June 06, 2007

Taking offense (revisited)

There has been an interesting and (as usual) thoughtful set of responses to my earlier post on taking offense to critiques of religion. Instead of responding to each commenter separately as I usually do, in this case I thought I would respond to all collectively, not because they are all saying the same thing, but to make my response more coherent and less fragmented. I would urge readers to read those earlier comments in order to get a better sense of the context of this posting.

When it comes to critiques of religion, I think that the two issues of plausibility and worthiness tend to get conflated. When atheists put religions like Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Hinduism into the same basket as fairies and the Easter bunny, they are raising the issue of plausibility, making the point that all these beliefs suffer from the same lack of evidence for the existence of god and thus are equally implausible. That argument should be responded to on the basis of evidence.

But that is typically not what happens. The issue of relative plausibility is rarely addressed head-on. Instead religious believers tend to shift the focus to one of worthiness, and argue that mainstream religious beliefs have resulted in great things (like highly altruistic self-sacrificial behavior and contributions to culture) while beliefs in the Easter bunny and fairies and the Flying Spaghetti Monster have not, and thus religious ideas are worthy of greater 'respect' and should not be lumped with the others. (There is also an indirect implication that if religious ideas are more worthy, they should also be more plausible, but that argument is logically unsound. It should really be backwards, that more plausible ideas are more worthy (in a scientific and not moral sense) of belief.)

But even if we go along with the shift to worthiness, the issue is a wash. No one can deny that religions have inspired great music and poetry and art. But no one can deny that they have also resulted in unspeakable cruelty and murder and destruction. Even if we avoid a crude estimate of relative numbers for each side, religious people tend want to only consider the positive benefits and disown the negative results by saying that the people who did the latter things were really acting from other, baser, motives and were somehow deluded into thinking that they were following god's will when they were actually working against it.

But if that is the case, then we can say the same thing about the motives of those who do positive things as well, that although they think and say they do it because of god, they are really doing it out of love of music and poetry and humanity and so on. If you accept people's stated reasons for doing good things at face value, how can you reject their stated reasons for doing bad things?

As for the idea that comparing beliefs in god to Easter bunnies is offensive because it makes religious people look like simpletons, the whole point of my earlier post was to argue that this was not true, that in fact many very smart people over the centuries have believed in religion because they are able to find complex and sophisticated reasons for doing so. Michael Shermer's words, which I used in that post, are worth quoting again: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons."

Recall Pascal Boyer's incredulity at the Christian theologian's contempt for Fang beliefs about witches. The Cambridge University theologian had probably put in a lot of effort into creating reasons for believing his own religion and no effort into justifying the Fang beliefs. But there is no reason to think that the Fang people (or those who believe in voodoo or shamanistic or animistic religions) are any dumber or smarter than the Christian theologian or Christians or Jews or Muslims or Hindus in general. The Fang and others have probably striven over centuries into developing reasons why their own beliefs are worthy and the beliefs of others are not.

Recall Jacob Weisberg, who was refreshingly candid as to why he disdained Mormonism while valuing the more traditional religions: "Mormonism is different because it is based on such a transparent and recent fraud. It's Scientology plus 125 years. Perhaps Christianity and Judaism are merely more venerable and poetic versions of the same. But a few eons makes a big difference. The world's greater religions have had time to splinter, moderate, and turn their myths into metaphor." (my emphasis)

The key factor at play here is not the intelligence of the believer but the level of desire to believe. If people really need to or want to believe something, they will find reasons to do so. The smarter people are, the more sophisticated and complex their reasons will be. And if they were to shift their considerable talents to other beliefs such as fairies and the Easter bunny and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, over time they will be equally successful.

POST SCRIPT: Preview of Sicko

Check out the preview of the new Michael Moore film Sicko on the scandal that is the US health industry:

You can also see a scene from the film, where Moore visits an English hospital:

The film is being released on June 29, 2007. I am definitely going to see it as soon as it comes out.


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Hi, Mano --

Interestingly, I'm thinking our apparently trivial disagreement over language actually goes to the heart of a (or the) big difference. That's your commitment to reason and empirical evidence, which I share but to a lesser degree ... My argument, frankly, is largely about emotion, but for me that's not a weakness.

