Andrea Coelho (maidden) wrote,
Andrea Coelho
maidden

John Martignoni Responds

John Martignoni Responds
Date: October 28, 2007 | Author: Steven Novella


Two of my recent SGU blog entries were a response to an article written by Catholic apologist John Martignoni titled: Was Hitler Right? (Or: Why Atheists Have No Rights). I was intrigued to learn that Martignoni has taken the time to respond to my criticisms. He does so by piling more logical fallacies and sloppy thinking on top of his original rant, starting with some ad hominem attacks. He writes:

One of the stated goals of the New England Skeptical Society (NESS) founded by Dr. Novella is improved standards of education for critical thinking skills. Well, if the critical thinking skills of the Founder and President are any indication of the organization’s record in this area, then I think we can say it has failed miserably in realizing its goal.My article is not an argument for the existence of God, as Dr. Novella seems to think. The article is all about first, how it is we, as human beings, have value; second, how it is we, as human beings, have rights. He completely misses the main arguments of the article and builds a number of strawmen which he then confidently knocks down. He starts down the wrong path by ignoring the main title of my article, which is, “Was Hitler Right?” and then goes on to distort and misrepresent almost everything (if not indeed everything) that I said in the article.


Martignoni is claiming that I misrepresented his arguments, but I disagree and stand by my characterization. He is simply coyly backing off from the implications of what he wrote and trying to say that I misrepresented him simply because my characterizations were not direct quotes from him.

It is true that Martignoni never said that his was an argument for the existence of God, but it is a necessary premise to his point. He wrote:

This is why people who do not believe in God cannot offer any objective reason for saying that they themselves have value as human beings. Without God, everything becomes subjective…merely one person’s opinion versus another person’s opinion…and the strongest person’s opinon prevails. Without God, might, in essence, makes right. I’ve talked to atheists before and I’ve asked them if what Hitler did to the Jews was wrong. And they answered that of course it was! Then I asked them, why? Why was it wrong for Hitler to kill six million Jews? Essentially, all they could answer me with was, “Well, it just was.”


He is saying that we need belief in God in order for human life to have objective value. It is true that this is not the same as saying that God must exist, but it certainly presupposes God’s existence as a premise. By criticizing me for missing his point, is Martignoni saying that his position does not require the existence of God? Is he saying we should believe in God whether or not he exists? If Martignoni is willing to say that his position is not dependent upon the existence of God nor an argument for his existence, then I will gladly withdrawn that specific criticism.

Martignoni writes:

Right off the bat he claims that my article says “atheists are evil” and that I compare them to Hitler. And he quotes two paragraphs from the article, apparently for the purpose of backing up his claims. The problem is, though, there is nothing in either of those two paragraphs which says anything like what he is claiming I said. In fact, if you read the entire article, you will not find a single reference to atheists as being evil or being compared to Hitler. I think the “critical thinking skills” that the New England Skeptical Society needs to improve are those of its founder. Either that, or Dr. Novella is displaying an incredible amount of intellectual dishonesty.

The only thing that he could possibly be referring to in either of the two paragraphs he quotes is the last sentence where I say, “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.” All I’m saying is that without an objective standard of value for human beings (the fact that God loving us gives us value - the objective part being that the value is there regardless of what anyone might think or the passage of laws to the contrary), we are left with only subjective valuations for human beings which opens the door to someone declaring that someone else has no value…which is exactly what happened to the Jews. To read these two paragraphs and come away with the interpretation that I say atheists are evil and that I compare them to Hitler is to be totally bereft of “critical thinking skills” or is the result of being influenced by an agenda that wants nothing to do with honest dialogue.

I challenge Dr. Novella to find a single instance in the entire article where I say atheists are evil or where I even imply that they are evil. And I further challenge him to find a single instance of my comparing atheists to Hitler. The point of the article was to simply explore the question: Was Hitler right? and, if not, why not? I compared no one to Hitler nor did I label anyone as being evil.


Again, Martignoni is trying to be coy, to distance himself from the clear implications of his article. I was pointing out what he was obviously implying by his arguments. He says that according to atheistic belief humans have no inherent value, and that this philosophy allowed Hitler’s genocide of the Jews to occur. Is a philosophy that allows genocide and murder not evil? Is he saying that atheists are not evil, only their philosophy is (or maybe that atheism is not evil, it just happens to facilitate evil).

