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Heresy 101: Beware “Guilt by Association”

July 5, 2010
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Letter from a reader:

Dear Pants,

Let’s say I asserted that religion was responsible for more killing, pillaging, etc throughout history than any other identifiable cause. And let’s say that in response, someone else said that Hitler, Stalin, and Mao collectively killed more people under the banner of atheism than all of the religious wars combined. What would your retort be?

Java Man


Dear Java Man,

A couple different tactics come to mind.  You could ask them a seemingly irrelevant question: “Are Catholics Christians?”  Unless they’re Protestant*, they’ll most likely say yes.  If and/or when they do, you can point out that Hitler considered himself a Catholic.

Hitler greets a Cardinal

*Note*
Just as with comedy, good timing here is essential.  You must pause for a moment and let them think that they’ve just been flanked.  The instant you see that they’ve realized this, and are now preparing to respond, deliver the punchline.

*Note to the Note*
If they’re trained in the art of skepticism, they may not hesitate to call immediate bullshit.  Though this is always a respectable play, it will have no effect here, as you will see.

Punchline: Once you’ve pointed out that Hitler considered himself a Catholic, go on to rescue them by noting  that it doesn’t matter, because it’s no more fair to throw Christians under the bus because Hilter was (or claimed to be) a Christian, than it is to throw atheists under the bus because Stalin was (or claimed to be) an atheist.  The “guilt by association” argument cuts both ways, and ultimately, it misses the larger point  and fundamental assumption which is, “Is killing people wrong?”

Score
The point of conversation & debate really isn’t to score points, it is to learn.  However, if we
were keeping score, a significant shift in moral leverage has just occurred.  The “atheists are bad because they’ve killed people” argument has been stopped dead in it’s tracks by the “then theists are bad, because they’ve killed people too” argument.  It’s now a pissing contest, and no further progress can be made down this line of reasoning.  The only choices left to the person wishing to maintain the “atheists are bad” argument are (#1) Argue that Hitler wasn’t a “real” Christian (see the “No True Scotsman Fallacy“), or (#2) start trying to win this argument in terms of the number of people killed by either side, which is futile, stupid and impossible.  It’s futile because it’s stupid and impossible.  It’s impossible, because there’s no way of knowing how many people have really been killed, and it’s stupid to adopt an argument that runs something like, “My team killed fewer innocent people than your team did, therefore my team wins”.  So, the sensible thing to do is address the fundamental assumption we’re making in this, “Who killed more people?” argument which is, “Is killing people wrong?

To the question of, “Is killing people wrong?”, assume they say yes.  [Actually, they have to if they wish to maintain their current argument that atheists have killed more people throughout history than non-atheists have, because if killing isn't wrong, "so what?"]  And assuming they say yes, you can now deliver the coup de grâce by pointing out that if killing people is wrong, somebody forgot to tell God about it.  Just consider Noah’s flood, for one example.  Millions of innocent people died, not at the hand of “religion”, but of God “himself”.  Of what value is “religion” then, if God himself, the center of religious worship, is a stone-cold killer of innocent people?

It’ll be interesting to see how they respond to that.  My guess is that when you pose the question, it’ll be the equivalent of handing them an “argument shovel”, and provided they’re willing to keep arguing, they can keep digging themselves into an ever deepening hole.

Good luck Java Man


Hitler quotes from: http://www.stephenjaygould.org/ctrl/quotes_hitler.html

I am now as before a Catholic and will always remain so.~ (Adolf Hitler, from John Toland [Pulitzer Prize winner], Adolf Hitler, New York: Anchor Publishing, 1992, p. 507.)

“We were convinced that the people needs and requires this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.” ~ (Adolf Hitler, in a speech delivered in Berlin, October 24, 1933; from Norman H. Baynes, ed., The Speeches of Adolf Hitler, April 1922-August 1939. Vol. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1942, p. 378.)

My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross. As a Christian I have no duty to allow myself to be cheated, but I have the duty to be a fighter for truth and justice. And as a man I have the duty to see to it that human society does not suffer the same catastrophic collapse as did the civilization of the ancient world some two thousand years ago — a civilization which was driven to its ruin through this same Jewish people.” ~  (Adolf Hitler, in a speech delivered at Munich, April 12, 1922; from Norman H. Baynes, ed., The Speeches of Adolf Hitler: April 1922-August 1939, Vol. 1, New York: Oxford University Press, 1942, pp. 19-20.)


* This is funny whether you think it is or not.

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3 Responses to “ Heresy 101: Beware “Guilt by Association” ”

  1. Nat on July 6, 2010 at 8:01 am

    Enlightening post, as usual, Mr. Pants. I give Christianity a pass for swaying allegiance away from the state, which has killed far more people than any other concept, including religion.

    But I notice that when you attack “religion,” your arguments tend to focus on Christianity. Do you feel the same way regarding Shintoism? Buddhism? Judaism?

  2. Mr. Smarty Pants on July 6, 2010 at 9:39 am

    I refer to Christianity because it’s what I’m most familiar with, not because I’ve singled it out as being worse than other religions.

    A buddy of mine is a very influential guy with the interfaith crowd here in KC, and we regularly meet and have lunch and talk about various things, with “religion” being a very common theme. The friendship has been good for me, because it’s helped keep me somewhat centered, and more “moderate”, believe it or not.

    He cringes whenever I throw “religion” (as a whole) under the bus, and has done a good job helping me come to terms with the fact that though I don’t “get” religion, a lot of people do and it’s very important to them.

    Anyway, I don’t know much (comparatively speaking) about other religions, so Christianity bears the brunt of my scorn.

    Interestingly (to me, anyway) I’m reading a book right now called “Daring Steps Toward Fearlessness”, which is about Buddhism.

    http://www.snowlionpub.com/search.php?isbn=DASTTO

    I plan to do a book-report post on it, once I finish it.

    I actually consider myself a fan of Buddhism, for the most part. Some of it gets a little too weird for me, but at least I can connect with the “desire leads to suffering” concept. Buddhism seems to me to be *much* more useful, in terms of a guiding set of ideas and/or principles than Christianity, or any of the “magic guy in the sky” religions, which (in my best moderate tone), appear to be “completely fucking ridiculous and unworthy of serious consideration”.

    [sigh] OK, now I feel guilty because I’ve been unkind towards religion, but my inner Buddha says, “That’s OK Pants, you’re on a path – in a process – and that’s just how it is for you right now.” Maybe next year I’ll feel differently about it?

    But I doubt it. (And that’s OK too!)

  3. Dad on July 7, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    On the other hand, you could make the argument that Hitler, Stalin and Mao were not killing for the sake of religion. While disbelief in a deity was certainly one of the tenets of communisms, it was not an overriding consideration. The state just did not want religion to control the individual because the state wanted to have that role.
    Therefore, atheist killing is not that common, because it is not a “religion” we are trying to convert people to. Even in the “Pagan” communities, killings occurred more for political control or over resources. The “gods” were just a convenient excuse used by the leaders to motivate the masses to follow in their folly, so to speak.

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