Thursday, June 18, 2009

Atheism and authority

Austin Cline rebuts the argument that people become atheists to escape the authority of God, as presented by Robert Morey, in his book The New Atheism and the Erosion of Freedom. Cline correctly rebuts Morey's fallacious argument, but Morey does wander within spitting distance of an actual point.

Of course the immediate cause of someone becoming an atheist is usually examination of the evidence and arguments for the existence of God, which, while clever, are all transparently fallacious or unsound; not just wrong but obviously wrong. Since millions of people actually do believe that a god exists, there must be some actual cause of that belief, a cause unrelated to logical analysis, a cause that does not apply to atheists.

There are actually a few such causes: atheists typically do not fear death; theists almost universally do fear death, their fantasies of personal immortality can be seen as whistling in the dark and do not assuage that fear (it is typically just moved to fear of hell).

Another important cause is a different attitude towards authority; and I suspect Morey at least has a glimpse of this different attitude. Christians, especially fundamentalist Christians, obey authorities because they're authorities. I see this often in fundamentalist apologetics: "God truly is a sovereign, therefore has the right to govern us entirely as He sees fit, and we have no right to question such governance."

Atheists, on the other hand, typically consider the individual to be sovereign: the individual grants authority to an institution because she chooses to do so, because it is in her interests to grant authority. She grants as an individual the authority to investigate, prosecute and punish unlawful killing to the government because it is in her interest to both refrain from killing others as well as to prevent others — even if they dissent philosophically — from killing her. And, if the body or institution receiving the grant of authority does not act in the individual's interest, she can later revoke the grant of authority.

In the atheist view — or, more precisely, a view that leads to atheism — sovereignty does not entail authority over others. Sovereignty is, rather, an ineluctable and inalienable property of each individual, and entails authority only over herself.

It's easy to see that this view of authority is just fossilized feudalism. The ethical and political structures of feudalism are of course complex, but fundamentally grants authority to the king because he is king. There are notions of "good" and "bad" sovereigns, but the subject fundamentally has an ethical duty to even the worst of sovereigns; indeed the only time one can "judge" the sovereign is when his claim to sovereignty is disputed by another claimant. Lacking a legitimate disputant, the subject simply cannot judge the sovereign; she is ethically bound to grit her teeth, obey the king, and wait for a better successor.

Once one abandons this feudal notion of sovereignty and adopts the idea that the individual is sovereign, the Christian apologetic argument from God's sovereignty collapses: Not only does no god exist, but there is no unfilled position of king of kings in which to place an imaginary god.

18 comments:

  1. Your description of the individual granting authority to the ruling institution is very reminiscent of Hobbes in the beginning of The Leviathan. Somehow, though, Hobbes concluded midway through that the best form of ruling institution was a monarch, and I'll never understand where that conclusion came from...

    Anyway, the intent of this comment was not just to try and show off some meager erudition on my part, but I've somehow forgotten what I had meant to say. I imagine you have read Hobbes (or are at least aware of the content of his works), so perhaps the fact that I have forgotten is not such a big deal.

    Unrelated, another point I thought worth addressing was that another possible reason for millions of people continuing to believe that a god exists is simple cultural inertia. While I think your analysis might pertain to those who actively advocate for theistic belief, I think there are a large number of people who have simply never had their views challenged, nor given a thought to do so themselves (kind of like other, more benign cultural quirks and norms).

    As atheism becomes more widespread, I think this ability to hide ones' head and avoid the issue might become more difficult (which, I like to believe, will also lead to more people engaging in critical thinking on the matter, but that might just be unfounded optimism on my part), but in our current cultural climate I think that should not be discounted as one of the causes of widespread belief as well.

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  2. If you're going to make the analogy to inertia, though, you should go all the way: inertia is not a primary property, it is a derivative, emergent property of mass (and supposedly mass's interaction with the Higgs field). Fear then is the "mass" — the more fundamental property — that gives theism its cultural inertia.

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  3. RE: "Christians, especially fundamentalist Christians, obey authorities because they're authorities. I see this often in fundamentalist apologetics"

    I've written quite a few times about how conservative evangelical Christianity's political and social agenda is defined to a large extent by attempts to preserve and reinforce strict lines of hierarchial authority. Name almost any issue that they worry about a lot and you'll find this playing an important role.

    I'm linking to four posts in which this has appeared because they're what popped up in a quick search, but I'm pretty sure there are a lot more.

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  4. Larry, I think you are right about fear being at the root of the initial momentum for religion. I think the majority of those root fears no longer apply to modern society, but that does not dispel the cultural ambiance of the already established religion. Therefore, there will be people within the theistic fold who will simply not have thought about these issues, rather than saying all theistic thinkers are rooted in either fear or hierarchical maintenance.

    Other than acknowledgment of that fact, though, I'm not sure if I had a point... you are, after all, doing what you can to change that fact by talking about religion, showing contempt for perceived illogic and falsehood, and otherwise trying to get people to think about their opinions.

    I guess I am trying to say well done.

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  5. If god really is, like, a GOD, then there is no escaping his authority. Thus, believers should be unconcerned with atheism, as atheists will eventually get their comeuppance at the hands of god. AMIRITE?

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  6. The reason that I, as a Christian can obey authority so easily is that I am spiritually and emotionally free. Authority may hold external power over me, but it's only the same power that the bum has shown that we extend to "it", on a temporary basis. However, "it" holds no inner power over me.

    It seems to me that it's just the opposite with atheists. The reason that atheists seem so obsessed with freedom is because they don't know the experience of inner freedom. They're slaves to their inner selves and in their vain attempts to free themselves, they simply dig deeper into their cage.

