Audiences And Approaches

Our friend Crommie has written a post basically saying that he recognizes that it’s a good thing that there are people like me who write with religious believers in mind but that it’s also okay for him to write in a way that is indifferent to whether he offends them. He justifies his approach basically by arguing that atheists are worth writing for for their own sake, because apathetic atheists need to be inspired with fire for getting involved, and because uncommitted people who are in the middle between theists and atheists can actually benefit from writing that may have turn off religious people. I do not really disagree with any of that. But I still don’t see where it necessitates (or even legitimizes) gratuitous insults. I get the impression he thinks that since many religious people are easily offended and won’t read his honest stuff anyway, he does not need to worry about carefully calibrating his words so as to be fair to them nonetheless so that they don’t have legitimate cause to be offended if they do happen to stop by. That, in a nutshell, is my view. I do not write for religious people, I write so that if they come by and get offended it’s their fault and not mine.

That’s the tl;dr version. Below the fold is my fuller statement about who I write for and why:

What I write on this blog is what I think is true. If the things I thought were true were the honey that brought masses of religious people here that would be fantastic. I would love it if tons of religious people read this blog. Especially if they deconverted. That would be some crazy fun and make me feel really fulfilled.

But, alas, while I have some religious readers, they are not what you would call my “prime demographic”. And that’s okay too. I am not in the candy business, I am not good at sugar coating things. I am in the bitter truth business. Actually, I’m just in the truth business. And the religious often find my truths about religion bitter, rather than sweet. And it drives many religious people away and draws a lot of atheists, who think they’re sweet. Which is fantastic too because I love atheists and get along naturally with atheists (at least when we’re talking about atheism!) for obvious reasons. And, actually, like Crommie I feel no need to bend over backwards to draw religious people as it would mean compromising way too much straightforwardness to do so.

So, given the realities of the readership, I expect atheists to make up more of my audience. I acknowledge this fact and tailor things so that they will profit the most from them. Since atheists are already here, I make this an atheist activism blog in addition to my basic plan of having it be a philosophy blog about ethics and atheistic philosophy of religion. This is really fulfilling, since I love atheists and love having them around and love knowing when I benefit them and the atheist movement in any way I can.

But I am not actively interested in excluding religious people from also finding what I am doing interesting and exciting. And I have no idea what benefit there would be to going out of my way to insulting them unnecessarily. I get it that in just saying what I think, no matter how well-reasoned or how politely I say it, I will offend many of them and that’s out of my control to stop it. But I would not dream of saying that I want to make this place a forum they would not want to read if they were the types who could intellectually stomach my ideas.

If I threw my atheist readers vitriolic red meat that abused religious people rather than just criticized them in pointed ways, that might please the crowd but would it make my readers any better thinkers or any more constructive debaters or any more loving people who worked for and cared about the flourishing of all people, including their political and philosophical enemies? Or would it just whip up an angry tribe and inspire them to get torches and go burn the witches?

I am not interested in whipping up a mob. I am not interested in demonizing my opponents just because sometimes they are spectacularly wrong and stomach-turning harmful. I am interested in exposing those harms and abuses.

And though I realize that some people in the uncommitted middle might not be personally repulsed by hostile treatment of my religious philosophical and political enemies but might, through my poisoning of the wells, convert to my side—especially since I am exposing systematically all their falsehoods and harms too.

But I don’t want conversions, I don’t want someone to be emotionally swayed into agreement or persuaded to demonize people falsely. I want someone to see the force of my reasons and feel logically compelled to agree.

I want my atheist readers to learn and debate, not froth. I want them to get angry at injustice and work to counter it, but not to become hateful people over it. I want them to become better people.

And I want the uncommitted to be impressed by how rational my positions are and to be inspired to work on the intellectual and moral virtues that I talk about and hopefully embody in my writing.

And I want the believers to find I have written nothing that gives them the slightest legitimate cause to write me off as a hateful, rabble-rousing, closed-minded, hypocritically irrationalistic, tribalistic bigot. I want them to get frustrated, challenged, and inspired by the clarity of my thought and the fairness of its presentation, and to grow to have either a more rationalistic interpretation of their religion and/or, ideally, to abandon their faith altogether.

I honestly see no benefit in not aiming to appeal to all people in this way and instead in wanting to take having a primarily atheist audience as an opportunity to lower my standards of civility or accuracy in discussion of people or ideas. I can be just as uncompromisingly truthful while not being abusive. So, why compromise myself morally?