Martignoni would have us believe he is not comparing atheists to Hitler, he’s just saying that atheism leads to things like Hitler and his holocaust. Does this not “imply” evil? I will let the reader decide.

Martignoni writes:

With all due respect to Dr. Novella, but these two paragraphs made me want to laugh. In the first one he states that I ignore a “vast tradition of humanist philosophy and secular law” and then goes on to say that, “We can arrive at that conclusion [that human life has value] by careful and systematic thought.” But, when you look at the next paragraph, what do we find is the end result of this “vast tradition of humanist philosophy” and of the “careful and systematic thought” of humanists? Basically it’s this: “I want to save my ass [please excuse the French] so I’m going to agree not to kill you if you agree not to kill me.” Gee, that’s a completely objective standard, don’t you think? How could I have ever ignored a vast tradition of humanist thought that gives us such a noble and selfless philosophy as that? Shame on me.

Furthermore, Dr. Novella makes my argument for me. Placing value on another person’s life in the hope that they will reciprocate and thus place value on your life, is an inherently subjective means of valuing human life. I will value you, if and only if you value me. It is not a case of recognizing a human being’s inherent value and thus not killing them. It is simply: I’ll value you and won’t try to kill you, if you value me and don’t try to kill me. A social contract. Where is the objective standard in that? We have value insofar as we participate in this social contract which will hopefully save our hide from extinction.


It is clear that Martignoni does not even realize that he is denigrating and dismissing the entire philosophical construct of ethics. Ethics theory is based upon recognizing first principles - these are starting points that are as objective as humans can get. They are objective in that they represent near universal human feelings and beliefs. Ethical philosophy then proceeds carefully from these starting points to work out a system of human behavior that reasonably informs the complex interactions of human civilization. Martignoni ignorantly dismisses this as “subjective opinion.”

He is also acting as if my quickie blog entry summary of this (which I acknowledged was just the “nutshell” is the sum total of humanist and ethical philosophy. Please. He also ignored the second half of my basic argument - that most people actually inherently value human life because they care about other people. We are not just brutal animals without belief in God. Humans are certainly capable of brutality (with or without religion) and that is why we need ethics and laws. But most people want to think of themselves as being good people, and we have genuine empathy and remorse. This is part of being human.

While Martignoni wrongly dismisses this as “subjective” he would put in its place a personal faith, stating that this is “objective.” He has this reversed - faith is a personal choice. Martignoni cannot objectively prove the existence of God nor the will of God. He has only his faith upon which to base any such pronouncements. He would likely say that this faith is based upon the bible or revelation - but there is no proof that the bible is the objective word of God. Again, he must have faith that it is so.

As an example of this muddied thinking, Martignoni goes on to write:

He makes several statements in these two paragraphs that are, with all due respect to Dr. Novella, merely his subjective opinion - they are not based on facts or on history or on lived human experience. One such statement: “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.” Is it? Says who? That is an opinion, not a fact born out by history and human experience.


So Martignoni is saying that, if I do not want to be killed, it is NOT in my self-interest for there to be rules that protect my right not be killed? I think that Martgnoni confuses simple logic for subjective opinion - or more likely he is simply using this catch-all to dismiss any argument he finds inconvenient, as he specifically counsels his readers to do.

Martignoni writes:

He also mentions “secular law,” but fails to point out that our secular law traditions are based, not on secular humanist values, but on Judeo-Christian values and mores. Has he ever heard of the Ten Commandments? Thou shalt not kill. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness (purgery, liable, slander). Thou shalt not commit adultery (which used to be illegal). Thou shalt keep holy the Lord’s Day (ever heard of blue laws?). The Ten Commandments were foundational in the development of the legal system of the Western world, and many of the other principles of justice found in the Pentateuch are incorporated into our laws. Also, is he not aware that the Declaration of Independence, the founding document of our country, just happens to mention a Creator Who endows us with our unalienable rights?


Martignoni apparently did not read Part II of my criticisms where I address these issues.

