Saturday, October 17, 2009

Atheism And The Escape From Responsibility

I heard a couple of times about a theist making the claim that the only reason that someone was an atheist was so that the atheist could do whatever he wanted without being held responsible. I've also heard an atheist complain about theists making this type of accusation. What really gets me is that the theist didn't offer anything to support his claim, and the atheist did not offer anything to support the opposite (not that he even claimed the opposite was true). Either way, both people were simply complaining about the other.

I want to offer a couple possibilities for why this might happen. First, I want to make it clear that the initial claim by the theist is an ad-hominem attack. The accusation targets the atheist's character. This has no bearing on whether the atheist is right or wrong, or whether or not his arguments hold up to scrutiny. As I mentioned in my post "This Argument is Full of Crap!", ad-hominem attacks typically start showing up when the person attacking feels that their argument has been overcome or that the opposition's argument cannot be answered.

This however, may not be the case in a situation like this. This may be a (poor) attempt by the theist to get to a deeper personal issue. Many of us have personal reasons for believing a certain way. Many of us also might be embarrassed by those reasons and prefer to keep them to ourselves. When we try to hide reasons that we may not feel to be solely adequate, we build up other arguments. Those arguments are a buffer that must be torn down before the real issue can be addressed. Depending on the level of embarrassment or hurt that is or was caused by that reason, we may or may not be willing to remove the buffer for others to address. Those who operate like this tend to be "tough nuts to crack" for those of us who want to reach people on a personal (not just intellectual) level.

Notice how I mentioned that the attack on the part of the theist may be the result of something similar to what he has accused the atheist of. He has accused the atheist of being unwilling to admit that he doesn't want to be held responsible for immoral acts (that society looks down upon or is in direct conflict with the theist's moral beliefs). Yet the theist makes this claim against the atheist because he may be embarrassed that he can't answer an argument he knows is legitimate. This, I believe, is more often the case than the possibility I described in the last paragraph (I included that paragraph because I wanted to acknowledge that it does happen).

Now, is the atheist justified in complaining about the attack? Sure, but complaining is not addressing. In such a situation the atheist does not have to acknowledge that the theist is correct or incorrect about his motives. He could simply point out that his motives do not determine truth, nor do they hold bearing on the validity of his arguments. The atheist also has the option to defend against the accusation. Who the atheist is talking to may determine which option he takes. The first is quite easy, but it could be interpreted by the theist as a verification with an unwillingness to admit or defend the unsavory position. The second is tougher, takes more time and patience; but if it is conducted properly, the theist can be stopped in his tracks. Of course, the second option is also a red-herring, so it may not be the best choice in a formal debate; but casual conversations rarely stay "on topic", so it may be appropriate and may be worth the extra time and patience to clear up some confusion there. I must caution the atheist that if the accusation is, in fact, true; then he will have a difficult time with option two for obvious reasons, and option one will be the only option available; but then the atheist is in the uncomfortable position of being psychoanalyzed correctly by his opponent (who wants to admit that?!).

Of course, this can all be turned around to where the atheist makes the claim that the theist only believes there is a God for any reason that is not valid (such as "indoctrination" by a parent or church). All my observations and recommendations follow here too. Its just the other way around.

Now that I've gone through all this, can it be prevented? What if the theist suspects that his candid claim is true? What if the atheist suspects that his candid claim is true? Neither of these should be ignored because they are foundational, and if recognized by the accused may lead to a fundamental change in worldviews. My suggestion is that if one wants to address this touchy subject, they need to be patient. This kind of intrusive accusation is best handled by a trusted friend, and even then, it needs to be slowly "teased" out. An abrupt accusation like the ones discussed above is one of the quickest ways to lose the trust of a friend.

5 comments:

  1. Hello again,

    Just picked another post at random...

    "Atheism And The Escape From Responsibility"

    Interesting, I always thought it was the theist who is trying to escape responsibility - funny really.

    Same data, different conclusions.

    How did this come about?

    My suggestion is that if one wants to address this touchy subject, they need to be patient.

    It isn't 'touchy' for me (though maybe I could do with a little more patient) – I’ve got nothing to hide, and no ‘feelings’ tied up and invested in my current conclusions – for me it comes down to this.

    To whom/what am I responsible?

    If you believe God (and a Christian God at that) than fine – this is a positive claim, and you should know where the burden of proof rests.

    So what are you saying with this post?

    Are you saying/suggesting that I ‘reject’ God because I want to burn, rape and pillage?