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  7. I'm say this in a perfectly sincere and straightforward way, without any sarcastic intention whatsoever: I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about, Makarios. I simply cannot make grammatical or linguistic sense whatsoever of your comment.

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  8. It's like the old saying, those who talk about sex all the time are usually those who aren't getting any.

    I'm saying that those who talk the most about how free they are, like atheists do, are those who don't have freedom. You can see this by how atheists are forever "noticing" the rules. Hitchens feels oppressed and suffocated by the mere thought of God watching over him; a God that he doesn't even believe in. That to me is just pitiful.

    On the other hand, those who can willingly submit to authority, even if the authority is doing stupid things, are those who have inner freedom. Until I became a Christian, I didn't know what Jesus meant when he said, "When the Truth sets you free, you will be free indeed." Those were just words with no meaning. Now that I'm on the other side, I KNOW what those words mean. I AM free and no government or ruling body of any kind can touch me or make me feel confined. In fact I am so free that I can obey the rules without feeling suffocated by the rules.

    It's why only people with power, real INNER power can allow other people to use or even abuse them without any loss of self-worth or self-value. Like Jesus, able to take the loweliest position in that society and wash the very feet of the man who He knew was about to betray Him to death.

    If you can't understand I'm saying this time it's probably because it's one of those things where you can't know what it means until you actually experience it.

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  9. @Makarios

    Ok, so lemme get this straight.
    Believing that a) There is a god who (b)sacrificed himself to (c) save you from himself somehow (d)makes you free inside yourself?

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  10. It's like the old saying, those who talk about sex all the time are usually those who aren't getting any.


    We're interested in religion because:

    George Tiller was just murdered by a religious zealot.

    Religious zealots are presently blocking civil rights for homosexuals.

    Religious zealots are trying to roll back abortion rights for women.

    A religious zealot, George W. Bush, has destroyed our economy, embroiled us in two pointless, costly, and horrific wars, has destroyed many basic civil rights, and tortured people.

    So fuck you, Makarios. We're talking about religion because fascist religious scumbags such as yourself are trying to destroy the few civil rights and economic progress people have managed to secure.

    You and your coreligionists have made it perfectly clear that you're willing to fight a civil war for what you believe in. Just don't fool yourself that we're not going to defend ourselves.

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  11. Regan: Makarios is no longer welcome to comment here; I have no intention of hosting fascist propaganda here. Makarios is free to crawl back to the Ministry of Love.

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  12. Ok, so lemme get this straight.
    Believing that a) There is a god who (b)sacrificed himself to (c) save you from himself somehow (d)makes you free inside yourself?

    You’re close. Believing that God sacrificed Himself to save me from Myself allows for the indwelling of Creator God’s Holy Spirit and it is He who sets me free.
    ==================
    “Just don't fool yourself that we're not going to defend ourselves.”

    My goodness bum, you’re a little tense today. I happen to think that you have a legitimate beef over people who shoot doctors or try to deny civil rights to anyone. On the other hand I think that it’s typical human greed that caused the financial mess and not Bush’s religion.

    I guess I can’t stop you from thinking that I’m just like those people you mentioned but, you know, if you’d just point that thing at the floor I’d feel a lot better talking with you.
    ==========

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  13. Makarios, I take this whole religion issue seriously because it has serious consequences for real human beings.

    If you just want to fool around and play bullshit pop-psych games, go do it somewhere else. I just don't have the patience anymore.

    You've just given me a statement right out of 1984. Why should I not consider you a fascist and a clear and present danger to my political and personal freedom?

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  14. Christ on a bike, I thought that loon had buggered off many moons ago.

    That'll teach me to make assumptions, then.

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  15. This quote by Makarios is a classic: On the other hand, those who can willingly submit to authority, even if the authority is doing stupid things, are those who have inner freedom. Until I became a Christian, I didn't know what Jesus meant when he said, "When the Truth sets you free, you will be free indeed." Those were just words with no meaning. Now that I'm on the other side, I KNOW what those words mean. I AM free and no government or ruling body of any kind can touch me or make me feel confined. In fact I am so free that I can obey the rules without feeling suffocated by the rules..

    In other words, it is liberating to abandon reason and live in a world governed by a supernatural totalitarian. Where can I sign up?

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  16. Where can I sign up?

    At the Ministry of Love.

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  17. Makarios,

    Christians love to talk about how Jesus saved them from themselves. But what does that really mean? Did he save you from excessive drinking? Excessive eating? Gossip? But why is that a good thing? Did excessive eating and drinking lead to health problems? Is he just helping you see the problem of deciding how to balance your desires, a problem we all face in life? Is the excessive gossip causing pain to other people and is that making you feel worse?

    But if you can point to rational reasons, relative to your actual desires and preferences, for why you would do what God chooses for you than you are explicitly no different than any subjectivist--hey, if so, welcome to the club! This would be true even if you get your prodding from God (just like we can be moved morally by reading and talking to other people). It is still at the end of the day our preferences that we have to live with.

    But a Christian can't really admit that there are clear objective reasons (relative to our subjective preferences) for what they choose to do in life. They have to turn something that is straight forward and turn it into some ineffable theological mess. God, we are told by those who know best, is most interested in those very desires that seem to us to be perfectly OK--primarily sensual pleasures. He has to save us from those things that we don't think are bad. But to get millions of people to stop doing things that they would never naturally see as a problem (things that do not actually cause a conflict with other desires we may have) takes a massive cultural effort to make obedience to a priestly class the highest good.

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  18. Just so you know, Makarios, you are invited to respond, and I'll publish your response.

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