How Atheists Treat Religious Dictates As Holy

Greta Christina has a fine inaugural post at her new Freethought Blogs site.  It is on the real difference between being diplomatic towards religious people and being an accommodationist who gives the religious everything they want, even if it contradicts one’s own personal positions:

Diplomacy means working with religious believers as equals. Accomodationism means bending to religion as its subordinate.

Here are some specific examples, to hash out this distinction and show you what I mean by it.

Diplomacy: Making arguments against religion using polite, civil language; making it clear that you have respect for the other person even if you disagree with their beliefs; being sure to acknowledge when you make mistakes or don’t know something; being cautious about which arguments you do and don’t want to have in the first place (and where and when and with whom); and being willing to drop the conversation or postpone it if it becomes too heated.

Accomodationism: Refusing to make arguments against religion — not because you personally don’t enjoy them, but because you think it’s inherently disrespectful to criticize people’s religious beliefs, and/or because you think religion is in a special category of ideas that ought not to be criticized. And trying to convince other atheists that they shouldn’t do it, either.

Diplomacy: Sending a polite, friendly letter to the Muslim association on your campus, informing them that you’re going to be chalking stick figures of Muhammad on your campus in protest of violent threats against cartoonists; saying that you understand that they may find this upsetting; explaining why your principles demand that you do it anyway; and expressing the hope for further conversation, on this and other topics.

Accomodationism: Declining to chalk stick figures of Muhammad on your campus in response to threats of violence against cartoonists… because the Muslim faith forbids it, and you want to accommodate the Muslim faith and show it respect. And trying to convince other atheists that they shouldn’t do it, either.

Diplomacy: Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that, while science and religion are fundamentally different approaches to truth claims, you encourage both believers and non-believers who support your organization’s mission to join it, and you respect and defend people’s right to freedom of religion, and you will not take any position or action that interferes with that right.

Accomodationism: Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that science and religion are entirely compatible, and do not conflict in any way.

Diplomacy: Criticizing other atheists who criticize religion, and defending religion against their critiques, on the basis that they are are inaccurate, unfair, or disproportionate.

Accomodationism: Criticizing other atheists who criticize religion, and defending religion against their critiques, on the basis that criticizing religion is inherently divisive.

What I like most is her emphasis on the accommodationist “bowing down”. The key problem to me with deferring to religious sensibilities when you don’t share them is that you wind up treating as holy (i.e., separate, special, inviolable) what they want to be holy. Their religion says, “no one may ever draw this or say that or take a position like that” and then when you go out of your way to not draw this, say that, or take a position like that, you are in practice acknowledging and deferring to that religion’s ability to dictate what you do and what thoughts you will express.  You then are effectively treating and thinking of what they call “holy” as, well, holy—things which it would be wrong of you to ever challenge or treat with anything less than utter respect and deference.

Religions should not be able to dictate this much from people who aren’t their adherents.

Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds also started her new Freethought Blogs site off with a post on accommodationism, in which she essentially turns the table on accommodationists and asks them to stop lumping all New Atheists together, to stop treating them as though they were all ignorant or monolithic in their thinking, etc. Essentially she is asking the accommodationists to stop doing to the New Atheists what the accommodationists are always accusing the New Atheists of doing to the religious.

Along the way, Stephanie points out the things that a member of a privileged group (with respect to some area or another in life) has trouble realizing about what it is like to not be a member of the privileged group. The description could apply to any minority group even though in this context it is meant to raise consciousness about the psychic pressures atheists are under:

Read a privilege checklist or two. Understand what it means to have an area of your life that you choose to keep hidden because there are consequences of doing otherwise. Understand what it means to be watched for signs that you represent a degenerate type. Understand how much time and energy it takes to answer questions whenever you identify yourself. Understand how much it takes to run constant calculations on whether to go with the flow or upset the social order. Understand what it means to watch people take the time to decide whether they really knew you at all when you come out. Understand what it means to hear political debates on whether you’re ruining modern life.

All of this pressure coming from fear of what will happen if you do not treat religious ideas and institutions, etc. as holy as you are expected to.  It is all the guilt, shame, and neurosis of offending the gods by violating religious rules without any of the actual belief in gods.

