Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Relevance of Deeds

I have long objected to the idea of telling stories of religious leaders caught in moral transgressions as if this said something bad about religion.

Today, a post at Atheist Revolution defends the practice by saying,

We all know that believers are fond of claiming moral superiority over nonbelievers. And yet, their deeds often suggest otherwise. . . . I use it to point out the hypocrisy inherent in claiming that their religion makes them morally superior to the rest of us.

'It' in this context refers directly to the phrase, "Know them by their deeds," in the context of posts that tell the story of the moral trangressions of some religious figure.

Atheist Revolution is one of my regularly visited sites, because vjack does a good and thoughtful job. However, in this case, I think he is out of bounds.

In fact, those posts do not accomplish his stated ends.

If I were to say that American adults are, on average, taller than the Japanese adults, it would not refute my statement to post reports of American adults who were, say, 4ft 8in tall, or 3ft 4in tall under the headline, "Know them by their height." It is simply fallacious reasoning to imply that these examples say anything about the height of American males on average.

These examples will refute the claim that, "Being religious is a sufficient condition for being perfectly virtuous." However, I do not know anybody who is making such a claim that it needs refuting.

More importantly, there will come a day when some well-known atheist will be caught in some scandle. Right now, it does not happen merely because well-known atheists are rare. But it will happen. When it does, many Christians will use this to argue that this shows how atheism leads to immorality. Atheists will almost certainly want to counter with claims about how unfair and unjust it is to take the crimes of this one person and use it in a context that is meant to criticize all atheists.

They would be right to protest those who use a story in this way.

However, in making that protest, we will have to ask where the charge of hypocrisy truly deserves to be applied.


Cameron said...

A reverend in Colorado is being charged with a crime today. Upon seeing it on the news, I felt some satisfaction at seeing a person who is ostensibly devoutly religious exhibit the same failings that other people have.

It would seem to be that when religious leaders (or republican or democratic or atheist leaders) display behavior that is obviously immoral, it would be an opportunity to point out that that being religious (or republican or democratic or atheist) doesn't automatically make a person more moral.

That is to say, point out that "not all of ______ are moral" (which is very different from "all ____ are not moral"), and use it as an opportunity to explore what makes a person moral and how to best encourage moral behavior.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

zIt is perfectly legitimate and sensible, in the case of an individual, to condemn him for his wrongs - not only for his more direct transgressions, but his hypocrisy.

It is also appropriate when a person condemns others for doing something that is not wrong, who then gets caught doing the same thing himself (e.g., homosexuality) that his hypocrisy be brought to the fore.

These cases can even be expanded to include all other hypocrites - all who perform relevantly similar actions.

The problem comes when people carry these accusations beyond the set of those who are actually guilty.

Writer, Splinters of said...

I am a Christian, but I believe you hit the nail on the head with this post.

As you said, "believers are fond of claiming moral superiority over nonbelievers". Believers should realize and understand that we should hold ourselves to a higher standard because we believe in a higher standard (i.e. Scripture) that some do not, but should not forget that we are equally capable of falling short of that standard as those which do not hold to it can.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Sorry, writer, but your assumption that scripture is a higher standard is quite incorrect.

Scripture is 2000 years out of date.

Calling it a higher standard of morality is akin to calling the works of Hypocrates a higher standard of medicine.

Actually, Writer, I suspect that you were not even aware of how condescending and insulting your comment was. To say that you hold yourself to a higher standard is to say that I hold myself to a lower standard - that by virtue of my atheism I am not and cannot be as good as you.

That is an insult.

I will give you the benefit of the doubt and call it unintentional, but it is nonetheless real.

Writer, Splinters of said...


I didn’t mean to come across as condescending. This is why I pointed out that Christians believe Scripture holds a higher standard of morals than common thought or society does, but I acknowledge that some do not believe in Scripture. Maybe I should have used the word stricter? What I meant was some things that Scripture holds as immoral, society may consider moral, so there is a difference in the strictness of morality.

As noted in the post (identifying Atheist Revolution), if the person measures a Christian by the Scripture, by quoting, “know them by their deeds”, then to me, that seems to associate Christianity with a higher (or different) standard of morals than one who does not agree or accept the stricter morals contained in Scripture. So although the writer would consider a Christian a hypocrite that does not remain true to the Scriptural morals they claim to hold, the writer would not consider one that breaks them, but that does not accept the Scripture as authoritative, as a hypocrite. Is that hypocritical?

Again I didn’t mean to come across as condescending, for I do not believe atheism, in and of itself, means, “that by virtue of my atheism I am not and cannot be as good as you.” Just as simply claiming to believe in God does not mean someone will necessarily be as good as an atheist can be, so they choose to do so.