Of course, we think of the moralistic fallacy primarily in two contexts: One is the fallacious justification of a belief in God because "religion makes people happy" -- a premise whose truth or falsity I am not yet convinced of either way, but in any case, the conclusion does not follow from it anyway. The other context where you often hear the moralistic fallacy is in regards to human nature, where, for example, it is insisted for political reasons that there is no biological differences in the brains of men and women, a claim which is demonstrably false.
As a side note, a danger of the moralistic fallacy in the latter context is that we can lose track of the real reason why what ought to be ought to be. In the example I gave above, men and women should still be evaluated on equal terms1 because a) individual variations are broad enough that judging by generalization rather than case-by-case is woefully inefficient, and b) in any case most of us (including me) would perceive it as grossly unfair to judge an individual based on generalizations. Hinging our justification for equal treatment of women on the false idea that there are no biological gender differences is dangerous to say the least.
But that's not what I want to talk about. What I want to talk about is the possibility of nontheists and skeptics employing the moralistic fallacy, something we don't usually think about. The reason I want to talk about this is because two events in the past twenty-four hours reminded me that we can be just as guilty of this fallacy as anyone.
The first was a post at Bruce Hood's blog where he discusses a new paper in PLoS by Sam Harris, et al., that happens to mention Bruce's SuperSense theory. (I still have not read the book, and now I'm bogged down in Guns, Germs, and Steel!) I'll quote Bruce here:
However, Harris and colleagues’s discussion of my hypothesis (never a theory till proven) in the current paper that beliefs are a combination of intuitive reasoning embedded in culture is somewhat misrepresented...I was pleased that Harris and colleagues acknowledge the supersense hypothesis but a bit dismayed when they dismissed it with the straw man statement, “Whatever the evolutionary underpinnings of religion, it seems unlikely that there is a genetic explanation for the why the French, Swedes, and Japanese tend not to believe in the God of Abraham while Americans, Saudis, and Somalis do.”
Well dah. Come on Sam, I am not like the others. You didn’t read the book-did you? I made it perfectly clear that just as any child is innately endowed to acquire a language, there is no genetic basis for French. What we need to know is why some people believe and some don’t even when they are raised in the same exact environment. That cannot just be culture.
Now this may not quite be the moralistic fallacy in action -- it is possible that Harris et al grossly misinterpreted Bruce's work out of sloppiness or something. But given some of the nasty responses regarding SuperSense, I suspect that there is a tendency on the part of nontheists and antireligionists -- yes, even luminaries like Harris -- to think, "Well, religion is bad, therefore it cannot be natural!" Surely Harris did not articulate it to himself as such, but I wonder if some similar impulse drove him to dismiss the SuperSense hypothesis without due consideration.
I admit that I myself engage in a more guarded version of this, not so much in regards to the question of whether religion is "natural", but in regards to whether people "need" comforting illusions. I take the position that, until I see convincing proof that people need these illusions, I will give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that adults are capable of living with reality. I may turn out to be wrong, but this is my default position in the absence of highly convincing proof.
The second event that got me to think was a guy over in some of the comment threads at Orac's blog -- whom I later suspected to be a troll, but he got me thinking anyway -- who was going on this huge attack about how "new atheists" are irrational, despite proclaiming to be an "old-school" atheist himself. His central point was rather bizarre: he spent at least half a day arguing that memes are bullshit, that everyone knows memes are bullshit, that even Dawkins knows memes are bullshit but that he employs them in anti-theistic arguments anyway, and that therefore any atheist who admired Dawkins for anything other than his strict biological work is just as irrational as any theist.
It's probably true that people of all stripes -- skeptics and atheists included -- are indeed rather irrational a shocking amount of the time... and judging by the reaction of folks who have read SuperSense, I suspect when I finally get around to reading it, I may be rather disturbed at just how much. Or maybe I already have an idea... In any case, I don't dispute that point. But I think the troll's argument is still a bit whack, and in any case, it is my feeling that the "new atheists" at least put a high value on rationality, and that even if we don't always succeed, that has to count for something.
I also mentioned to the troll that I thought another important difference was that atheists don't typically go around executing homosexuals, lopping off girls' clitorises, and crashing planes into buildings. His response had me really scratching my head:
scientific studies have shown that religion has been shown to be a NEGATIVE predictor of violence and terrorism
He didn't bother to back this up with any links or citations, and I have a really, really, really hard time believing that religious belief is a negative predictor of terrorism (the only secular terrorist I can think of off the top of my head is McVeigh.. and I suppose maybe Che Guevera and his ilk). I do know some studies have shown religion to be a negative predictor of violence, but my impression has been that the data is mixed on this point (and in any case, as we all know, correlation does not prove causality, and I have heard it speculated that many of the apparent statistical benefits of religious belief only apply if your beliefs are the same as the norm in the society in which you inhabit, i.e. suggesting that the causality is more associated with the benefits of "going with the flow" than they are with religion per se).
But the troll's comment got me thinking anyway. I like to believe that atheism can be a positive and liberating philosophy. I look around at all the religiously-motivated violence, all of the spiritually-motivated quackery, etc., and I feel like I am right. But am I engaging in the moralistic fallacy here? I admit that I have a rather strong distaste not only for religious delusions, but for the trappings of religion themselves. Am I letting this distaste cloud my judgment? Is there a part of me saying to myself, "Atheism ought to be a better way to live one's life than theism, therefore it is?"
I'm not at all sure. And I think this is something we all ought to reflect on. The falsity of religious belief is not in doubt. But when we talk about the costs and benefits of religious belief, we should be careful not to let ourselves fall victim to the moralistic fallacy.
1The one defensible exception is in regards to competitive sports, where biological differences give men such an innate advantage in sports relying on muscle strength, body size, etc., that a gender-neutral league would preclude many talented women from participating. Even in that case, I generally favor a gender-neutral league running parallel to a women-only league, as opposed to there ever being a men-only league, thus still allowing women on the extremes of the bell curve to be judged as individuals and participate in the gender-neutral league. In addition, it allows sports with a lot of variation in the physical requirements of each position to invite more women into the gender-neutral league, e.g. while I think even in a society perfectly unbiased about gender we would still rarely if ever see a female offensive guard in the NFL (the men who play this position are already on the very extreme ends of the bell curve for their gender in regards to body mass), I would not be surprised to see a female kicker in the NFL within the next couple of decades, and someday probably even female wide receivers, quarterbacks, defensive backs, maybe even situational tight ends and running backs. Anyway, this is all a huge digression and not what I wanted to talk about!