Who Are You Calling Stupid?

In no small part due to an incredibly kind write up from my friend Richard Wade, a lot of people have now read my series of posts giving tips for reaching out to religious believers. And my advice to not call religious people stupid, which led off the series, seems to have essentially dominated and colored people’s entire perception of what I was up to, both for good and for ill.

I have already written a few follow up posts to the series addressing concerns but there are a few nagging questions about what it means to be stupid, whether it is honest or accurate to call anyone stupid, and whether it is a good strategy or a good ethics that involves calling people stupid.

So, if you will forgive another list, here are ten key points I hope are clarifying:

1. Just telling people they are wrong—either because they are misinformed, arguing fallaciously, or not yet convinced you are right—is not formally equivalent to calling them stupid. Yes, many believers will feel like you are calling them stupid even when you are not. This is because when being shown they are wrong, people feel intellectually insecure. And since distinctively and controversially religious beliefs are typically quite fantastical, religious believers are full aware these things might look crazy to outsiders and they expect them to look foolish (or “stupid”) to outsiders and so they hear that implication in your arguments that their beliefs are logically absurd.

Nonetheless, if you patiently stick to the facts and the arguments and to pointing out specific silliness as silliness, they are much more likely to hear you out than if you outright, explicitly insult them. Most people will judge you by how you treat them more than by your words.

And you can actively mitigate their impression you think they are stupid in a number of ways. First of all, you can explain in depth the nature of cognitive errors and their utter pervasiveness. They are not unique to religion. They pop up naturally in all people’s minds, even in your own. You can pay attention to your own life and catalog salient examples to use as illustrations when talking to religious believers. You can say, “Here is how my own primate brain makes these same mistakes. It’s only human. It makes perfect sense that you are prone to the kinds of errors you are. Here is how scientific and philosophical rigor arduously came to realize that a lot of seemingly common sense that we are naturally wired to accept was actually false according to the evidence.”

By doing this, you do not single out religious beliefs or people as at all especially dumb. This also gives you a natural way to defuse their appeals to great religious minds from earlier eras which are meant to somehow bolster their hope that religious beliefs are perfectly reasonable. You can show the arc of learned opinion on matters of faith and demonstrate statistically how, in the aggregate, it is bending away from religious belief and explain the kinds of rational discoveries, often made by believers themselves, that led this inexorable march towards general unbelief among the most informed and educated.

If you were once a believer, as I was, and you had a rationally driven deconversion, as I did, then you can completely sympathize and say outright, “Look, I get it how your beliefs can seem so rational and compelling from the inside of the faith, I was there, I once thought just like you. Here was the reasoning process that made me realize it was just false.” Then you walk them through the dialectic that led you out of the faith and in doing so show them how starting basically where they are there is a path out.

2. It is wrong to call most religious believers stupid because many people are religious as a matter of the path of least resistance. Relatively few people are actually Bible beating fundamentalists. There is an enormous mushy middle of people who believe out of lazy conformism and accommodation of their parents and tradition.

They may get a good rush of feeling loyal and feeling moral when they defend religious people or their faith against attack, and they may have an ingrained sense that this is a part of their identity in some way, but their actual lives are for the most part as secular as yours. God stuff is quite well compartmentalized and only accessed in narrowly circumscribed occasions.

These people will find it baffling when you rail too loosely about the stupidity of religious people. Their superstitions are natural, unthinking, mild, and do not conflict with their ordinary life much at all, if ever. Their view of more devout religious people is that some are extra moral and admirable and some are crazy and off-putting. They think you are blinded by hatred if you lump all religious people into a category of villainous stupidity based on the actions of extremists.

Yes, their views are muddled, irrational, and quite often ill-informed about their own traditions’ theologies. Yes, they accommodate the crazies and stand up for them too much. But these people are for the most part rational and live rational secular lives and can be appealed to without condescension and without epithets and will likely think much more of you if you do not belittle people you think are dumber than you. Especially when those are people that they perceive as virtuously earnest and sincere, even when they think they are a bit benighted.

I have been asked in different ways whether anyone is actually stupid and so deserving of being called such. Can’t we at least call some religious people stupid? Is my prohibition too sweeping and unfair?

3. “Stupid” is a relative term.

“Stupid” means far less intelligent than average. Since the vast majority of humans are and always have been religious, and accordingly believed a share of false and fantastic things, it seems definitionally false to imply religiosity equates with stupidity. The average mind is religious. If that makes the average mind stupid, then stupid no longer means far less intelligent than average. And then we’d need a new word for stupid because it no longer means what it’s supposed to.

