Absurdities And Atrocities

Absurdities And Atrocities July 28, 2009

This story is beyond horrific:

The scene was so gruesome investigators could barely speak: A 3 1/2-week-old boy lay dismembered in the bedroom of a single-story house, three of his tiny toes chewed off, his face torn away, his head severed and his brains ripped out.

Officers called to the home early Sunday found the boy’s mother, Otty Sanchez, sitting on the couch with a self-inflicted wound to her chest and her throat partially slashed, screaming “I killed my baby! I killed my baby!” police said. She told officers the devil made her do it, police said.

Sanchez, 33, apparently ate the child’s brain and some other body parts before stabbing herself, McManus said.

In response, the “friendly atheist” Hemant Mehta references similar instances of psychotic episodes of mothers killing babies because of the devil or because of a desire to protect them from the devil and then he blames Christianity while saying he doesn’t blame Christianity:

I don’t know if these cases could’ve been prevented, but at some point in their lives, these killers were told that God and the Devil speak to humans. And if God tells you to do something, you’re supposed to follow it.

I’m not blaming the churches for this, but to paraphrase Voltaire, if you believe in absurdities, you’re likely to commit atrocities

I agree with those who say that it’s likely that regardless of whether or not she had the religious superstitions, she may have had the same sorts of psychotic episodes but interpreted them in a different way. I tend to think of our psychology as structured such frequently we think, act, or are impelled to act, and only after getting the impulse do we start to interpret what it means, or only after the act sometimes do we start to interpret what it means, etc.

In other words a psychotic impulse to do heinous things to her child took over this woman and she interpreted it within the categories available to her without their being the actual cause at all. I have a hard time seeing the religious beliefs specifically as causal here.

And Mehta does a disservice to Voltaire’s quote with both the way he paraphrases him and the way he employs him here. The quote is “those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” That has nothing to do with any likelihood that those who believe in absurdities will commit atrocities. Billions of Christians have believed in absurdities without personally committing any atrocities. They’re not likely, that’s an empirically flat out false assertion.

The point, however, is about the persuasive powers open to those who make others believe in absurdities. What’s the difference? The difference is that belief in absurdities does not lead to unrelated atrocities like the psychopathic ones in this horrible story of its own. The point rather is that anyone who you are willing to trust to the point that you willingly accept what they say even when it is absurd has the power to make you do things which also contravene your reason. It’s an argument about the political connection between commitment to reason and commitment to moral conscience and about how authoritarianism in reason leads to submission to authoritarian commands in behavior.

Since I’m certain no one gave this woman religious training which instructed her to eat children’s brains and stab herself (there’s some awful stuff in the Bible, but nothing THAT awful), this has nothing to do with what Voltaire warns about.

I’m all for pointing out the genuine culpability of religious influences where they lead to atrocities and I’m all for criticizing religion’s role in reinforcing the worst habits of human thinking and epistemic or moral justification—but to all appearances in this case this woman was simply psychopathic and no one is to blame but her violent brain chemistry.

And, finally, I’m disappointed that the self-designated “friendly atheist” would politicize the gruesome murder of a baby as a criticism of religion among sane people.  Not only is that not fair, it’s the furthest thing from friendly.

UPDATE: Mehta acknowledged our criticisms and offered an update atop his initial remarks.  You can read his new reply along with further thoughts from me on the subject of psychotic reasoning, the will to believe, and the religious interpretations of the mentally ill here.

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