Well it’s a bit of a windy road that leads me to writing today. It would probably be of some benefit to you to first travel down that road before reading what I say below. The road starts with a post by the Spanish Inquisitor here, then leads to here as a theist stop and then to John B here. Lastly, I would also recommend going to Beyond Belief and watching Session 9. I have to say this is really more of a start than anything else but I’m curious what others might say so here we go…
So is doing something in the name of an idea definitive of the idea? Are those who act in the name of an idea examples of the idea? The arguments made by anyone of one idea to discredit an opposing idea would have to argue “yes” because they always point to the bad deeds done and the bad people working in the name of that rival idea. Likewise, the defense to these assertions usually is to distance the person or the deeds from the idea under attack. Christians have the most experience with this, mostly on the defensive side. Bring up mormons and most christians say they’re not “real” christians. Bring up the Inquisition and catholics will argue it got out of hand by twisted people who “lost their way” whereas born agains and other protestants will say “well that’s the catholic church for you”. Bring up the burnings of so called “heretics” and “witches” in places like Salem and protestants will make excuses similar to the catholic’s regarding the Inquisition. Muslims are also on the defensive having to argue that people like al quaeda who fly planes into buildings are extremists and not examples of “true islam”. Theists likewise will point to leaders like Stalin and show what horrors atheism inflicts whereas atheists will argue Stalin’s atheism was merely a tool for his quest for obtaining and maintaining power.
Where does this lead us? I would have to say nowhere. What if we found that someone acted in the name of an idea but didn’t personally subscribe to it? Machiavelli advises in The Prince that it’s imperative that a prince SHOW he has “integrity, humanity, and religion” which doesn’t necessarily mean HAVE these traits; therefore, it can be advantageous to exhibit faith in an idea and appear to act in the name of an idea yet still not truly subscribe to the idea. So then can we fault the idea? I would have to conclude that you couldn’t on this alone.
Now what if we were capable of finding out definitively that someone who did bad acted in the name of an idea and not merely under the cloak of that idea, in other words, it was believed by the perpetrator that the idea was true and that the action was necessary in the name of the idea rather than using the idea as a smokescreen, we still couldn’t determine the validity of the idea since it could be argued that the person was misguided and not indicative of the “true idea”. That’s all well and good but what if the idea was muddled from the start? What if the idea was so clouded with contradictions and had numerous competing interpretations of it that either it was easy to become misguided or there was no definitive way to determine if someone was truly misguided? Then I think the value of the idea can be questioned. Is theism at fault because it lead to people flying planes into buildings or is islam at fault because it’s not the “correct” theism? Perhaps the fault is only the particular version of islam the terrorists subscribed to? How can we tell? The idea of theism has such varied versions that the value of theism therefore becomes suspect. We can all agree that killing in the name of a Beatles’ track is misguided to put it mildly since there’s nothing in the song that can be read as instructions to kill but there are passages in various theistic tomes that can easily be read as instructions to kill or any number of other atrocities; therefore, I don’t see it as the fault of the killer as incorrectly reading the text of theism but rather the text of theism being unclear to the point that one could arrive at such a reading.
But of course we have to weigh the good and the bad, right? Sure, an idea might be muddled such that it lends itself to interpretations that lead to bad behavior, but what about the interpretations that lead to good behavior? That has to factor into the scoring, doesn’t it? This is part of the argument made in session 9 of Beyond Belief by Woodward and Konner against Harris and Dawkins. Does a Martin Luther King Jr. offset an Osama bin Laden? Do the passages of the bible that inspired the abolishionists in the US against slavery offset the passages chosen by the South and later the Confederacy which said to them they were justified in owning slaves? Should we even be totaling a score? Is there an outstanding good that results from theism which is worth the cost of the negatives? Is there a negative whose cost far exceeds the return from the goods?