Keeping Bad Company

A number of recent arguments have hinged upon association fallacies – the contention or implication that bad company (or a bad hypothesis) reflects upon the validity of a position.

History is replete with examples of blood spilled, freedom destroyed, hatred aroused, or fear evoked specifically to promote religious ends. As Christopher Hitchens points out, religiously motivated crimes continue to this day. It's understandable that moderate theists who have not participated in such activities wish to distance themselves and their worldview from any blame. Nevertheless, the delusional beliefs that they support, however moderate their personal beliefs, do provide the soil in which illogic and hatred grows.

The flip side of accusations of religious poison and theistic delusions take two forms: claims of converts to theism and claims of atheism-inspired atrocities.

It is a fallacy to argue that deism, theism, or atheism has philosophical truth value according to its popularity or the qualifications of its adherents. The truth of any proposition can only be based upon the evidence or logic that supports it. Although skeptics are typically not fooled by tu quoque accusations, these do appeal to the emotions of believers.

Let's take a look at the 'action' issues. If any worldview is consistently directly associated with negative actions, then, regardless of any philosophical validity, that worldview is potentially dangerous. There are two components to this issue: belief system and directness of association with actions.

"Worldview" is a 'loan translation' from the German philosophical term Weltanschauung, and refers to the framework of ideas and beliefs according to which an individual interprets and interacts with the world. Thus, the term worldview incorporates both ideology (belief system) and action. If a particularly mentally-disturbed individual commits crimes against humanity, the belief system of that individual is irrelevant unless he or she is motivated only by worldview-prescriptions.

“Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things – that takes religion." ¬ Steven Weinberg.
Religions involve not merely prescribed beliefs about the existence of supernatural entities (deism or theism) they also prescribe and proscribe specific behaviors directly associated with the religious worldview. Adherents of religion are expected to participate in particular activities that are laid out within religious dogma – ranging from attendance at prayer right up to jihad.

If a religiously-affiliated individual commits a crime that is not specifically associated with religious prescriptions, then religion per se cannot be held responsible. However, even if an individual acts out of personally disturbed psychology while consciously allowing religious prescriptions to direct his actions, then religion is complicit in the crime.

On the other hand, atheism is nonbelief in the supernatural entities postulated within religions and is not a worldview because lack of belief is not specifically associated with prescribed behaviors. Obviously, atheists are unlikely to attend church services, but such attendance is not prohibited within the atheistic belief set. Atheism is often, though not invariably, associated with worldviews such as secular humanism.

Let's return to the accusations against bad company. The antisocial actions of psychologically disturbed individuals, whether theists or atheists, have no bearing on the truth value of their belief system. Those dictators who have ordered atrocities out of personal megalomania or power-mongering are acting in accord with their personal worldview or political aims, and not directly out of belief or nonbelief in the supernatural.

It is irrelevant whether Catholic Adolf Hitler or seminary boy Joseph Stalin had shifted to atheism at the time of their crimes, or whether dictators such as Pol Pot were raised outside Christianity – because they acted out of megalomania, paranoia, or political ambition and not specifically according to any dictates of nonbelief. (Even if they had acted out of atheistic motivations, this would say nothing about the truth value of atheistic beliefs.) Dictators have historically demonstrated a predilection for claiming divinity for themselves or for setting their regime up as the state religion against any competing religion. Such actions have nothing to do with atheism and everything to do with self-aggrandizement and power consolidaton.

Similarly, so-called Social Darwinism has nothing to do with Charles Darwin or biological evolution beyond the fact that Darwin was inspired to decipher the mechanism of natural selection by Thomas Malthus' study of competition for limited resources. The sociological philosophy could just as appropriately have been termed Social Competitionism or Social Malthusianism as Social Darwinism. However, like so much else that frightens religionists, the label has afforded a convenient target for fallacious arguments.


atheism, deism, theism, religion, Anthony Flew, Christopher Hitchens, Jeffrey Dahmer, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin,


Sean the Blogonaut F.C.D. said...

Bravo. Excellent post. One of the best comments on this "bone of contention" that I have ever read. You have said exactly what I wanted to say but have been unable to apply my mental faculties to

T&A said...

Agreed, very concise and clear.
Thanks for cutting through all the nonsense!

Plonka said...

I once mentioned "Hitler youth" on a christian blog and was met by cries of "Godwin's law! That's not fair!" I look at it as taking one back for the team...:)

salient said...

Sean and T&A: Thanks for the vote of confidence.

Plonka, they do love to cry foul, don't they!