Self-Righteous Atheist

Hemant Mehta has an incredibly petty post in which he picks on Serena Williams for losing her temper and cursing at a line judge. He needlessly exploits her human failing to try to score political points against her religion:

I don’t think swearing is some horrible sin. But the outburst just shows how a religious label does little to change one’s behavior if the person isn’t too serious about it.

If you don’t want to live up to the ideals of your faith, why bother labeling yourself in the first place?

What is the value of picking on people’s religion when it is completely irrelevant to what they’re doing? She’s a world class athlete under a lot of pressure getting angry and saying things she shouldn’t. End of story. It has nothing to do with whether she’s living up to her religious standards or not or whether religion affects people positively or negatively, or any other such thing. There’s no need to be judgmentally cataloguing every sin of every religious person and taking out a smarmy megaphone to announce their hypocrisy and how it relates to their religion. It’s really, really unseemly.

Let’s save picking on religious people for when their religion (either in its ideals or its practices) is the basis of their bad behavior or when religious power leads to systematic abuses or when religious hypocrisies stem from and highlight the impossibility or irrationality of some particular religious standards.

All ethical people know we shouldn’t go around threatening to shove our rackets down people’s throats. Her religion is not excessive in telling her not to do such things and her religion is not the reason she did it. Her religion is irrelevant. It’s an ugly pair of glasses one has to wear to judge people entirely in terms of their Otherness to you such that everything bad they do is more than a human failing but an expression of their being a member of the group you are opposed to. That’s one of the major forms of prejudice.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Hemant

    I think it’s a fair posting. She is public about her faith but doesn’t seem to abide by certain tenets of it.

    The posting was sparked by a Slate article posing the same question — and I think it’s a fair one. It’s the same reason the media loves the story of the conversation Christians who commit adultery. It’s hypocrisy.

    FSM-forbid Williams gets into a car accident. If she does or doesn’t accept a blood transfusion, every article will be about her wacky faith that bans such transfusions.

    I don’t see how this is any different. If they say you can’t swear, then you have to buy into it. Or don’t call yourself a member of the faith.

  • MrAllenu

    I believe it’s a fair post as well. If you say you belong to a faith–one that says swearing is a sin–then it seems ridiculous to publicly go about professing your faith when you don’t adhere to some of the more easy rules of said faith.

  • Lily

    Not everyone who identifies themselves with a religion accepts all its minor tenets, or considers them important. I’ve found that most intelligent religious people don’t agree with 100% of everything their religion says. Now, if Serena had spoken publicly about the evils of swearing and her personal commitment to not swearing, that would be fair game.

  • Daniel Fincke

    The problem with that view of hypocrisy, Hemant is that it means none of us can ever denounce any thing we ever do. That means that if I break my promise to someone some day, then I cannot go around advising people to not break their promises. It means that if I commit adultery I cannot advise someone not to make the same mistake. If we did that, then not only would we not be casting stones at people, we’d stop promulgating moral principles altogether.

    What hypocrisy entails, to me, is not simply fulfilling your religion’s demands imperfectly but going so far as to impose harsher standards on others than you impose upon yourself. That’s why if, closer to Lily’s scenario, Serena were to publicly denounce particular people who cursed or lost their temper, she would be fair game. If she were to, say, judge someone for taking a blood transfusion and then herself take the means, then she’s fair game. If she lobbies for laws that are sexually repressive and then commits adultery, then she’s fair game. If she demands special respect as a pious person and personally denigrates the allegedly impious and then is revealed to secretly be just as guilty of what she accuses them of being, then she’s a hypocrite.

    But we all have ethical standards that we do not live up to. And it is unfair to accuse every moral failing of being an instance of hypocrisy. Because then the only way to avoid hypocrisy would be to chuck ethical standards altogether. And who wants to take that absurd option?

    Hypocrisy charges need to be restricted to cases in which someone exploits power or moral authority to punish others for their inability to uphold excessive standards and then to be revealed to not uphold similar standards themselves.

    Now as to the “crime” at hand: while you and I may not be uptight about some cursing, if she got abusive with the line judge that was ethically wrong in a way we should all agree on. (Of course we may be lenient towards even THAT, as I suggest, because of the pressure she was under). And I don’t think it’s fair to foist on her the choice: Be a Jehovah’s Witness or never lose your temper. So, ignoring the cursing, by losing her temper (the real issue here), she broke with the part of her faith morality (that like every other morality) surely has an injunction against losing one’s temper. Does that mean she should give up her moral standard against having a hot temper? No, that’s absurd.

    Finally, if her religious beliefs lead her to do something awful like die without a blood transfusion or encourage others to do that, then by all means, SHRED HER for her reckless irrationality. But if you shred her for simply being human and making a mistake and turning that into cause to judge her religion, then you will lose credibility when you make a real complaint over a wrongful death. It will sound like you’re just expressing that same prejudice that tries to find fault in everything religion does.

  • Jonathan

    Hemant: The basic text of Christianity assumes that people, and followers of Christ are explicitly included, can’t always live up to the moral mark (however that gets to be defined).

    Daniel: your blog looks interesting, thanks.

    • Daniel Fincke

      Thanks, Jonathan. I will be resuming regular posting on philosophical, religious, and ethics topics very soon. I hope you’ll be reading!

  • l

    Is there some kind of group for non-believers against self-righteous atheists? Honestely, I was baptised and confirmed a catholic as a child… yet I do NOT consider myself a catholic now and have not been for many many years. But I can not STAND how self-righteous many (big A) Atheists are – and how disrespectful. I can’t stand religious people saying disrespectful things to non-believers – and because of this I would never stoop to their level by saying things I’ve heard atheists say ie. I know an atheist who says things like “your beliefs are mumbo jumbo” to religious people! WHEN I heard that I was thinking “WTF!”
    On the issue of cursing – a prominent priest in the city where i live often says the lord’s name in vain and swears etc. Yet to me, he is the first example of someone I’d pick with supposedly ‘christian’ values. ie, he does A LOT of charity work, advocate for a number of progressive issues, blesses gay unions, etc, etc – everything for the LOVE and support of his community. I know about him because these things put him in the media – he doesn’t do things by the church…but one of the few useful things I remember about jesus from my education was that he had a social conscience – so isn’t that what’s important not whether someone swears? Christians pulling up other christians on the issue are idiots, and atheists pulling christians up on the issue are idiots too! Just do something for your fellow person. What could be more important than that?