In my ten posts of tips for reaching out to religious believers this past week, people have repeatedly gotten the idea that I was fretting about tone. But I wasn’t. I never used the word and it never even crossed my mind to do so. I am concerned with the truth and with the good. That’s it.
The worst false dichotomy in the atheist blogosphere is that all criticism of abusive language towards religious people is tone trolling from people who don’t want to address the rational arguments that the New Atheists are making.
Before I am misunderstood again, let me make this abundantly clear. I know. Religious people claim offense even when we are being exceedingly polite. I am not advocating that we bend over backwards to accommodate those who unjustly accuse us of being rude when we are just being rational, challenging, and unapologetic.
I am never advising anyone to water down the truth to gain acceptance. I am never advising anyone to pretend superstition or faith or myth are completely compatible with science. I am never saying we should soft pedal calling out the harms religions are genuinely responsible for. I am never saying that we should avoid using all negative words in describing religious people or their actions.
The reason I say that we should not call religious people names is because those are not truthful, they’re false. And lying for atheism is as bad (if not worse) than lying for Jesus. I don’t want you to avoid calling religious people stupid not only because it will turn them off, but because it is false and it makes us look—you guessed it, irrational and immature when we stoop to it. They’re not stupid. As I took great pains to point out last week, they are influenced by powerful psychologically natural prejudices being exploited and shaped by tremendous cultural forces. Calling them stupid and frothing at the mouth over how stupid and thickheaded they are is counterproductive. It will make them rightly turn away and not want to listen to you.
Even I, a passionate atheist by any metric, don’t want to listen to atheists who call religious people names. It embarrasses me and puts me off. And it’s not the tone, I mind. I love a great no-holds-barred rational takedown of religious falsehood or abuse. I wrote my dissertation on Friedrich Fucking Nietzsche for no-god’s sake! I can handle a harsh tone criticizing religion. Believe me. Nietzsche shook my faith out of me with as aggressive an assault on it as I could have ever endured but it was all brilliant and insightful, not juvenile and lazy. And search Camels With Hammers, you will find numerous angry and aggressive indictments of faith and faith-based institutions. What I can’t handle is bumper sticker worthy bullshit written by schoolyard bullies who can’t make specific, effective attacks but just sputter meaningless abusive distracting insults that offer no illumination and which give our enemies all the ammunition they need to dismiss our arguments.
I advocated defeating their best arguments and taking the reasoning of each specific believer you address seriously on its own terms. This is not because I’m a pushover who would rather lose an argument than offend anyone. It’s also not because I don’t know my way around an aggressive argument. Seriously, I’m a professional philosopher, I know how to win an argument. I want atheists to fucking win arguments.
I see straw man attacks on theism and just roll my eyes and think, “great job, that’ll really help”. Straw men are consolation to the enemy. Think about it: Don’t you just love when the other political party to yours or the theists mischaracterize your position and lose their shit calling you names, so you can just ignore what they say and ridicule them for not understanding simple distinctions and for being extremists? When I read a right wing commenter on the internet call the left wing “libtards” (or even just “libs”—Rush’s derisive nickname for us), I tune out immediately. I don’t want us to do the same thing. Not because it’s a mean tone. But because it’s an irrational debating tactic. And because even when it’s just us atheists talking among ourselves, it just breeds hate and not insight. What possible good comes from that? What possible good comes from patting ourselves on the back that we can knock down straw men?
I don’t want us to speak in loose generalities that are false. By all means, post the awful, terrible things crazy religious people say and do. I will join you in pointing attention to it and ridiculing the absurd and giving righteous anger to the harmful. But make a, well, irrational remark like “this is what religion does” as though religion is just this simple monolithic thing and I am going to roll my eyes because you said something false and that’s bad to me because I’m a rationalist and a philosopher who cares about truth. And it’s also eye-roll-inducing because you just gave the religious their wiggle room to wriggle away. It’s a shitty strategy. And why do this among fellow atheists even? Even if you don’t care to reach out to theists, why sloppily lower your standards for accuracy when only talking to other atheists? Why not, you know, model good, precise arguments that will eventually be effective with theists when your atheist readers eventually do try to actually persuade others we’re right?
The argument that “they’ll just say we called them stupid anyway” even when all we have done is reasonable is bogus. Yes, they will make that claim. But if we don’t actually call them stupid, we can actually tell them, “No, we didn’t call you stupid, we explained why you made errors. It’s common to make errors based on ignorance and cognitive bias and as influenced by longstanding cultural and intellectual traditions. But, nonetheless, they are errors. Here are our reasons. Please address them or admit we won the argument.” But if we actually called them stupid, we then legitimately gave them the morally defensible excuse to say, “you’re abusive bigots, we refuse to listen”.
But “they should listen to our arguments even if we pepper them with gratuitous insults”, you say? No, not really. If I punch you in the face and then say, “Now that I have your attention, here is my rational disquisition on why you are wrong and deserved to be punched”, I’d say you have every right to ignore me, I waved my right to be heard. You’re not just a whiner when “all you focus on” later is the fact that I punched you and tried to bully you. You’re right to say, I don’t talk to bullies. That’s not you being prissy about tone. It’s about you refusing to sink the discourse into the sewer with people who resort to emotional appeals instead of targeted rational appeals.
Use those and other words with adequate qualifications so you’re not tarring all religious ideas or beliefs or people foolishly indiscriminately, you are not using abusives that do not describe a bad thing with due harshness but which instead just go further into dehumanizing the Other, and I will just nod my head. Speak in too loose generalities or move beyond harshly denouncing bad behaviors and ideas to demonizing people in a primarily tribalistic way, and you signal bigotry or ignorance of the complexity of the histories and philosophies of the religions you’re attacking. And that’s wrong ethically and intellectually. And it’s not a matter of tone but a matter of truth and the avoidance of hatred.
Finally, I talk about not demonizing religious people and learning to love them because, again, it’s true that they are not generally demons and it’s true that much about them can and should rightly be loved despite their vices which we are unusually highly attuned to recognizing and disliking. To be fair, just, tolerant, benevolent, constructive, persuasive, and truthful people, we should do the hard work of loving our enemies because they actually deserve it and not just as a sales strategy and not just because we cannot ever put together a nice harsh polemic (also grounded in truth). When I talk about being patient and gracious, it is directly part of the same post calling us to be unapologetic and rigorous too. It is giving advice on how to make the hardest, most effective “sell” you can without being an invasive, pushy, judgmental, domineering asshole like the kinds of proselytizers atheists themselves routinely and rightly attack all the time.
It’s not about tone, it’s about treating people consistent with the truth like rationalists should do.
And just as Christians set themselves up as the epitome of love and charity and rain down on themselves immense deserved derision for every deviation from those claimed ideals, we set ourselves up to be scrutinized especially hard for our every deviation from strict rational honesty and accuracy in our ideals. And we rightly should be held to them. If we believe in rationalism, we should fight for it rationalistically and not rationally sloppily. If we hate religious intolerance towards out-group members so much then we should be extra-vigilant about taking the plank out of our own eyes and make sure that we do not mingle our truth-based criticism with unrestrained hate that corrupts it and makes us intolerant, regardless of whether some of our points are abstractly true.
[UPDATE: 7/29/12 There were three places where I originally wrote that things atheists suggest doing were “stupid”. Each time I put the word in italics. I have changed each of those to the word “irrational” in italics. At the time I was trying to be ironic by using the word “stupid” to describe the tactic of calling people stupid. I have since persuaded myself that even that is unnecessarily ableist against people of lesser education and in-born intellectual ability.]
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