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.

  • John Morales

    Which is fantastic too because I love atheists and get along naturally with atheists (at least when we’re talking about atheism!) for obvious reasons.

    It’s nice to know you love me, but I really doubt you “get along naturally” with me.

    (I’m Gnu)

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

      (I’m Gnu)

      So am I, actually. I’m just not tribalistic about it and don’t conflate an unapologetic rejection of nonsense with a need to make gratuitous insults.

    • John Morales

      Well, thanks for not gratuitously insulting me by implying I do those things, unlike you.

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

      HA. I meant no more gratuitous insult than you did by implying that my stance against insults and tribalism here somehow made you the kind of atheist I couldn’t get along with. I took the implication you associated being Gnu with those things and so I could not be a Gnu Atheist for taking this stand. If, as it turns out, you’re actually against these things and against the Gnu Atheists being defined by them too, then there’s no need to feel insulted.

  • Jesse

    Maybe this is more appropriate in your post about not calling people stupid, but…

    I was in a similar discussion over on Ed Brayton’s blog a while back. Ed was marveling at the illogic of the practice in some Jewish communities of the eruv and the arbitrariness of the rules and law. (Which it is sometimes).

    But I noted that there’s another dynamic at work here: power.

    Most of us deal with Christians — white ones of whatever variety. This is especially true in the South and Midwest. But I live in a place (New York) where there are deeply religious people of something like 100 faiths. Protestant, Evangelical Christians are a distinct minority here. White people generally are a minority, just.

    The people who are those evangelicals are rather different from the people who are such in Alabama. They tend to be Latino, for one thing. They tend to be black (usually Caribbeans). And a large chunk of this city is Jewish.

    So what does this mean? On Ed’s blog a few people said “I am not mocking Jews but their behavior.” Well, um, no. You see, people like Jews — and non-white Christians, in particular, have not had and do not have the kind of privileges that white dudes, which unfortunately are most of the active and visible atheists out there (I saw the faces at some of the skeptic meetings, and that’s the fact of it).

    So, when you say “wow, this whole eruv thing is silly” you’re attacking a piece of someone’s identity, and that person has already been demeaned, devalued, dehumanized by the rest of society for too long already. (A place like New York is one of the few places where that doesn’t happen all goddamned day).

    And no, the fact that Carlos Mencia exists, that Barack Obama was elected, that Joe Lieberman could be a VP candidate does not make this privilege disappear. Or the fact that Jews as a group have been in many ways remarkably successful. Nor does the fact that governments exist that are explicitly religious, as in the Arab world. Nor does the fact that a black guy made fun of you or you were made to feel uncomfortable by (insert minority here). White men (and women to a lesser extent) can walk away. The rest of us cannot.

    As a white male of Christian cultural/ethnic background, (i.e. not a religious minority) you have a ton of rights and privileges that I don’t. When Bob Baxter is a lawyer nobody calls him a shyster. When Alvy Goldstein is one…

    And when Ed Brayton or PZ Myers walks down the street, they may be a minority (atheists) but they are white and male and have all the goodies that go with that. Nobody will say “you look Methodist” or “you look atheist” — but “you look Jewish” is a perfectly common statement many people make. And how do Jews look, exactly…?

    So, when you talk about religious beliefs, especially those you don’t understand (because they are unfamiliar) tread carefully. You aren’t always dealing with the white evangelicals/Christians, who have been in privileged positions in our society. (And whose privileges need to be called out, especially the de facto religious test for office).

    Or, as they say, check your privilege at the door.

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

      Thanks, Jesse. Excellent nuances and observations I overlooked (for probably obvious reasons…)

      Yes, as I have argued it is hard to say “your practices should not exist” without slipping into “you, whose life is constituted by those practices should not exist”. That’s the danger we must intellectually fight vigilantly against. And especially it’s worth pointing out that however arbitrary, say, Jewish practices are in the abstract, as practical means of community binding and preservation they have proved powerful over centuries, against remarkable oppression and attempts to destroy their communities. While such rigidness is a negative in binding people to falsehoods, it is also a positive in creating a communal will unbending to powerful abusers. It’s a mixed bag that should be treated in context.

