Why Atheists Have No Rights Date: October 7, 2007 | Author: Steven Novella
That is the title of a ridiculous article by John Martignoni, preaching to the faithful about why atheists are evil, directly comparing them to (of course) Hitler. Martignoni writes:
Well, I maintain, and I think most of you will agree with me, that we have value simply because we are alive... that human life has inherent value. In other words, simply because it is human life, it has value. But, what is my basis for saying that? It is this: we have value as human beings because God gives us value... He gives us value by His love for us.
We don't have value because we are productive. We don't have value because we are useful. We don't have value because someone else thinks we have value. We don't have value because we have an IQ of 100 or higher. We don't have value because another human being loves us. We don't have value because we have some arbitrary level of "quality of life." We have value, because God loves us. Any other line of reasoning leaves an opening for someone, somewhere, at some point in time, to declare somebody else as having no value... which is exactly what happened to the Jews in Europe 70 years ago.
My logical fallacy meter just broke. The two big ones Martignoni makes throughout is a straw man argument and an argument from final consequences. The latter is the claim that if you do not believe in God and that God gives life value, then nothing lies between you and a genocidal rampage. This is wrong, but even if it were true it would not be an argument for the existence of God.
But worse, the entire premise of the article is a childish straw man, one that either ignores or is ignorant of a vast tradition of humanist philosophy and secular law. We do not need to simply accept on faith that human life has value, we can arrive at that conclusion by careful and systematic thought. The humanist argument for the value of human life is not based upon utility or IQ, but rather on ethical first principles that derive from common human experience and basic logic.
We all share the common experience of wanting to be alive, which logically translates into the desire not to be killed. It also makes sense that we cannot expect from others that which we are unwilling to give (a principle called reciprocity, which seems to be something humans innately understand). Therefore it is in everyone's self interest to have a civilization with rules and for those rules to protect the individual's right not to be killed. In other words, as humans it is in all our self interest to value human life. If you devalue human life in one context, that threatens the value of your own life. People also have a basic empathy and desire for altruism - believe it or not, most people actually care about other people and are saddened and upset by crimes against humanity. There is more, but that's it in a nutshell.
Martignoni rejects all such reasoning a priori as "subjective opinion." He writes:
If you ever want to drive home the point of all of this with someone who claims to be an atheist, after asking them if Hitler was right and going through all of what we talked about above regarding the Declaration, ask them to give you a reason for why it would be wrong for you to kill them. Just look them straight in the eye and say, "Can you give me an objective moral reason for why it would be wrong for me to shoot you where you stand?" You might startle them. But, no matter what they say, simply reply, "Well, that's just your opinion. I don't believe that. Give me an objective moral reason, not simply your opinion."
Martignoni is telling his readers not to think about what someone else might tell them on this issue, just blindly repeat "that's just your opinion." (This is the intellectual equivalent of sticking one's fingers in one's ears and saying "Na na na na na, I can't hear you.") The humanist/philosophical answer is not just opinion - it is the result of sound reasoning. Martignoni apparently does not know the difference.
It is no surprise, therefore, that his solution is to surrender all reasoning to blind faith. While he falsely accuses, based upon a fallacious straw man argument, that the "atheist" defense of life is thin, his faith-based defense is downright vaporous. First, he assumes that God-based value is objective, but it isn't. It is based upon authority, and not the authority of God as Martignoni and other apologists would argue, but on the authority of some person who is self-appointed to interpret the will of God. Martignoni's approach leads inexorably to the setting aside of logic, reason, even basic common sense and submitting oneself blindly to the authority of a priesthood.
And, while Martignoni would (falsely I might add) blame the atrocities of Hitler on atheism, the track record of faith and the value of human life is not a good one. History is replete with examples of those who used their religious faith to conclude that the life of others does not have value.
The true human frailty that leads to such atrocities is our tribalism. We are hardwired to think of the world in terms of us vs them. The struggle of civilization is to transcend our tribalism, in essence to view all of humanity as part of our tribe. Sectarian religions are decidedly counterproductive in this endeavor. The real threat to the value of human life is the setting aside of reason, not the setting aside of faith.
Martignoni goes on to argue that atheists should have no legal rights, a claim I will address in next Sunday's entry.