Now you might say stupid means unintelligent compared not to the norm for humans but for ideal rationality in general. You might say that all of us humans, naturally and unavoidably prone to cognitive errors and fallacious patterns of inference from birth, are as a species generally stupid.

If you think this and think this justifies calling religious people stupid, then you must also always clarify in advance that you think this makes you stupid too. You must make a big point of making clear you do not mean religious people are especially stupid (which would be the natural assumption if you don’t take the effort to clarify).

And in that case you probably should not be falling all over yourself congratulating yourself for evading one set of prominent intellectual mistakes humans are prone towards when your own “stupidity” might very well lead you to numerous other comparable mistakes in politics or in other fields of learning of which you are largely ignorant and dependent primarily on your stupid common sense driven mind.

4. Calling a particular person stupid only makes them dislike you. I found it interesting that the two people who lashed out at me least rationally were advocates of harsh tone who could not take even my rational, insult-free criticism without emotionally making baseless charges that I had “denigrated” them or was a self-righteous hypocrite and actually a tribalist after all.

You would have thought that people who convinced that harsh tones and demeaning words were effective and morally proper could at least handle strongly worded arguments meant to make them reassess their attitudes and behavior morally. But they could not. How dare I question their ethics? And how dare I appeal to things Jesus said about loving enemies and removing the plank from one’s own eyes before criticizing others! How dare I betray the tribe and treat anything a Christian text ever said as valuable! I must want to marry Jesus or something! If you want the essence of tribalism summed up in one short comment on a blog post, really you can’t do any better than this.

I am hardly convinced that religious believers will the explicit insults and explicitly bullying tones of people such as these as any more convincing and any less self-righteous than my strongly worded calls to them to simply answer to the better angels of their nature and live up to their claims that they are morally superior and more committed to reason than religious people are.

5. Relatedly, the people who are actually much less intelligent than average resent being called stupid most deeply of anyone. It will only entrench them in their beliefs the very most. And just like I would be appalled by any adult (parent, teacher, or otherwise) who was, er, stupid and cruel enough to think calling a slow witted kid “stupid” was going to help him learn better, I am also not impressed with the people-skills of those who think bullying adults with the word “stupid” is any smarter than pushing kids down with it is.

Arrogant, obnoxious smart people who piss on those they think are stupid only make enemies of themselves to the less intelligent. They don’t make such people crave education but rather they make them ripe for demagogues who flatter them and demonize those very “elites” who look down on them.

So, go ahead, call the less educated people or the public figures who they identify with stupid. I’m sure Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh will love their increased hostility towards you.

6. Some smart people will take a warning that certain positions are stupid as neon signs not to be open-minded about them as they might otherwise be. It’s a way to say, “look, all the learned people know that viewpoint is bankrupt, don’t even try to give the other side a shot, they completely don’t know what they are talking about. I see this as the one case where I am a little understanding (and generally, I think this is the only kind of use of such words that the most prominent New Atheists engage in). And I admit, it’s been helpful to me at times in getting the message quickly about where the authority of scientists lies and just how out of bounds intellectually some positions are to them.

But I think other more targeted and specific words, with less of the drawbacks listed above, are far and away shrewder.

7. But I have seen even smart people, in fact too many of them, be harmfully and unnecessarily bullied into thinking they were intellectually inadequate. It’s very easy for conscientious people to feel like failures. Smart people deserve to be affirmed and not to be made to feel like shit when they are wrong. It hurts the discourse when they are made more timid for fear of being abused if they make intellectual mistakes. An emotionally supportive and genial, rigorous debating sphere encourages everyone to participate fearlessly and constructively, to everyone’s benefit. Abusiveness is counterproductive to that.

8. Academic and scientific intellectual battles are not won by epithets but by arguments. And even though many seem to think the conflict with religion is political and so one that (apparently) permits of more bloodsport, the debate between faith and reason is a philosophical issue and it really is most convincingly won with reason and not with bullying.

Even when religious believers are intransigent they are at least driven into uncomfortable corners when beliefs that they thought were obviously rational are shredded by logic and counter-evidence. They are forced into fideistic confessions that they believe against the advice of reason. They are forced into conceding we win on rational grounds and grasp for straws (we’re mean, we don’t understand the emotional side of life, etc.) that simply will not be enough to inculcate firm beliefs in the next generation or the one after that, etc. Being the more rational party means in the long run being the obviously right one the more those whose prejudices and allegiances were forged in more religious times age and die off and are replaced by more deeply secularized and open minded people.