    • http://rockymountainoutpost.wordpress.com/ Kyle

      Dan I have to say right now yours is the number one blog for me to visit. You have a way of both expressing what I have been feeling but haven’t yet found a way to put into words, and at the same time to think about things in ways I haven’t before – to challenge some presuppositions.

      OK enough slobbering for now :->

      This spurred a thought in me. A large part of the African-American community has their local church as the center of community activity. How much of an extent that is true, and how deep that runs, I have no idea – since I don’t experience that first-hand. Still, the church has been a builder of community and place of refuge for many of them. Much of the movements for social justice were bred in black churches.

      So here I feel compelled to ask: if we’re in a dialogue with an African-American person about religion and spirituality (whether or not that person is a believer) – what pitfalls should we try to avoid so as not to be condescending and demeaning? Here I’m seeking the not-so-obvious pitfalls.

    • Jesse

      I am not an African-American, so I can’t say from first-hand experience what it is like to be on the other end of the discussion.

      But let me offer from the perspective of a non-religious culturally Jewish person.

      Look at these statements:

      “Man, what are those people doing? They have this silly piece of string up that says the law applies in one place and not another.”

      “Setting up an eruv is illogical, but no more so than any other religion.”

      “What does the eruv mean to you?”

      The first is insulting. The second is not, though it is clear that the person at least understands that not everyone operates the same way. The third shows a willingness to listen.

      That’s the thing. Be willing to listen. Do NOT assume that if someone is religious, that they are an ignorant savage. (Especially if they are non-white. Sound like that and the best you can hope for is stony silence, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone decked you — and I would have zero sympathy).

      Being an atheist doesn’t make you a better person, any more than being religious does. See Stalin as exhibit A, and oh, the Inquisitors as exhibit B.

      If you are discussing spirituality with someone, well, these days I make it a point to ask a lot. Or to talk about my background and why things matter to me or do not. I no longer say “How can you believe in God in the face of the evidence?” and act like I am the smartest guy in the room for saying it. I no longer let my anger flow freely at the things religious people have done (even to me and mine).

      For instance, my wife’s family is Catholic, and so-so devout. My mother in law finds community and comfort within her local church. I don’t go there and say “Hey, the Church shelters child molesters, what a bunch of jerks.”

      So if you are a white person and talking to any PoC (person of color) about stuff like this, the short version: listen. And listen some more. And do not assume your voice is the one that is normal, or the standard by which to judge a damned thing.

      Maybe this sounds obvious. But to a lot of white people it isn’t. You have to remember that as a white person you are in a position of privilege. There are a zillion tiny little insults you never have to face all day, every day.

      Another thing: Don’t assume you know jack about the person. Someone may be black, but that doesn’t mean they love hip-hop, are deeply Baptist, voted for Barack Obama or know anything about gangs. They may or may not have gone to Howard or think OJ Simpson did it.

      If you are not sure that something might sound racist then it probably is. (And that line will move some depending on how close you are to that person).

      There is a wonderful scene in Six Feet Under where one of the characters, a funeral director (David) asks his Latino employee Rico if he can help with a Mexican guy’s funeral, and talking to the family. Rico says “why?” And David says he thought he might know more about dealing with gang deaths. Rico says, “hey, I am Puerto Rican, so get an atlas — it’s a few thousand miles away from Mexico, and my being Latino doesn’t mean anyone I know is gang-related, but you didn’t even bother to ask, did you?” I am paraphrasing. But that’s what I am talking about.

    • http://rockymountainoutpost.wordpress.com/ Kyle

      “Maybe this sounds obvious. But to a lot of white people it isn’t. You have to remember that as a white person you are in a position of privilege. There are a zillion tiny little insults you never have to face all day, every day.”

      Highlighting this point, you are so right. A lot of people have some privileges. If you’re male, you have privileges that women just don’t. If you’re white, you have privileges that non-whites just don’t. If your heterosexual, you have privileges that LGBT just don’t. That should drive the point home that if you are white, male, straight, and especially if you’re Christian, any assertions on your part of being “oppressed” based on those characteristics is just silly.

      A lot of atheists are white yes we do tend to forget that in some respects we are coming from a privileged position.

      On the other hand, being atheist in and of itself means you are, in that respect, non-privileged. The evidence is all around you. It’s not equal to being non-white or being non-heterosexual but that isn’t the point. There is no Opression Olympics – there is no contest on who has the most/least amount of privilege or oppression, nor should there be.

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

      Thanks so much, Kyle.