I'm not sure I have a substantive rational disagreement with you. I'm not concerned at all with your atheism -- I accept and respect that. As I've said, I understand and accept your narrow (to me) argument that there's no empirical evidence either for God or the Easter Bunny. I'm talking about the emotional effect of language...and if you don't mind offending people (or if, in a way, you want to) in order to make a point, that's your right. It just surprises me.

Here's one last example. I didn't know the four churchwomen who died in El Salvador, but I know someone very well who did. Sr. Sheila Marie Tobbe worked there with them and has suffered what amounts to PTSD after her experiences. She now works in Cleveland and returns to El Salvador frequently.

These women felt they had an experience of God and were moved to devote their lives to the teachings of Christ. They were not just nice people who decided to do a nice thing. Their lives were transformed by what they interpreted as a spiritual experience. They might have been delusional -- I get that -- and I'm sure they had doubts themselves sometimes.

But at some point they read the Sermon on the Mount and decided to make it the blueprint of their lives. As a result they lived with terror for the sake of being one with the peasants around them and eventually were raped and murdered.

Okay, juxtapose that with "Flying Spaghetti Monster."

I'm not "taking offense to critiques of religion." I'm not even arguing that religion deserves a pass because religious people have done good things. I'm arguing that "Flying Spaghetti Monster" is offensive language... not worthy of you.

Posted by Kathy on June 6, 2007 10:00 AM

Mano & all,

WEAO 45 & 49 Akron/Canton is showing "A Brief History of Disbelief" this week. I caught the first episode last night and they did a very good job of examining what the notion of belief really entails. They also examined commonalities among belief and some of the early Greek sceptics. Here is the schedule for the next episodes.

I think a major issue here is one of semantics. The "Flying Spaghetti Monster" is but one example to address the issue of belief. One could substitute a variety of things, but each would be something that some people believe and others don't believe, so I'm not sure how one avoids offending someone even if that isn't the intent. It isn't so much the topic of belief that is at issue as the process of believing.

Posted by Heidi Cool on June 6, 2007 11:44 AM

Would it be less offensive to compare belief in God to belief in Santa Clause, rather than the Flying Spaghetti Monster? After all, Santa is basically altruism embodied. He has a long history, a detailed mythology which includes several versions or sects, has prompted works of art and literature, and has most definitely prompted people to good works. This makes the belief in Santa a worthy belief then, which can be compared to a belief in God; both worthwhile perhaps because of the good works their followers accomplish, but also both unsubstantiated in terms of scientific evidence.

Posted by Elizabeth on June 6, 2007 01:19 PM

@ Elizabeth

I have never seen nor heard of a sane adult who, after hearing of all the altrusim and sacrifice of Santa, experienced a life changing transformation that persisted over time and place.

Yet, I've met many people that have experieced such a change due to a experience with their god.

Continuing the thought, I submit these persons as evidence of a god. I'm not talking about people who attended some large church with loud music and clapping hands but rather individuals who were spoken to in a solitary place by a quiet voice.

Posted by dave on June 6, 2007 02:46 PM


As you and I agree, the courage and sincerity of the beliefs of the four churchwomen is not in question. Such acts can be admired and respected even when one does not share (or sometimes even fathom) the motivations of the people who do them. The Flying Spaghetti Monster is definitely unlikely to motivate such actions, at least unless a few hundred years pass and the dubiousness of its origins become obscured.

But to say it again, the comparison with the FSM is being made to compare plausibility of beliefs, not their ability to inspire heroism or self-sacrifice or similar emotions.

The statement that it is "not worthy" of me to compare traditional religion with the FSM, implying that doing so somehow devalues the actions of people like the churchwomen, is to try and invoke guilt feelings by drawing a false inference. It is also a kind of special pleading, appealing to the kind of genteel sensibility ("Nice people don't say such things in public") that caused has people to pull their punches when it came to religion, and thus allowed religious beliefs to escape close scrutiny and criticism. It was what made James Mill tell his son John Stuart Mill "There is no God, but it's a family secret."

