The Raving Theist

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May 17, 2006 | 21 Comments

“Extremism in pursuit of liberty is no vice,” said Barry Goldwater in pursuit of an electoral drubbing. Although fundamentally sound, his pronouncement was received with horrified ridicule. His critics subscribed to the line of thought that condemns extremism as a vice in and of itself, along with certainty, objectivity, arrogance and other concepts reflecting some form of “absolutism.”

When critiquing religion, people of that mindset often identify “extremism” as the problem rather than supernatural beliefs. And so Mr. Swill opines , “[t]he issue in to what a person believes, but how that person believes. The difficulty, he says, is not that the concepts are religious, but that they are “fervently believed.” He extends this rule to any ideology which treats its premises as “absolutes,” including atheism, and is particularly critical of the application of absolutism to morality: “whether one believes that they [moral values] were handed down by an infallible God or arrived at through infallible logic, to treat a subjective value as objective is silly at best, dangerous at worst.”

At the risk of sounding extreme, the only important issue is what is believed rather than how it is believed. With respect to religious beliefs, the problem is simply that what they say is false. They do not track reality or conform to logic, so that acting upon them frequently poses the same perils as a psychotic acting upon his hallucinations. But how they are held is not the key. That one holds false beliefs with certainty may indeed magnify their danger, because one is more likely to act upon them, but the danger from acting upon them arises from the falsity rather than the fervor. A belief that aspirin relieves a headache is harmless, however fervently held. But the same belief with respect to cyanide is dangerous even in moderation, as is a preference for prayer over medicine.

Confronted by a fundamentalist terrorist threatening to blow up the world at the push of a button, Mr. Swill would express his atheism towards that deity with the same “extremism” as I would. He would not proclaim the virtue of uncertainty, any more than he would if he saw a child about to press the same detonator under the misconception that the button would summon an elevator. Moderation under such circumstances would not be an option. If religious moderates pose a lesser threat than so-called extremists, it is only because their moderation represents a partial rejection of literalism and is thus a form of disbelief. But moderation is not completely harmless, because it encourages irrationality to the extent it embraces it, and disqualifies its adherents from criticizing the more consistent (and scripturally faithful) irrationality of the fundamentalists.

In the moral realm, it is also the “what” that matters far more than the “how.” Those whose values include cannibalism, murder, rape, racism aren’t moral merely because they humbly acknowledge that their morality isn’t for everybody or pursue their desires in moderation. Absolutists for charity and peace hold a higher ground. And Swill’s premise that an objective theory of morality is “silly” or “dangerous” collapses of its own weight: he cannot prove it unless he assigns fixed meanings to both “silly” and “dangerous.” For the criticism to have meaning, he must specifically identify the evil that results from holding such views. But once he has, he will have created an absolutist moral system.


21 Responses to “Extremism”

  1. Jason
    May 17th, 2006 @ 11:20 am

    Right on. I couldn’t agree more. That said, I wonder how you would apply these same criticisms to Objectivists. Alot of the stuff I’ve seen on here attacks Randians because of the fervor of their belief, calling them dogmatic, extremist, intolerant, etc. While that may be true, if their passionate devotion is to the TRUTH, then attacking the way they believe is entirely irrelevant, as you have just explained. If, on the other hand, you think that the tenets of Objectivism are flawed, then by all means, logically break them down and expose their inherent flaws. But I have seen very little actual criticism of Objectivism, amid much criticism of the Objectivists themselves.

  2. Mister Swill
    May 17th, 2006 @ 1:33 pm

    Okay, RA. You win. My views are wishy-washy and I am hereby changing them into an absolutist stance: There is no such thing as good or evil. Period. Someone could torture or murder my loved ones or myself. I would protest, I would cry, I would be angry, and I would fight back. But that would not mean anything; it would simply be my emotional response. There is nothing outside of human emotion that can logically be defined as “good” or “bad.” Also, there are no things. The ground, the trees, the sky, these are separate and distinct objects and concepts only in my perception. As Democritus said (I’m paraphrasing), “Nothing exists but ‘atoms’ and the void. The rest is opinion.” Actually, even that isn’t necessarily true. How do I know for sure that anything I perceive is anything other than illusion? As Descartes (if he was even real) observed, the only thing I can be absolutely sure of is that my perceptions exist.

    There. Is that a good life philosophy? No room for interpretation or nuance. Only what is known to be absolutely true is stated. If you ask me, it would be kind of silly to define one’s life that way. But that’s just my opinion, based on what I think is “silly.”

