“I’m Not an Atheist But…”

I’ve been pretty fortunate; after 38 years of living in Texas, I’ve only encountered blatant anti-atheist bigotry in person a handful of times.

And while I could do a whole write-up about what happened in those encounters (maybe another day), here’s what I found most interesting: Most of those encounters were with people who were/are atheists themselves.

Now I suppose I should back up a bit and clarify what I mean by that. Each of these individuals identified as “agnostics” and explicitly rejected the atheist label while they made incredibly derogatory and blanket characterizations of “atheists”… Yet they also made it explicitly clear that they themselves did not hold any beliefs in the existence of gods, thereby being literally “without theism” and making them also—by definition—atheists.

Now I realize what I just said raises a controversial issue. American Atheists President David Silverman recently took some heat after saying on CNN that those who use labels for themselves such as “agnostic” or “humanist”–while refusing to identify as “atheists”–are “lying” (though in Silverman’s defense, he later said his words were edited to the point of misrepresentation).

And I can understand why the “forcing” of labels onto those who refuse to adopt them is a legitimate concern: If someone in good faith explicitly refuses to adopt a label which indicates a particular ideological position (or in some cases, a whole slew of ideological positions), it’s poor form to force that upon them and essentially say “No, you do subscribe to that ideology (or set of ideologies), despite the fact that you claim not to.” (I add the “in good faith” modifier to make exceptions for cases where the rejection of a label is blatantly self-serving and disingenuous, e.g. white supremacists who reject that label).

But comedian Aziz Ansari provided a counterpoint recently, when he said, regarding feminism:

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And I’m inclined to agree as far as feminism is concerned (though of course, the overwhelming majority of those who reject the feminist label tend to have a pretty skewed definition of what the word means).

But notice that the point Ansari makes regarding feminism also applies to the “atheist” label, and even more so. Because atheism isn’t an ideology at all; there isn’t an associated set of beliefs, principles, doctrines, etc. which comes along with the adoption of the term. To be an atheist simply describes your lack of belief on one specific point—the existence of gods. And provided that someone has made clear their position on that one issue, to describe them as an “atheist” isn’t even really a matter of subjective discussion, but rather a simple statement of fact according to their own stated position.

Really, I’m not even sure “label” is even the right term to use when it comes to the word “atheist”. If you describe someone as being “left-handed” because they write with and predominantly use their left hand for fine motor tasks, are you “labeling” them as a left-hander, or are you simply referring to them as what they are by definition? What of describing someone who holds U.S. citizenship as being an “American”? Or someone who has two legs and walks upright as being “bipedal”?

Provided that someone in their own words professes that they don’t believe in the existence of any gods, how is it any different to call them an atheist?

It’s really not.

Yet as simple as this may seem, even brilliant people like Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who can be right on virtually every other issue, manage to get it horribly wrong.

Now it’s important to note that this logic doesn’t necessarily apply to other terms which are often used synonymously with “atheism”. Humanism, for example, actually does entail a set of principles and ideological positions, and is far more than simply an objective descriptor of one’s position on one specific issue. So it makes sense that if someone chooses to explicitly reject the “humanist” label/identity (for example, if they disagree with certain humanist principles, even if they agree with the overwhelming majority of the rest), it would be wrong for others to ascribe that label to them against their wishes.

But to call someone an “atheist” who–according to their own words–doesn’t believe in the existence of any gods? It’s simply expressing a tautological truth, like calling a doctor who treats skin diseases for a living a “dermatologist”, and no matter how much they may dislike the use of the word it doesn’t change the fact that they are one.

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Sacrificing One’s Soul

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“I believe in something greater than myself. A better world. A world without sin… I’m a monster. What I do is evil. I have no illusions about it, but it must be done.” –The Operative, Serenity 

What if you sacrifice your soul—by condemning yourself to Hell—in order to save other people from going to Hell?

It’s a nearly universal truth—held by the religious and non-religious alike—that to willingly sacrifice your life to save the lives of others is commendable, even possibly the greatest of all moral acts. But I can’t say I’ve ever heard the same logic applied with regard to Hell.

Consider if someone subjects themselves not just to death, but to an eternity of torture in order to save others from meeting that same fate. Isn’t that at least equally commendable as someone sacrificing their life? Perhaps even infinitely more commendable, considering that Hell is infinitely worse than death? (One obvious question is whether a “just” God would even send someone to Hell for doing so, but for purposes of this discussion let’s assume he would).

In my last post I discussed how the absurd premises of Heaven and Hell—as traditionally understood—lead to equally absurd conclusions when taken to their logical conclusions, and essentially lead to the inescapable conclusion that the ends ALWAYS justify the means when it comes to “saving souls”. And infinitely so, meaning that ANY act, no matter how evil, is perfectly justified—even morally obligatory—if it saves just one person from Hell.