And it is not just atheists who struggle to accommodate other people’s religions, as Ophelia Benson (also at her own new Freethought Blogs home) beautifully puts it in a post about the taboo against critical discussion of religion in the public square and (particularly) in the classroom:

Almost everyone who does any kind of talking-in-public is terrified of saying anything that contradicts conventional wisdom about religion as the best thing evah. Teachers and school officials of course are triply or quadruply so, because they’re public servants, because they have power over the vulnerable young, because they have parents to deal with. The result is a vast rustling forest of taboos, and the result of that is ignorance and distortion.

And in closing she also notes, again poignantly, that:

It’s odd the way Americans combine a certain respect or affection for dissident thought with a passion for the most obedient kind of thought there is.

And this is the paradox of the average atheist too. The disbeliever, the dissident, who nonetheless passionately protects the sanctity and value of religion as an institution that should be politely respected.

We activist atheists who challenge faith-based religion (sometimes angrily) are not the average atheist. There are countless atheist academics and journalists who recoil at the thought of publishing aggressively against the pieties of others. For the extremely high rates of atheism in academia, how paltry few take any thing like a public atheist’s role?

And I know that even as an outspoken, well-known village atheist in the circles I travel in I feel the pressure to be polite and to not offend is great on me too. And all the scoldings we outspoken atheists get from other atheists should indicate that the last thing the average atheist wants is to offend.  He or she, quite often, would rather treat religion’s taboos as his or her own than do that.

And that is part of why we passionate activist atheists are so adamant.  It is just as much to instill pride in our fellow atheists as it is to call our religious friends’ to higher standards of belief. It is also why I can sympathize with some of the anger atheists express, even when they clearly go overboard in venting and deserve criticism.

Below are some links to some of my prior thoughts on the possibilities for constructive debates and interpersonal relationships between believers and non-believers.  I also am including links about the valuable need to sometimes blaspheme and explicitly defy religious strictures on what is to be treated as sacred in order not to implicitly be deferring to a religion one does not oneself accept:

Is Debate Between Believers And Non-Believers Inevitably Futile?

The Truth, The Whole Truth, And Nothing But The Truth—But With No Name Calling

When (And How) Should We Bother To Push The Issues?

On Meeting People Where They Are

TOP Q: “How Is It Fair To Question Other People’s Identity-Forming Beliefs While Demanding Respect For One’s Own Belief-Formed Identities?”

Can You Really Love Religious People If You Hate Their Religion?

What Can An Atheist Love In People’s Religiosity?

On Atheists And “Interfaith” Participation

Top 10 Tips For Reaching Out To Atheists

My Thoughts On Blasphemy Day

In Defense Of Mocking And Embarrassing Religion

The “A” Word

Who Cares About Atheists?

You Might Be An Atheist Even If You Hate The New Atheists

Your Thoughts?

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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.

  • jflcroft

    I am somewhat amused by the level of agreement on a blog explicitly dedicated to freethinking ;D.

    I think there’s something to what you say, certainly: many people do indeed refrain from criticizing religious ideas and practices due to a certain social privilege which religion is afforded. This is undesirable and should be challenged. Occasionally, the situation gets so bad that the atheist is indeed effectively “worshiping” what they claim not to worship.

    However, there is at least one very good reason to respect the ideas and practices of others even if you don’t share them yourself: respect for other human beings. I think we all recognize that in some situations to refrain from criticizing others’ practices or beliefs is appropriate to demonstrate respect for that individual or group, even if we think their beliefs or practices somewhat odd. We make “accommodations” of this sort all the time, like when we take our shoes off at the house of our lover’s parents (even when we don’t do so in our own house) or sing the national anthem of another nation. Generally we do this when 1) there’s some direct benefit to us in doing so (impressing the in-laws, perhaps) or 2)we recognize that to engage in certain forms of criticism will be hurtful or damaging to others (grossly offending foreign dignitaries).

