Saturday, March 22, 2008

Evil and Sin

 
Yesterday's issue of the Toronto Star had an article on The fundamentalist atheists.

I'm getting real tired of hearing this phrase but I haven't completely given up trying to understand what people mean when they use it. In this case, the article is by Stuart Laidlaw, who is billed as the "faith and ethics" reporter. Laidlaw is commenting on a recent talk by Chris Hedges. Hedges seems to be one of those "sophisticated" Christians who have all the answers.1 Naturally, he denigrates the "new atheists" like Richard Dawkins because they just don't understand serious Christianity.

Serious Christians seem to be very concerned about evil and sin.
Hedges, in Toronto recently to promote his book, attacks both fundamentalists and the new breed of atheists as not only intolerant, but wrong about both the Jesus story and the nature of sin.

Sin, he says, is a personal thing that will always be with us. Humans will never outgrow it through evolution, as the atheist authors contend, nor can anyone (Jesus included) relieve us of it, as fundamentalist Christians believe, Hedges says.

The best we can do, he says, is try to mitigate evil by living a good life, and having democratic institutions in place to ensure that we can get rid of bad leaders from time to time.
Sin, as I understand it, is when you violate a moral rule of some kind. It usually means you are disobeying the wishes of supernatural beings. It's not a word used by atheists.

Evil is something I can understand. People do bad things. Religious people do bad things and atheists do bad things. No atheist that I know would ever claim that humans will evolve to the point where they don't do bad things. What a ridiculous idea. What in the world is Hedges thinking?
For fundamentalists, evil and sin are an external force – often represented by Satan – to be vanquished by giving yourself over to Jesus. For the new atheists, evil and sin are the fault of religion, and can be defeated by getting rid of all religion and giving yourself over to scientific, reasoned thought.

For Hedges, it's the same argument: People are basically good, but external forces make us do bad things. Get rid of those forces, and people will be good.

No more effort is needed to achieve utopia, he says.
Just because religions can be evil does not mean that all evil is due to religion. No atheist believes this, as far as I know.

I believe that people are basically good but they still do bad things and they don't need external forces to do them. People are quite capable of being evil all by themselves. What in the world motivates people like Hedges to make up false stories about athiests? It makes him look very silly.

The question of evil and sin seems to be so intertwined with the existence of God that religious people (Christians?) seem to have difficulty untangling them. They seem to think that atheists are as obsessed about evil and sin as they are when, in fact, most of us don't give it much thought. Perhaps that's because we don't have to deal with the paradox of a good God who allows evil and sin?
Hedges draws a distinction between the new breed of atheists and such past non-believers as Albert Camus or scientists of the Enlightenment, whose skepticism he says helped drive human knowledge and understanding.

But Hedges has few such hopes for the new atheists. Where atheists of the past used their disbelief as a stepping off point to find something else to believe in, the new atheists claim to have already found it in what he calls a "cult of science."

Anything that can't be proved scientifically is simply discounted, Hedges says, warning that such a narrow approach to study thwarts the pursuit of knowledge by denying a voice to those who disagree.
The "new atheists" claim there are no supernatural beings because there's no evidence of such beings. This has nothing to do with evil and sin. When are these sophisticated Christians going to address the real question instead of going off on weird tangents? If they have a good argument for the existence of god then let's hear it. Otherwise, their "sophistication" looks more like "obfuscation" to me. (Or like The Emperor's New Clothes and the Courtier's Reply.)

It's time to stop whining and face up to the real question. Is there a god? Questions about evil and sin are irrelevant until that question is settled.


1. In spite of his confusion about religion, he seems to be a pretty good guy. He was right about Iraq, for example.

18 comments :

  1. Another person that can't separate 'belief in belief' from 'belief in God'. It's like our failing is caring more about what is real than what others believe to be real.

    I don't know if Hedges is aware of this, but it still leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

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  2. And your criteria for 'good things' and 'bad things' are...?

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  3. "And your criteria for 'good things' and 'bad things' are...?"