    If this is the case, why don’t I ‘burn, rape and pillage’?

    Why isn’t there more burning, raping and pillaging happening in more ‘atheist’ countries than the religious ones?

    Also I know you have not stated that I ‘reject’ God at all, since you would be aware that this would assume that I believed in God first to reject Him – makes no sense. I cannot reject my belief in the Sun.

    My position is that I do not believe in God (aka the Christian God) it is as simple as that.

    I cannot rule out all possible Gods, since I’ve not got the time… but whenever a theist has made a claim about their God, they have never been able to back it up positively with logic, reason or evidence.

    In conclusion then - since I do not believe in God I have to take responsibly for myself, children and community because I do not have the luxury of thinking I can pass all my responsibility onto some god.

    Take care

    Lee

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  2. Lee,
    I had to reread the post myself, because I'm confused about why you chose the topics that you did to address in your comment.

    Allow me to clarify:

    I am not making this accusation myself. I am addressing the theist who makes such an accusation of an atheist. I am stating that it is not academically honest nor wise- and could even be the result of the theist's own insecurities. This is an attempt to stop theists "in their tracks" regarding such an accusation.

    Notice that I do not limit such behavior to theists; atheists can exhibit such behavior also.

    Any accusation made by either side that runs along the lines of, "you only believe that way because..." is an accusation that should be avoided. It does not accomplish anything.

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  3. ""you only believe that way because..."

    What if the language was changed to "you believe that was because...." (the only is omitted).

    Is it really an accusation.... or can we phrase is as a question or statement?

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  4. Sam,
    The context of the discussion (or blog post) must be considered. Most of the time, that starting phrase (with or without the "only") is used as a red herring and an ad-hominem attack (as I mentioned in the post). As long as it is directly related to the discussion, and you provide evidence to support your "because..." part of the phrase, it is appropriate without the "only". If you wish to include the "only", you have to provide additional evidence that warrants the term "only".

    If someone is to make such a statement, it is their responsibility to follow it with support. If it is not followed with support, then it is an intellectually dishonest statement that adds nothing to the discussion except offense, which can further close doors to discussion.

    It can always be phrased as a question, but be careful of the language you use. If you were to include the "only" term, that will likely be the focus of the answer- "No, that is not the only reason; here's my other reasons..." If you really want to know if other evidence can be provided, then use "only"; however, if you want to challenge a specific evidence, exclude the term "only"- "Do you believe...because...?" That forces the focus to be on the specific piece of evidence.

    It is also wise to include a single piece of evidence at a time; otherwise, the answer may not focus on the challenge that you are really asking about. If you want the answer to be focused on a specificity, your question needs to focus on that specificity.

    Finally, be ready to accept an answer that you did not expect. I have found that many people answer my specific questions in ways that were totally opposite of what I expected them to answer. This is why such an accusation should be formed as a question. The question form allows the "accuser" or "questioner" to side-step the possibility of being seen as academically dishonest in his "accusation". The possibility does surface with how he handles the answer, though. If the answer was not what was expected, the "accuser" must release his expectation and work with the newly acquired understanding of the other's position; otherwise, they will be arguing against a strawman.

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  5. Hi Luke,

    Sorry for the delay in response – I forgot to subscribe so I didn’t notice until your reply

    I'm confused about why you chose the topics that you did to address in your comment.

    The clue is in the title of your post.

    “Atheism And The Escape From Responsibility”

    Sorry, but not yet being familiar to your writing style I took this at face value.

    Allow me to clarify:

    Thank you.

    I am not making this accusation myself. I am addressing the theist who makes such an accusation of an atheist.

    My apologies then – I thought that you were.

    This is an attempt to stop theists "in their tracks" regarding such an accusation.

    You have my support.

    Notice that I do not limit such behavior to theists; atheists can exhibit such behavior also.

    Atheist is such a large group/body of people.

    I do not have to agree with all of them.

    So yes – there are good atheists and bad.

    Any accusation made by either side that runs along the lines of, "you only believe that way because..." is an accusation that should be avoided. It does not accomplish anything.

    As Sam did – you should remove the ‘only’.

    “You believe that way because” seems a valid question/argument/line of investigation

    I doubt there is a single cause (only) to anything that I believe.

    I suspect you are a Christian because you did not have two Muslim parents and were not raised in a Muslim country.

    This might not be the only reason though :-)

    Lee

    ReplyDelete

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