    Maybe the root of our communication problem is that we’ve been using different definitions of objective and absolute. I’ve been using the Merriam-Webster definition of objective, which is summed up as “having reality independent of the mind.” The definition of absolute that I’ve been using, also from M-W, is sort of an extension of that: “having no restriction, exception, or qualification,” “independent of arbitrary standards of measurement,” “being self-sufficient and free of external references or relationships.”

    Using those definitions, you understand the problem now, right? The simple fact that — by our nature — we humans observe the world from our individual points of view already interferes with the idea of anything in our experience being objective or absolute. I suppose we could define certain things to be objective or absolute within the limited realm of the human experience, but to do so would seem to defeat the purpose of the definitions of those words. I would have to argue that absolutism makes sense only if we are stepping outside our role as human beings and attempting to understand the universe from an objective standpoint. The logical conclusion of that exercise is expressed in my first paragraph.

    That being said, stepping back into my limited human point of view, it does make sense to search for a moral or ethical system of behavior based on the values that everyone, or at least almost everyone agrees upon. The problem with that, of course, is that the values that (almost) everyone agrees upon turn out to be a lot narrower than one usually expects. It’s easy to get people to agree that one should not be allowed to kill a passerby for the purpose of taking his or her cash. It’s not as easy to get people to agree about abortion. Or euthanasia. Or even the details surrounding specific cases of self defense, justifiable homicide, war, etc.

  3. Mister Swill
    May 17th, 2006 @ 1:35 pm

    One last comment from me.

    “Confronted by a fundamentalist terrorist threatening to blow up the world at the push of a button, M[iste]r Swill would express his atheism towards that deity with the same ‘extremism’ as I would.”

    Are you kidding me? If I were face-to-face with a terrorist threatening to blow up the world, my personal beliefs (other than my desire to survive) would be the farthest things from my mind! If I’m going to stop that person from pushing that button, I’m going to attempt to figure out what’s important to him or her and appeal to that. “Are you sure [deity] wants you to do this? Maybe He’s testing you.” “Think of the ones you love. They will die too.” “Remember the beautiful place where you grew up. You will be destroying it forever.”

  4. ocmpoma
    May 17th, 2006 @ 2:16 pm

    You know, I think that in some cases, what is believed matters more heavily; in others, it is how it is believed that matters most. Sometimes an absolutely ludicrous, ridiculous belief poses no threat, because the believer is willing to “live and let live” concerning those who disbelieve. In other cases, a belief which happens also to be correct can pose a real danger when the believer is so fervent that they are willing to kill – and die – for it.

    All things in moderation – including moderation.

  5. tarkovsky
    May 17th, 2006 @ 2:48 pm

    You are mixing up belief with survival strategy.

    What is extremism anyway? It is simply the right thing to do from a certain point of view. It is a survival strategy for cornered humans, it is a desperate strategy, a greedy strategy, but a plausible strategy nonetheless.

    When a human resorts to violence, it is because from that point of view there is some sort of justification (assuming said human is not mentally ill).

    Then there is the case of what I call brain-washing or, put in milder terms, the cultural thing. What if said human has a certain point of view that is biased because of strong cultural bias imposed on said individual?

    Agreed with Mister Swill that there is nothing but atoms. However these atoms linked together in the specific configuration called “human beings” have not yet found a way to prevent injustice to take place, leading to extremism.

    Absolutists for charity and peace hold a higher ground.

    Why would that be true? Who says that is “better”? It is not so easy to demonstrate that this is a “better” stance.

    It is perhaps more in line with western moral values, yes, but for under-developed countries struggling to survive and plagued with geographically close neighbours fighting for the natural resources, I have no trouble understanding the success of “hardline” Islam or “hardline” Israel in that part of the world.

  6. Mister Swill
    May 17th, 2006 @ 2:50 pm

    Well stated, ocmpoma.

    One more thing I forgot to mention: Of course I can assign meanings to “silly” and “dangerous” without creating an absolutist moral system.

    Silly: Contrary to a logical system or set of personal assumptions in a way that is likely to be considered humorous.

    Dangerous: Potentially destructive to something that is considered important, such as life, health, or society.

    In context, the logical system in question is the basic one that most of the people here agree on. We may not agree on every aspect of it, but I think we pretty much all agree that, for instance, all poodles are dogs but not all dogs are poodles. And the thing that is considered important is American law and politics, which I argue is trivialized by absolutism.