      I also share the heightened consciousness of the more positive role that the black church has played in America and always been curious about how best to engage that reality.

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    So, why compromise myself morally?

    Who are you trying to impress with a holier-than-thou attitude?

    Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t change anything about what you want to write or how you want to write it. I am for diversity of thought, not homogenizing it, but it is this want for diversity that simultaneously makes me thankful for writers like yourself and atheist writers who put a little bite in their work.

    I have a newsflash for you and all atheists: if someone is attracted to logical, reasonable, calm, unbiased, and civil discourse, they won’t be religious for long, regardless of what mean things they see an atheist saying. Nothing I see atheists writing about today can compare to what is in the holy books of every religion I have encountered, let alone the major world religions we realistically contend with on a daily basis. Read the Bible or the Koran, then try to tell me that religious people can be turned off by vitriol.

    Keep doing what you’re doing, and thanks for the interesting read.

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

      I did not mean a holier-than-thou tone, I meant to explain my reasoning process about why I take a moral stand on these issues. It’s in defense of the moral principle, one I am arguing is applicable to more than just me as a moral principle.

      And comparisons that the holy books are worse than us are irrelevant. We have to take the planks out of our own eyes less we get the same insulated “we’re better than you so our abuses are no big deal” attitude that we see ravaging the major religions.

    • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

      I just don’t see how words and morality have much of anything to do with each other. Sticks and stones, and all that.

      I guess it depends on your aims. If you wish to change nothing, then keep being kind. No one ever changed anything by going out of their way to not offend.

    • http://www.brilyn.net Brian Lynchehaun

      No one ever changed anything by going out of their way to not offend.

      Oh, Martin Luthor King, if only you knew how you wasted your life…

    • http://rockymountainoutpost.wordpress.com/ Kyle

      MLK was, to me, the embodiment of the phrased “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable”.

      He wrote and spoke with compassion but with a clarity and with an uncompromising morality. He certainly didn’t go out of his way not to offend. He knew that his words would rile the ruling establishment. He knew he would suffer for his cause. The truths he spoke cut like a hot knife through the butter of people’s moral cowardice.

      Yet he never engaged in gratuitous demonizing rhetoric. His words focused on what people did. And that was a full reflection of him as a person: an effort to lift up the downtrodden, to bring the deeds and underlying attitudes of an oppressive social and economic framework to devastating full light, but at the same time seeing the full humanity of all.

    • http://www.brilyn.net Brian Lynchehaun

      if someone is attracted to logical, reasonable, calm, unbiased, and civil discourse, they won’t be religious for long, regardless of what mean things they see an atheist saying.

      C.S. Lewis. Thomas Aquinas. Augustine. Berkeley. Spinoza (ish).

      There is a long, long history of people who were *extremely* logical and methodical being religious.

      I don’t see any evidence for your position. Care to present some?

  • Aspect Sign

    Nicely said, this post addressed the few qualms I had reading the earlier ones. We might not draw the lines in the same spots necessarily but the higher posture of Atheism recently has lead to more self aggrandizing iconoclastic breast beating or perhaps just made what was there more visible.

    While rousing the troops has it’s purpose and it’s value in any group effort, when it becomes the purpose and the value of what you do you are no longer moving forward but rather spinning in place.

    Your post puts me in mind of the Anarchist position that the means and methods used must embody the values you wish to achieve for any result will contain the values that brought it about.

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

      Glad to put qualms to rest! And, yes to the rest of what you said. That’s the point.

  • http://www.brilyn.net Brian Lynchehaun

    I’m guessing that “Crommie” hasn’t read this yet. Just a headsup: in the past, he hasn’t been a fan of this particular appellation (though he might make an exception here).

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

    Kyle wrote:

    MLK was, to me, the embodiment of the phrased “comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable”.

    He wrote and spoke with compassion but with a clarity and with an uncompromising morality. He certainly didn’t go out of his way not to offend. He knew that his words would rile the ruling establishment. He knew he would suffer for his cause. The truths he spoke cut like a hot knife through the butter of people’s moral cowardice.

    Yet he never engaged in gratuitous demonizing rhetoric. His words focused on what people did. And that was a full reflection of him as a person: an effort to lift up the downtrodden, to bring the deeds and underlying attitudes of an oppressive social and economic framework to devastating full light, but at the same time seeing the full humanity of all.

    So well put.


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