Death by a Thousand Harmless Torturers; why Religious ethics were so effective

The thought experiment originally offered by Derek Parfit about the “harmless torturers” pops up now and again in so many different circumstances, which is why its such a good thought experiment. Take this old article from the New York Times where its applied to online behavior and what we would now call cancel culture, for instance. Parfit’s experiment shows some of the shortcomings of both deontology as well as consequentialism, the main ways philosophers have thought about ethics.

It goes like this: there’s a person in a torture cube (think the Agonizer from the Mirror Universe in Star Trek) and the torturer has a knob which increases the level of pain to the person in the device. One torturer can turn it all the way up, killing the person, and this (stripping away any question of why the person is in the Agonizer in the first place) is clearly wrong. But it is possible for the knob to be adjusted at an imperceptible level; one torturer may turn it up with no obvious effect or consequence and then leave. Imagine, thousands of torturers all have separate access to this control and the thousands of adjustments are equivalent to one person turning it up thousands of times, so the person dies. The ultimate amount of pain and death to the victim is the same, but in the thousand torturers instance each individual torturer didn’t cause any perceptible amount of pain.

The consequentialist says, “well, the individual torturer isn’t doing anything wrong,” since their contribution didn’t result in any real results. The deontologist says, “inflicting pain is wrong,” regardless of the ends or results. The contractualist asks, “well, did you have any sort of agreement about this?” The egoist says, “hey, not my problem as long as I’m not the one in the pain booth.” And so on.

Religion gave us a tidy way to embrace deontology; we have a set of commandments, and they don’t change based on the circumstances or the outcome. Further, religion created a sense of self-interested consequentialism within this deontology: although the ends never justify the means, the ends will bring about a good consequence (heaven) for you personally in the afterlife. Furthermore, by its ubiquity, it created a social contract: all people of faith agree to act the same way, and when they break the rules they know they’ve done wrong.

When we remove the dictum from on high, religious ethics fall apart. Why are certain things bad if it isn’t God that’s telling us the rules? Furthermore, removing the consequence of hellfire, the only real ground for post-supernatural religious ethics is the agreement of all of those religious people about what rules they’ll follow. That’s one reason why contractualism seems to have developed in the 20th century, alongside the death of God and a decreasing reliance on the supernatural. It’s also why the Catholic Church has become so deluded about it’s own approach to ethics.

It’s also why atheists are viewed as bad. They can’t possibly have any ethics at all, the theist says, because there isn’t a rule from on high, a consequence for their action, or a community of people with whom they made an ethical agreement. This is, of course, very silly! Atheists can be moral, by any standard one applies.

The torturers experiment applies so neatly to our current global crisis, too. Individual risky actions (like gathering in a group or shunning a facemask) doesn’t necessarily effect any change in isolation, but everyone’s insignificant choices can have massive effects on public health over all. Voting, too, is closely linked to the thought experiment: one vote never made a difference and one person choosing not to vote will have insignificant effects on the system, but the aggregate of nonvoters makes for an untenable structure.

Collapsing Meaning and the Retreat into Identity

It has always been shocking to me that the very many insightful developments in philosophy during the 20th century have gone almost completely unheeded by the vast majority of people. The existentialists freed us from Medieval concepts of meaning decades ago, and yet most people would probably define the meaning of their lives in the same way as our ancestors from centuries ago. This isn’t proof that the old concept of meaning is durable; in fact, the entire enterprise of 20th century philosophy proves that our old concepts of meaning are bankrupt. It is simply that public opinion has not kept pace with academic philosophy.

Even despite broad differences in opinion on every subject, the overwhelming conclusion of 20th century philosophy is an existentialist one. Regardless of your thoughts on metaphysics or theism, we know today that meaning comes from within.

So why do so many people still believe their meaning or purpose comes from On High? Why do so many people exist as if the entire 20th century of philosophy never happened? Why would people be surprised, in 2021, to learn the basic conclusions of the 20th century’s biggest names?

The obvious answer is that existentialism is scary. It takes an enormous psychological and emotional toll. It asks more of us than the alternative. The reality of being is much harder than the lies humans fabricated over millennia. The very reason they fabricated those lies in the first place was to avoid having to confront the very issues which existentialism forces!

But the conclusions of the existentialists are inescapable, and decades later we’re seeing inescapable effects of their thought as it continues to infect our cultural consciousness. Lately, the collapse of meaning has lead to problematic epistemological problems, as bad actors have attempted to manipulate misinformation to their advantage.

