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February 25, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-5: Rhetoric in politics and religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

In a response on the Machines Like Us website as to whether my three assertions:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

constituted rudeness or arrogance, a commenter kaath said that:

The three points you make above are not rude as points of view when stated in that way. However, in my experience they are 1) factually incorrect or 2) unfalsifiable. Further, they are often rephrased in antagonistic or sarcastic ways.

This last item has been noted even by other atheists on this site—the idea being that if what you really want is a serious and reasonable debate you use serious, reasonable words. That is not what happens here a goodly amount of the time.

A number of the folks who post on the site either as bloggers or as commentators resort to sarcasm to make fun of the religionist. (my italics)

I think that this is what everything essentially boils down to. Many religious people feel that their beliefs should not be made fun of even in the public sphere.

Is the request to not make fun of religion a reasonable one? My response is no. Religious beliefs have no special status and should be treated just like any other beliefs. When it comes to the public sphere, I agree totally with author Salman Rushdie who, in opposing an attempt by the British government to pass legislation for a ban on incitement to "hatred against persons on racial or religious grounds", reflected on an aspect of his own education.

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible. (my italics)

To see why the appeal that religious beliefs deserve special treatment in debate is invalid, compare religion to politics. One is warned that in social gatherings one should avoid the topics of politics and religion, because people hold strongly entrenched views on both and thus discussions have the potential to blow up into angry confrontations. But although both topics are considered sensitive and even explosive, when we compare public discussions in the world of politics with those in the world of religion, we immediately see that the call for respectful treatment of religious beliefs for what it is: special pleading for ideas that cannot withstand critical scrutiny.

The difference in the way those two topics are debated in the public sphere is very revealing. In the political sphere people feel quite free to make strong and even personal criticisms of political figures. Political cartoonists, for example, not only lampoon public political figures and ridicule their ideas, they even make fun of their appearance, by caricaturing their physical features and making them look ridiculous. And we think this is perfectly acceptable and part of the natural give and take of public debate. No one accuses these cartoonists of being rude or arrogant or practicing hate speech, even though for many people their political views may be held more deeply than even their religious views.

So why should we not be similarly allowed to caricature public religious figures like Jehovah/Melvin/Jesus/Allah/Mohammed/Krishna/… and ridicule their ideas? And yet, when a Danish cartoonist made fun of Mohammed, we have the absurd spectacle of people rioting in the streets and calls for the introduction of blasphemy laws, a reversion to the Dark Ages. People's feelings on religion are so easily inflamed because for too long, unlike the case with political beliefs, they have been used to those around them pretending to act as if those beliefs made sense even though they may privately think they are ridiculous.

Islam is a particular extreme case of what happens when we grant religious beliefs undue deference. In addition to the cartoon incident, we had the brutal murder of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh in 2004. He was shot by Mohammed Bouyeri as he rode his bicycle to work. His killer then cut his victim's throat, almost decapitating him, and then stabbed him in the chest and a left note embedded in his body. Van Gogh's crime? He had made a 10-minute film that told the story of four abused Muslim women (see below). Bouyeri made a courtroom confession of his crime but was unapologetic and said he killed van Gogh out of religious conviction and that he would do the same again if given the chance. Holding a copy of the Koran, he said that "the law compels me to chop off the head of anyone who insults Allah and the prophet." So Bouyeri thinks that his mighty god, the ruler of the universe, is so insecure and thin-skinned that he cares about a short film. The reality is of course that it is Bouyeri who is so unused to having his religious beliefs criticized that he becomes unhinged when it occurs. This shows what happens when religious people get used to thinking that their beliefs should be immune from criticism.

H. L. Mencken, in the wake of the Scopes trial in 1925, defended Clarence Darrow's harsh treatment of William Jennings Bryan on the witness stand by making this very point. (You can find the full context on pages 150-151 of my book God vs. Darwin.) It is worth quoting him at length:

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings. That is what Darrow did at Dayton, and the issue plainly justified the act. Bryan went there in a hero's shining armor, bent deliberately upon a gross crime against sense. He came out a wrecked and preposterous charlatan, his tail between his legs. Few Americans have ever done so much for their country in a whole lifetime as Darrow did in two hours.

We must of course respect the right of people to believe whatever they want to believe. But that is a completely different issue. We have no obligation whatsoever to respect the beliefs themselves and, in criticizing them, the use of every available rhetorical technique is legitimate, whether it be sarcasm, derision, ridicule, or whatever. The only restraints should be those that are self-imposed by the people making the criticisms, on the basis of their personal preferences or whether they think the methods they are using are effective as persuasion. In some situations, sarcasm and derision may be perfectly appropriate, in others not.

There are those who argue that sarcasm and derision are not effective in getting people to change their minds, so it is self-defeating to use such rhetorical methods. But people who engage in public debates know that the person whose ideas they are directly challenging is not the real target of persuasion because such people's views are unlikely to change. The real targets are the curious and more dispassionate observers watching the debate. Humor, sarcasm, and even ridicule of ideas may well be effective with them because they are not so wedded to the ideas being targeted. It is also perfectly true that what may be appropriate in the public sphere may not be so in the private sphere. What people who accuse the new/unapologetic atheists of being rude, arrogant, etc. seem to be doing is applying the standards of the private sphere to the public sphere.

When it comes to public debates about public issues and ideas, we must come to terms with the fact that pretty much anything goes, apart from obvious prohibitions against lying and defamation and libel. And religion has to take its lumps along with everything else.

POST SCRIPT: Submission

This 10-minute film narrating the abuse of four Muslim women is the reason for the brutal murder of Theo van Gogh.

February 24, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-4: More on the conversion question

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

I want to address the crux of Jared's objections to my post on the alleged arrogance of atheists, which was that my hope for a world without religion was essentially also a call for the elimination of religious people.

When we seek to eradicate what we think are false or harmful beliefs that are held by people close to us, are we trying to "wish them away" as individuals? Of course not. What we seek is to improve their lives on the assumption that believing things that are supported by evidence and have the potential of being true is better for people than believing things that have no evidentiary support and are likely to be false.

In that sense, I understand better the desire of evangelical Christians and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses to convert the world to their beliefs. They are at least being consistent in wanting to spread what they believe to be true, though I disagree with their methods of thrusting their views on people, even strangers, without first ascertaining whether they want to discuss them.

So Jared, I am trying to convert you to atheism, just as I am trying to convert every reader of this blog who is a believer. Indeed, much of all forms of communication are attempts at persuasion over something or other. I do it not to "wish you away" but because I think you would be better off for being an atheist than a religious believer. It is no different from my attempts to convert people in general away from any racist, sexist, xenophobic, and any other form of bigoted views that they may hold that I think harms them and society at large. They too may resist. But to not expose people to alternative views in an attempt to wean them away is to not do them any favors. In fact, I think it is wrong to shield people from criticisms of their ideas because having one's ideas critiqued are an important component of learning and growth. People may disagree and retain their beliefs, but that is a choice they have to make.

So if I think that trying to convert people to one's point of view makes sense, why I am not knocking on people's doors like the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses or standing on street corners like the Jesus people, handing out tracts containing the doctrines of atheism, which would consist of blank sheets of paper? Why don't I channel every conversation with relatives, friends, and colleagues into discussions about atheism? As a matter of fact, I almost never initiate the topic of religion in those situations and it is almost always the case that it is other people who initiate such conversations with me because they are curious about my views. And in those private conversations, I simply state what I believe and why, and counter their arguments for god. That's it. There is no atheist equivalent of the 'altar call', of asking people to come to Jesus.

I do not try to convert people in person because personal relationships involve many facets and one cannot easily walk away from conversations about unwanted topics without some awkwardness. Thrusting a topic on people is generally not a good idea. People may not be interested in discussing the topic at that particular time and are merely going to get annoyed with you for what they view as an imposition. So the people I meet personally can rest assured that I am not going to collar them and talk about atheism unless they tell me they want to.

But in the public sphere such as this blog, people are free to read or not read, agree or not agree. People can choose to enter into the conversation or walk away. Ideas can be more easily discussed and critiqued as just ideas, apart from the people holding them.