    Are those definitions not “fixed” enough for RA? Well, fine. I’m not out to “prove” that anything is silly or dangerous. I’m just stating what I think — and what I’m pretty sure others will think — is a reasonable opinion.

  7. Viole
    May 17th, 2006 @ 3:31 pm

    “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil.”
    -Attributed to Ayn Rand

    Sounds very familiar, doesn’t it?

  8. Robert N G
    May 17th, 2006 @ 4:00 pm

    What Barry actually said was, “Extremisim in the defense of liberty is no vice. . .Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

  9. mitch
    May 17th, 2006 @ 4:24 pm

    In matters religious a war seems to be going on between the voices of moderation and tolerance (don’t offend, don’t take offence) and those who refuse to give ground. Among the secular, the Danish Cartoons separated the former and the latter (including Salman Rushdie). Perhaps this is not as important as the war between believers and nonbelievers. But the issues involved are large: pluralism, doubt, niceness vs. courage, consistency, conviction. My tendency: to find (with all due irony) the middle way. My sense is that the secret of a life well lived is knowing when to be extreme — in morality, in philosophy, in love, in religion (or, in my case, irreligion) — and when to show moderation. Help your opponent in questioning your own position until that point — difficult to find, crucial to find — when the questions come to an end.

  10. freddy
    May 17th, 2006 @ 8:54 pm

    Can a theory really be called “objective” if you’re the only one who believes it? It seems to me that for any declaration of objectivity you need some large consensus of people, whether it’s the general public or experts on morality. RA declaring that his morality is objective seems not much different than IDers saying their ideas are “scientific” just because they say so.

  11. Brian Macker
    May 17th, 2006 @ 10:11 pm

    “Absolutists for charity and peace hold a higher ground.”
    Actually those can be some of the most dangerous people.

  12. ocmpoma
    May 18th, 2006 @ 10:26 am

    “Can a theory really be called “objective” if you’re the only one who believes it? It seems to me that for any declaration of objectivity you need some large consensus of people…”

    Warning: “Personal Definitions” follow

    I think something is objective if it is devoid of emotional content; i.e. is fully quantitative and in no way qualitative. If I can demonstrate the Pythagorean Theorem, and I’m the only one who thinks that it’s correct, it’s still objectively correct.
    Now, if a vast number of people agree on something, that doesn’t mean it’s objective at all. I’m sure anyone reading this can think of plenty of examples of completely subjective concepts which are widely accepted by lots and lots of people. I’ll name one anyway: Human Rights.
    The whole concept of rights is completely subjective, and up to the individual – almost always with a hefty dose of indoctrination by their culture. There’s no way one can objectively show that supporting such-and-such a right is objectively correct, since the entire concept of a right is founded upon one’s emotional, subjective, personal, and internal belief (which is qualitative and not quantitative) concerning that right.
    That’s why RA’s claim that his morality is objectively correct sounds bogus – there’s no such thing as an objectively correct morality. A morale code, such as RA’s, might logically derive from it’s premises without a problem, and can be internally consistent – but, ultimately, all morality rests on some premises which are assertions of emotional truth, such as ‘pain is bad’ or ‘refraining from the use of profanity is good’. These premises must first be accepted whole cloth (and usually are, thanks to our evolutionary path to cooperative living and social / group ethics) before the moral code can be constructed from them. And none of those premises can be demonstrated objectively – that is, quantitatively.

    Thomas wrote that we “hold these truths to be self-evident” for a reason.

  13. freddy
    May 18th, 2006 @ 1:21 pm

    ocmpama said:
    I think something is objective if it is devoid of emotional content; i.e. is fully quantitative and in no way qualitative. If I can demonstrate the Pythagorean Theorem, and I’m the only one who thinks that it’s correct, it’s still objectively correct.

    Not to get completely sidetracked on this issue, but I think that the relationship between the emotion in an argument and the objectiveness of an argument is a sham perpetrated by people who want to make their argument seem objective by claiming that they considered the evidence soberly and without bias. But I don’t see that emotion has much to do with it. An excited basketball fan can claim that her team won the big game, and be both objectively correct and emotional, while a conspiracy theorist can soberly present evidence that the Illuminata were behind the JFK assassination, and still not have a shred of objective fact to back him up. I would argue that an objective argument needs at least two things: 1. logical or empirical evidence to substantiate the claims that are being made, 2. the ability to convince some sizable and diverse cross-section of people with expertise on the subject. RA as much as admits the non-objectivity of his arguments by implying that you need to share his particular belief in absolute morality to accept his views on morality. If you can’t convince people who don’t already start out with a certain biased belief on the subject, then that’s a good sign that you’re views aren’t particularly objective.

