Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Forms of atheism and death tolls

A common debate amongst atheists and theists: who is responsible for more deaths? Related: was Hitler an atheist or a Christian? It doesn't matter since Stalin killed more and atheists suck! A common response to that last bit: Stalin also believed the Earth rotated around the Sun; Sun-centric people are evil!

There are two major mistakes in that short characterization. (Click while viewing the full post for the singular points.) The first is a relevance error, the second is a category error. First: does it matter who is responsible for more deaths? 1.8 people still die every single second. ( The better question, to me, seems: are atheists or theists more likely to reduce this atrocious death rate? The fact is, about every 2.75 years or so, we lose an equivalent to all those lost directly due to the major conflicts of the 20th century. ( Most of those deaths in the 2.75 years are due to disease, and the "old age"-specific disease is largely the family of cardiovascular ones. This indicates that whoever can cure or stop these diseases (and old age) can do a lot for reducing the death rate.

That question's answer isn't so clear-cut, because the simpler form is more of the typical science vs. religion issue and I think most people can agree how that's gone (in science's favor if you're wondering). The confounding variable there is that doing science that is beneficial to humanity doesn't require one be an atheist. One may work incredibly hard on some HIV drug, motivated by religious concerns while using techniques that, if applied to one's own belief system, may destroy it.

So that's the thing. The issue isn't which side kills more, it's which side reduces death more, and that boils down to which side is more likely to utilize science better for humanity. More likely, since neither atheism nor theism are exclusively necessary for doing the science.

An empirical test suggests itself to see how many wonder-technologies can be attributed to individuals or groups mostly comprised of atheists or theists. I'll stick my neck out and guess in favor of atheism, but there are a lot more theists and a lot of closet-atheists. In the problem domain of curing old age specifically so that humans can live physically and mentally comfortably (say no worse than a 40 year old) for 200+ years, I'm not aware of any theists deeply involved. One particular problem there is that many theists believe in an afterlife. Anyway, with regards to the empirical study, while I may indeed by wrong about atheists contributing measurably more to humanity (I'd want to control for within the past few decades since announced atheism has literally been a death sentence for a good chunk of civilization and still is in some places), I would suspect that those theists who did contribute a lot (such as Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin) were moderately religious at worst. I assign a low chance that fundamentalists have contributed that much; that is, I expect to find that the less one really believes (so they have a belief in belief) within religion itself, the more effective that religious person will be.

I'll now talk about the second error in the first paragraph, a categorizing one. Frankly, there are many different forms of atheism. Not as many as Christianity, certainly not as many as theology in general, but nevertheless there are certain viewpoints atheism entails. Why is it that only atheists are seriously working on life-extension technologies and superintelligent AIs? Why aren't all atheists doing so?

The more proper framework is that beneath the labels "atheist" or "theist", there exist a bunch of different philosophies that can't live coherently within the other group--like wanting to increase human lifespans to billions of years doesn't fit well in a system that contains beliefs about an immortal afterlife. Atheism taken at (one) definition-value only--a lack of belief in any so far posited theological entities--is straightforward and says about as much as a lack of belief that the moon is made of cheese, or even more related a lack of belief in the existence of Russel's Teapot (which most people won't even understand to what that refers).

But atheists as a group aren't simply elements of that most general set. There are stricter orderings you can impose on the group. One is that atheists deny the supernatural, another is atheists think they're right. Okay, not all do those things, I need to back up a bit and actually separate out some categories of atheists.
  • Definition atheist: just doesn't believe in gods, whether because they've never heard of any or haven't considered them or didn't believe some story someone once told them. No other thoughts on the matter.
  • Irrelevancy atheist: the question of correctness of the belief is irrelevant. God can't be proved or disproved, but a naive form of Occam's Razor suggests we shouldn't posit the existence of unprovable things like the mountain witch causing all candles to burn when lit with her cackling. You're all stupid anyway for arguing about it.
  • Strong atheist: atheism and non-existence of the supernatural are the correct points of view just as Einstein's special relativity is the correct point of view. Of course we're willing to change our minds in the event of black swans demonstrating irrefutable proof of theological entities or violations of special relativity, but they're incredibly unlikely. Sometimes use the phrases: "Absence of evidence is evidence of absence." and "Stronger belief requires stronger evidence."
  • Bayesian atheist: Almost identical to the strong atheist, they can give quantitative meaning to the phrases. They try to rest more on formal analysis than casual arguments. Bayesians understand the technical form of Occam's Razor and the concept of Kolmogorov Complexity which alone they use as big hits to theological postulates, not to mention other "more plebeian, more provincial" problems the strong atheists spot.
  • Religious-Thinking atheist: not only is atheism the correct point of view, it's absolutely, positively, 100% the only point of view. Theological entities are logically inconsistent, haha! (I probably don't have a logic proof, shush.) I can't imagine ever changing my mind.
  • Who-knows atheist: AKA agnostic, these people are "without knowledge" and like to say "believe what you want, who am I to judge".
  • Pseudo-atheist: atheist only in the sense of not following established religions, they may still hold religious beliefs in pagan/wiccan stuff, aliens, furries, animal spirits, or otherkin.