    Any particular reason why this is relevant?

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  4. Why believe people in general are "good", isn´t the world easier to understand if you assume people to be "evil" or at best basically indifferent?
    Anders Eg

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  5. Maybe you're just too boneheaded to grasp their thinking or unwilling to make an effort, and your swollen ego is getting in the way. I'm sure you're a great biochemist, but that expertise apparently isn't transferable to other domains.

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  6. I could be wrong, but it looks like Rosie is suggesting that we (atheists) cannot account for good and evil without some external force.

    This whole argument was shown to be faulty, and more importantly, just as problematic for a theist, by Plato more than 2000 years ago (Eurythro dilemma).

    We should admit that when it comes to morality, we are all scratching around for answers.

    "Maybe you're just too boneheaded to grasp their thinking or unwilling to make an effort, and your swollen ego is getting in the way. I'm sure you're a great biochemist, but that expertise apparently isn't transferable to other domains."

    Yes, because their thinking is just too sophisticated for us mortal atheists. Never mind the fact that it often amounts to gibberish, or that much of what they say about us simply doesn't reflect reality.

    It only requires us to be able check whether any of the things that are associated with the atheists in question, were actually said by them.

    I'm sorry that you seem to be under the impression that it requires a great thinker to do that. It says more about you than anyone else.

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  7. For the new atheists, evil and sin are the fault of religion, and can be defeated by getting rid of all religion and giving yourself over to scientific, reasoned thought.

    That seems awfully simplistic for Hedges. It may be accurate, but it does make me wonder if the reporter got it right.

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  8. I bet there are atheists that think religion = evil. I haven't met an atheist myself with this particular belief, but I've met atheists that believe in The Secret. After that, any atheist is possible, you know?

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  9. Chris Hedges is unfamiliar to me, but this is the second time a promo of his has surfaced today.

    Browsing quickly, Hedges gets one thing nearly correct: There is nothing intrinsically moral about being a believer or a nonbeliever. This is an admittance that morals can be independent of religion, but is sadly based on equivocation.

    In every aspect he continues to try to map atheists one-to-one onto religious believers - atheism is "a belief system", it believes in a ladder of progress (progress is defined as "salvation" through science and technology, and seems thus to be transformed to moral progress), atheists reject the wisdom of "Original Sin" (unspecified flaws of human nature), evolution is "Darwinism" and atheists purposely misuse the science in it:

    The New Atheists misuse Darwin and evolutionary biology as egregiously as the Christian fundamentalists misuse the Bible. Darwinism, which pays homage to the final and complete mastery of our animal natures, never posits that human beings can transcend their natures and create a human paradise. It argues the opposite. The illusion of human progress, in the name of evolutionary biology, is actually anti-Darwinian. And in this the New Atheists are neither honest about science or Darwin. Science is used by them to supplant religion to provide meaning and hope. It is used to assuage these innate religious yearnings. Since scientific knowledge is cumulative, albeit morally neutral, it gives the illusion that human history and human progress is also cumulative. And in many ways science has simply replaced the faith our pre-modern ancestors had in God.

    I think Larry has his work cut out for him. Might as well start with the mistakes on science in this Gish gallop.

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  10. anonymous says,

    Maybe you're just too boneheaded to grasp their thinking or unwilling to make an effort, and your swollen ego is getting in the way. I'm sure you're a great biochemist, but that expertise apparently isn't transferable to other domains.

    There are two separate issues here. It's true that I'm too boneheaded to understand their point, although I'm really trying. Trust me on this.

    Perhaps you could help out, since you seem to be on top of the issue? What, exactly, is the point of defending the existence of supernatural beings by talking about good and evil?

    The other issue is not about whether I, as an atheist, understand their thinking but whether they, as believers, understand atheists. On that point there's no debate. Hedges and his colleagues are miserable failures when it comes to understanding those of us who have not succumbed to belief in supernatural beings.

    Yet that doesn't prevent them from writing silly books about "I Don't Believe in Atheists." What do you think about that? Do you understand the lack of belief in supernatural beings or are you one of those people who think that only atheists can be boneheaded?