9. However wrong people might be in one area of life, they may be very intelligent in others. Calling people stupid for holding some obviously ludicrous religious beliefs is usually inaccurate because it unfairly ignores the rest of their life in which they may very well be quite smart. And ludicrous religious beliefs can be adopted in a way much less dumb than regular ludicrous beliefs. We are wired to take generally accepted beliefs as plausible.

Believing crazy nonsense that millions or billions of others believe (and have believed) for centuries is different than believing just any other crazy nonsense. It may be too uncritically accepting tradition, but it is a different mistake to do that than to adopt a brand new nonsense. And this is especially true when religious institutions and other aspects of the culture have systematically inoculated you against atheism by exacerbating your brain’s natural cognitive errors in order to reinforce their beliefs.

And, as noted before, many modern religious believers, and especially those in the West, so compartmentalize the fantastic parts of their faiths as to render them functionally harmless. Painting them all as dangerous delusional fanatics because the logic of some beliefs they never carry through on would theoretically lead them to crazy or dangerous actions is just false and misleading.

10. Stupid and cruel atheists are hardly an improvement over stupid and cruel religious people. If the only way to make someone an atheist is to stoop to irrational arguments and manipulative techniques so that you can win over people without improving their reasoning skills, but rather by exacerbating their weaknesses, then what is the point even of making them atheists? You are just turning atheism, in your own case into cynical irrationalism and making new atheists who are just as stupid and cruel as they were before you deconverted them, since you appealed to their basest instincts rather than correcting them. Why again should I care about there being more atheists if they aren’t rationalists? Irrational, cynical, bullying atheists throughout history have proved just as monstrous as their religious cousins.

If atheists want to be known for being so “good without God” we need to shed the image of being hateful and to do that we need to conscientiously live up to our standards and talk in a way worthy of rationalists—i.e., with proper factual nuance—about religious believers. And if we don’t want to be compared to fundamentalists we need to assiduously avoid adopting their most irrational, reactionary, bullying techniques for attacking those who disagree with them.

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.

  • karmakin

    I think that the emotional reaction of the 2nd party often is something that we give too much credence towards. The honest truth is that saying “I am an atheist” has the subtext of saying “Belief in God is factually wrong, and therefore stupid” if one wants to see it that way.

    A better way to put it, is that it’s the easiest emotional/intellectual path to take, and to expect people to not take that path is not reasonable. That’s not to say we should be jerks, but again, in most cases we’re crafting a message to the 3rd party. Different actions for different crowds.

    I think that #9 is the most relevant. I think people do “compartmentalize” their belief. Actually I’ll go a step further. I think people generally don’t know the meanings of their beliefs. And we’re not just talking laypeople or the simply culturally religious. You can see in how debates between atheists/believers the nature of God is something that shifts in the wind.

    We see taking a fundamentally theistic religion and turning it into something deistic or pantheistic or hell, even atheistic at times. Yet, when we’re debating these things, we have often have deists/pantheists being offended when we pin theistic viewpoints on them, even when they’re arguing for/defending said theistic viewpoints. A good example of this was the dust-up between Jerry Conye and Andrew Sullivan last week. There was also a debate involving Sam Harris regarding the existence of the afterlife a while back that went really deep into these weeds.

    Many times in theistic debates, these weeds are where these debates get stuck at. So the question is…stupid or lying?

    I generally chose the latter. It’s not that people intend to deceive about their own personal beliefs. It’s that they want to maintain both religious cultural traditions AND have their own spiritual beliefs as well. And often I find, especially outside of fundamentalism circles, the two don’t line up at all.

  • Beth

    The two links with #4 both go to the same post. Was that intentional? If so, can you explain how it sums up tribalism? Thanks.

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

      Yes, the two links were aiming at the same comment on purpose. It sums up tribalism in that it is an attempt to punish someone for trivial signifiers that he has betrayed the tribe (like my alluding twice to the Sermon on the Mount) or for asking the tribe to do things that might not give them as much of an advantage over the Other. His accusations of divisiveness on my part seem to manifest a mentality that unless we band together and support each other, even when each other are behaving badly, we cannot have a group at all.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    That should be: “Whom Are You Calling Stupid?”

  • Kiwi Sauce

    Doesn’t it all boil down to, what is one’s motive? If one’s objective is to try to convince theists to become atheist, then one follows your points above. However, if one’s objective is to point score at the expense of the other’s self-esteem, then the negative behaviour you outline follows as a matter of course.

    Once the descent into name calling starts, the argument is lost. At this point, it’s just who can throw all their toys out of the sandbox first. Admittedly, some from the opposing side never wanted a proper argument in the first place, however that means the battle was lost before it started, and so even in that case name calling etc is pointless.

