A few years ago I made a post titled “Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs Intuition“. In that post I put forward the idea that there are certain things — empirical claims — that people dismiss because of the unfavorable moral implications.
I encountered this so many times in debates with religious people that I assumed that it was a particular failing of the religious. All of us former religious people have encountered the following logic:
If god doesn’t exist, what’s stopping an atheist from murdering bystanders and raping children?
Religious people don’t realize that this is quite the self-own: They are so depraved and morally bankrupt that the only thing that’s stopping them from raping children is belief in god. Eliezer Yudkowsky refutes this pretty soundly in my opinion by substituting “murder” with something more mundane like “going to the bathroom after midnight”: If god doesn’t exist, what’s stopping atheist from going to the bathroom after midnight? Checkmate, atheists!
The substitution demonstrates that an extra, hidden premise is smuggled in to give the original formulation its weight.
Unfortunately, religion isn’t some aberration of human behavior. The physical-to-moral sleights of hand that religious people perform aren’t limited to them, many other non-religious people do them as well. Religion is just a subset of moral intuitions. As such, there are many other empirical claims that are dismissed on secular morality grounds, and lead to the same sorts of self-owns.
Can you think of any? I brought some up in that previous post.
The larger point in both this post and the previous, is that human worth should be orthogonal to most — if not all — empirical claims. If god doesn’t exist this should have no bearing on the value of human life. But to even get to this step, people have to understand that the existence of god is an empirical claim and not a moral one. That is a hard ask.
And to my non-religious readers, you don’t get away either! You suffer from the same inability to divorce the physical from the moral that the religious do. And as such, you will inadvertently self-own in the same way religious people do. How depraved and morally destitute are you by your own admission?
Or to put it in a phrasing you might be familiar with (and leads to the moral self-own), does not believing in [XYZ] empirical or physical claim make you racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic? Are you saying that the only thing that holds you back from being a putrid mire of racism/sexism/homophobia/transphobia is believing in [XYZ] claim?
Now, I actually don’t think religious people suffer from an abject poverty of moral purchase due to the implications of this particular anti-atheist argument. When a religious person hears “I don’t believe in god” it gets translated by their subconscious as “I don’t think morality exists”. The primacy of social or moral rules over the physical is a bias we all have. Meaning that the same translation happens for other physical claims besides the existence of god in non-religious domains: When presented with a question/claim that can have a moral/social answer/interpretation XOR a physical answer/interpretation, we tend to answer with the moral/social answer/interpretation.
But when you interpret a physical claim as a moral/social claim, you logically paint yourself into a moral corner. You imply that you would kill innocent people/rape children/be racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic, and the only thing holding you back is the existence of god/[XYZ] claim.
To drive this point home, I’ll end this post with the most egregious example of the human tendency to supplant the social/moral over the physical — besides the existence of god — in the current zeitgeist: