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Absence of belief can motivate

May 21, 2013

The relationship between atheistic State regimes (e.g. Stalin’s communism) and human atrocities is often discussed.  There is little question that the atheistic States under dictators such as atheist Stalin committed monstrous crimes against humanity. This presents a problem to modern atheists who criticise ‘religion’ for being immoral for it seems the atheistic alternative is little better.

Yet modern atheists wish to absolve ‘atheism’ of any guilt associated with the mass murders of Stalin by suggesting that because atheism is an absence of belief – a non-belief – it doesn’t motivate to action. Hence Stalin might have been an atheist, but it wasn’t his atheism motivating him to murder.

Richard Dawkins claims this in the God Delusion. He says, “Individual atheists may do evil things by they don’t do evil things in the name of atheism”. Dawkins attempts to remove any link or association with atheism and Stalin’s actions by stating, ‘Why would anyone go to war for the sake of an absence of belief?’

The logic seems to be that only positive beliefs (i.e. religious beliefs) motivate to action – i.e. I believe my God is superior to yours, so I’ll kill you and wipe out your tribe, or God told me to invade Iraq – hence I will do this. The logic shows that ‘religion’, which is a positive belief, can and does motivate to appalling actions. Whereas atheism is morally neutral because there is no clear relationship between belief and action – no-one is ever motivated by ‘a lack of belief’. Hence atheists might have been immoral and have done evil things, but it is not ‘atheism’ which is driving them, it is something else. Hence “atheism” is innocent.

Now, apart from the insipid and uninspiring way this portrays atheism – in this view atheism doesn’t appear to motivate anything – the logic is in fact deeply flawed. It is flawed because absence of belief can and does motivate action

For example a person is motivated to commit a crime because of the ‘lack of belief’ in getting caught. A burglar does not commit the crime with the belief or expectation of getting caught, they commit the crime precisely because there is an ‘absence of belief’. Hence a criminal is motivated by ‘lack of belief’.

This same ‘lack of belief’ can and has motivated atheists to appalling crimes. An atheists lack of belief in any final judgement or reckoning has freed them to enact appalling crimes against humanity. These atheists were motivated by exactly the same ‘lack of belief’ as the common criminal. So atheism cannot be absolved. The motivation of ‘not getting caught’ can and has motivated atheists to appalling crimes.

David Berlinski made exactly this observation commenting on the atheist regimes of the 20th century…

“What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing.

And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either.”

Lack of belief can and has motivated. These people did these actions precisely because of an ‘absence of belief’.

Why would someone go to war for an absence of belief? Because that very absence motivates unspeakable crime!


From → Ethics, Philosophy

  1. I’ve heard that Atheism is an “absence of a belief” but I don’t think that means it isn’t a positive belief in a truth about reality. The reason I say this is because of the way any person would answer the question “Does God exist?” Aren’t there not only three rational answers, i.e. “Yes” (Theism), “No” (Atheism), “I’m not sure/maybe” (Agnosticism). Atheism and Theism are quite positive in their answers to the question.

    So I guess I’m not surprised that people with beliefs, as well as people with an Atheistic “absence of belief” can be motivated to war, because both are positive beliefs about God’s existence/non-existence.

  2. Paul M. permalink

    Having just discovered this site in the past 3 days or so, I’ve just come to find this older post, so I’m not expecting this comment to be read.
    However, I can’t resist pointing out an extraordinarily obvious flaw in this bit:
    “For example a person is motivated to commit a crime because of the ‘lack of belief’ in getting caught. A burglar does not commit the crime with the belief or expectation of getting caught, they commit the crime precisely because there is an ‘absence of belief’. Hence a criminal is motivated by ‘lack of belief’.”

    A thief is not at all motivated by the notion of “not getting caught”. They are motivated by the desire to obtain the valuables of the person they are robbing.
    They may believe that they won’t be caught, but that is nowhere near their motivation!

    I won’t get started on the extended implication that atheists lack morals because they don’t believe they’ll be punished for their acts. Suffice to say that it’s an appalling fallacy.

    • Paul, Thanks for the comment. Your comments are very welcome and comments on the older posts do indeed get read. I appreciate your comment, yet I think you’re stretching it to suggest that a thief is not at all motivated by the notion of “not getting caught”. Really??? Why is there looting in supermarkets etc when the lights go out? The example that Richard Dawkins uses in the God Delusion (p.228) of the crime wave which occurred in Montreal when the police went on strike is a perfect illustration. Why the spike in crime? People were suddenly motivated because they believed they wouldn’t get caught. I completely agree with you that a person is motivated by the desire to obtain the valuables of the person they are robbing. Yet I would also say that their belief that they won’t get caught is also a crucial motivation.

      Also, be careful with what I didn’t say – I don’t think I said that atheists lack morals because they don’t believe they’ll be punished. I completely agree that atheists can be moral – yet you do need to acknowledge the dark side of atheism, and that it does lack the philosophical ammunition to categorically condemn mass murders.

      Thanks again for the comments. I really appreciate your interactions.


      • Paul M. permalink

        Rob, the *motivation* is clearly about gaining the valuables.
        Motivation is the purpose or drive that inclines one to a particular goal.
        The assumption or belief that they won’t get caught is not a *motivator* for a thief, it is a factor in their risk assessment about whether they should proceed with their crime.

        A person that is motivated by the notion that they won’t get caught, would more correctly be described as a “thrill seeker”. Such a person isn’t really interested in the object of the robbery – they’d be enjoying the adrenaline rush of avoiding capture.

        Both examples are ‘badness’ in the sense that there is a victim (ie., the one that has been robbed), but I imagine the overwhelming majority of thrill-seekers don’t bother with committing major crimes. They’re more likely to engage in extreme sports, etc. to satisfy their need for thrills.

        All of this is straying from your original point somewhat, which was that a “lack of belief” can be a motivator. For the context you are describing, I disagree, obviously. And I don’t think you’ve made any meaningful case for it to be true by using the motivation of a thief as an example.

        Also, I know what you didn’t say explicitly. But the whole implicit point of your argument is that a lack of belief in god(s), and therefore in divine judgement, acts as some kind of excuse, or in fact *motivation*, for committing crimes. It’s nonsensical.

        “…you do need to acknowledge the dark side of atheism, and that it does lack the philosophical ammunition to categorically condemn mass murders…”
        Is this a logical argument, or a religious or philosophical assertion?
        Either way, the answer is no, I do not acknowledge that. The thinking here is completely bizarre. Do you want to try to explain it me?

      • Paul. Thanks again. I think you have separated “motivation” and “belief” unnecessarily (I don’t think you can separate the two). Consider again the illustration Dawkins uses about the police force strike in Montreal. What “suddenly” motivated all the crime?

        In terms of the other point, I think it is a logical argument (though correct me if I’m wrong) based around the ‘is/ought’ fallacy. I’ll try to explain. If there is no God/afterlife/judgement etc then we are nothing but DNA. Further in this atheist universe there is nothing (or no-one) objective to say that we ‘ought’ to do anything – you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’. Hence our actions in this universe are ultimately meaningless and hence the dark side of atheism. i.e. you can’t condemn anyone for doing anything “wrong” – likewise we can’t affirm anyone for doing anything “right” for in the atheist universe these categories just don’t exist. In philosophical language – there is no ultimate moral ontology, hence the lack of ammunition.

        Does that help at all? What do you make of this?