If religious people hold their beliefs so dearly that they think that any criticism of those beliefs is an attack on their right to hold those ideas or even their right to exist, that is a misconception that they themselves have to overcome. In the public sphere, any idea or belief should be freely criticized in any way. To criticize an idea or belief strongly using all the evidence, reason, and rhetoric at one's disposal is not to seek the elimination of the people holding those ideas and beliefs. It is to seek the elimination of those ideas and beliefs.

The last issue that I will discuss in the next and final post in this series is the issue of tone, which was implied in Jared's response but stated more directly by kaath in his response on the Machines Like Us website.

POST SCRIPT: White House duplicity

In my recent series of posts titled The End of Politics I described how the oligarchy that rules the US hides its power behind a screen of supposedly heated partisan politics. In particular, when it came to health care reform, I described how Obama and the Democrats choreographed this elaborate dance to hide the fact that they had no intention whatsoever of doing anything meaningful that would hurt the financial interests of their patrons in the health industry.

The latest White House proposals advanced in front of the so-called health care summit reveals this duplicity clearly for what it is. Glenn Greenwald dissects the charade in a must-read article.

February 23, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-3: The conversion question

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

For earlier posts in this series, see here.

In the previous post, I said that the statement that Jared found offensive and hurtful is that "The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural." He said that "I think you really don't get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them" and that it implied that I felt that "The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)" and that "to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification", and as such constituted hate speech.

Actually, I really do get "how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith". After all, I was one of those people once and am still surrounded by them in the form of friends and relatives. It is this very deep-rootedness that I identify as precisely the reason why religions are so persistent despite the lack of evidence in favor of them and the abundance of counter-evidence. What I don't understand is why that fact should earn the believers of religions a pass from criticism.

I also frankly do not understand what is meant by to "wish away" people and propose their "nullification". I assume it does not mean that I want them exterminated! Is the desire to "wish away" certain beliefs the equivalent of wanting to "wish away" the people who hold those beliefs? Surely not. What I think Jared means is that religious beliefs are such an essential part of people that losing them destroys them as individuals.

That assertion is flatly contradicted by the fact that many people have given up their once deeply held religious beliefs (to either join other religions or become skeptics) and been none the worse for it and even come out stronger. Just because a belief is deeply held does not give it some kind of immunity. After all, people deeply hold views that are racist, sexist, xenophobic, or exhibit other forms of bigotry. Some people also label themselves by the signs of the Zodiac and infer innate qualities based on them and even act on that basis by consulting astrologers and horoscopes before making important decisions. No one would seriously argue that the world would not be better off without those beliefs or that those views should be protected just because some people identify with them strongly, or that we are hurting those people when we try to convert them away from these absurd or noxious beliefs. Why is it hate speech to encourage people to use evidence, rationality, and reason in every area of their lives?

The only reason to argue that religious belief should be treated differently from those others is because religious beliefs are obviously good or beneficial and the others obviously bad. Religions have used that trope for years to try and shield themselves from criticisms. But isn't that the very point in dispute? I don't think religious beliefs are good or benign, even though religious individuals can be both. For reasons that I have given before, I think a world where religion has ceased to have people in its thrall and where people no longer identify themselves by divisive religious labels would be a better world than what we have now. But why should such a view constitute hate speech?

The issue of attempted conversion seems to be another element of Jared's discomfort with my post because he says:

I'm not asking you to stop being an Atheist.
I don't believe you are going to Hell.
I don't want to convert you to my way of thinking.

I would just hope that when you publicly "wish us away" that you realize it's not friendly. And if you know it and you don't care - then its just not nice.

As I have said before, I don't understand this disdain towards conversion. (See here and here.) In the first of those two links I said (slightly edited):

The present situation, where some religious people seem to think that politeness demands that they should refrain from claiming superiority for their own religion, seems (within the framework of religion) contradictory. After all, religious people presumably think that their faith is the most important thing in their lives, so why be so reticent about it? Like the many debates we have had during the primary elections, why not have debates as to which religion is the best and which god is the right one to be worshipped? If we can spend so much time and energy in selecting a mere president, surely we should be willing to do at least as much for something as important as the ultimate fate of people's immortal souls?

