Comforting Illusions: Reply to Steve Hays

Hays writes:

Militant atheists deem it their duty to disabuse Christians of their faith. Militant atheists think Christian theology is false, and they also think it’s morally wrong to believe falsehood.

I guess I am not a militant atheist. (As an aside, why is it common practice to refer to some atheists as “militant” or “avowed,” but one rarely, if ever, sees those adjectives in front of “Christian,” “Muslim,” “Jew,” or even “theist”?)

Hays describes a hypothetical scenario and then asks this.

From a secular standpoint, what should the doctor tell him? Should the doctor level with him, so that the dying, orphaned patient is in psychological agony for his remaining days or hours of conscious existence? Or should the doctor let the kid entertain a comforting illusion? Indeed, foster the illusion?

I would let the kid entertain a comforting illusion.

About Jeffery Jay Lowder

Jeffery Jay Lowder is President Emeritus of Internet Infidels, Inc., which he co-founded in 1995. He is also co-editor of the book, The Empty Tomb: Jesus Beyond the Grave.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/05868095335395368227 vjack

    By that odd definition, I'm guessing there are no "militant" atheists, but then again, I suspect we already knew that.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    Hi Jeff,

    I use "militant" to distinguish atheists who vigorously promote atheism, laboring to persuade others that atheism is true, from an atheist who doesn't feel duty-bound to make converts for the cause of atheism.

    It's a descriptive rather than pejorative label.

    Since Christianity is a missionary, evangelistic faith, the adjective "militant" would be redundant in this context, although there is the traditional designation of the "church militant" as well as traditional martial imagery for Christians.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    I'm surprised by your statement that "militant" is rarely used in connection with Muslims. I just Googled both terms in tandem, which generated 14 million instances of that very usage.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Steve — Thanks for the clarification and also for the correction regarding "militant Muslims." I haven't run across that phrase, but I accept the correction.

    I take you at your word that you were not using the word "militant" in a pejorative sense. Given that many other theists use that adjective (or "avowed") to describe atheists in a pejorative sense, however, I think it's useful to be aware of that fact when deciding whether to use it yourself.

    Related articles:
    * Link: The Myth of Militant Atheism
    *LINK: The Militant Atheists Must Have Done Something *Really* Bad This Time
    * Militant Atheists, Militant Christians

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11532683087210250003 Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    "Militant" in front of Muslim means "violent."

    But not in front of "atheist."

    Doesn't mean the same thing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    I vigorously promote atheism, laboring to persuade others that atheism is true, but I do not believe it is morally wrong to believe a falsehood.

    Mr Hays, am I "militant" or not?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    Maybe you're simply inconsistent.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Oh, I definitely smell an inconsistency around here somewhere.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    @Steve,

    A couple of points about your expression 'militant atheist', and about your reply to hiero5ant.

    a) Actually, there are Christians who do not believe that they have a moral obligation to convert other people to Christianity. I could tell you how to contact some of them if you like, though a more or less quick internet search would allow you to find plenty of cases.
    Regardless of whether that's consistent, the fact remains that there are those who have such a belief, and those who do not.

    b) Someone may well vigorously promote atheism, without believing that it would be immoral for her not to do so.
    She may well believe that promoting atheism is morally praiseworthy but not morally obligatory (or even neither morally obligatory nor immoral, for that matter; she may have non-moral reasons).
    Moreover, she may believe that it's morally praiseworthy to do that in most cases, but not in all of them. If you're suggesting that there is some inconsistency, I will ask what the reasons for that suggestion are.

    c) Also, your reply to hiero5ant 'maybe you're simply inconsistent' suggests that somehow there is at least a connection between his reply and some sort of inconsistency. You've not argued for that suggestion.
    One does not need to believe that, say, people who believe that vaccines cause autism are being immoral in order to feel motivated to educate them, either for their own sake or that of other people.
    One does not need to believe that, say, people who waste their money on mediums who take advantage of their credulity are being immoral in order to feel motivated to disabuse them of their mistake.
    Again, If you're suggesting that there is some inconsistency, I will ask what the reasons for that suggestion are.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Steve,

    Let me ask you something too:

    Let's suppose a family is in a terrible traffic accident. The parents and one daughter are instantly killed. The other daughter, her identical twin, is taken to the ER, still conscious. The daughter is put on life support. She’s suffered irreparable damage to vital organs. She will die from internal injuries in a few days. There is no medical treatment that could cure her injuries. She knows his family is dead. She is an atheist, as they all were.