He goes on:

Was it in Hitler’s self interest to value the Jews lives, or was it in his self interest to devalue the Jews lives? One of the reasons Hitler rose to power was his scapegoating of the Jews for all of the woes of Germany in the 20’s and early 30’s. In other words, it was indeed in his self interest to devalue their lives and eventually kill six million of them. It was in Stalin’s self interest to allow 10-20 million Ukrainians to starve to death in the 1920’s. The Ukrainians were resisting Stalin’s plan of agriculture collectives, so it was in his self interest to let millions of them starve so that he could implement his plans and consolidate his power. It was in Mao Tse Tung’s self interest to have 30-40 million of his countrymen killed in order to consolidate his power. It was in Pol Pot’s self interest to slaughter 2 million or so of his countrymen to consolidate his power. In today’s world, it is in Al Qaeda’s self interest to kill and maim and to cause as much anarchy as possible within Iraq and elsewhere. Killing serves their self interest.

In other words, the reasoning developed by Dr. Novella’s vast tradition of humanist philosophy has a huge flaw in it. There are many instances throughout history, throughout human experience, and even in today’s society, where devaluing someone else’s life is indeed in a person’s self interest. One other quick example: abortion. It is in the self interest of the women wanting abortions, and the people making money from the abortions, to devalue the life of the unborn human being.


The error in Martignoni’s logic is that he is assuming if someone has one interest they cannot have others. One of the complexities of ethics philosophy is that people can have different interests at the same time that are in conflict, and therefore we must develop ways of resolving and balancing such conflicts. It is an ethical principle that we should not lie or “bear false witness,” but what if you are hiding Jews in your basement and the SS comes by to ask you some questions. Should you bear false witness against them in order to save the innocent lives of the people in your protection?

But more to Martignoni’s point, the examples he gives are of people who decided to act on their more immediate self-interest above the more abstract self-interest of reciprocity. You have to be able to think ahead to the consequences of your actions in order to realize that killing others ultimately is a bad idea. Martignoni uses Hitler as an example - how did his genocidal rampage work out for him? I believe he killed himself in a bunker, his nation in ruins, soon to be divided by his enemies. He says that killing serves Al Qaida’s interests - really? Is the US war against Al Qaida really in their self interest? At the very least that is a debatable proposition.

But even if killing is in someone’s self-interest, the whole point is that it comes at a tremendous price - the devaluing of human life. We don’t need God to tell us that this hurts everyone.

Beating his dead horse, Martignoni writes:

Plus, where does the “sound reasoning” produced by the vast tradition of humanist philosophy regarding the valuation of life lead us in regard to the value of human life vs., let’s say, the value of worm life? Does a worm not have a right to life that is equal to a human being’s? If not, why not? Worms, as far as I know, don’t kill each other, so it is entirely possible that they have all concluded a social contract not to kill each other, and therefore their right to life should be respected as being equal to ours. Besides, according to Darwin, there is no inherent value anywhere on the spectrum of life…we’re all just chemical and biological accidents. How can anyone who believes life is simply a cosmic accident, then turn around and say life has inherent value? Do accidents have inherent value?And, this is not the “intellectual equivalent sticking one’s fingers in one’s ears and saying ‘Na na na na na, I can’t hear you.’” Dr. Novella is either ignoring, or is ignorant of, a vast tradition of Judeo-Christian philosophy that spans thousands of years and upon which I am basing my claim. I have listened to the thoughts on the value of human life generated by the vast tradition of humanist philosophy and have, through sound reasoning and logic, realized that they boil down to: 1) Well, we just do; 2) In order to save my tail I have to value the other’s guy tail; 3) We all have the will to live, therefore, that gives us value. And that’s pretty much it, as evidenced by Dr. Novella’s own comments. So, based on sound reasoning, and on thousands of years of the vast tradition of Judeo-Christian philosophy, I can confidently say that if God does not exist, any reason you give me for why I shouldn’t shoot you, is not an objective moral standard…it is indeed merely your opinion (regardless of whatever reasoning your opinion may be based on)…which I am free to reject if I so choose.


Darwin does not say that life has no value. The theory of evolution is an attempt to factually explain nature, it is value neutral. Nor should we derive our values from nature. Nature is what it is, and it is a mistake to conclude that (within the atheist paradigm) it must give us our values. We can decide as a people that certain values are reasonable, beneficial, just, and good.

Martignoni cites the vast tradition of Judeo-Christian philosophy - and, to be clear, I am not denigrating this for what value it contains. There is much that is good in Juedo-Christian philosophy, particularly the Christian traditions of loving thy neighbor and doing unto others. The religions of the world collectively contain a great deal of wisdom about how humans should, and should not, behave, and modern philosophies of law and ethics derive a great deal from this wisdom. Perhaps it would be surprising for Martignoni to read this, but I am not denying nor ignoring the religious traditions of humanity.