I for one would enjoy listening to public debates as to why any one religion is better than the others.

Addressing Jared directly for the moment, if you think that your own religion of Judaism is true and that the god of the Jews is the one true god, then what is wrong in saying so and trying to persuade other people of it? I certainly would not be "offended" by such an attempt even though I would disagree with it. Surely you are a Jew (in the religious sense, not as a member of an ethnic group) because you think that it confers some spiritual benefit to you? Why would you not want to share that benefit with others?

Next: More on the conversion question.

POST SCRIPT: Diet fads

That Mitchell and Webb Look takes on an industry that thrives on people's ignorance.

February 22, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists-2: Public and private personas

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

My post about the alleged arrogant statements of atheists generated some interesting responses. In that post I asserted three basic assertions that I, as a new/unapologetic atheist make, and asked which ones would be considered arrogant or rude or offensive, which are the charges leveled most often at us. The assertions were:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

In this short series of posts, I will address two responses because they touch on two different aspects because they raise some important issues of general interest. One is by Jared Bendis, someone whom I have known personally for many years. You can read his full comment in the original post but I will excerpt the key portions and respond to each. The other response appeared on the Machines Like Us website and was by someone named 'kaath' whom I do not know personally.

Jared begins:

Mano, I have read your posts for years - and I know you in person. I'm often shocked about how confrontational your posts can be. I can't imagine any other person I know not just discussing their opinion publicly but making clear their feeling on the beliefs of others.

Today I was hurt by what I read. I don't think you meant it to hurt - I know it wasn't directed at me personally - and I don't think you will care for my counterargument but I felt I needed to say it: Today your words hurt me.

Jared is expressing a view that is not uncommon for those who know me personally and also read my blog. On my recent trip to Sri Lanka a very old friend of mine from boyhood days (who is religious) asked me out to lunch just so that he could have an extended private conversation with me because he too had found my blog to be very strongly worded against religion and he found it hard to reconcile with his personal impression of me. After our lunch, he said he understood why there is a difference and maybe this series of posts will similarly clarify it for others. Or maybe not.

As I have said before, my argumentation style in private forums (in my classes or in conversations with people) is quite different from that in public forums (such as this blog or public talks) which is why I may seem to have a Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde dual personality to those who know me personally. Part of the reason for this difference is that unlike Dr. Jekyll, I have chosen to adopt a particular persona for my blog posts on atheism, for reasons I have spelled out earlier. Another reason is that people fail to distinguish the styles of discourse used in private and public forums and apply the standards that are appropriate for the former to the latter.

When you are talking with people directly, person to person, it is hard to separate an idea from the person expressing and supporting it, so it requires a much slower and gentler approach, in order to make clear that you are attacking the idea and not the person. But in public forums, ideas can and should be viewed under the clear light of reason and evidence, and even on occasion subjected to derision and ridicule, for that is the way we determine which ideas are durable and which are ephemeral, and how we distinguish between ideas that have value and the potential to be true and those that are meaningless or false.

Once an idea is out in the public forum, it is open to any and all forms of scrutiny. When you criticize ideas in public forums, you are not attacking any person, even though it is likely that many people will have identical ideas to the ones that you are attacking and may have explicitly expressed them. The people whose ideas are thus scrutinized may choose to take it personally, but that is their problem to deal with.

Coming back to the substance of my post, Jared agrees 100% with my first assertion so that is not the cause of the problems he has with my post.

While he does disagree with my second assertion that "Science and religion are incompatible worldviews", he does not find it hurtful, so that assertion is also not one that causes offense.

It is my third assertion, that "The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural", that he finds offensive. He says:

I think you really don't get how deep rooted religion is into the psyche of those that are religious or have a faith. To wish away their religion is almost to wish away them.

I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. (etc)

And I could read your statement as
The world would be better off without Jews, Christians, and Muslims. (etc)

Now I am not saying you meant that, but, to propose the nullification of that part of me is to propose my nullification. And I read it as hate speech.