But I am afraid that ship has sailed. Religious ideas are now being forced to take their place in the same arena as political, scientific, and other secular ideas, and will have to defend themselves the way other ideas do against the same kinds and tenor of criticisms.

Scientific ideas like relativity were initially subjected to intense ridicule and advocates were accused of abandoning all contact with reality and common sense. But the response of Einstein and others was not to say "You should not say such things because our feelings get hurt and we feel disrespected" even if their feelings were hurt and they did feel disrespected. Their theories survived and flourished because they were able to rebut even the harshest critics. And their not being sheltered from any type of criticism was part of the reason why the theories are so robust now, because advocates of the theory had to work hard to provide evidence to sustain and advance the theories.

Religious ideas are now being asked to do the same and the experience it is going to be uncomfortable for believers at first because of the protection those ideas have received up to now. Believers will have to come to terms with the fact that it is no longer viable to try and outlaw by fiat in the case of religion rhetorical techniques that are routinely used and accepted in all other areas of public debate.

Posted by Mano on June 6, 2007 04:28 PM

Hi, Mano --

I apologize if the "not worthy" remark was out of line. I know you admire and respect the lives of such people as the church women of El Salvador ... I brought them up to try to explain why specific language -- not your underlying ideas -- can cause offense. You can argue your case very cogently and more effectively, in my opinion, without reference to flying spaghetti monsters...

Posted by Kathy on June 6, 2007 04:48 PM

Hi Mano,

Before I start, I will also beg your forgiveness at the onset here for the
unreasonable length of my "comment" here. The length is inappropriate
for two reasons: (1) this is your blog, not mine, and given the length
of these remarks I should probably have made arrangement to "get my
own site" long ago, and (2) the length implies a level expertise, a
depth of thought, and a level of concern on the topic that I should
not even indirectly pretend to have. My only excuse for this
transgression here is that it turns out even as I have been following
and responding to some of the more interesting ideas you have put
forth in your recent posts, I also simultaneously engaged in
discussions on these kinds of topics with some friends and colleagues
in a completely different context. So I have the opportunity here to
get "double use" out of ideas that I can put down to clarify my
thinking in response to several different discussions.

That and the fact that writing here provides a rather effective
means of procrastinating relative to some other things I should be
done. ;)

Also, precisely to the extent this is unreasonably long is the extend
to which I recognize that it would be unreasonable to expect any
specific response to these comments. I would be pleased, instead, if
you might simply consider addressing some of these topics further in
your own way in your regular blog postings at some time in the future
as you see fit.

Okay, so thanks for the very thoughtful response. Indeed your tend to present
very thoughtful remarks on your blog which is why I like to read it,
and this most recent post is one of your most thoughtful. Your point
on the tendency of conflagration between plausibility and worthiness
is particularly well-taken.

Having said this and having reflected further on the issue, I would
still say that you should not have been surprised to learn that some
religious believers would find your comparison of belief in god to
belief in the Easter Bunny offensive. But I should emphasize here at
the start that I did not mean to imply in my previous comment that I
myself found the comparison between god and the Easter bunny or
whatever offensive. And even if I did, I probably not have "taken
offense" at what was said.

An aside: I suppose it's a level of degree: I mentioned before that I
find many of Ann Coulter's assertions offensive, but I do not "take
offense" as she is so uniformly outrageous that it seems actively
responding to what she says might serve no purpose. I also have a
number of friends and colleagues who by temperament may tend to say or
do "offensive" things but since I otherwise value or respect the
relationships for various reasons, its better to simply ignore the
offense. In contrast, I recently found myself "taking offense" at
some of our local Democratic congresspersons who failed to vote no on
the war funding bill. In this case my offense took the form of phone
calls, email and letters to the editor making known my unhappiness
that they voted in apparent opposition to their stated commitments to
end the war as soon as possible.

Anyway, I am saying that since you brought the topic of taking offense
up, it seems quite natural to me that some people would find your
comparison between god and childhood fictitious characters offensive.
And as I said, I found Kathy's points rather compelling for the
reasons I stated earlier.