    Suppose the attending physician is a Christian. 

    From your perspective, what should the doctor tell her?
    Should he tell her that if she does not convert to Christianity in her last days, she will suffer horribly for all of eternity, just as her twin sister, mother and father will so suffer?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    Angra Mainyu said…

    "Actually, there are Christians who do not believe that they have a moral obligation to convert other people to Christianity. I could tell you how to contact some of them if you like, though a more or less quick internet search would allow you to find plenty of cases."

    You're equivocating by referring to members of the religious left. Nominal Christians of the John Spong variety. No one takes that seriously, least of atheists.

    "Someone may well vigorously promote atheism, without believing that it would be immoral for her not to do so."

    That's just a paper theory. In practice, militant atheists promote atheism to the detriment of Christianity because they think Christianity is false, and they think it's morally wrong for Christians to believe falsehood. It's easy to demonstrate from the writings of prominent atheists that that's what is animating their opposition to Christianity.

    There's a strong, strident, moralistic tone to militant atheism. Disapproval for the egregious falsehoods of Christianity.

    "Also, your reply to hiero5ant 'maybe you're simply inconsistent' suggests that somehow there is at least a connection between his reply and some sort of inconsistency. You've not argued for that suggestion."

    I'm just operating at his level. I give minimalistic replies to his minimalistic statements. If he presents more of an argument, then I'll present more of a counterargument.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    Angra Mainyu said…

    "Should he tell her that if she does not convert to Christianity in her last days, she will suffer horribly for all of eternity, just as her twin sister, mother and father will so suffer?"

    He should share the hope of the gospel with her, telling her what's most relevant to her conversion.

    It's okay to be discreet and tactful.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Steve said: "You're equivocating by referring to members of the religious left. Nominal Christians of the John Spong variety. No one takes that seriously, least of atheists. "

    You're wrong. The use of the term 'Christian' to denote a number of sets of beliefs and believers, including many people who do not believe that they have a moral obligation to convert others, is pretty common.
    The use of the expression 'militant Christian' (like 'liberal Christian', 'conservative Christian', etc.), could help specify what branch

    By the way, there are many people who aren't particularly leftist, or rightist, and live their lives without trying to convert others, and without believing that they have a moral obligation to do so.

    I said:
    "Someone may well vigorously promote atheism, without believing that it would be immoral for her not to do so."

    You replied:
    "That's just a paper theory. In practice, militant atheists promote atheism to the detriment of Christianity because they think Christianity is false, and they think it's morally wrong for Christians to believe falsehood. It's easy to demonstrate from the writings of prominent atheists that that's what is animating their opposition to Christianity. "

    The reply simply fails to address the statement you're replying to.

    Again, my point is that someone may well vigorously promote atheism, without believing that it would be immoral for her not to do so.
    That is regardless of whether they believe it's sometimes, never or always immoral for Christians to believe falsehoods, and/or to believe the particular falsehoods of their religion, and or some of them.

    For that matter, even someone who believes that it's immoral may well promote atheism without feeling that she has a moral obligation to do so, just as a cop may well believe that the criminals she's arresting are immoral, but does not believe that she would be immoral if she retired, or that everyone else has a moral obligation to be a police officer.

    You seem to be confusing believing that one has a moral obligation to deconvert Christians with believing that Christians are being immoral. Those are two different matters.

    Incidentally, I've promoted atheism vigorously, and I still do when I have time. I do not believe I have a moral obligation to do so.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Steve said:
    "There's a strong, strident, moralistic tone to militant atheism. Disapproval for the egregious falsehoods of Christianity. "
    First, while that's often the case, that does not entail the belief that all Christians are being immoral. Rather, that's more focused on militant Christians.

    The reaction to non-militant Christians is far more variable among atheists who promote atheism. For instance, if someone is a Christian because they were indoctrinated as children, and have not engaged in any immoral actions as a result but just have their religious beliefs as a sort of safety blanket but do not actually try to live by the immoral teachings of the Bible (say, they pick and choose better than others), many atheists who promote atheism would not assess that they're being immoral.