Rather I am putting them into perspective. Religious morals were attempts by groups of people to codify their laws and their understanding of ethics. It is not surprising that they expressed their wisdom in the context of their religious belief, partly because it does lend much greater weight to them. A priest would likely have a better reaction if, rather than saying, “I think you should behave this way,” he said, “God commands it.”

The problem today is that we live in an open and diverse society, containing people of many faiths (or lack thereof) and we all have to live together. Also, for all the good morality that developed withing religious tradition, there is a lot of baggage that is either superstitious or counterproductive. Many religions proscribe certain eating habits, or devalue women. In the old testament God had a nasty habit of ordering every man, woman, child, and animal in an enemy city be killed. Exactly what ethic would Martignoni have us derive from that?

But the big problem with basing morality on faith is that it is rigid - it locks us into the messy conclusions that our primitive and superstitious ancestors came up with. Rather I am advocating that we take the best of their wisdom, and then combine that with the best of modern philosophy and ethics. We retain the ability to think, and not just rest upon authority.

Martignoni is endlessly worried that, without faith in God, there is no objectivity to ethics. It is true, that within atheistic philosophy there is no ultimate cosmic authority. We humans are left to our own devices. But since no one can prove that they have direct access to the ultimate cosmic authority (and everyone else who claims that they do is wrong) perhaps we should go with the answers that make the most sense, and allow everyone to participate in the discussion.

In response to this from my first post:

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.


John Martignoni wrote:

Whoops! I think Dr. Novella is letting a little of his bias and bigotry show! This is a sample of what passes as “sound reasoning” in the vast tradition of humanist philosophy? If Dr. Novella thinks my faith is a “blind faith” that “leads inexorably to the setting aside of logic, reason, even basic common sense,” then I can say with certainty he has never read Augustine or Aquinas or Justin Martyr or Fulton Sheen or Cardinal Newman or pretty much any other Catholic writer. Is his ignorance, bias, and bigotry, all of which are clearly on display here, the product of the vast tradition of humanist thought of which he speaks?

The fact of the matter is, if there is a God, and we were created by that God, and that God loves us and gives us certain “unalienable rights,” and thereby gives us value because of His love for us - that is indeed an objective valuation of human life. In that instance, human life has value that does not depend on another human being. It has inherent value. It does not have value because it is wanted. It does not have value as part of some social contract based on each individual’s desire for self-preservation. It has value because it is, period.


Whoops, indeed. Although irrelevant, it might interest Martignoni to know that I was raised in the Jesuit Catholic tradition and was schooled in best Catholic writers. He accuses me of “ignorance, bias, and bigotry” but does not justify these slanders in any way. He did not counter my point at all - faith-based answers are based upon authority, as they must be, because no one can prove that God exists and that he talks to them. Authority is the necessary enemy of reason, because authority, by definition, trumps reason. (To be clear, authority may be correct in any given instance but the point is that you cannot use reason again authority, you are supposed to just acquiesce to it.)

The “if” is the second paragraph is, as they say, a very big “if.” If Martignoni could prove God’s existence and will in such a way that faith was no longer required, God’s existence would be established fact - then he would have a point. But he just has his faith in God, and the principle of freedom of religion says that he cannot impose his faith on others. So, is he saying that he should be able to impose his faith upon others? Oh, wait. I almost forgot. He is saying that atheists should have no rights (which is imposing his faith upon others). That is the conclusion his Judeo-Christian tradition leads him to.

The bottom line is that you cannot base your “objective” conclusions on an “if” in which you must have faith.

Martignoni writes:

Dr. Novella’s statement that “sectarian religions are decidedly counterproductive” in the endeavor to “transcend our tribalism,” is patently absurd on the face of it and displays either gross ignorance or stupendous idiocy. There are more than one billion Catholics on the face of this earth. They are from every race, every nation, every color, every tongue, every tribe. Our Catholic Faith helps us to transcend our differences. It has helped me to see Africans, Asians, South Americans, Europeans, Australians, and North Americans as all part of my “tribe.” That is counterproductive to overcoming tribalism?