Upon further reflection, I realize part of the issue has to do with
what what I might call my natural tendency to try to put myself in the
"other persons shoes" on both sides of any discussion. If one side
indicates an something expressed is "offensive" then this might be an
indication that the other side appears not to have sufficient empathy
for the alternate point of view.

I realize that an "apparent lack of empathy" for an opposing viewpoint
is hardly a basis for evaluating the validity of a rational
argument. But from a practical point of view in the context of
persuasion and possible consensus building, it seems that some of the
most effective discussions between opposing viewpoints result when a
real effort is made by both sides to see the situation from honest
point of view of the other side. Of course the strength of arguments
comes into the discussion as well, but I will say, based on my
experience, that if there is not at least some level of willingness to
"honor the viewpoint" of the other side, then all of the arguments in
the world, no matter how rational, will fall on deaf ears. And if one
side or the other "takes offense" then perhaps -- maybe -- this might
be an indication that someone, somewhere is not really living up to
this ideal of trying to be empathetic with the other side at some

Of course, I am not suggesting that trying to "avoid offense" is
worthwhile in every scenario. If one is attempting to argue against
what is perceived as a very dangerous idea, or if one is trying to
counter an argument made by someone who at the onset demonstrates a
propensity for demonizing those with opposing views then perhaps
taking the empathetic tack might not get too far. As you indicated,
perhaps there is not much value in worrying too much about whether
Dick Cheney is offended by something. But I will contend that if ones
purpose is to engage in a dialog with individuals or groups who have
an opposing point of view, but with whom you otherwise might respect
and are trying to persuade to your own point of view, then raising
arguments that might be construed as offensive -- even if such an
offense might be deemed irrational -- might not be the best tactic,
practically speaking.

I also recognize that there is a difference
between the "public realm" of discourse and
debate (which seems to be more "rough and tumble")
and the private or pseudo-private realm within
(for example) families and organizations where
a need for empathy might be much more
motivated between people who have to be in
close proximity to each other in some sense.

I suppose a "blog" lives mostly in the
"public sphere" sort of....

Yes, I agree very strongly with your general point that it is not
"fair" for people with religious ideas to expect to be insulated from
any kind of criticism (rhetorical devices as you put it) even if the
device is relatively harsh. I agree that any set of ideas, in a free
and pluralistic society, is fair game for public scrutiny.

But could also argue that making arguments with harsh rhetorical
devices might not always be the best way to make arguments in _any_
sphere of discourse. I can think of two or three columnists, for
example, that actively promote political views that I substantially
agree with but who do so with such venom for any opposing view that I
am embarrassed. Perhaps one might excuse such a confrontational
approach in the sciences, since ultimately any particular viewpoint
will be resolved not by the strength of an argument but by
experimental verification. But in the political (and religious)
arenas, there is no experimetalist to resolve the argument about
competing theories.

It's not obvious to me that the way to find the best ideas in any
arena is always to subject them to a withering rhetorical attacks to
test their survivability. And one could argue that the use of harsh
rhetorical devices might be unhelpful for moving forward a rational
discussion of the issuess in the political and policy arenas as it is
becoming within the relgious spheres. This is not to say that there
is not a time and a place for the expression of objection, protest and
complaint within a political arena, for example. But it seems to me
that such activity all by itself is not the equivalent of making
rational arguments. And it is my belief that if the rationale for an
argument is sound, it should not depends so sensitively on a need to
be expressed in the context of harsher rhetorical device. And it
might even be the case that the argument can be made more effectively
if it is make empathetically. It's an issue of persuasion. An
example in the political arena one might argue that the Greensboro
sit-in did much more to persuade white Americans of the validity of
civil rights demands than did a similar similar protest marches and
riots. So I am not saying that atheists do not have the right to make
harsh public criticisms of religion. They
certainly enjoy that right and religious people
do not really have any right to ask for
protection from such criticism. I am just saying that using harsh rhetorical devices might
not always be the best idea if
you want people to listen thoughtfully to
what you are saying. So yes, as you say, the ship has sailed, but
perhaps not everyone ought to hop on it.

