Should Atheists Criticize Other Atheists?

| by Luke Muehlhauser

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moral theory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

“Thou shalt not criticize other atheists.”

There was a comment to this effect in a recent post. As written, it could be easily answered and then dismissed. The last thing we need is a bunch of atheists walking lock-step behind some atheist leader doing whatever he tells us to do without questioning our orders.

However, I see another layer to this debate in which the criticism not only makes sense, but it is almost certainly valid and applicable to me and my own writings.

If one takes seriously the claims that I have made in my postings, we can reasonably expect that atheists are propagandized so as to favor the criticism of other atheists over the criticism of theists. While we certainly do not want to abolish the criticism of other atheists, we probably overdo it.

My own writings recently have addressed the shortcomings of Sam Harris, Sean Carroll, and Pat Condell. While I am not about to “take back” any of the things that I have written, why have I written about them rather than the absurd and far worse claims of theists?

Perhaps my priorities are out of alignment, and I ought to adopt a new set of priorities.

First, a refresher on some of the relevant features of desirism. We’ve got desires being the only reasons for intentional action that exist. Desires provide those who have them with reasons to act so as to promote desires that tend to fulfill other desires and inhibit desires that tend to thwart other desires. These attitudes are most efficiently placed in the brains of children by subjecting them to praise and condemnation.

Also, I have written that the national motto, “In God We Trust” is a statement of praise for those who trust in God and a statement of condemnation for those who do not. The national pledge is a statement made in praise of those who support a nation ‘under God’ and a statement of condemnation for those who do not.

Their effect – indeed their purpose – is to use the power of praise and condemnation to mold the desires of children so they grow up to feel comfort – even pride – at trust in God or a nation under God, and to have a corresponding aversion to anything that goes against these values. There is nothing about being an atheist child that would make one immune from these effects on the sentiments.

What we can expect from this is that adult theists will feel more comfortable criticizing atheists than criticizing other theists – seeing atheism as un-American or even anti-American while theism in its various forms are not.

However, we can also expect adult atheists to feel more comfortable criticizing other atheists than criticizing theists. Given an opportunity to provide equally valid criticism of some theist and an atheist, the sentiments planted in our brains as a result of the praise and condemnation inherent in practices such as the national motto and the pledge tilts the balance in favor of sound criticism of atheists.

Consequently, those seeking an alliance in order to oppose something they can associate with atheism is likely to tap these emotions planted in us as children and be successful. While, at the same time, any attempt to organize atheists in opposition to such a plan is going to likely tap into the same planted emotions and result in a fair amount of internal criticism.

This is not to say that the criticisms made against other atheists are not valid. It says that of the huge stack of valid criticisms one can devote one’s time and energy to, one will find it more comfortable to make (valid) criticisms of other atheists than to make (valid) criticisms of theists. In fact, a theist’s greater evil will often be ignored in favor of an atheist’s lesser evil.

If this analysis is correct, it would suggest that, in acting to fulfill the most and strongest of my own desires, and having affections planted in me during childhood that makes me more comfortable criticizing atheists and theists, I am more likely to post a criticism of Harris or Carroll or Condell than to post a criticism of the claims or actions of some religious figure.

Even this post fits the model of being a criticism of other atheists rather than saying anything harsh against theists (other than to explain how theists use such things as the Pledge and the Motto to generate these results).

This argues that atheists’ desires in this respect are not what they should be. As a result of acquiring the wrong malleable desires, greater evils committed by theists are ignored (and, thus, allowed to continue) in favor of correcting smaller evils committed by atheists. Our acting so as to fulfill the most and strongest of our desires is not generating behavior that would be as good at fulfilling other desires as some alternative. The better alternative would be actions not governed by a learned discomfort at giving criticism of religion and a learned comfort at giving criticism of atheists.

The desirist remedy to the discovery that the desires we have are not the desires we should have takes many forms.

First, there is the project of correcting one’s own sentiments. This is best done by trying to act the way one would act if one had the better sentiments at their appropriate strength. The more one practices at acting as a good (better) person will act, the more comfortable one becomes with that sort of behavior.

Changing one’s own affections is not easy. It takes a lot of time and hard work – the more time and the more hard work the older one becomes. However, it can be done. Even if not entirely successful, smaller successes (weakening bad desires that are not eliminated or strengthening good desires some amount) still count as a positive result.

Nobody has the ability to act in a way contrary to fulfilling the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs. The motivation to act as if one has good desires has to come from somewhere. It cannot come from nothing.

One possible source of motivation is the recognition of the reasons why a good desire is good or a bad desire is bad. Recall that a good desire tends to fulfill other desires. One’s interest in having those desires fulfilled are often the source for motivating change not only in others through praise and condemnation, but also in oneself through self-improvement.

Another source of motivation can be a desire to be a better person or to do the right thing. An aversion to lying is not the same as an aversion to be a liar, but the latter aversion can provide an agent with motivation to acquire the former desire.

Any plan for self-improvement in an area such as this will be sabotaged by the number of people that praise bad desires and condemn good desires. The Pledge and the Motto are not going to disappear simply because one adopts a moral project of ridding oneself of their influences. A part of this project must include taking steps to inoculate oneself against the harmful effects of misapplied praise and condemnation.

Second, this calls for a project to put the tools of praise and condemnation to work to mold the desires of others.

It calls for praising those who accept the challenge of criticizing religion and holding them up as role-models. Of course, for this the critics should actually be role-models; not people who litter their claims with reckless, false, and illogical claims.

And it calls for some level of condemnation for those who give evidence through their actions that they are more comfortable criticizing other atheists than criticizing theists who do worse evils. When one person’s suicide bomb is placed against another person’s cartoon, there is reason to question the motives of the atheist who is more comfortable criticizing the drawer of the cartoon to the maker and user of the bomb.

There is always motivation to promote virtue and inhibit vice – provided by the desires that virtues tend to fulfill and those that vice tend to thwart. However, it requires knowing what the virtues (and vices) are, and why they are virtues (and vices), and then putting the tools of praise and condemnation to work to actually promote these virtues and inhibit these vices.

Third, and most important, it calls for taking steps to protect children from those forms of praise and condemnation that are planting these inappropriate sentiments in the brains of a new generation.

Rituals and traditions such as the Pledge and Motto will continue to do their job of helping to unify those who favor theocracy and disunify those who oppose theocracy for as long as they are allowed to exist. They will continue to feed the practice of theists uniting in the criticism of atheists, and atheists disuniting in the criticism of each other. If one wishes to stop this condition and its effects, then it would be useful if one started to attack it at its roots – at the praise and condemnation that is planting these inappropriate sentiments in the brains of young children.

These are some of the implications of desirism. If we found atheists easily uniting against these childhood practices of praise and condemnation while theists attacked each other over the best way to implement these policies, we would have reason to question the usefulness of the system. However, we at least do not seem to be witnessing those types of effects. We see the effects that desirism predicts.

Unfortunately, one of these effects is that atheists will feel more comfortable criticizing other atheists than criticizing theists. It is a comfortable way of proceeding that one can change only with some hard work – a determined effort to do more of something one has been made to be uncomfortable doing.

Thus, it makes sense to say to some atheist writers, “You spend too much of your time criticizing other atheists.”

- Alonzo Fyfe