Of course, the obvious counterargument would be that God wouldn’t WANT us to lie, kill, steal, etc. in order to “serve him”, even if the goal is to save souls. After all, how can someone specifically violate what is forbidden by God in order to serve God? Well, this is exactly why.

Let’s say God disapproves of you doing so, and punishes you with Hell (perhaps even a special level of Hell). That doesn’t change the inescapable reality one iota that you are still doing an infinitely greater good by disobeying God, providing that doing so results in even one soul being saved. Which means that lying for Jesus, or even The Inquisition, are logically justified and perfectly rational given those initial premises of traditional Christianity.

But just as you’ll never hear a follower of traditional religious systems admit to it, I’ve never heard anyone describe the notion of “sacrificing ones soul” as being commendable, much less on par with the sacrificing of one’s life to save others.

And this isn’t a purely theoretical exercise with no real-world implications. Thankfully, as is the case with almost any religious doctrine whereby virtually nobody takes them as seriously as they should if they truly believe them, virtually nobody takes the infinite nature of Heaven and  Hell to its logical conclusion and operates according to the logic I’ve outlined above, and thankfully so.

But some do.

Consider Christian terrorists and their attacks on (even murders of) abortion providers and those affiliated (or in some cases, simply present at) them. These murderers rationalize their acts to be the morally justifiable saving lives of “children being murdered”, and fully sanctioned by their God. Or, as in one recent case, they can use their belief in “once saved always saved” to ensure they’re still going to Heaven regardless of whether the murders were wrong.

Either way, their fate in Heaven is fully assured.

The same goes for Islamic terrorists, who rather than going to Hell for murdering innocent people, claim they will actually be rewarded in the afterlife for it.

At the top of the page I quoted the movie Serenity because of its incredibly rare example–in fiction or in reality–of someone admitting to committing evil in order to serve a greater good (without that evil somehow “becoming” good). It’s about as clear cut an admission of willingly “sacrificing one’s soul” as you will ever see, as opposed to those who typically try to rationalize and justify the evils they commit, thereby rendering them no longer “evil”.

Unfortunately, in the real world, I have yet to see anyone being so honest about this gaping flaw in their theological beliefs.

Why, When it Comes to Religion, the Ends ALWAYS Justify the Means

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One of the great philosophical debates (and the first thing you learn in any Intro to Philosophy class) is about deontological vs. utilitarian morality: Are “right” and “wrong” a result of certain actions being inherently right or wrong (killing and stealing are wrong in principle) or is it determined based on the consequences of those actions (killing and stealing are wrong because of the harm they do to others)? Or, in even more simplified form, when it comes to “right” and “wrong” do the ends justify the means?

Traditionally, these two approaches to morality seem to line up pretty closely with debates surrounding religious vs. secular morality. Either we should obey the commandments because God commands us to, since through his divine authority he has determined what is “right” or “wrong” via cosmic fiat, and going against those divine dictates is, quite simply, wrong (Euthyphro’s Dilemma be damned), or we should follow secular/humanistic ethics, which generally consider right/wrong to be based on the real-world consequences of our actions, meaning in some cases it may be permissible–even morally obligatory–to perform acts which may otherwise be considered “immoral” (a parent stealing medicine to save the life of his child, for example).

Traditionally, this leads to the notion that secular/humanistic/utilitarian ethics means that the ends justify the means, and as long as the final outcome is beneficial the methods you use to get there are ultimately irrelevant (think Watchmen’s Ozymandias).

But it seems to me that in a way, this dichotomy is precisely backwards, and not only do the “ends justify the means” when it comes to traditional religious morality, but they do so to a literally infinite degree, and that’s for one reason: Because the traditional concepts of “Heaven” and “Hell” introduce the element of infinity to the equation, with notions of everlasting infinite torment or everlasting infinite bliss; and when you perform the cost/benefit analysis on anything involving infinity, the answer is always similarly infinite (math nerds like me might point out exceptions like series of infinite sums which converge on finite numbers, but obviously that doesn’t apply in this case).

So what does that mean? It means that any amount of harm you do to anyone—lying, killing, even torture or mass murder—pales in comparison to the harm you can inflict on someone by causing them to go to hell. Infinitely so. Even increasing the odds of someone going to Hell by a miniscule fraction of a percent is still a transgression of infinite harm, since even .00001% of infinity is still infinity.

And the same goes for heaven; no matter how much good you may do in the world, it will be infinitely trivial compared to even one act which increases the odds of someone reaching Heaven.

Even more disturbingly, the flipside is also true: any action, no matter how abhorrent, is perfectly acceptable in the Heaven/Hell equation, and the ends ALWAYS justify the means provided that the end goal is helping others reach heaven or avoid hell since that end goal is literally a positive of infinite value.

Of course thankfully, with the exception of religious extremists, nobody really applies this logic to their day to day lives, or actually considers these implications and takes their beliefs to the logical extreme.

And we all should hope it remains that way.

Follow-up: Sacrificing One’s Soul