  14. bernarda
    May 18th, 2006 @ 2:12 pm

    Someone didn’t read the wikipedia article on the ADL.

    “According to an August 19, 2002 article in The New York Times ADL Director Abraham Foxman said, “it made sense that Jewish Americans would want to contribute to efforts to replace Ms. McKinney and [Black former Alabama Congressman] Mr. Hilliard because of the lawmakers’ records on matters of interest to the Jewish community.” McKinney was subsequently defeated in the Democratic primary by black state judge Denise Majette. In an August 25 letter to The New York Times Foxman pointed out that “support [from outside the African-American community] was vital in furthering the civil rights movements, and Jews played an important role” and added “McKinney went out of her way to attack Israel, causing much pain to supporters of a beleaguered democracy. It is also clear that her constituents turned her out of office for many reasons, including her extreme comments about September 11.”

    The ADL also spies on Americans for Israel. But it settles out of court to avoid condemnation.

    “The lawsuit was settled out of court in 1999. The ADL agreed to pay $175,000 for the court costs of the groups that sued it, promised that it would not seek information from sources it knew could not legally disclose such information, consented to remove sensitive information like criminal records or Social Security numbers from its files, and spent $25,000 to further relations between the Jewish, Arab and black communities.”

    But no one can believe any promises made by Abe Foxman.

    “The critics also claim that the ADL defines legitimate criticism so narrowly that even moderate analysis of Israel could be categorized as anti-Semitic.

    For example, linguist and activist Noam Chomsky wrote in his 1989 book Necessary Illusions:

    “The ADL has virtually abandoned its earlier role as a civil rights organization, becoming ‘one of the main pillars’ of Israeli propaganda in the U.S.… These efforts, buttressed by insinuations of anti-Semitism or direct accusations, are intended to deflect or undermine opposition to Israeli policies, including Israel’s refusal, with U.S. support, to move towards a general political settlement.”

    Michael Lerner, a prominent left-wing rabbi, has criticized the ADL on similar grounds:

    “The ADL lost most of it credibility in my eyes as a civil rights organization when it began to identify criticisms of Israel with anti-Semitism, still more when it failed to defend me when I was receiving threats to my life from right-wing Jewish groups because of my critique of Israeli policy toward Palestinians (it said that these were not threats that came from my being Jewish, so therefore they were not within their area of concern).” [23] ”

    As I posted, a search of “Adl spying on campus” or similar phrase will give you much more information. What evidence does it take to show that the ADL is a hate site?

  15. ocmpoma
    May 18th, 2006 @ 2:31 pm


    There’s nothing in your post above (#13) that I disagree with; rather, I think that due to the ways in which words such as emotional, objective, etc. are used, there is some miscommunication rather than disagreement.

    I agree that someone, like your basketball fan, can be very emotional and still make an objectively correct argument. And someone could be completely sober and make an objectively incorrect argument, perhaps by saying that the same team actually lost the game (assuming that by win / lose we’re referring to the points scored). It’s not the emotions of the person that make the argument objective or subjective – it’s the content of the argument, as you said.

    In effect, my stance (including “personal usage”) is as follows:
    A position on who won or lost a basketball game can be objective, because it has objective information – the points scored. Such a positon could be correct or incorrect, based on that information.
    A position on which team in the game is better can not be objective, because it has no objective information. One could discuss points scored, performance under pressure, championships won, player, etc. ad nauseum, but another could still claim a team with lesser numbers as better, because better is subjective. Such a position is neither correct, not incorrect – it’s opinion.

    I do think that convincing large numbers of competent people is related to objectivity; however, I do not see it as necessary for it. A basketball game is played, a team wins by scoring more points. Regardless of whether or not anyone at all could be convinced of the outcome, it remains objectively correct that one team won. If, for some reason, vast numbers of people think that the winning team actually lost (barring data such as cheating, bribery of the refs, etc.), then vast numbers of people would be objectively incorrect. However, this is unlikely, as most people will accept objective evidence (i.e. hard numbers) and agree that the team with more points was the winner of the game. On a more nuanced level, lots of fans of the team that didn’t win might claim that said team “played a better game” because they demonstrated more sportsmanship or teamwork, even though those fans agree that the team lost. The better game position is subjective (and, in my view, based on emotion), whereas the win/loss position is objective (based on rationality in my view).