    To take a power perspective on it, those who feel themselves in control of a situation do not resort to bullying, calling people stupid, etc, as these are the hallmarks of a person who does not feel in charge of a situation. True power is exercised by alternative means, e.g. a boss making a polite request of a subordinate. So, I see this type of negative behaviour – only when exhibited as a consistent feature, we all have problems with self-control from time to time – as an admission of powerlessness.

  • dochopper

    I can’t help it if I am able Dance around the Questions & Answers that seem to be the part of the preplanned SOUL WINNING Process.
    If I stand here and let you share your Testimony with me it will be a waste of two peoples time .
    I don’t think believing folks are Stupid I just feel from personal experience they can’t take no for an answer.
    I know what is being Shared I know why its being Shared .
    I just don’t have a place in my life to put it !
    I am A RECOVERING SOUTHERN BAPTIST.

  • http://www.twitter.com/jalyth Jalyth

    I am surprised that this point of yours stirred up any controversy or even discussion.

    My parents are hard core believers. They are also very intelligent. Yes, I wonder frequently how a) both can be true, and b) come I’m the only who “escaped”.

    My mother taught me when I was a child not to call people stupid. We weren’t even allowed to say “shutup” to each other, and especially not to her. The manners I was taught have served me well, and I am frequently surprised by the lack in some people (I can be quite innocent in a weird way).

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

      There’s been so much (justified) defensiveness of the right to challenge religion without being accused of being hateful, that some people are on a hair-trigger to defend any manner of criticizing religion whatsoever. And a fair proportion of outspoken atheists, as an irreverent, non-conformist lot, are especially prone to being antagonistic to institutions and their lackeys. Plus I think there is the problem that when they use reason and logic and people are willfully indifferent and defiant to the force of reason, they feel like their only recourse is through emotional appeals, including abusive ones since reason is not working. Finally, a lot of atheists have (often quite justified) pent up anger and hostility from being pushed around by religious people and institutions and so don’t like having to be told to be sympathetic to those they see as their tormenters and lie-spreaders.

    • Kiwi Sauce

      Plus I think there is the problem that when they use reason and logic and people are willfully indifferent and defiant to the force of reason, they feel like their only recourse is through emotional appeals, including abusive ones since reason is not working.
      I agree with you on this analysis. The bit I am curious about is why people feel that emotional appeals will work where reason doesn’t. Emotional appeals work on the basis of psychological manipulation and often this is done in such an obvious way that the recipient realises they are being manipulated, and responds as one would expect. In the situation where we wish to change someone’s mind, I can clearly see how reason works but not purely emotional appeals. From what I observe, emotional appeals only work where the person already feels along the same lines (e.g. emotional ads designed to get people to donate money to cause X only seem to work when people are already predisposed to donate to cause X).

      The other point is that we all have self-fulfilling prophecies, and we tend to treat others in a way that corresponds. So once we (unconsciously) get the other group to respond in a negative way, we can say to ourselves, see that proves that they’re stupid, etc. Treating others that we fundamentally disagree with in a reasonably open-minded way is extremely difficult, and probably not possible in every situation.

      Finally, a lot of atheists have (often quite justified) pent up anger and hostility from being pushed around by religious people and institutions and so don’t like having to be told to be sympathetic to those they see as their tormenters and lie-spreaders.
      Does this mean that some people conflate being civil with being sympathetic? So that if we don’t rise to anger, we’re sympathetic to religious people and institutions? I’m not sure I’ve read your intended message. I know some real FW xtains, like my mother and brother, who I avoid because I have issues controlling my tongue around them (they are bible literalists), and yet I know other xtians who are lovely and who don’t seem to have an issue with allowing other groups to have rights. I don’t think I could get cross with the latter, they’re too nice. But their niceness, and my happiness to be around them, doesn’t mean I agree with their religious perspectives.

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

      I think that emotional appeals can sway people sometimes because people feel a lot of tension when in disharmony with other people. We want to agree with each other. It’s painful to be in disagreement. So, emotionally, we feel an irrational pressure to think like others. This is a lot of why we conform to common values and opinions. It’s an emotional path of least resistance.

      So, I don’t think it’s futile to make emotional appeals. I don’t think it’s even always irrational to incorporate a fully emotional appeal because part of reasoning properly is feeling properly—especially in values disputes where how we subjectively value is in question. Getting someone to value reason from a subjective perspective is a matter of getting them to feel allegiance and deference to the dictates of reason. Peer pressure, shaming over someone’s irresponsible failure to value reason properly, and positive, infectious enthusiasm for reason can each be emotionally effective ways of swaying.