    To extend this line of thinking, you can articulate good moral reasons why NOT to engage in something like, for instance, Everyone Draw Muhammad Day, which do not amount to worshiping what Muslims worship but instead reflect a desire to be respectful to Muslims themselves. In short, not every decision to be respectful towards a set of beliefs or practices not our own is the result of spineless politesse. Rather, it can be the expression of a higher ideal of caring and respect for other human beings that supersedes the desire to make a political point.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      The problem though is that this goes beyond just being respectful of people as people, it is a reinforcement of their tendency to unduly literally worship and revere, and to do so to such an extent that they cannot tolerate your deviation from their air of reverence without offense. I spell this out more in the blasphemy post linked above. Deferring to their undue reverences, which are not just personal sentimentalities but part of institutionally cultivated lies and deference is just participating in and helping to reinforce their mistakes.

    • jflcroft

      This is only the case if you assume you can’t find other ways to critique that practice which do not cause harm. It is this very assumption which I seek to challenge. There are ways to critique someone’s “undue reverence” (and let’s be careful about making judgments about how others apportion their reverence) without directly traducing it.

    • jflcroft

      I’ve just read your blasphemy post and think it excellent. I do not see that we disagree, given the longer, fuller and more complex reasoning you offer there. Indeed it seems to me that argument I give in my comment here parallels pretty much exactly one of your own in that post. I’m a little confused, then, to why you seem to disagree with it somewhat here!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Oh good, I’m glad we’re actually more on the same page than it appeared. In that post, I just try to lay out the case for how, when, and why to blaspheme and provoke whereas I took your first comment as implying you would always be against such provocations because it has the connotations of disrespecting things people care about, knowing it would offend them. So, I endorsed Everybody Draw Mohammed Day (and in that post, Blasphemy Day) whereas I was under the impression you wouldn’t.

  • http://www.godless.biz/ Andrew Skegg

    Good post, but I can’t bring myself to be a complete diplomat as described. This kind of sentiment irritates me:

    Diplomacy: Taking a position as a science advocacy organization that, while science and religion are fundamentally different approaches to truth claims …

    No. I am sorry, but religious start with an idea and pervert evidence, arguments, and logic in order to maintain it. This is the antithesis of the pursuit of truth, and I will it very difficult to tolerate.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I think what she is saying is that the diplomat can say to the science organization that we are not going to validate your religious approach to truth but we are going to ignore it as long as all we are talking about is science in this context.

      As PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne have insisted they don’t want science organizations to actively promote atheism. They want them to be neutral. Not attack religion but ALSO not actively argue that religion and science are compatible. The idea being religion’s methods for looking for truth (even if that’s not what they get or their epistemology is terrible) are not compatible with scientific ones and should be kept entirely out of science organizations. And then the diplomats will agree not to use that context to critique religious epistemologies as long as that context is not used to actively try to promote the idea that religious and scientific epistemologies are compatible or harmonizable either.

      It’s a position of saying, religion is not science, we won’t agree to respect it but we won’t bash it while talking strictly science.

      Now, I admit, as a philosopher, it does bother me that such diplomats are willing to break off epistemology and not support philosophical truths (such as the right way to go about finding truth in general, including beyond science) as vigorously as they do scientific ones. But it is a concession to the reality that things would be even uglier in practice if scientific organizations started actively making the half or so of scientists who are privately religious feel attacked. And the concession is that the cooperation of moderate religious people with scientists is important to the advancement of science education—even as it kicks the philosophical can down the road.

      When the day comes that 80-90% of Americans, rather than just 40% accept evolution, then maybe scientists qua scientists can push more aggressively for people to accept its further (atheistic) implications. But in the meantime, mainstream scientific organizations focused on education want to take it one step at a time.

      I am conflicted, I am not much of a diplomat in this respect, and I personally want a more robust emphasis on philosophy, but I think that’s the diplomat’s attitude—not an actual endorsement of the legitimacy of religious methods for making truth claims.

      It’s also worth clarifying, Greta is not saying every atheist activist is or should be a diplomat.

  • boopsey

    Hello Dan,

    I’ve just discovered your blog and spent quite of bit of time reading through your stuff today. Excellent!

    Religions should not be able to dictate this much from people who aren’t their adherents.

    I agree with you but I don’t see them having that ability in western countries. I may disagree with the laws in other countries that do forbid it, but I have neither the right nor ability to control their laws.

    But I disagree with you here:

    Their religion says, “no one may ever draw this or say that or take a position like that” and then when you go out of your way to not draw this, say that, or take a position like that, you are in practice acknowledging and deferring to that religion’s ability to dictate what you do and what thoughts you will express. You then are effectively treating and thinking of what they call “holy” as, well, holy—things which it would be wrong of you to ever challenge or treat with anything less than utter respect and deference.