    I’m avoiding the Illuminati Assassination Conspiracy not because I think it’s correct (or incorrect), but because it’s harder to illustrate the point with it. Lack of evidence does not make an argument objective or subjective – it does make it weaker, though. But, again, I do agree that a sober presention an incorrect argument does not make the argument correct.

    Lastly, I’d like to state that I do not think rationality is superior to irrationality. Not only are humans inherently irrational (and our ability to reason objectively is founded upon our emotions); and not only do I think that the two “arenas” of rational and irrational are simply seperate systems; but saying that “rational is better than irrational” is, well… irrational.

  16. Mister Swill
    May 18th, 2006 @ 2:35 pm

    freddy said:
    “…a conspiracy theorist can soberly present evidence that the Illuminata were behind the JFK assassination, and still not have a shred of objective fact to back him up.”

    Ah, but freddy, what is it that causes people to believe things without having any evidence to back them up? What causes people to continue to believe those things with the same fervor when presented with mountains of evidence to the contrary?

    I’m not saying that I think there should be no emotion associated with a person’s opinion, nor am I saying that people should believe things without any fervor. But one ought to be aware and skeptical of the emotions tied up in any belief, especially one’s own.

  17. Mister Swill
    May 18th, 2006 @ 2:54 pm

    ocmpoma said:
    “I’d like to state that I do not think rationality is superior to irrationality. … [H]umans [are] inherently irrational (and our ability to reason objectively is founded upon our emotions)[.]”

    Absolutely. I completely agree.

    I think the mistake that RA tends to make is treating his moral views as if they are based on reason alone and therefore anyone who properly considers all of the factual evidence will come to the same conclusions as he has. Either that, or it is accepting the role of emotion in his moral views but insisting that people across all spectra of life would consistently reach his conclusions if they only examined the issues correctly.

  18. Thorngod
    May 18th, 2006 @ 4:23 pm

    Ocmpoma & Mister S, I should like to hear in what way you both (or each) consider irrationality on a par with rationality. Do you mean simply that the former holds at least equal sway in human affairs? Undeniable. Do you mean that it can exert equal force in defending one’s territory (physical or intellectual)? Perhaps. But do you hold also that irrationality makes an equivalent contribution to the comfort and congeniality of human existence? If the two are equal in value, could you use either here exclusively and be just as persuasive? I don’t mean to impute a stance to you that you aren’t actually assuming, but I am just not at all clear on your position.

  19. hermesten
    May 18th, 2006 @ 4:25 pm

    I guess Mr. Swill and I use the same dictionary.

    RA: “A belief that aspirin relieves a headache is harmless, however fervently held. ”

    We might say the same thing about the belief that a fertilized egg is a baby. However, if translating this fervently held belief into law means executing aborting mothers and their doctors, then we bring the “harm” into a little better focus. I’ve yet to see anyone with fervently held beliefs of an absolutist nature who is content to let matters rest with a good debate. And frankly, if some Christian nutter thinks the State has the right to kill my adulterous spouse, or my homosexual nephew (the essential “how” of his belief), I’m only interested in why he thinks so to the extent that such a belief is susceptible to reason or new information. Really, to claim that something must be so, “without restriction, exemption, or qualification,” because it’s in the Bible, or it’s a “natural law,” or whatever, is little more than a conveinent expression of superiority –a largely meaningless and frustrating expression unless it comes with the power of enforcement. No one is content to merely tell us that they’re right. They want to see us suffer for being wrong. And what greater satisfaction is there than to be the instrument of our suffering?

  20. David J. Balan
    May 22nd, 2006 @ 2:52 pm

    The writer of this blog believes that religious people are under the sway of errors that he can perceive but to which they are blind. I think he’s right. But just because people who understand this are free of this error (and the evidence is overwhelming that this is so) doesn’t mean we are free of all error. In fact, we might have our own particular blind spots. We might get just a bit too much of a kick out of being iconoclastic or of being right when everyone else is wrong, and this may lead to its own kinds of error and bias. This bias is hopefully mitigated by the fact that we regard it is a point of pride to check and re-check the reasoning and evidence that underlie our convictions, but this failsafe is far from perfect. It has less chance of being effective the more worked up one is about one’s own rightness. So there is merit in adopting a posture of “not being too certain,” not because wishy-washiness or relativism are good things (they aren’t) but because it keeps us in a state of mind that is most conducive to being right more and wrong less.

  21. Thorngod
    May 25th, 2006 @ 1:20 pm

    In other words, “Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect.” (-Santayana) -and we should apply it at least as stringently to our own thinking as to that of others.

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