xPrae: How I defeated you so soundly (part 3: What does atheism have to do with the superiority of farming?)

The latter of the two seamless discussions xPrae and I were having the was about ‘Humanised’ religion, where, I argue, the ethics of humanism altered the way people read their religious text and, specifically, ignore the horrid parts. It was borne out of the former discussion about atheism’s role in the tyrannies of the modern-Western-consensus-World: Hitler and the Nazis; Stalin and Marxism; Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge and farming economies; and Mao and economically regressive, dogmatic socialism. Between them, xPrae claimed, they have a total body count of 120 million people. That’s probably about accurate, but I didn’t check the figure for several reasons: my interlocutor abhors citations and so disagreements about figures would never be settled, and their body count is irrelevant to my counter-point. (There is a third reason, which is that I wanted to accuse my interlocutor of falling foul of Moore’s Law of Nazi Analogies, but apparently all our discussion had to be “original thought”. I don’t know the last time an original though actually took place, nor why we are ignoring every great thinker that precedes us, but I played the game xPrae set out.)

My counter-argument is that it makes no sense to blame atheism for these atrocities. Although the named tyrants do seem to show a correlation, they are a nasty example of a selection bias. Jorge Rafael Videla’s Christianity never came up, and neither did the peaceful administration of the atheist prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. Examples of peaceful atheists with power and tyrannical Christian leaders abound, but listing them never happened. In part this was because I suspected from previous comments that xPrae would employ the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, but also because it would have been source-duelling. So I allowed the false-correlation to stand.

I allowed the false-correlation to stand because the fact the correlation could only be supported by careful selection bias also wasn’t my point. See, there’s genuine correlation between divorce rates in Maine and the per capita consumption of margarine in the US. The same is true for the number of Nicolas Cage films released in a year and the number of US deaths in a swimming pool. A correlation tells you precisely nothing, no matter how compelling it is (or one could make it seem by selecting their facts very carefully). One actually needs an explanation. It is only an explanation of a correlation that permits itself to accusation or blame. Margarine is not to blame for divorce in Maine, nor vice versa (although, I’m not ruling out Nicolas Cage films causing drownings in swimming pools).

If you want an explanation of how one gets to the tyranny alluded to, I offered an explanation: the belief in absolute superiority. That has explanatory power, and is something I think is best avoided. Hitler believed, unwaveringly, in the superiority of the German ‘race’; Pol Pot believed, infallibly, in the superiority of agrarian economies (and eventually in his own paranoid delusions); Stalin believed, uncritically, in the superiority of socialism. It is these absolutist beliefs, that each individual refused to accept criticism of, that I think best explains what it is they did.

(As a momentary almost-philosophical aside, I am a fallibilist. That’s an attitude that goes alongside my ontology―what I think we can know about the world―and my epistemology―how I think we can know about the world. Fallibilism is the stance that all knowledge and explanations are provisional; better explanations may be attainable, but at any given time we are working toward the best explanations available. This attitude is a self-cleaning mechanism that relies on being willing to criticise one’s own thoughts, especially the ones thought to be above criticism.)

Atheism has none of the traits that permit it to be elevated to the position of absolute superiority. This is because it has precisely no content and no pretensions to offer insights into any questions. Atheism doesn’t address questions of ethics or knowledge. It is merely a label applied to people who are not (yet) convinced of a God. The label encompasses those who are yet to conceive of a God, like the very young; those whose ontology doesn’t expand into those sorts of realms of existence, inclusive of most varieties of agnostic atheism; and those whose epistemologies allow them to evaluate that insufficient evidence or evidence of the wrong form currently are known to them. Atheism relates only to the question of God, and answers “not convinced”.

This is the problem of the label “atheism”. So much baggage has been added that if I had guest-posted this at xPrae’s blog, by now, many of the readers would probably be outraged that I would suggest atheism isn’t what they think it is, with all the dogma they’ve attached to it. Atheism is too quickly, and too intentionally, confused with secularism and anti-theism (but not with Humanism, and I don’t know why), and secularism is too readily confused as an infringement on religious rights. This isn’t just biased baggage, it is outright wrong. As a secularist, I support and value your right to religious freedom and reject anti-theism. I have religious secular friends who realise that only secularism can protect their and everyone else’ religious rights.

