Over at the Friendly Atheist, Hemant asks folks to consider the eternal issue of ism-ism: whether atrocious deeds can plausibly condemn the ideologies they are associated with. It’s an old, and, let’s face it, tedious debate, especially in religious circles, but one that is still unavoidable. Let’s all promise that this is the last time, ok?
It’s worth first noting that talking about “ideologies” can be misleading: excellent arguments can be composed around the idea that, say, communism is inherently am inescapably bad idea: that it corrupts even it’s nicest adherents. This is largely because there’s a lot to work with there: communism is a robust set of principles and values from which you can derive all sorts of inevitable problems.
But when you dial down to things that are more “category” than “manifesto,” this capability to characterize through association really breaks down. And this is never more the case than with the “atheism/theism” axis.
Simply put, pointing to the bad deeds of some atheists and pretending that you’ve conveyed any information about all atheists makes marginally less sense than pointing to the bad deeds of theists for the same reason. Which is to say that it’s worth very slightly less than very slightly more than nothing.
At least with theism, there is at least one principle that all theists share in common (god belief). It’s a pretty vague and abstract one though, and arguing that there is any further implications that are characteristic to all theists is a real stretch. A category that can encompass everything from Tolland-esque pantheism to Osama Bin Laden is going to be pretty hard to sensibly generalize with, let alone draw further damning conclusions about it.
But with atheism, you don’t have even that one very thin premise to begin with. There are NO affirmative principles necessarily in common. You don’t even have proper “group” of people, in the sense that there is no characteristic in any atheist you can point to that defines them as an atheist. If you didn’t know what a theist was, you’d have no reason at all to place them in a category with each other. They are, in fact, only dumped in the category of atheism via exclusion: leftovers, as it were, after we’ve accounted for all the theists.
Thus, arguing that there is anything characteristic of non-believers, whether singly or in groups, or even in potential societies worth of them, is simply an exercise in rhetorical confusion. What matters is what sorts of people they all are, not the one thing that they all aren’t.
Of course, that still leaves the common argument that what atheists are missing (i.e. god belief) is some special core principle of all human beings: one that’s functionally necessary for people to live a good satisfying life or make up a decent civilized society.
That, however, is a case that will have to be made on it’s own highly dubious merits. Trying to just lazily allege that Stalin and Mao have anything to do with any other given atheist, or even atheism as a simple category, is as goofy as trying to condemn all non-Irish people by pointing to the misdeeds of Genghis Khan. And, let’s face it, trying to assault bare “theism” in the same way is fool’s errand too.