If a *-ist Goes Bad, is the *-ism Wrong?

PhillyChief strings together a lot of interesting thoughts in this post:

Bring up mormons and most christians say they’re not “real” christians. Bring up the Inquisition and catholics will argue it got out of hand by twisted people who “lost their way” whereas born agains and other protestants will say “well that’s the catholic church for you”… Muslims are also on the defensive having to argue that people like al quaeda who fly planes into buildings are extremists and not examples of “true islam”… Theists likewise will point to leaders like Stalin and show what horrors atheism inflicts whereas atheists will argue Stalin’s atheism was merely a tool for his quest for obtaining and maintaining power.

Where does this take us? Do bad examples influence the merit of a particular ideology?

The post awaits your thoughts.


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • http://www.saintgasoline.com Saint Gasoline

    Ultimately, it matters not whether one is a theist or an atheist, or whether one endorses certain ethical precepts or not–one can murder, steal, and rape regardless.

    All this talk of the evils of theism and atheism are mere diversions from the real issue at hand. Both atheists and theists are capable of evil, but the question is which side is more likely to be true. Even if some truth were to cause the whole world to go mad with rage, it wouldn’t change the fact that the evidence points to such a rage-inducing truth.

    Fortunately, atheism is not necessarily correlated with violence. Neither is theism, perse. One empirical study showed that violence is instead correlated with belief in satan!

    So let’s not get caught up in this debate about which one is more dangerous. Let’s just stick with the facts.

    I mean, come–we don’t want to mimic the winner of a recent creationist essay contest, who argued that evolution MUST be false because it leads to amorality! Whether it is true that belief in evolution causes amorality is neither here nor there–merely pointing that out is not sufficient to overcome the evidence in its favor!

  • Miko

    Theists likewise will point to leaders like Stalin and show what horrors atheism inflicts whereas atheists will argue Stalin’s atheism was merely a tool for his quest for obtaining and maintaining power.

    I wouldn’t make that argument in response. I’d just point out that it’s a post-hoc ergo propter-hoc fallacy.

  • Maria

    I agree with Saint Gasoline. Cool name btw!

  • http://apostateapotheosis.blogspot.com/ TauHecht

    No. If an atheist does something wrong, it does not reflect on atheism. If a christian does something wrong, it does not reflect on christiandom. If a white person kills someone, is does not mean that white people are predisposed to murder. We know this because we have mind powers. Thank you critical thinking skills!

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  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    I was about to submit this as a comment, but then I realized that this rather endless and unavoidable subject deserved a blog treatment. So, my take here.

  • http://hoverfrog.wordpress.com/ hoverFrog

    I suppose that theists have more examples of good and bad people in their camp than Atheists do, they have helpful saints and horrible torturers while we have so many less to choose from. Atheism being largely put down as inconsequential except in relatively modern times. Science was ever the hobby of vicars and rural clergymen who sought to see God’s evidence in the minutia of nature. Philosophers were determined to see how people should act under God’s will (or is that Will?). There were a few rebels who spoke out against church dogma but these were typically put down with extreme force as an example to other “dangerous” thinkers. It isn’t until the modern age that a person could even express an Atheist viewpoint so we have had little time to built our monsters and martyrs whereas Christianity has have millennia.

    All told though it is not individuals who control a philosophical viewpoint but the daily practitioners of it. Just because we can site the Crusades or the Inquisition does not mean that the person we are debating with would ever consider torturing people who did not hold the same religious viewpoint as them.

    It irritates me when people suggest that Hitler was an Atheist and that this was the sole reason for his policies of mass murder as I’m sure it irritates Christians when they are compared with Torquemada. My defence is to point out that Hitler was not a self professed Atheist and that I resent the implication that all Atheists are like Hitler. Suggesting such a thing is, at best, lazy and, at worst, a gross insult. Am I guilty of the same comparisons? Probably but I am trying not to be so judgemental. ;)

  • Aj

    atheists will argue Stalin’s atheism was merely a tool for his quest for obtaining and maintaining power.

    No one says that. Stalin, as far as I know, was an atheist. A non-belief in something isn’t a tool. It’s not a motivation, there is no reward or punishment, no one is telling you something is the right way or the wrong way.

  • Joseph Huddleston

    Good people will do good things with or without religion. For good people to do bad things…well, that requires religion.

  • monkeymind

    For good people to do bad things…well, that requires religion.