One may argue, and xPrae may have (but he’s not articulate enough for me to be sure), that religion necessarily excludes the self-aggrandising certainty and and absolute dogma that lead to the tyrannies; religion teaches humility. I think it is very hard to argue that is true given a reading of Christian history. Christians may have been humble to other Christians, but they believed they had God on their side and, despite personal humility (maybe), in the superiority of their faith. That has lead to tyrannies, and any interested reader could list five off right now.

In more extreme cases, atheism is equated to Marxist-Leninist Atheism (M-LA). But, a little reading on what M-LA is shows that it was actually an anti-theistic position, which―although compatible with atheism―cannot be what atheism is. After all, M-LA is also compatible with all hair styles, facial hair, and genders. Yet, we hold none of these responsible for M-LA. Conceivably, although admittedly unlikely, M-LA is even compatible with Christianity. It is consistent for a person to believe in the truth of Christianity and yet also believe that Christianity and its followers stand in the way of M-LAist’s progress and power, and therefore that both must be destroyed. If it’s compatible with a religion, it is in no way dependent on atheism.

More importantly M-LA isn’t a problem by itself. If someone holds that position, but is not absolute about that positions and has left room for some doubt, then it’s difficult to imagine how dictatorial tyranny could grow up out of that.

Atheism itself, despite the content many commentators have appended to it, is content free. As a reader, you need to step back from the media outlets you frequent for a moment and decide not which source you find more reliable―me or them―but which explanation seems more reasonable.

Without content, atheism simply cannot lead to the tyrannies of the modern-Western world. No causative explanation exists. Arguably, atheism permits everything and some may stretch that to mean atheism is responsible for all atrocities. But that is only because atheism doesn’t address answers of politics or ethics. For those answers, you need to find something different: a worldview. A worldview with content. Secularism and humanism, respectively, give answers to politics and ethics. (But I’d advocate a pinch of fallibilism to go alongside them.) But they don’t lead to atrocity, either.

It is, therefore, absolute certainty and dogma I wish to blame for the tyranny. Hitchens used to say the tyranny came from those tyrants and tyrants like them (North Korea comes to mind) not because they had atheists at the helm, but because the ideas they held operated so much like a religion. David Deutsch calls these kind of ideas non-rational memes: part of the idea is that it shields itself from criticism, so any calls to violence or dehumanising of opposition goes uncontested precisely because the idea demands that all opposition fall on deaf ears. But, really, there’s no good reason to abandon the word “dogma”. This is why you can tell someone probably has a bad idea when they must demonise their opposition, because they are not open to criticism. And they are willing to kill for it. They are ideas that operate so much like a religion.


29 thoughts on “xPrae: How I defeated you so soundly (part 3: What does atheism have to do with the superiority of farming?)”

  1. If you have seen the final scene in Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, he makes the very same point (It is, therefore, absolute certainty and dogma I wish to blame for the tyranny.), quite dramatically.

    1. Unfinished sentence, wrongly ENTER.

      The reality is Atheist in come in a package too. It true that Atheist only discuss about the existing on existing of God and argument of religion. But many have forget Atheist is also human that need to be interact with politic, social justice, ethics, etc. Therefore, which ideology that lean toward Atheist is secularism, liberalism etc, etc which may not 100% true but majority of Atheist were secular/liberal/ the ideology that suite them or lean to them.

      As my understanding of human, creed that a huge biased toward their ideology even Atheist. As Atheist, even you may deny or whatever, the idea “God may not here” or “there was no God” or “I not sure the existing of God”. Each individual “creed” this sense, will adopt the most nearest political ideology that suit them.

      This human thinking system, you are unable to run away.

      You said “Arguably, atheism permits everything and some may stretch that to mean atheism is responsible for all atrocities.”
      I not agree that Atheist responsible to all atrocities, but..

      Example in major Islamic thinking, we have method of “All halal, except thing that haram”. In non-Muslim word, everything/action in this world are all permissible, except that are not permissible. In between are of permissible/ non permissible are syubahah (undetermined).

      The issue, if I refer statement above, I also “liberal with limits”. The issue with liberal atheist, you don’t have a limit to you action (in a sense of philosophically) . Even, my limit are determined by religion (which may some of you said outdated), at least I have a limit. The issue of I follow or not, there are 2 separated issue.

      Example as simple of stealing, philosophically, how you determined stealing is wrong? If I change the word as “stealing” as “taking” as many political does and I lobby for it. All I need is justification and “correction” to original word.