(If you're curious, I'm a Bayesian-in-training atheist; I still need training wheels from time to time.) I've painted some broad strokes, and the boundaries can be fuzzy, but I think this demonstrates a few buckets we can use.

Each bucket enforces its own constraints on coherent philosophies that can rest underneath. I'll stop short of enumerating examples because I've gotten a ways off the point I want to make regarding the second mistake in the first paragraph. It is this:

Atheists frequently counter arguments aimed at one category of atheists by swapping categories and claiming such an argument doesn't apply to atheists.

An (admittedly strange) argument against a Religious-Thinking atheist: your belief rests on faith too! (Strange because faith is supposed to be a good thing.) A counterargument is to say "Atheism is lack of belief, and necessarily lack of faith. Having faith necessarily means having belief. Faith implies belief, therefore by simple logic no belief implies no faith."

This counter-argument has completely side-stepped the important criticism that you shouldn't believe things based on faith. The criticism isn't against the mere lack of belief, it's against the actual belief that not-believing-in-theology is correct. A Religious-Thinking atheist can become a Strong atheist fairly easily in this case by instead replying "No, my belief in the incorrectness of religion rests with evidence, not faith. I'm willing to be persuaded otherwise but it would take a lot of evidence." Of course, once you start down this path of doubt forever will it haunt your destiny. An introspective and honest person would then reexamine their belief structure as a whole and wipe out any faith-based beliefs, they would introduce doubt into established beliefs, and possibly ponder alternatives at the same time to instill the sense of doubt they ought to have about everything.

Both of the two errors are easy to make. I'm sure it's easy to find arguments consisting mostly of "Stalin!" "Crusades!" "Mao!" "Hitler!" Even Richard Dawkins frequently makes the second categorical error on television. Does he do it on purpose, I wonder? There are rhetorical merits to committing either error on purpose. Sadly, I don't think a person with IQ less than 80 (or just "low intelligence" if you don't like IQ) is going to be able to understand the abstract arguments a Bayesian atheist might give against religion, and then become an atheist. But they can be made to parrot "I don't believe in religion" much more easily, which more or less has the same benefits. (From an atheist point of view.)

In live debates on television, if you can make it look like you've won the argument, for example by shouting a lot over the opponent and giving him or her little time to speak, even if an intelligent person can recognize that nothing important was said, you're more likely to win more minds to parrot your cause. Why do you think politicians usually just spew talking points?

Go back to IQ for a moment: the average IQ is supposed to be 100. You're on the Internet, you know how to use the computer well enough in front of you to browse the web, you're reading a very obscure blog of some guy who writes about math and programming and philosophy. I would bet your IQ is above 100. Being honest, how many people do you know who probably have IQs less than 110? Yet if 100 is the true average, fully at least 50% of the population are less intelligent than you and your friends. Yet combined they get 50% of the vote. What's easier: taking a long time to teach them (those that are teachable anyway) and hope they arrive at similar conclusions to yourself and vote/act that way, or use known human biases (especially ones that seem to affect less intelligent people more) to make them parrot your conclusions which will make them vote/act that way?

Posted on 2011-09-28 by Jach

Tags: atheism, philosophy, religion


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Jach October 24, 2012 04:02:42 PM Was reading over this again, noticed in my final paragraph I swapped in "median" to mean "average". Iff 100 is the median is it true that 50% of the population is dumber.
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