Indeed, I might suggest that the fair complaint about of some of the
writings of the "new atheists" is not so much that the arguments are
"disrespectful" but that they are rather non-empathetic to the
opposing point of view. Some of the writing seem to be developed with
the aim of tearing down a viewpoint rather than persuading people to
change their minds. Again, this has nothing to do with the rationality
or validity of the argument, but if the argument comes across in a
certain way it may not "convert" fence sitters or others. Indeed if
the tone is perceived as too strident then you risk turning people off
to your argument, logical or not.

For example, I personnaly cannot read much of what Sam Harris
writes....not because his arguments are so unsound (although there are
several arguments he makes that I do not agree with) but because he is
so uniformly unsympathetic to any opposing view. For example, in your
quote of Sam Harris where he says: "[Atheism] is simply an admission
of the obvious..." This comes across as rather arrogant and to this
extent it's sort of offensive. "Obvious"? Obvious to whom? To many
people the word obvious implies something that "anyone but a
simpleton", anyone who has any rational ability at all, would readily
agree to. In fact, by such a definition, atheism appears to be rather
non-obvious. I know this is not the intended meaning. I know that he
means "obvious in the context of following the rational implication of
adopting a purely scientific perspective on all things." But he
doesn't put it that way, exactly. Instead he gives the impression of
impatience and self-righteousness. I suspect that this particular
wording of his argument here would only be appealing to someone who
already shares this point of view.

I can think of one other example of this kind of thing. Some years
ago I was involved in a class that dealt with the issue of
scientifically assessing pseudo-scientific claims. It was a class for
non-science major, and one of the books on the reading list was "The
Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Darkness" by Carl
Sagan. From my point of view this was a excellent book for this
course that went right to the heart of several keys issues that I
hoped the students would be addressing in the class. However, I was
surprised by an outpouring of rather strong negative feedback about
the book that I was getting from a large number of students in the
class. Students felt that the writing was "arrogant", "condescending"
and uncompelling -- "annoying to read" -- this from students who were
otherwise apparently quite open in a general way to looking and
considering ideas about how to scientifically approach
pseudo-scientific claims. The problem was not that Sagan's message
was wrong or unsound -- the problem was that it did not reach students
where they were at. It turned students off. The point here is
that in this context, at least, even to the extent that the scientific
message was presented with what I thought was a reasonable tone,
students turned away from what they perceived to be a "harsh
argument" even when ultimately they found similar arguments quite
compelling when presented in a different context.

Okay now finally, I would like to articulate one last reflection
related to the atheism arguments you have made. Specifically, it
seems like your whole case for atheism rests on the central premise
that one should "take a scientific approach to every aspect of life."
You contend that atheism is not in-and-of-itself a philosophy, but I
do not understand how a decision to "take a scientific approach to
every aspect of life" is not itself a "philosophy". Maybe I am
misunderstanding your use of the word.

Indeed, if I narrow the issue further, it still seems like the
application of science is a "philosophy". If you say something as
restricted even as "the best way to understand the physical universe
is to apply the scientific approach" isn't this a "philosophy"? Don't
we even call our experts "doctors of philosophy"? I will agree that
it is a mighty powerful and effective philosophy but I do not see how
it is not a philosophy. I do not see how science itself can be
justified "scientifically". We apply science to the physical world
and we discover "it works". Are you contending that science can be
used to self-justify itself?

Likewise, when you make the argument that the "scientific approach
should be applied to every aspect of life" are you not extrapolating
at some level? I will concede that if one grants that such an
approach should be taken, then what I will call a "strong atheism" is
the logical rational conclusion. But I am not sure that rationality
itself compells such an extrapolation. And while you might argue that
the reason religious believers resist such an extrapolation is because
they are extremely motivated to defend their beliefs, there have been
and continue to be several prominent atheists who have also argued
that it is not scientifically justified -- or particular helpful for
the cause of science -- for atheistic scientists to make such an
extrapolations. For example such an ardent defender of the scientific
point of view as
Krauss has argued[/url] that science itself should not be used to
dispute untestable religious claims. You may not agree with his conclusions
but you also cannot attribute his opinion to a strong desire to defend
his personal religious beliefs.

To my mind part of the issue is to what end is such an extrapolation
being applied. What is the aim of extrapolating the very successful
approach of science to arenas where science has not so clearly applied
itself as successfully? What is the desired outcome?