To say that my words " The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural" can be taken to mean that I want the "nullification" of people who hold such beliefs, and to thus conclude that it is hate speech seems to me to be a stretch, and in the next post I will examine this point in more detail.

POST SCRIPT: John Cleese on genetic determinism

February 15, 2010

The alleged arrogance of atheists

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Over at Machines Like Us, my post on introducing the label 'Unapologetic Atheist' started a lively debate in the comments section. In the course of it, people have once again raised the charge that unapologetic atheists (also known as 'new atheists') are rude and arrogant and uncivil and needlessly hostile towards religious people. (The cartoon strip Jesus and Mo comments on this charge of 'atheist bile'.)

The catch is that we are never told exactly what statements fall under these categories. To so to try and clarify things, I will list the statements that I commonly make and I would be curious to know which ones religious people find objectionable and why. So here goes:

  1. There is no more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Satan, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are incompatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be better off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

Everything else I or any other new/unapologetic atheists write follow from these premises and are arguments designed to support and advance them. (Jerry Coyne has a nice summary of the atheists position.) So are the above statements rude, arrogant, hostile, uncivil, etc.?

To help us make a judgment, let us formulate what the opposite pole of those statements might look like:

  1. There is more credible evidence to believe in god, heaven, hell, and the afterlife than there is for fairies, Santa Claus, wizards, Elohim, Xenu, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and unicorns.
  2. Science and religion are compatible worldviews.
  3. The world would be worse off without any religion or beliefs in the supernatural.

If any statement in the first set is rude, then by symmetry one should concede that so is the corresponding opposite statement. I think that I am safe in saying that most people would say that the second set of statements are completely inoffensive. In fact such statements are routinely made by religious apologists and are praised as 'moderate'. And yet you never find atheists saying that religious people are being arrogant and rude because they say that god exists and atheists are wrong. It is this difference that is telling.

So if what we atheists say is rude and hostile, why doesn't it hold true for the opposite? The situation is even worse than a mere lack of symmetry. Religious people don't feel that there is anything wrong in even saying that nonbelievers are going to hell and making absurd demands in the guise of seeking accommodation. In fact, that is their standard shtick, as my conversations with the Jesus people showed. (See here, here, and here.)

I think I know what really offends religious people about what new/unapologetic atheists say and why. What they want us to say is that belief in some form of traditional religion is somehow respectable and rational to believe in. What they desperately want to avoid is having their beliefs lumped in with all the other evidence-free superstitions, like astrology or witchcraft or Scientology or Xenu or Elohim or Rael or unicorns or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. When we say that there is no credible evidence for any of these things and hence they must be treated equally, they get upset. They desperately want to distinguish themselves from what they consider to be fringe beliefs but they cannot find any meaningful criteria by which to do so. So they want us to stop reminding them of the embarrassing fact that they are no different.

If you listen to the many debates that have been held on whether god exists what you essentially hear from the religious side is the plaintive cry "Please, please don't say that our beliefs are irrational. Please, please say that it is reasonable for us to believe in Jehovah/Yahweh/Melvin/Jesus/Harvey/Allah/Krishna/…(circle the name of your preferred god or insert your write-in candidate) and we will join you in denouncing things like astrology, witchcraft and the like."

But of course atheists will not say that because to do so is to give up atheism and we are not going to do so without evidence.

Atheists are confident that there is no god or other form of supernatural agency. Having believers simply say we are wrong or even going to hell does not offend us because they never provide any evidence in support so why should we care? But religious people know that they have no evidence to support their belief and are embarrassed by the thought that their beliefs are irrational and unscientific, and haunted by the fear that they are wrong. Rather than shutting their own ears to avoid hearing things they dislike, they want us to shut our mouths.

Maybe I am wrong in my analysis of why believers make the charge that new/unapologetic atheists are arrogant. So here is my request to those who believe it is true: Tell me exactly what statements that the new/unapologetic atheists make that are arrogant/rude/uncivil and why.

POST SCRIPT: Bertrand Russell on atheism and its implications

This clip reminds us that the 'new' atheism is pretty old.