  3. Paul M. permalink

    Alright Rob, I think I see where you’re going.
    Suffice to say it’s patently wrong, of course…

    On the less philosophical point of motivation vs. belief (of not getting caught), they are clearly different ’emotions’. There’s not a lot of point in arguing semantics. When I use words, they’re usually based on the dictionary definitions of those words and their normal usage.
    The Montreal case is one in which people were *motivated* by the opportunity presented by the lack of policing. I imagine there would also have been other sociological factors at work too – disaffected youth, gang culture, mob and peer group factors, and so on. The *motivation* was still about gaining valuables.
    Do you doubt that there would have been plenty of atheists in Montreal that would not participate in looting on the basis that it was just plain wrong? I try to place myself in this hypothetical position, and “not getting caught” doesn’t enter into the equation. Regardless of the risks, or lack of, I wouldn’t be looting because it’s ‘bad’. One of the primary and most immediate reasons is that other people are affected badly by such actions. These things are obvious. They don’t require a particularly deep philosophical appreciation of the universe to understand.

    “…you can’t condemn anyone for doing anything “wrong” …” Answer: Not in any biblical sense, no: that is correct. But I can “condemn” them in a societal, basically/generally moral, and legal sense, for behaviour that is unfair, dangerous to others and to decent society as a whole. I assume this is not in dispute… or do you equate atheism (in the absence of religion in society) with anarchy?

    On the philosophical issues, if we’re going to find any common ground to agree on, then it might be worth understanding some of the assumptions behind your beliefs.
    In particular, there seems to be an assumption that ‘fully-formed’ Christians are the only the people with the ability to appreciate this mystical ‘absolute morality’. Is this correct?
    There are folks with other religions that might assert that they have an appreciation for an ultimate moral ontology (let’s say UMO for shorthand). Therefore they would have something in common with Christians, but not atheists. Their understanding of UMO might lead them to completely different beliefs and behaviours to yours. Is their UMO exactly the same as yours? Or is it wrong – some kind of cosmic miscommunication to those people about the nature of morality?

    As an aside: Do you accept the facts of Darwinian evolution in largely the same way that (you might assume) I do? It might seem an unrelated concept, but I’ll come back to it later depending on where the argument goes.
    Or, do you believe that the earth and humans were literally made by God in his image sometime in the last 6000 years or so?
    If the latter, then this discussion I fear has nowhere else to go. I’d consider you an idiot, or perhaps just an ignoramus, of the highest order and wouldn’t be interested in any further discussion with you. I sincerely hope that’s not the case…

    • Will respond in more detail later – but just quickly (and hopefully to assuage some concerns). I’m not a young earth creationist and I generally agree with the modern scientific account of reality and hence (hopefully) you don’t consider me an idiot and we can continue this conversation. Will respond to your other comments soon.

    • Paul,

      I don’t think that motivation and belief are ’emotions’. I’d suggest that motivation and belief are intertwined. e.g. I believe that this tablet will heal me, hence I am motivated to take it. How are they separate?

      In your reflections of the Montreal police strike you have actually admitted the very thing my blog post was identifying i.e. the people were ‘motivated’ by the lack of policing! I agree that there were other motivations, I never claimed this as the sole motivating factor. But the crucial factor is that someone was motivated in some way by the lack of a belief. Also, I’m not suggesting that ‘every’ atheist acts the same, but that absence of belief is a motivator!

      The next part of our conversation revolves around important areas of moral philosophy which are often misunderstood. Hence to answer your question “there seems to be an assumption that ‘fully-formed’ Christians are the only the people with the ability to appreciate this mystical ‘absolute morality’. Is this correct?

      NO! This is not correct. You have described here moral epistemology – i.e. that we are able to comprehend a form of moral reality. But there is a difference between moral ontology and moral epistemology – i.e. the nature of moral reality and how we ‘know’ or ‘understand’ that morality. Atheists are capable of developing a moral epistemology (what you have described) but incapable of developing a UMO as you helpfully put it. I’m not claiming that all claims to UMO are correct or the same, but that philosophically theism is the only way in which any form of UMO can be described.

      I hope that you appreciate these points? This area is so misunderstood that I’ll write another post later this week to clarify. I’d really appreciate your thoughts on this, for this is very seriously misunderstood by both sides – i.e. some theists accuse atheists of never having any morals, which is not true. And atheists think other theists like myself are accusing them of having no morals, which is also not true. I hope this helps?


