Stupid Papal Remark, No. 1064: the atheists are gonna kill us all

Beating up on the Pope is something of a lowest-common denominator among many bloggers – he is a large and tempting target. So I wouldn’t want to be pretentious by not joining in, would I?

Having arrived in Britain, he made the following remark:

“As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a ‘reductive vision of the person and his destiny’.”

This is fairly clear: it’s not that secularism (‘the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life’) may lead, or can lead, or has sometimes led, to ‘a reductive vision of the person’. It’s that it does lead there ultimately – i.e. it’s the reliable long-term outcome.

Of course, phrases like ‘a reductive vision of the person’ aren’t too inflammatory – after all, that might mean something like ‘reducing the span of a person’s life to only their mortal life’, which a lot of people would happily accept. But no: the immediate context is provided by this:

“we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many.”

So the reliable (not immediate, but reliable) outcome of secularism is the sort of ‘reductive vision’ manifested in industrial genocide. This is pretty extreme, even for God’s Bulldog.

But the underlying idea, that movement away from religious belief means movement towards wickedness and cruelty, is a long-standing staple of theistic rhetoric, sometimes expressed in the phrase “If God is dead, everything is permitted.”

This claim is wrong. It is very wrong, on multiple levels. So although you’ve probably heard much of this before, let’s go over why it, and the Pope’s specific version, are wrong.

1. The Nazis weren’t Atheists

This is the simplest, most boring point. The Nazis were certainly not strictly orthodox Christians, but they were more fond of the Catholic Church than they were of atheists. They believed in an intolerable mixture of occultish jibberish, and explicitly disparaged rationalism.

2. It’s not Atheism that’s Permissive

If God exists, and moral authority resides in Him, and if He communicates directly with humans, then He can waive any moral constraint that might bind you. To quote Zizek

“if God exists, then everything…is permitted — at least to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, since, clearly, a direct link to God justifies the violation of any merely human constraints and considerations.”

Note that this might be mitigated by a postulate of Divine Intelligibility – “were God to command us to torture children, then we would be permitted to, but fortunately we can know in advance that God will never command such a thing”. There are two problems with this: firstly, if we associate God with actual religion then He has quite often commanded us to torture children, and indeed to violate probably any ethical restraint you care to mention.

Secondly, if God’s supposed goodness allowed this sort of confident prediction, it would also allow us to confidently predict that we wouldn’t live in a world awash with apparently-pointless suffering. Since we do, we must conclude that God is at worst eager to destroy and hurt us, or at best completely inscrutable. In which case, it’s quite plausible that this mysterious being might suddenly command slaughter, mayhem, and cruelty.

3. Theism has no Advantage over Atheism in Defending Moral Realism

Of course, the idea isn’t really that without God “everything is permitted”, but rather that “nothing is forbidden”, or more broadly that there is no rational system of behaviour for humans to abide by. The atheist, on this view, simply selects an arbitrary set of personal preferences and declares them ethical truth.

This is also false. What is true is that atheists cannot give a perfect, complete justification of any rules of behaviour – i.e. a justification which would leave no questions unanswered, permit no disagreement, and convince anyone paying attention. But nobody can do that: if it’s open to cynical atheists to say “I know that this action is unfair, inconsistent, would cause needless suffering, etc. but why should I care about any of that?”, then it’s also open to cynical theists to say “I know that this action is abhorrent to God, contrary to His plans, violates His commandments, etc. but why should I care about any of that?”

Theists could get out of this using a convenient conceptual analysis of value terms, i.e. by saying that you should care about God’s plan because the very idea of ‘worth caring about’ is defined in relation to God’s plan. But that analysis itself demands justification, and could be disputed. More to the point, atheists can also use such convenient analyses; three promising candidates are:

  • To be worth caring about is defined in relation to rational consistency and universalization (roughly, this is Kant’s position);
  • To be worth caring about is defined in relation to hedonic facts or preference facts in a way that includes each individual’s happiness, desires, or suffering (roughly, this is the position of Utilitarianism);
  • To be worth caring about is defined in relation to the contingent but real condition known as ‘human nature’ (roughly, this is the position of ‘ethical naturalism’ and of Aristotelianism).

Are any of these definitions good ones? Good question, maybe someone should write a book on it. But they’re just as respectable as the analyses that centre on what a cosmic Will has Willed.

4. None of this is Actually Relevant

I’m not saying these meta-ethical debates aren’t important (I am a philosopher after all), nor that people’s actual behaviour isn’t motivated by their religious (or other) beliefs. Rather, I’m saying that insofar as such beliefs guide behaviour, they do not do so in virtue of their intellectual properties. Whether a belief is consistent, or whether it validates certain inferences, have little effect on how that belief will influence behaviour.

This is especially obvious because everybody knows that these beliefs are not primarily adopted for intellectual reasons, but primarily for emotional and social reasons. Just as it’s those emotional and social reasons that motivate us in adopting the beliefs, it’s also those which mainly determine how the beliefs will influence our behaviour.

That’s why more-or-less every set of beliefs of any size has a few people of great virtue and a few people of great evil among its adherents – as well as, usually, some great pieces of art and some trash.

It seems overwhelmingly likely that the motive forces which most strongly influence our (un)ethical behaviour – empathy, resentment, enlightened self-interest, greed, panic, etc. – will persist through most changes in people’s beliefs. The most we can expect, then, is that changing patterns of belief might subtly redirect these motives in better or worse directions – and that has more to do with their details than with their cosmologies.

In conclusion: the Nazis weren’t atheists, if God exists then everything is potentially permitted, theism and atheism are roughly on a par in terms of meta-ethical robustness, and most people’s behaviour is little influenced by meta-ethical robustness.

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3 Responses to Stupid Papal Remark, No. 1064: the atheists are gonna kill us all

  1. Duncan says:

    The Nazis were certainly not strictly orthodox Christians, but they were more fond of the Catholic Church than they were of atheists. They believed in an intolerable mixture of occultish jibberish, and explicitly disparaged rationalism.

    Not that it matters for your central argument but I don’t think this is true. In fact, it would be better phrased ‘National Socialism was a mixture of inconsistent jibberish’. While there are certain key themes in Nazism its leading proponents were distressingly unclear on things like religion for people who want to have the argument that Nazis were atheists/Christians.

    Take, for instance, your claim that the Nazis explicitly disparaged rationalism. Here’s Hitler on the subject:

    “There will never be any possibility of National Socialism’s setting out to ape religion by establishing a form of worship. Its one ambition must be scientifically to construct a doctrine that is nothing more than a homage to reason… Science cannot lie, for it’s always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge, to deduce what is true.”

    Doesn’t sound particularly disparaging to me. Here’s the same man being very disparaging about Christianity and anticipating the argument in Hitchen’s recent book:

    “One cannot succeed in conceiving how much cruelty, ignominy and falsehood the intrusion of Christianity has spelt for this world of ours”

    However, there are any number of quotes from Hitler and other leading Nazis illustrating their admiration of Christianity and their low opinion of the base materialism of scientific enquiry which didn’t reflect their prejudices. The point is that National Socialism never existed as a intellectually consistent body of thought and the people who could potentially have given us a convincing answer as to what they really thought about all this are thankfully long dead.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      A fair point. I tried to express that they’re not identifiably one or the other, but leant a bit too heavily on one side of their multi-sided mishmash. Thanks for pointing it out.

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