      1. Atheists may come as a package, but atheism does not. The “package” the atheist comes as is a person. The atheist person may be secular, nihilistic, utilitarian, a ‘situationist’, Kantian, rational, sceptical, liberal, conservative, environmental, anthropocentric, progressive, socialist, totalitarian or anything else. There is no way of establishing a link between atheism and anything else that person believes. And, for that reason, nothing an atheist believes can be definitive of atheism. So, no, there is no ‘package’ associated with atheism. There is only a package associated with individual atheist people.

        As for atheism having no limits, this is correct. Atheism does not purport to have ethical constructs or moral imperatives. It is the individual who has ideas that are not related to atheism that has ‘limits’. To say being liberal doesn’t have limits is simply wrong: liberals and progressives are against inequality and against the suppression of free speech. That is a clear limit.
        There are ‘syubahah’ or undetermined areas, like where incitement to violence and free speech meet, but there are basic limits.

        1. Atheism does not purport to have ethical constructs or moral imperatives.

          Actually, that the real problem of Atheism, no moral ideology. I do not know you understand that as a problem or advantage to Atheism. I see that is a big mess that will collapse the idea of Atheism. Eventually, in Western are using Christian moral ideology as basic or fundamental to cope with current moral studies.


          You said : “To say being liberal doesn’t have limits is simply wrong: liberals and progressives are against inequality and against the suppression of free speech. That is a clear limit.
          like where incitement to violence and free speech meet, but there are basic limits.”

          That is a goal, That is not a clear limit. We have seen free speech have turn to bad/bashing speech. We have seen progressive against inequality turn up to biased towards certain ideology/principle.
          the factual here is, this ideology do not incorporate the reality of human are ego, lustful, etc, anger.

          Any religion have their own constructive moral discipline, Atheism do not have.

          Example Free Speech, there a Islamic rules mention “Do not hurt other people by word”, “Do not slander”, Do False Claim”, “Tell only The Truth”, “Do not Lie”. This is clear limit in free speech.

          Even though, we have a clear limit that being determined by religion, human have capabilities to slander, false claim, etc. It happen to us. An ideology that that teach and apply discipline in their teaching.

          Atheism do not have all this teaching, etc. Are expecting me that the ideology that do not teach a limit will breach/exaggerated.
          For me, the reasoning are simple – If an ideology/religion that keep teaching moral/ethics/disciplines also have a issue of moral among their follower, the ideology that do not have moral discipline are more worse.
          What you do have that we don’t have that make you so confident that Atheist (not Atheism) are not exaggerated and not lean toward violence?

          Syubahah or undetermined area also happen to any ideology, and that is the area that people move progressively. Undetermined area are not necessary bad. If the law are to tight, our life is bind and being cuff. If the law are too liberate, our life is lawless. Undetermined area is a place that we move around to live.

        2. It not answering the question but I would like to answer your Q.

          Believe in unicorn?
          It depend on how you see it, unicorn is considering a “undetermined area”. It may real and it may false. The probability of the existing of unicorn is there even it was 0.1%.
          In encyclopedia, there are more weird animal that I still fascinated that they are existed. If I believe in Unicorn it doesn’t make a more weird.
          Horse with horn? What the issue here. At least, the family of goat, cattle all have horn.
          Have seen Narwhal. A sea creature with single horn is more weird.

        3. You’re a scientifically minded person. You know that if you believe there is a 0.1% chance of something being true then really you believe it’s not true to p=0.1
          A quick reminder about philosophy: ‘I do not believe a unicorn exists’ is not the same as ‘I believe unicorns do not exist’.

          I’ll change the question, but it will be the same idea. I need your answer so that I can address the last comment you made.
          Do you believe in Russell’s teapot; a teapot in orbit around the moon?

  2. “Do you believe in Russell’s teapot; a teapot in orbit around the moon?”

    If I life in Russell time, I may not believe it. How to put teapot in orbit in those time?

    But, I live in 20th century where space shuttle available if I have money. Bring the teapot in orbit at right position, it may orbit around the moon. When Russell give this statement, this space shutter in unthinkable.

    “where F gravity is the attractive gravitational force between two objects of mass M1 and M2 separated by a distance r. The constant G in the equation is called the Universal Constant of Gravitation.”

    I left this equation Keplar & Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation for about 9 years during my study. Just based on equation philosophy, If can find constant G, I will able to make a teapot orbit the moon.

    I can just prove it by putting the teapot and bring it by shutter at the orbit. This analogy is are no more applicable in this century.

    I read a full statement of Russell Teapot analogy, therefore here another answer.