    If you are not doing something because of fear of retribution, that’s one thing and I agree with you. But do non-Muslims decide NOT to draw Mohammed out of deference to religion? And if they did, how would that be equal to treating it as ‘holy’?

    What does it mean to treat something as holy? To me, it means thinking of it and treating it with reverence. I don’t see not drawing Mohammed as a form of reverence for him unless it’s conscious avoided because you don’t want to offend Mohammed rather than because you don’t want to offend your Muslim friends. To me, it’s like not taking the Lord’s name in vain because you don’t want to offend Aunt Hilda.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thanks for reading around, boopsey!

      I mean holy in the literal sense of “something set apart”. Yes, for atheists it is mostly about “Aunt Hilda” but the functional effect is the same—treating religious ideas and symbols as something out of the ordinary, requiring tip-toeing, and deference. (Of course I’m talking about those atheists Greta complained about who try to shush other atheists even.)

      It’s not like one goes out of one’s way to protect everything Aunt Hilda is into. It’s specifically her religious beliefs because, agree with them or not, she makes them off bounds and the atheist, rather than being able to express his or her own attitudes towards them, goes ahead and follows along by deferring to the specialness of these beliefs.

      Of course the atheists still in their heart may not really be treating as holy, but wherever there is that deference and it’s unique to religion, it’s a functional “keeping holy” a functional “keeping separate” (even without any formal laws or much mental commitment).

      Think of it this way, how many average believers go through the motions of deferring and keeping holy, only half believing, but never daring disrespecting the stuff. Are the tip toeing and shushing atheists really functionally much different?

    • boopsey

      I don’t agree that we don’t tiptoe around other things Aunt Hilda might be that deeply into. I generally try to be respectful of other people’s beliefs whether it is not taking the lord’s name in vain or not snorting in derision when someone tells me how her husband spoke to her a few days after his death. When she tells me it was comforting to feel his presence again, I just nod and agree with her. I don’t tell her that ghosts don’t exist.

      I think that religious beliefs get more deference because they are more widely held, that’s all. This doesn’t mean that I can’t tell Aunt Hilda, or anyone else, what I think of those beliefs. I can, and she asks me, I’ll be honest with her. But if she doesn’t ask, I don’t feel obligated to share disparaging sentiments about her beliefs. If the beliefs aren’t harming her or anyone else, why should I? What benefit is there to cussing in front of her and upsetting her?

      Perhaps you should explain to me what you mean by ‘tiptoeing and shushing atheists’ before I try to compare their actions to those of unenthusiastic believers? Because I don’t think that NOT cussing in front of Aunt Hilda counts as deference to religion or treating her god as holy, or even tiptoeing around belief. I just consider it being respectful of Aunt Hilda.

      I think of ‘tiptoeing and shushing’ as what I do around my brothers with regard to their politics, where I stay away from discussing the subject and try to distract my sister(who shares many of my own political views) from getting into the subject with them at family gatherings. I don’t see religion as getting ‘special’ deference in comparison to politics.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I think the difference is that tiptoeing around belligerent political debaters is a matter of trying to avoid an inane earful from them. But tiptoeing around otherwise mild Aunt Hilda is adopting her values for her sake so as not to offend her. But does she feel any compunction about talking freely about her religion and making plenty of statements about God as though you will of course agree? I’m betting no, not at all.

      The analogy to the grieving friend seeing apparitions of the departed really doesn’t work because obviously you’re dealing with someone with a special right to being treated gently. But if it’s your friend’s belief in horoscopes, I don’t think most atheists would feel pressure not to tease about or dismiss that stuff as bullshit. Even if they don’t, out of politeness, it’s not with the sense of importance that one not criticize and therein offend in some important way that many atheists feel around religious beliefs.

    • boopsey

      That would depend on which *aunt hilda* it was. Some do, some don’t.

      Me, I don’t make fun of horoscopes or auras or any of that stuff. Does that mean I’m granting them some sort of ‘holiness’. I get your point about the importance of it, just not what it has to do with assessing the non-believer ‘reverence’ being displayed by not drawing Mohammed.


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