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.