      • Paul M. permalink


        “…In your reflections of the Montreal police strike you have actually admitted the very thing my blog post was identifying i.e. the people were ‘motivated’ by the lack of policing!…”

        No, Rob, please re-read what I said:
        The Montreal case is one in which people were motivated by *the opportunity presented by* the lack of policing.
        Emphasis shifted to “the opportunity presented by…”

        As I said, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere on the difference between motivations and beliefs. You seem to be saying they are effectively the same thing. I’m saying they are different.
        Your example of taking the tablet actually supports my argument – that the motivation is the purpose for the action.

        If you cast your “non-belief motivates…” argument into this example, then you’d be saying something like, “I don’t believe this tablet will have any bad side effects, hence I am motivated to take it.”
        That statement is logically incorrect. You don’t take a tablet (or do anything else) for a reason/goal/purpose that is logically negative.
        The “motivator” is NOT that there will be no ill effects. The “motivator” is that there will be a positive outcome. “No ill effects” is merely a supporting assumption.

        On the subject of a universal moral ontology (UMO)… well gosh, maybe you’ve got me there on definitions. The concept is new to me, and thus far, completely nonsensical.

        We can discuss and debate the source of morals ok, I’m sure. That might be interesting.
        But this nebulous thing of a UMO seems utterly pointless for any practical discussion or understanding.
        I think what you’re saying is that it must exist, and it is endowed by God. And presumably it is independent of humanity.
        I think I’ve seen you write elsewhere on this blog on the equality and sanctity of human life in the same terms. Some kind of insistence that these things are divine and indivisible attributes, and that they are self-evident fundamentally “because God”.

        I say there is no reason at all to assume that a UMO exists. Morals are a human construct (although some animals appear to display them too) – they are not a divine attribute.
        You cannot demonstrate, physically, logically or philosophically, that morals transcend biology. To try to do so “because God”, is classic begging-the-question. The ultimate fallacious circular argument.

  4. John permalink

    Never mind that prior to say 1850 all of Europe was saturated with Christian values. How then do you explain the never-ending wars that were a feature of Christian Europe, and via colonialism much of the rest of the world too. And the fact that every warring party/faction/nation believed that they had “god on their side”, and that their armies etc were given the full “blessing” and support of their ecclesiastical and priestly establishment.
    How do you explain the almost never-ending wars that raged across Europe after and during the Reformation Counter-Reformation period. Alll conducted by Christian armies in which millions of human beings were deliberately slaughtered and much of Europes infrastructure and agriculture ruined.
    Applied Christianity 101:
    And of course many “conservative” Christians both in Germany, Europe and other Western countries including the USA too were quite fond of Hitler because he was prepared to do something about the “problem” of the non-conformists, the socialists, the communists. And especially the “problem” of the Jews, thus drawing upon centuries of Christian anti-Semitism and church created anti-Jewish pogroms.
    Some/many USA business’s did very nicely in their business dealings with the Nazis, including Prescott Bush, George W Bush’s grand-father.
    Right-wing Christians, especially “catholics” were willing helpers in rounding up the Jews in all of the occupied territories. And helping Nazi war criminals escape after the war – with more than a little help from the Vatican.
    Also The American Holocaust by David Stannard – all done under the aegis of bringing “christ” and “god” to the unchurched “heathen savages”. And even “authorized” by the Papal Bulls of 1455 and 1493 in the name of “jesus” and for the “glory”(gory) of “god”.
    But of course it was really all about gold, and general plunder too.
    And how do you explain the deliberate and systematic slaughter of over 500,000 Orthodox Serbs and other non-“catholics” too by the “catholic” Croats in Croatia – again with the connivance/cooperation of the Vatican.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Conversation on “absence of belief can motivate” | Skept in the Loop
  2. Atheism is more than simply ‘non-belief’ | Atheist Forum

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