    I believe this is a verbatim quote from some atheist pundit or other. But I guess when things pass into the realm of conventional wisdom, an attribution is no longer felt to be necessary.
    I think what the example of Stalin shows us (also Pol Pot, Baader-Meinhof, SLA, and the Weather Underground) is that religion is not the only way that people can be motivated to evil deeds as a means to some purported higher good. All it takes is the human ability to rationalize our behavior and our need to think well of ourselves. Cf. Tavris and Aronson’s new book “Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Me” As Ben Franklin said: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.–”

  • http://youmademesayit.blogspot.com PhillyChief

    Two things to consider:
    1) If people will be bad or do bad whether they are theist or atheist, then theism is at the very least superfluous
    2) If theism in any way inspires evils, regardless of any good it also inspires, then it’s dangerous

    Many argue that people will be bad whether there is religion or not, so religion isn’t to blame. I would say if it has no effect, then it’s superfluous, but it’s worse than that because it does inspire evils either directly or indirectly due to it’s muddled, contradictory messages.

    As to atheism being a tool of Stalin, it was. The church was a threat to Stalin so atheism was a means to either destroy or geld it. This is far different than the theist claim that atheism drove Stalin so atheism is bad. I would argue that it was Stalin who drove atheism, therefore Stalin was bad. Stalin’s actions are not a commentary on atheism. Atheism was a tool to break the spell religion had on the masses so he could take control of them, just as other leaders in the past used on religion to break the spell of others to take control. If an idea is merely a tool and not a driving force, then I don’t see that as a credible means to assess the value of the idea.

  • Polly

    “Do bad examples influence the merit of a particular ideology?”

    In the case of Atheism, NO.
    In the case of Christianity, YES.

    Why the double standard? Because in the Christian worldview, god is supposed to be in control of the world AND ESPECIALLY in control of His own reputation and purported Church with a capital “C.” Also, there’s a teaching somewhere in the NT that says that believers are supposed to be supernaturally empowered by god, thru the Holy Spirit, to overcome temptation to do wrong.

    In the materialist worldview, bad people are par for the course, especially among those in power.

    Having said that, I will add this. There is nothing in the teachings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels, nor in the Epistles, that could have ever given rise to the Inquisition or any of the horrible “Holy” wars of the C.E.. There’s no textual basis for any of it. Much of the teaching of the NT is diametrically opposed to violence – except when committed by god, e.g. Saphira and her husband, the entire book of Revelation, references to the OT.

  • http://youmademesayit.blogspot.com PhillyChief

    Much of the teaching of the NT is diametrically opposed to violence – except when committed by god

    Acts 3:23 And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.

    Romans 1:29-32 Being filled with all unrighteousness, fornication, wickedness, covetousness, maliciousness; full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, Backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, Without understanding, covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful: Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death

    There’s more where that came from and if I’m missing the point of these passages about them justifying doing harm, then that’s also part of my point that if an idea is muddled or contradictory so that it could inspire bad acts, then it is possible to assess it’s value by acts committed in it’s name.

  • http://off-the-map.org/atheist/ Siamang

    How about this: unchecked power of X causes bad behavior. Unchecked power of Y causes bad behavior.

    I’m talking in a society here.

    Now in individuals, I’ll quote Sting: “Men go crazy in congregation, they only get better one-by-one.”

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    Polly, I think the upshot is really rather that Christianity isn’t a very clear doctrine to begin with. Jesus and Paul, for instance, basically seemed to assume that the world would be ending any day now, and so didn’t really seem to be concerned with long-term worldly politics. When the same doctrine is used to practice anything from extreme pacifism to gun down police officers that try to confiscate your gun collection, I think it’s fair to say that its little too cryptic on these matters for anyone to define what Christianity entails, and hence easily link the actions of one sect of Christians to another.

  • Polly

    I still think it’s difficult to get the Inquisition et. al. from a reading of the vast majority of the NT….certain out-of-context verses not withstanding.

    But, since I have no interest in defending the Bible, I’ll leave it at that.

  • http://badidea.wordpress.com/ Bad

    That may be true: though again, I think that’s because no one in the NT ever envisioned or expected to be in a position of political power until AFTER Armageddon. So they just didn’t give it much thought, leaving the question pretty wide open.

  • http://skeptigator.com Skeptigator

    I once heard a sermon where the pastor said, “Christianity is a great religion despite all the Christians” or something like that. Hilarious.

    Short answer: No, the IDEA of something isn’t necessarily negated by the actions of one or more of its adherents.