We are also seeing an increasing fervor in replacing traditional concepts of meaning. As religion or God or authority slowly evaporates from our cultural concept of meaning, we’re seeing people supplant that with other external concepts. Because of its personal and individual nature, this takes the form of identity, even if it is identity prescribed by another (or worse, by the vague demands of an amorphous group).

Take the example of a super-fan: they desperately seek something to “grab onto,” a limb of meaning as they free-fall through the void of meaninglessness. Previously this was provided by religion, or for the non-religious by a cultural idea (rooted in old religion), but since those have faded in our public opinion, our super-fan is left only to grab on to things he likes. He feels an affinity to, say, Star Wars, and so he begins to build a sense of meaning around that. In fact, there is a community of people who already feel strongly, and so the blueprint to meaning is ready-made for him. Star Wars may not tell him how to live like religion, but it does tell him why to live, and with whom. Star Wars becomes like a religion to him, and he is a zealot.

Although there is a philosophical opinion expressed in something like Star Wars, it does not a metaphysic make. So the meaning of “Star Wars” to him simply becomes his whim; when something challenges him (for instance, a certain actress or director challenging his deeply ingrained misogyny) he unilaterally decides that this isn’t “his” Star Wars. He retreats deeper and deeper into fanaticism, arbitrarily assigning elements of his fandom to his worldview without any thought beyond what “feels good,” sometimes even ignoring the facts of the world around him.

But Star Wars isn’t even his! He appropriated someone else’s creation into his entire identity. His own identity becomes hollow, then, and his sense of meaning continues to avoid the difficult reality of existentialism.

This happens not just in fandom, of course, but in politics or national identity, in nationalism or racism or any group which provides identity. Worse, it is difficult to address, because identity is ultimately inviolate. So the way out of polarization isn’t to get people to stop identifying with their groups, but rather to face, culturally and as a whole, the conclusions of philosophers who have (mostly) all been dead for decades.

What is a Catholic Atheist?

A purportedly benevolent magic force who listens to our thoughts impregnates a woman against her will with a half-human/half-god hybrid that is meant to cleanse the world of sin by being violently murdered since, even though the magic force is supposedly all-powerful, having their son tortured is the only way to demonstrate the sort of “love” that will absolve the world.

It is hard to believe. In fact, most reasonable people would say that it is impossible to believe. Yet we’ve organized life in the Western Hemisphere around these beliefs for the past couple millennia. In other parts of the world, most of their histories are centered around equally bizarre myths, mostly stemming from the same historical roots.

The reason we, as a society, haven’t simply looked at the lunacy of these beliefs and laughed them off is that we have simply have too much invested in God. We’ve been asked to place our entire trust in God, to center our identity around these supernatural beliefs, to accept a version of history so deeply woven with these bizarre ideas that to reject them would be to reject our entire cultural concept of history, identity, and metaphysics. There are lots of structural, political, and historical reasons why these power structures have been put in place and plenty to say about how they have been corrupted, manipulated, and exploited, but for us humans currently living in the 21st century it is enough to say that religion saturates every aspect of our day to day lives in ways we barely recognize or understand.

The Catholic Atheist is an Atheist because they cannot accept supernatural explanations any longer. They are unwilling to live in the Dark Ages when science has offered us all the tools necessary to understand the world in which we live; even if we don’t have the answers we seek currently, we know now that we can hope for better understanding in the future instead of substituting knowledge with made-up magic.

The Catholic Atheist is a catholic because they recognize the universal influence of world religions on every aspect of modern life. They know that, because so much of the good in our culture, art, and society is rooted in religious influence, that we need to understand and respect that influence if we want to retain and cultivate those things.

A Catholic Atheist needn’t be a Catholic. The word does mean “universal,” after all. You can be the type of Catholic Atheist that is true to your identity and cultural history. The Catholic Atheist also needn’t be an Atheist, per se. Although The Catholic Atheist is committed to empirical science and rejects supernaturalism, there is room for a variety of other beliefs that wouldn’t be called Atheistic, like agnosticism or spiritualism.

You may already be a Catholic Atheist, even if you haven’t used those words to identify yourself that way. You may already have deep misgivings and doubts about the supernatural teachings of the religion you otherwise love. You may mistrust your church for beliefs which today seem antiquated, or perhaps because your church has been responsible for much evil in the world. You may have never attended church nor believed in God, but you see the incredible influence of religion on the world and want to understand that influence better.

Above all, The Catholic Atheist is committed to critical thinking, measured analysis, and the search for truth and meaning. Isn’t that something we can all get behind?