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  11. rosie writes,

    And your criteria for 'good things' and 'bad things' are...?

    I'd be happy to explain how people make decisions about what's good and bad but first I'd like to know where you are coming from.

    Are you one of those people who think that belief in supernatural beings is a necessary requirement for societies to reach a consensus on what's good and what's evil?

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  12. Torbjörn says,

    I think Larry has his work cut out for him. Might as well start with the mistakes on science in this Gish gallop.

    Gosh, according to one reader, I'm too boneheaded and to egotistical to figure out what's wrong with Hedges' view of evolution.

    According to most believers, the sort of writing that you quoted is very sophisticated and intellectual. It shows that Christian apologists are much smarter that those phony new atheists who can't reason their way out of a wet paper bag.

    I wish I could convince those believers that the things written by Christian apologists about science and atheism are mostly stupid and nonsensical. It's the opposite of intellectual.

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  13. > Larry Moran: What, exactly, is the point of defending the existence of supernatural beings by talking about good and evil?

    This seems more a negative argument, that the atheists should stop talking about science as if it was a demi-god. No more demi-goddery, and this was especially prevalent in the Enlightenment, as I understand it.

    See "Eugenics and Other Evils" by Chesterton.

    > I'd be happy to explain how people make decisions about what's good and bad ...

    I think Hedge's concern is *why*, if they are atheists. That's my concern too.

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  14. the atheists should stop talking about science as if it was a demi-god

    As Moran so wisely points out, theists have a very hard time to let go of "belief in belief". A fact is like a hammer, it can hit hard. No reason for demi-worship, and especially among individuals that actively reject worship.

    I think Hedge's concern is *why*, if they are atheists.

    Repeating the lie that atheists can't have morals don't make it so - they observably have. And the reason for social animals having moral behavior is known, so religious special pleading is to no avail.

    But I fully expect to see this empty claim repeated in about 10 threads or so.

    I think my concern is why creationists are incapable of learning to avoid repetitious lies. See, that is a problem for biology and neuroscience as we know it.

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  15. > tobjorn: No reason for demi-worship, and especially among individuals that actively reject worship.

    That's exactly the point. But naturalists did (and some still do) talk as if science was The Hope of Mankind, and seek to build a superman, etc.

    > Repeating the lie that atheists can't have morals don't make it so - they observably have.

    The question is *why* should they have morals? I see no reason for the word "should" in this regard for atheists, as in "I should do this for a moral reason." Unless they mean "I should do this because I think I should do this," which is rather a tautology.

    Whence morality, if everyone is their own moral arbiter? For knowing now that evolution gave me impulses, why should I let them dictate my behavior?

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  16. @ lee:


    But naturalists did (and some still do)


    You are going from claiming that all atheists had such a view, to that it is a historical view with few supporters. Which is it?

    And how do you reconcile this with that atheism is simply an absence of belief, not a claim on science?


    The question is *why* should they have morals?


    And *why* is there something rather than nothing?

    - Why not?


    why should I let them dictate my behavior?


    You are bait-and-switching the question if there naturally is morals.

    And it comes out as an is-ought fallacy. Evolved traits on behavior exist, but it doesn't follow that they are a good way to act in a society.

    And the same goes for religious claims on moral. The question which is beneficial morals is decided in a social context.

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  17. Lee -

    Of course, like most religious people engaging in this argument, you gloss right past the fact that any behavior that is the result of a fear of eternal punishment for behaving otherwise cannot be considered moral. When a religious person thinks "I should do X for a moral reason," what that really mean (whether they know it or not) is "I should do X because if I don't, I will burn in hell for all eternity." It's pure self-preservation, no matter how you try to pretty it up with dogma and rationalizations.

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  18. I could be wrong, but it looks like Rosie is suggesting that we (atheists) cannot account for good and evil without some external force.

    Here's someone who thinks that good is a "problem" for atheists: Rev. Greg Cootsona.

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