    Long answer: Having said that my biggest problem with religion is that it is simply off limits. You can’t reason with a believer, for their religion is above logic and reason. In fact, faith is elevated onto a pedestal where to have faith is the ultimate goal (faith of course is where you get the story of Abraham and his unfortunate attempt at human sacrifice and suicide bombers).

    I can debate with someone about the next presidential candidate but if religion enters into, well, that’s just personal. In fact, you can argue with just about anybody about any ideology (political, social or economic) but as soon as that ideology is expressed as a religion you are immediately barred from discussion.

    The real question should be put in the following way, (uh oh sounds like “framing the debate”), does a particular belief lend itself to extremism/radicalism and more importantly does a particular idea actually dissuade the use of logic and reason or some other kind of self-correcting mechanism.

    To me as an atheist, religion is absolutely prone to fossilized, uncritical thinking and leads too often to extreme behavior.

  • Aj

    I still think it’s difficult to get the Inquisition et. al. from a reading of the vast majority of the NT….certain out-of-context verses not withstanding.

    It’s a good job Christians don’t print the OT alongside the NT, and consider the OT obsolete… It’s funny how people can complain about taking passages out of context, when they’re not willing to take the NT in context of the OT, the former referencing the later quite a bit.

    Much of the teaching of the NT is diametrically opposed to violence – except when committed by god

    How much?

  • Maria

    I believe this is a verbatim quote from some atheist pundit or other. But I guess when things pass into the realm of conventional wisdom, an attribution is no longer felt to be necessary.
    I think what the example of Stalin shows us (also Pol Pot, Baader-Meinhof, SLA, and the Weather Underground) is that religion is not the only way that people can be motivated to evil deeds as a means to some purported higher good. All it takes is the human ability to rationalize our behavior and our need to think well of ourselves. Cf. Tavris and Aronson’s new book “Mistakes Were Made – But Not By Me” As Ben Franklin said: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable Creature, since it enables one to find or make a Reason for every thing one has a mind to do.–”

    I agree. I would change the quote to “for good people to do bad things, it takes dogma” b/c communism was not a religion, but it certainly was a dogma.

  • Jean

    As to atheism being a tool of Stalin, it was. The church was a threat to Stalin so atheism was a means to either destroy or geld it. This is far different than the theist claim that atheism drove Stalin so atheism is bad. I would argue that it was Stalin who drove atheism, therefore Stalin was bad. Stalin’s actions are not a commentary on atheism. Atheism was a tool to break the spell religion had on the masses so he could take control of them, just as other leaders in the past used on religion to break the spell of others to take control. If an idea is merely a tool and not a driving force, then I don’t see that as a credible means to assess the value of the idea.

    many people make the same argument with Hitler using christianity as a tool-especially since he made many quotes against it and did kill christians who opposed him too. that he used it as a tool to get the christian masses to follow him. yet I heard this argument dismissed a lot too. how come it’s okay to say it for Stalin, but not for Hitler?

  • Aj

    I agree. I would change the quote to “for good people to do bad things, it takes dogma” b/c communism was not a religion, but it certainly was a dogma.

    I would change the quote to “for good people to do bad things, it takes faith” b/c religion, certain communist regimes, superstition, faith healers, since it doesn’t have to be dogmatic for good people to do bad things because of irrational beliefs.

    Communism is still around, doesn’t require dogmatic beliefs, or irrational beliefs, it’s a political ideology concerning economics and the class system.

  • http://www.skepchick.org writerdd

    Since there is no god, we can only just an *ism by the behavior of the *ists.

  • Crystal

    Communism is still around, doesn’t require dogmatic beliefs, or irrational beliefs, it’s a political ideology concerning economics and the class system.

    umm, communism killed millions of people and is STILL oppressing people today (oddly I don’t hear people like Hitchens talking about that-in fact, didn’t he once support communism?). It very much IS irrational and dogmatic (Dawkins and Harris admit that too)-one dogmatic belief is kill anyone religious, and/or kill anyone who teaches that communism is bad-it’s happening today in Vietnam and happened and continues to happen in many communist countries. this isn’t mentioned much at all. one of my closest friends is from a former communist country-don’t tell me communism is “rational”.

  • Aj

    umm, communism killed millions of people and is STILL oppressing people today (oddly I don’t hear people like Hitchens talking about that-in fact, didn’t he once support communism?). It very much IS irrational and dogmatic (Dawkins and Harris admit that too)-one dogmatic belief is kill anyone religious, and/or kill anyone who teaches that communism is bad-it’s happening today in Vietnam and happened and continues to happen in many communist countries. this isn’t mentioned much at all. one of my closest friends is from a former communist country-don’t tell me communism is “rational”.