If he reads the history of Islam, it served to unite the many and varied Arab tribes and today includes people of most, if not all, races, nations, colors, tongues, and tribes. Now, I personally may disagree with the tenets of Islam, but I cannot deny that it unites its adherents across tribal, national, and cultural barriers. Religion unites billions of people across borders, across races, across languages, across tribes, in a way that nothing else does. To say otherwise is to either ignore the facts or, again, to be bereft of critical thinking skills.

Do religious differences still result in problems? Absolutely. But, if we didn’t have our religions uniting us to the degree that they do, how much worse off would we be?


Martignoni’s point seems to be that religion historically has served to unite people, and without it our tribal problems would be all the greater. He selectively give us evidence for this contention, and strongly downplays the counter evidence. First, I acknowledge that the history of religion in human civilization is a complex one, and is decidedly mixed in terms of good and bad. I did not mean to imply that religion is all bad all the time. But one does not have to look far for examples of religious faith fueling tribal differences, resulting in violence and atrocities greatly magnified by the faith of all sides. In Iraq we have civil war inflamed specifically by sectarian differences. The history of Christianity has many examples also: the crusades, the inquisition, the genocide of the native Americans, and the many Protestant-Catholic wars.

Again, to be absolutely clear (lest Martignoni further distorts my points) humans do not require religion to make tribal warfare. We are happy to make war for territory, resources, race, nationalism, or economic ideology. And I acknowledge that faiths can cut across other lines that divide humans (as can other human traditions). But faith can also cause and inflame tribal conflict. Faith is not a panacea for human violence. And let me return to my original point - Martignoni was arguing that the absence of faith is the source of human violence and killing. My point was that this is not true (faith, at best, is a mixed proposition), but rather it is the absence of reason.

Logical arguments and reason have the virtue of being able to cut across all tribal divisions, without imposing upon anyone’s faith. We can all agree as a species, based upon reason, that we shouldn’t kill each other. No faith can achieve this without first wiping out or subjugating all other faiths.

Martignoni concludes:

Dr. Novella, because of his prejudices, draws a false dichotomy between faith and reason…even though faith underlies much of what he believes. I reject that false dichotomy. I believe we need both faith and reason. And, finally, I do not condemn those without faith, in the same manner that Dr. Novella condemns those with faith.


Martignoni has not established that I have any prejudices. I have also not drawn a false dichotomy between faith and reason. My well-documented position is that reason is agnostic toward faith, and all that is requires of faith is that it no imposed itself upon reason.

Further, I do not think that Martignoni has made his primary case that we need faith, or specifically that we need it in order to arrive at the conclusion that we probably shouldn’t wantonly kill each other. I certainly have arrived at that conclusion, along with many other ethical principles, without faith. Every single person I know personally who does not have faith also has a reasonable moral and ethical outlook, and behaves themselves as good citizens. Of course, there are people with and without faith who are bad and commit crimes.

Martignoni has not established (despite his Hitler example) that atheists are immoral. The evidence is against him on this. Millions of Americans are both non-believers and good citizens. And if we need faith to be moral, doesn’t that predict that those without faith will be immoral. Does Martignoni think we are all closet believers, that we are all concealing our immorality, that we are in fact immoral, or something else?

Martignoni accuses me of condemning those with faith, but I never have. I am simply pointing out that faith is not necessary for ethics and good behavior. I do condemn those who would impose their faith on others, and I do argue that it is a mistake to subjugate science or reason to faith (that get’s back to the problem of putting authority over reason).

But I found it astounding that Martignoni would dare to say that he did not condemn those without faith. I will end with his own words:

So, I advocate that those who wish to take God out of our school’s, out of our legal system, out of the public square, should be given their wish. After all, if choice is one of their gods, and it is, then let’s give them their choice. When it comes to atheists, every one needs to act as if God doesn’t exist. As a result, they should have no rights under our system of law, after all, there is no Creator to endow them with those rights. So, I say we should throw them all in jail (without a trial, of course); or perhaps make them work for the public good at minimum wage for their entire lives; or maybe make them work as pooper scoopers in the public parks where folks walk their dogs; or some such thing.

And, furthermore, I say they should have no access to legal counsel nor to our court system nor to any other means of legal redress. After all, the legal system is founded on the belief in a Creator who endows us with our unalienable rights. They don’t believe in that Creator, so why should they be upset to not have access to a legal system founded on such a belief?


-The Rogues Gallery
Tags: science/skepticism
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