    Second, you're still missing the point of that part of my reply, which is not about the moral assessment that atheists make about militant Christians (or non-militant ones, for that matter), but about the moral assessment that those atheists make about their own actions.

    Steve said: "I'm just operating at his level. I give minimalistic replies to his minimalistic statements. If he presents more of an argument, then I'll present more of a counterargument."
    No, you're not 'operating at his level'. Rather, he challenged your usage of the term 'militant atheist' by pointing out that he vigorously promotes atheism, laboring to persuade others that atheism is true, but does not believe it is morally wrong to believe a falsehood.
    It's a short reply, but a good challenge. You failed to meet that challenge, and instead suggested inconsistency. Well, then, I'm asking you to make your case, please.

    Steve said: "He should share the hope of the gospel with her, telling her what's most relevant to her conversion. "
    Such as?

    Suppose that the doctor tells her that Jesus offers eternal happiness.
    She replies something like: How do you know that? And what about my sister? What about mom and dad? Can they have eternal happiness too?

    What should he reply?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02647353730607650698 Hiero5ant

    Never fear, no one was under the misapprehension that you were attempting to make anything like a detailed argument.

    Look, it's very obvious to everyone what happened here. You used a bit of overheated rhetoric to express your point, got called on it, but your ego won't let you back down and say something sensible, like, "*sigh* fine. Of course I don't really think you have to believe 'it is always morally wrong to believe any and all falsehoods' in order to vociferously refute this one particular falsehood. That's silly. The point I was trying to make is I find the moralistic tone of many internet atheists off-putting."

    But now you're kind of stuck defending a claim everyone knows you don't really believe, and that's a shame.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    Angra Mainyu said…

    "You're wrong. The use of the term 'Christian' to denote a number of sets of beliefs and believers, including many people who do not believe that they have a moral obligation to convert others, is pretty common."

    Sorry to topple you from your self-appointed throne, but no one crowned you to say who's a Christian and who is not. Certainly I wasn't at the coronation.

    I realize that, as an atheist, it's adequate for you to define "Christian" in purely sociological terms. But, of course, that's a secularistic classification which reflects the perspective of an outsider.

    "Again, my point is that someone may well vigorously promote atheism, without believing that it would be immoral for her not to do so."

    A straw man. I didn't say militant atheists think it's wrong for *them* not to promote atheism. Rather, I said they think it's wrong to espouse false beliefs–like Christianity. And that's what logically motivates their aggressive efforts to convince others.

    "No, you're not 'operating at his level'. Rather, he challenged your usage of the term 'militant atheist' by pointing out that he vigorously promotes atheism, laboring to persuade others that atheism is true, but does not believe it is morally wrong to believe a falsehood."

    In other words, he fits Santayana's definition of a fanatic: redouble your efforts after you lose sight of your goal. Thanks for the clarification, though I'm not sure he's be so appreciative.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Steve said:

    "Sorry to topple you from your self-appointed throne, but no one crowned you to say who's a Christian and who is not. Certainly I wasn't at the coronation."

    The meaning of the words is determined by social usage.
    For instance, if most people in the US used the word 'Christian' to mean 'a person who believes that Zeus exists', then that would be a common meaning of 'Christian' in the US, even if there might be other, less common usages.

    My observation is that the word 'Christian' does apply, in at least one very common usage, to people who hold a variety of beliefs, and expressions like 'liberal Christian', 'conservative Christian', 'Eastern Orthodox Christian', and so on, give us more details about the person and/or set of beliefs we're talking about.

    If the term 'militant atheist' is a description of some subset of atheists based on their behavior, or some of their beliefs about what they ought to do, a similar term 'militant Christian' would also provide further information about a person (i.e., more information that merely 'Christian').

    "I realize that, as an atheist, it's adequate for you to define "Christian" in purely sociological terms. But, of course, that's a secularistic classification which reflects the perspective of an outsider."

    I do not 'define' the word 'Christian'. I try to use it as others do, because that's how humans communicate.

    Steve said: "A straw man. I didn't say militant atheists think it's wrong for *them* not to promote atheism. Rather, I said they think it's wrong to espouse false beliefs–like Christianity. And that's what logically motivates their aggressive efforts to convince others."

    No, there is no straw man on my part. You also said the following (bold mine): "Militant atheists deem it their duty to disabuse Christians of their faith."