It seems to me that the purpose of the application of science to the
physical universe is the understanding of the underlying nature of
physical reality -- that is to determine what is and is not
objectively true.

But I think the case can be made that there are topics and issues
where we might be properly motivated by considerations that have
nothing specifically to do with whether something is objectively true
or not. There are issues worth contemplating that are not related to
anything really existing or not. I suspect this is the case for many
people with regards to religious issues. This gets back to the
"plausibility" vs. "worthiness" issue. I suspect that for some
religious people -- especially those that might fall more into the
"liberal" end of the spectrum -- the issue of whether there is
evidence for god's existence has much less relevance than the issue of
the value that the religious experience provides.

Indeed, you have mentioned and promised to address the issue of the
"net good vs. evil" issue of religion in the world, and I think this
is quite a tricky knot to tackle, but for many people, I suspect
further that the motivation to adopt a religious perspective has less
to do with the net world social value of religion and much more to do
with the perceived value of that perspective to the individual, and
this value is the central issue in making the decision to adopt the
religious perspective. In other words it's a personal choice that is
based on the attractiveness of the experience rather than on whether
some particular claims are being made and if they are true or not.

I would also argue that this kind of value can be defended, even if
the defense is is not based on a "rational argument" as to whether
some claim is true or not. As you have admitted before, we all have
"irrational" viewpoints on a number of things. But I think that
perhaps one can argue that this irrationality does not automatically
reduce the value of the viewpoint. If one assumes that the
perspective provides value for the individual, then there is a
"rational" argument to be made for adopting the perspective.

For example, last night I went to a baseball game. I had a great time
(despite the fact that the home team lost) and I would go again. But
I cannot see any way to justify my attendance at the game from a
scientific point of view. Why did I go? Because it was appealing to
go. Why did I cheer for the home team? Certainly not because I have
some illusion that they are objectively more deserving of my support
and praise relative to their opponents. Rather, I cheered the home
team because the ritual of sport is constructed this way and because
by investing myself in the outcome I become more engaged in the game
and find it more rewarding. When the game ends, and the home team
loses, however, I am quite content to put aside the ritual and
recognize that the value of ritual is simply the emotional reward
of the game itself. I do not carry my investment in the home team
around with me from day-to-day. I am not a "sports fundamentalist".

Similarly, suppose a student is considering a life in pursuit of a
career as a concert musician. I am thinking that such a decision
would be difficult to defend on the basis of a "scientific argument".
The basis for making such a decision is not whether or not something
objectively exists (except perhaps, musical ability). The issue is
whether the pursuit of such a career is seen as worthwhile.

It's further worth remarking that just because neither baseball nor
music can be justified scientifically does not mean that either of
these enterprises is intellectually valueless. Nor are these
activities free to operate in a way that contradicts or ignores the
constraints imposed by the laws of science. Physics governs baseballs
and oboes. But physics does not define the home-run. Physics does
not define an "impressive" concerto. People do this.

I think, therefore, that there are particular liberal religious
perspectives that can make a case for their value based not on
physical evidence for the existence of god, but on the value that
these perspectives can provide -- a value that is more comparable to
the value of a game of baseball or the value of a life committed to
musical excellence than it is to the value of determining the age of a
rock or the charge on a quark. In my opinion, if such a religious
perspective is constructed in a manner such that its claims are not
inconsistent with the demonstrated laws of science then it may be
defended as "worthy" in this context. The example I mentioned before,
where the traditions are interpreted metaphorically, not literally,
and where the emphasis in on the artistic interpretation of the
narrative, not on any objective claims about the physical nature of
god, seems like one example of such a construct. Such a model also
rather explicitly recognizes that the narratives from one tradition
may be more or less attractive and worthwhile to a person than another
tradition based on differences in cultural and personal attitudes. In
other words, the liberal tradition embraces an ecumenical perspective
that to the extend that no one religious perspective is laying claim
to the "literal truth" is the extent to which other, different
perspectives with different narratives, can be argued as "worthwhile".

Posted by Corbin on June 8, 2007 05:00 AM