Expertise and Moral/Epistemic Culpability


Alonzo Fyfe, the Atheist Ethicist, wrote an excellent article on Epistemic Negligence in Teaching Religion. I have just one quibble.

The article over-emphasizes the epistemic crimes of experts while ignoring those committed by ordinary people (i.e. parents). Fyfe points out that in some cases, non-experts do not deserve the same moral condemnation for making mistakes as experts who ought to know better. For example,

[A] mother is not to be blamed for taking thalidomide (which causes birth defects in children)… unless it is reasonable for her to believe that it is harmful. However, the doctor who prescribed it for her is under a different standard. As a physician, as somebody who has decided to accept the responsibility of informing others how to care for his or her heath, the physician has an obligation to know things which an average patient may be ignorant of.

So, some mistakes made by non-experts are excusable on grounds of ignorance. Fyfe goes on to denounce experts, such as Michael Behe, who make thoroughly inexcusable mistakes while attempting to defend religion.

However, many of the ordinary, non-expert parents who teach religion to their children are also morally culpable. In particular, parents who teach that faith is a virtue are guilty of a high epistemic crime. To deliberately choose to believe something — anything — on faith alone is to positively embrace madness. Based on faith, one can accept literally any proposition, no matter how absurd, insane, or evil it may be. You don’t need a degree in philosophy to see what a terrible idea faith is. Anyone who bothers to think about this at all should be able to figure out that faith is the first step on a road towards insanity.

And yet every day we hear people proudly and publicly proclaim their faith. This needs to fucking stop.

I think we atheists spend too much time skirmishing with the relatively sophisticated apologists for religion. Behe deserves every bit of the moral condemnation he gets from Fyfe, but at least Behe recognizes the need to justify his belief in god. The real culprits are the people who promote faith. Teaching a child that faith is virtuous cripples their mind in a way that no one incorrect belief can.

If any theists are still reading this, I have the following plea: If you teach religion to your children, make a point of explaining why the things you teach are true. Encourage them to ask questions. (If the things you believe about god aren’t completely bogus, you ought to be able to field the questions of a small child.) Teach your children to think. Don’t teach them faith.

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