Who’s with Hitler?: Ism-ism & assault by association

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.

3 Responses to Who’s with Hitler?: Ism-ism & assault by association

  1. phillychief says:

    Hemant seized on one part of my original post. What immediately follows the section of my post he quotes from me is “Where does this lead us? I would have to say nowhere.”

    I do not think you can simply look at the deeds done by a proponent of an idea and assess a value of the idea from that. I also think you can’t simply assess the value of the idea even when a person does something in it’s name since either that person could not be a true subscriber to the idea (using it as a cover) or he misinterpreted the idea; however, if the idea itself is either muddled or contradictory, then I think you have the grounds to begin assessing the value of the idea.

  2. Bad says:

    Oh, I concur: I wasn’t trying to imply that evil done in the name of communism or any other ideology is an automatic slam-dunk case for it being evil. The point was that when you are dealing with a fairly detailed ideology, there are legitimate grounds at least try to make such a case. I was contrasting this to atheism and theism, where there is just so little to work with that the entire endeavor seems like an exercise in reading tea leaves.

  3. This is good. This is what I was trying to get at in my original post which I believe started this current incarnation of the age old debate. You hit the nail on the head when you compared atheism to theism, which is the proper comparison. I was comparing atheism with Christianity, which is not. I hadn’t thought it completely out, or articulated it well enough.

    Of course you can’t blame either for the deeds of their respective proponents, because they are such generalized ideas. But in the case of theism, there probably is no such thing as a pure theist. Most if not all theists (even deist believe something about their god beyond mere existence)subscribe to a particular religion which does come with its own set of baggage, which one can point to as some source for the good or bad actions of its believers. Atheism has none.

    So it’s far easier to ascribe bad things (and good ones) to individual theists because they really don’t act on their theism, per se, but on their specific religious tenets.

    Thanks for clarifying my thinking on that.

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