    I'm telling you that many, perhaps most atheists who attempt to deconvert Christians do not believe they have a moral obligation to do so; in other words, they do not believe it's their duty to do so..

    They may well believe it's morally good for them to do so (or have other motivations and believe it's merely morally permissible for them to do so), but that's not the same as believing that it's morally obligatory for them do to so (i.e., it's not the same as believing that they have a duty to do so).

    I said:
    "No, you're not 'operating at his level'. Rather, he challenged your usage of the term 'militant atheist' by pointing out that he vigorously promotes atheism, laboring to persuade others that atheism is true, but does not believe it is morally wrong to believe a falsehood."

    You replied:
    "In other words, he fits Santayana's definition of a fanatic: redouble your efforts after you lose sight of your goal. Thanks for the clarification, though I'm not sure he's be so appreciative."

    Your reply is a gross misrepresentation of what I said. hiero5ant surely understood my reply, and so he has no problem with it. You misunderstood and misrepresented my reply, but that's not going to confuse him.

    Again, hier5ant does not believe that it is always morally wrong to believe any and all falsehoods. He just tries (his words) to disabuse others of some particular falsehoods.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    Angra Mainyu said…

    “The meaning of the words is determined by social usage…For instance, if most people in the US used the word 'Christian' to mean 'a person who believes that Zeus exists', then that would be a common meaning of 'Christian' in the US, even if there might be other, less common usages.”

    You have a talent for unintended absurdity. To begin with, you grossly oversimplify semantics. It’s not just “social usage” in general. Rather, meaning is frequently determined by the *relevant* language community. By a subset of language-users. For instance, jargon in physics is defined by physicists, not by the general public. If most Americans used the expression “collapse of the wave function” to mean “surfing a big wave,” that would hardly replace the meaning of the term in quantum physics.

    Religious communities have the right to define their own nomenclature.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    steve said: "You have a talent for unintended absurdity. To begin with, you grossly oversimplify semantics. It’s not just “social usage” in general. Rather, meaning is frequently determined by the *relevant* language community. By a subset of language-users. For instance, jargon in physics is defined by physicists, not by the general public. If most Americans used the expression “collapse of the wave function” to mean “surfing a big wave,” that would hardly replace the meaning of the term in quantum physics. "

    You misunderstand and misconstrue my words.
    Again, if most people in the US used the word 'Christian' to mean 'a person who believes that Zeus exists', then that would be a common meaning of 'Christian' in the US, even if there might be other, less common usages.

    And if most people in the US used the expression “collapse of the wave function” to mean "surfing a big wave", then that would be a common meaning of 'collapse of the wave function' in the US (which is what I said in the 'Zeus' case, mutatis mutandi), even if there might be other, less common usages, such as the technical usage in physics.

    Often, a majority in a group (say, a vast majority of Americans) use a term to mean whatever those who use it in a technical sense mean by it, so in that sense they let that subset determine the meaning.

    However, that is not relevant to the matter at hand, since the use of the term 'Christian' in many common social contexts denotes people who do not need to have the belief that they ought to try to convert others, so the expression 'militant Christian', if 'militant' means that they believe they ought to try to convert others, would as a matter of fact further information about the person.

    steve said: "Religious communities have the right to define their own nomenclature."

    Indeed. There is freedom of speech. What they do not have the right to is force others to follow their nomenclature.

    I see no evidence that a majority of Americans is letting people who adhere to the flavor of Christianity you adhere to (or any other minority) determine the meaning of the word 'Christian', as they allow physicists to determine the meaning of 'black hole'.

    In fact, the opposite seems to be the case, since there seems to be no majority letting a minority determine the meaning for them, excluding from the category 'Christian' those people who do not believe that they ought to try to convert others.

    Moreover, even if a majority allowed your community to define the meaning of the word 'Christian' for them, other minorities would have the right to their own nomenclature, and it would remain the case that if 'militant X' means someone with the belief that they ought to promote X, the 'militant Christian' would in many cases not be superfluous, as it would provide further information about a person in such cases in which the term 'Christian' is not being used in the sense in which your religious community uses it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Just to reduce the risk of another misconstruction of my position, when I say that there is freedom of speech and religious communities have the right to define their own nomenclature but not the right to force others to follow such nomenclature, I'm talking about morality, not about legal and/or constitutional issues in the US.