    In Malay idiom have a same analogy “To look for a lost needle in desert”. Meaning – Foolish thing, waste of time. We give a better solution, go buy a needle in Tesco is more proper way to do it.
    I believe there are a needle in a desert, but it not worth of time too look for it.

    Same go to this Russell teapot, is it important for me to look for a teapot? If I don’t think it important, I don’t bother to think about it exist or not. To believe it, it doesn’t necessary I need to look for it.
    Come to Malaysia, I buy you 5 Chinese Teapot for you.

    1. Next time I’m in Penang it would be great to meet you.
      The point is I am trying to find something you don’t believe. But you’re inventing elaborate reasons you might believe. Where is your sceptical and critical thinking?

  3. I do elaborate that because I do believe that type of argument is a waste of time and effort. It totally unreasonable to proof or disproved it.

    Skeptical and critical thinking are not important here because the result of argument either believe or not to believe is not important. The issue are to small to acknowledge it, It not going to change my life anyway.

    Here, I being skeptical and criticize by giving an odd answer which I believe you don’t expect it. I also given a solution to it, which “leave it, it a waste of time” and I emphasize on looking on important thing rather than look on small/ unnecessary issue.
    Do I not be skeptical and critical?

    Contact me when you are here.

    1. Hifzan, we have been talking to each other since 2011. You know I don’t engage in the asinine arguments. There is a good reason I am asking you about Russell’s teapot and unicorns. You are being dense and obtuse. You are rationalising belief in unicorns and teapots to avoid telling me whether you believe in them.
      I refuse to patronise you. You clearly don’t believe in Russell’s teapot. So, I am going to proceed as if you had said “I don’t believe in Russell’s teapot”.

      The question is simply this: what moral ideology do you derive from not believing in Russell’s teapot?

    2. Also, in the future, do not decide for me whether what I am asking you is important. Especially, do not decide for me what is important when you don’t even know what point I am trying to make.
      You come to my blog and attempt to have a discussion and then avoid my questions.

      Asking you whether you believe in unicorns and Russell’s teapot was not an unnecessary aside. It was important to my point. My point was that being absent a belief–like not believing in a God or in Russell’s teapot–doesn’t inform moral decisions. Absence of beliefs have no moral ideology attached, precisely because they are not beliefs. My moral ideas come from a different place entirely.

      Your criticism of atheism as not having a moral ideology is a confused idea. Atheism is the absence of a single belief: that a God exists. It has no moral ideology because it is not that kind of domain of thinking. I’m sorry to be blunt about this, but the criticism is simply stupid.

  4. What moral ideology do you derive from not believing in Russell’s teapot?

    Sorry to say, I don’t see any correlation that I can make between “Not believing in Russell Teapot” and “Moral Ideology”. It totally 2 different things.


    For me, I am not avoiding the question. I clearly given an odd answer and it may true too, to see the another point of view that may I not see before, “what if I say this”, “what if I say that”, “what if I give a different answer” and we may see a different angle in same issue. Why I should look a mainstream ideas?

    For me discussion is my method to get a new knowledge and new perspective of philosophy and life. Nothing more.

  5. Did you notice that you are comparing the correlation between “teapot” and “moral”?


    If I change the a question a bit,
    “Not believing in political party” and “Moral Ideology”. It will make the whole discussion in a new different perspective which make the earlier correlation between “teapot” and “moral” are no more justifiable.

    1. Okay. I’ll try it. Let’s see what happens…
      I do not believe in David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party.
      Ah, see… now that tells you nothing about a moral ideology either.

      Okay, let’s try again: I do not believe in Karl Marx.
      It happened again. Regardless of whether I believe in Marx, it tells you nothing about how I feel about Marxism.

      We’ll try one more: Confucius, I do not believe in him.
      Once more, that gives you no information about moral ideology.

      My moral ideas are no more tied in in a teapot than they are Sam Harris or David Deutsch (the people I would cite most often in an essay). If you could prove neither of them ever existed, it would have precisely no impact on my moral idea.

  6. Our discussion are quite stray away to original topic, which I question in bold above.

    It quite understandable that “thing that NOT being believe” will not lead anything to “moral”, but that not the real question that being asked. When you asked about Unikorn or teapot, it already make a discussion straw away too much.

    I was a English outsider, I need to use a “standard” word to communicate, which I use “Believe” as

    “to have confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, although without absolute proof that one is right in doing so” (Dictionary)

    To understand this, believe is a must in “moral idea” or most of anything in the world? Therefore, the question in bold above are still valid unanswerable.

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