they explicitly rejected the existence of the state gods--and in the eyes of Rome were thus "atheists."

I pass that along as an interesting note to close this thread.
2.22.2007 7:45pm