    A minority, or a majority, has the right to use the word 'Christian' in any way they please, but not to force others to adopt such a way.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16547070544928321788 steve

    Angra Mainyu,

    It doesn’t occur to you that my argument generates a dilemma for atheists Whichever horn of the dilemma you choose, you lose. If, on the one hand, atheists don’t think it’s wrong to entertain false beliefs, then it’s not wrong for Christians to entertain false beliefs. So why are atheists attacking Christian belief as if it's morally wrong to so believe?

    If, on the other hand, atheists do think it’s wrong, then you’ve conceded the other horn of my argument–with the cruel consequences thereof. Take your pick.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    steve,

    First, that is a false dilemma.
    It's immoral to kill other people in some cases, such as the case of serial killers killing people for fun, and many others.
    It's not immoral to kill other people in some cases, such as many cases of self-defense or defense of others in war, etc.
    Someone might disagree with that, but surely there is no contradiction in my position.
    It's perfectly consistent to say that some behaviors in the category 'A human being kills another human being' are immoral, and some other behaviors in that category are not immoral.
    As for the category 'a human holds false belief X', it's debatable whether that counts as 'behavior' (though Christians do hold that people choose what to believe), but regardless, it's a category that describes humans in certain cases, and it's perfectly consistent to hold that in some cases, the humans that meet the description are being immoral, and in some other cases, they are not.

    Second, in addition to the above, one may well hold that entertaining some belief is not immoral, but acting upon it while being aware of it is. There is a difference between believing P and being aware of P. It might be that it some cases, only when one is actually aware of P and persists in that belief and acts upon it, one is being immoral.

    So, there are many logically consistent options for an atheist.

    Third, if your "dilemma" were to hold, then it would be as bad for you as for the atheist.
    If you believe that it's always immoral to hold false beliefs, then the cruel consequences ensue.
    If you believe it's never immoral to hold false beliefs, then surely I'm not being immoral for believing that the biblical god is a non-existent monster, no better than Darth Vader.
    Why is it, then, that the biblical god is going to punish me for eternity, according to you?
    After all, there is nothing immoral in my belief that he's a non-existent monster, no better than Darth Vader, right?

    Fourth, while you've not stated your position, I'm curious.
    Which one of the following reflects your situation better?

    1) You believe it's always immoral to hold a false belief.
    2) You believe it's never immoral to hold a false belief.
    3) You believe it's sometimes immoral and sometimes not immoral to hold false beliefs.
    4) You're uncertain about the situation.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10289884295542007401 Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Aside: I see that Steve Hays has now called our very own Keith Parsons a "militant atheist." Hays has the freedom of speech, of course, to say this. But why say it? I understand that Hays says he is not using the term in a pejorative sense, but it would be nice if theists would stop using the term as a sort of umbrella label for outspoken atheists. As an alternative, I propose any of the following:

    * outspoken atheist
    * promoter of atheism
    * defender of atheism
    * (when it applies) atheist philosopher

    None of those have the negative connotation of "militant atheist."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16342860692268708455 Angra Mainyu

    Incidentally, Steve Hays seems to have no justification for the claim that Keith is a militant atheist, even by Hays' own definition of the term, since there is no justification for believing that Keith believes that he has a moral obligation to disabuse Christians of their faith.

    Does Keith believe that, were he to retire from arguing against Christianity altogether, he would be behaving immorally?
    I frankly doubt it, going by this post.

    Hays confuses the belief that spreading Christianity is immoral in some cases (or even believing in Christianity is immoral) with a belief that one has a moral obligation to deconvert Christians. But when I explained that error to him, he replied that I was attacking a strawman, and apparently he did not understand his error despite my repetitions and detailed clarifications.

    Oh, well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02653303041185240250 Emanuel Goldstein

    There are atheists in this world who are still imprisoning and killing Christians.

    And I know people like that right here in the Mid West, who, if they had the political power, would lock me up.

    You all know its true.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02056741861803706341 Unknown

    What I find interesting is why atheists use the term morality. Doesn't that term describe or define an intrinsic knowledge of right vs wrong? How does one know its wrong to murder another? Why do some outspoken atheists care what people believe if it doesn't matter? If as a Christian I am believing a lie and telling others about my false beliefs as claimed…who cares…we all die like dogs and slip into nothingness and this life is all there is right?


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