    Communist regimes killed millions of people. Communist regimes are oppressing people today. Communist regimes were dogmatic and irrational. Dawkins and Harris acknowledge that, they don’t have to admit to anything, they’re not communists, and they weren’t supporters of communist states.

    Hitchens was a Trotskyist, it’s a form of communism. You write like there’s only one form of communism, like you’ve never heard of Marx, Mao, Lenin, or Trotsky. Marx didn’t claim divine authority, and I’m not so sure he wrote “you shall kill political dissenters” either. Please, do tell me what’s specifically irrational about it.

  • Polly

    Bad,

    …no one in the NT ever envisioned or expected to be in a position of political power until AFTER Armageddon. So they just didn’t give it much thought, leaving the question pretty wide open

    Agreed. It’s the openness that caused the problems. The NT seems to have been written from the perspective of an underdog. Then suddenly, like you say, they’ve got all this power. They have nothing in the guidebook about how to handle it, so, they have to make up the rules as they go along.

    sidenote: Xians today still think they are the underdog, even though they are the majority in the US. They still suffer from a persecution complex every time someone dares to challenge their dominance.

  • Maria

    Communist regimes killed millions of people. Communist regimes are oppressing people today. Communist regimes were dogmatic and irrational. Dawkins and Harris acknowledge that, they don’t have to admit to anything, they’re not communists, and they weren’t supporters of communist states

    Hitchens was a Trotskyist, it’s a form of communism. You write like there’s only one form of communism, like you’ve never heard of Marx, Mao, Lenin, or Trotsky. Marx didn’t claim divine authority, and I’m not so sure he wrote “you shall kill political dissenters” either. Please, do tell me what’s specifically irrational about it.

    Umm, no one said Dawkins and Harris supported Communism AJ. I do feel however, that they should have spent more time on it. Especially Harris-he talks about being dogmatic-communism in practice has been very dogmatic, and I think it deserved more than a page. Just b/c it’s not religious doesn’t make it good. I lost several members of my family to Commuinst regimes, so I do know a little something with it, but I don’t know if that holds much water with you.. Mao? Mao killed lots of people too-to quote wikipedia, he was “blamed by critics from both within and outside China for causing severe damage to the culture, society, economy and foreign relations of China, as well as enormous and unnecessary loss of lives, a peacetime death toll in the tens of millions”

    Lenin wasn’t too bad, but he didn’t live very long and his followers didn’t follow what he originally wanted. There are several forms of socialism-that’s what Marx spent some of his time on-and some of them are very good. The non-radical socialist policies in Western Europe for example, are doing well.

    However, it seems that Communism, in all the forms that have been tried, has not done well .Can you name one Communist country that hasn’t suffered b/c of it? Just b/c something isn’t religious doesn’t mean it can’t be dogmatic and irrational. Getting rid of religion by force only made people more willing to die for their beliefs, and it came flooding back in the former Soviet Union after it fell apart. This is why government force with something like that doesn’t work, just like religious oppression didn’t make non-religious people become religious. Communism became the worship of the state-the zeal for diety worship was replaced with state worship-and no one could criticize the state.

    If this country became communist I’d hightail it as far away as possible. Try saying anything against the government, even disagreeing with it, under a communist regime and see what happenes to you. There are stories about people just walking down the street-and getting taken to the Gulag b/c there were “quotas” to fill. Or a woman who went to report to the police about an abandoned baby whose parents had died-she was sent to Siberia for “disturbing the police”. Or farmers being starved to death (30 million) for not agreeing with Stalin’s collective farm program. What about what is happening in China, Latin America, and Vietnam today? There is nothing rational about this. There may be several forms of communism, but in practice, they all seem to degenrate to the same type of oppression. So even if some of it is good in theory, it doesn’t seem to come of well at all in practice.

    No one ever said Marx claimed divine authority-but he wasn’t exactly a great prophet in some his predictions-he claimed that radical socialism, if it turned into communism would “free the worker”-and it just oppressed the worker in different ways. It ended up being getting rid of one opressive regime for another. Some of Marx’s ideas about socialism were very good, and about communism were good in theory, but communism doesn’t do so well in practice. George Orwell touches on this very well in his books.

    As for Hithchens, from what I heard, he was against dismnatling the Soviet Union, even though it oppressed many people. Yet he’s okay with invading Iraq?? Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris I do respect, but Hitchens is too full of contradictions for me.


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