June 04, 2007
I have written before (See here, here, here, and here.) that one of the odd characteristics about the discussions about the new atheism is the frequently made charge that the new atheists are 'rude' and saying 'offensive' things about religion.
I myself have said things that may warrant this charge. I have frequently compared belief in god to belief in Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, and the tooth fairy. Religious people may have got offended by this, thinking that I am trivializing their deeply held beliefs. But this reaction itself suggests what a privileged position religion has long held in public discourse, trying to force critics into muting their statements. It is not as if I am making ad hominem attacks on believers or calling them names.
When I compare belief in god to things like the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I am making the point that they all have the same level of empirical evidence in support of them and that the same kinds of arguments are used in their favor. Atheists are merely taking these arguments of religious believers to their logical conclusions as a means of showing their weaknesses, which is a perfectly valid and time-honored form of reasoning. Yet people take one belief (their own particular variant of god) seriously and dismiss the others, making this an interesting study of what kind of thinking enables them to do so.
In a discussion on British radio Richard Dawkins (author of the book The God Delusion) picks up on a point made by another scientist Lord Robert Winston who suggests that Dawkins is insulting religion by calling belief in god a delusion. Dawkins responds:
There is a double standard here, that if we were just having an argument about some scientific matter we could argue quite vigorously and you wouldn't feel insulted, you wouldn't feel offended. But there's something about religion that feels entitled to take offense if you just say something that would be comparatively mild in another context. I can't help feeling that offense is something that people take when they've run out of arguments.
Dawkins makes a good point. In politics or science or other debates, you do not usually say you are offended if someone criticizes your position. It is usually done only when you have no adequate response. For example, in 2005 Amnesty International leveled a serious charge against the US: "We have documented that the U.S. government is a leading purveyor and practitioner of the odious human rights violation. . . As evidence of torture and widespread cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment mounts, it is more urgent than ever that the U.S. government bring the Guantanamo Bay detention camp and any other facilities it is operating outside the USA into full compliance with international law and standards. The only alternative is to close them down."
When questioned about this Dick Cheney said he was "offended" by the comment. But why should we care if he is offended? His feelings are not the issue here. But what he was trying to do was make the issue off-limits to questioning, because he had no real arguments with which to respond.
When Kirk Cameron tried to ridicule evolutionary theory by suggesting that it should predict the existence of animals like 'croc-o-ducks', with the body of a duck and the head of a crocodile, I did not get offended and say "How dare you, sir!" in the fine manner of Victorian melodramas. I was simply amused and countered by pointing out how his statement shows his ignorance of the theory.
This tendency to give religious views shelter from criticism is the reason that one finds periodic eruptions of religious anger and even riots over perceived slights. The angry response by some Christians over the 'chocolate Jesus', the 'elephant dung Mary', and the 'crucifix in urine', the rioting by some Muslims over the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, and the anger of some Hindus in India because of the depiction of naked Hindu deities by an acclaimed Indian painter M. F. Hussain are all signs that religious sensibilities have been accorded far too much deference. The more deference one gives to someone or some ideas, the more prickly sensitivity such people exhibit, resulting in them demanding even greater deference. It is a very harmful feedback loop.
Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, said: "One of the most frightening things in the Western world, and in this country in particular, is the number of people who believe in things that are scientifically false. If someone tells me that the earth is less than 10,000 years old, in my opinion he should see a psychiatrist." (Thanks to MachinesLikeUs for the quote.)
Should creationists get offended by the suggestion that they need professional help? Note that even Crick did not explicitly say that he would actually tell the person that he should see a psychiatrist. To gratuitously tell people that they are borderline psychotic, when they merely hold a particular set of views and seem to pose no danger to themselves or to others, would be offensive. But there is nothing wrong with publicly saying that certain beliefs are irrational.
If anyone we knew said that they heard voices telling them what to do and that they believed in invisible things like magic unicorns, we would be more concerned and may try and get them some help. But if they say identical things about god, we give them a pass. The fact that we do not usually tell people that they should see a psychiatrist when they say that they think the world is less than 10,000 years old shows that religious beliefs already receive considerable deference and leeway.
The proper response to this demand for excessive deference to religious beliefs is not to go out of one's way to gratuitously insult people. That usually does not achieve anything worthwhile. But at the same time, people should not be allowed to say "I'm offended!" and expect that to be taken as a serious argument.
So when atheists suggest that the beliefs of Christianity have the same intellectual and scientific stature as belief in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the response should not be to get in a huff but to show why the two beliefs deserve to be treated differently. To merely say one is offended is, as Dawkins points out, to tacitly concede that one has run out of arguments.