      My concern is that these are only employed in ways that are consistent with respecting our interlocutors’ autonomous reasoning and their dignity.

    • Kiwi Sauce

      I take your point. Debates don’t work when one wishes one’s opponent was arguing at the universal ethical principles stage, when they’re situated at the obedience and punishment orientation stage. :) See Kohlberg’s theory of moral development. I quite like this theory as one can arrive at the same answer, but through different reasoning, depending on the stage (as well as having different answers at different stages).

    • abb3w

      It seems an implication of the adage attributed to Swift: “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.”

    • http://www.twitter.com/jalyth Jalyth

      Okay, that sounds reasonable. When I read thru your list, I thought mainly of in-person conversations. It’s a lot easier with body language and tone to not imply someone is an idiot in real life. I stay out of many internet “discussions” so I don’t come across the wrong way. :)

  • Stacy Kennedy

    Thanks for this.

  • http://catholicinternetwatch.blogspot.com/ Scout

    This is an excellent article which anybody struggling to debate with religious types should read, then read again, and again, and again…

    In my experience, religious people are just as quick to question the intelligence of their opponents as non-believers are, but regardless of whoever adopts the tactic, it is not a smart one. It just closes down the dialogue.

    So however frustrated you feel, never call them stupid (even if they’re acting stupid!).

  • Eclectic

    Here’s a point about cognitive errors I made long ago on Greta Christina’s blog.

    Saying “I don’t think you’re accurately reporting what happened” does not mean “I think you’re lying to me.”

    If I were to ask you to draw a scene you were present at, even a scene you were looking directly at, and you were not a skilled artist, you would probably draw a very inaccurate picture.

    Drawing in perspective, in particular, is very difficult to learn. Your brain stubbornly insists on “fixing” your perceptions so that near and far things look the same size. Unless you are aware of this bias and try to consciously compensate for it, you’ll likely produce a very distorted drawing.

    Indeed, for centuries, artists made no attempt to draw in perspective; apparently they didn’t think it was possible to make a two-dimensional drawing look three-dimensional.

    But your inability to produce an accurate drawing doesn’t mean that you are trying to distort your image. It just means that overcoming the brain’s biases in that regard is a learned skill that takes considerable practice to do well.

    I know it’s disconcerting to not trust your own perceptions, but once you understand how your perceptions are distorted, you gain two interesting benefits. First, you can gain a more accurate perception of what is really happening, and second, you can deliberately trigger your biases to produce nifty optical illusions and trompe l’oeil effects.

    But please, it’s not a moral failing, just a skill that you haven’t studied.

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

      superb analogy!

  • http://anythingbuttheist.blogspot.com Bret

    You really focus on “stupid” a lot. What about “ignorant douchebag” or “intellectually incestuous nitwit?” I’d include more which were peppered with a particular seven words George Carlin is famous for, but I don’t want to ruin the decorum of your blog (there might be pussies reading this, after all).

    I’m just curious, was anyone here actually, honestly convinced of atheism because of a kind atheist who presented evidence-based arguments? I’m not asking if logic and reason were what kept you atheist, I mean initially, was anyone actually attracted to atheism by intellectuals in ivory towers?

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

      I’m just curious, was anyone here actually, honestly convinced of atheism because of a kind atheist who presented evidence-based arguments? I’m not asking if logic and reason were what kept you atheist, I mean initially, was anyone actually attracted to atheism by intellectuals in ivory towers?

      Yes. All the groundwork for my deconversion in college was the straight up logic of and reason of philosophers, including my best friend at the time (who was a believer reading Nietzsche and losing his faith at the time) and even a non-philosopher who showed up at a philosophy club meeting and totally pwned a bunch of senior philosophy majors (including me) in a discussion of Nietzsche. Finally, Nietzsche created an indescribable gestalt shift by painting the value of Christianity in such powerfully critical ways which affected my moral and “spiritual” sense of its worth in ways that undermined my defenses where the straight up reasons had not yet.

      But what I am calling for is not a simplistic dichotomy between reason and emotion. There is room for some emotion in some contexts. What there’s not room for is being cruel and abusive.

    • penn

      I think you’re missing the important difference between calling a person stupid and calling their arguments stupid. If you tell me I’m stupid, I’m going to call you a dickhead and that’ll be end the end of our discourse. If you say my argument is stupid, I’ll say no it isn’t because of X, Y, and Z, and then you can offer counterarguments to X, Y, and Z. Yes, many people will ignore the difference, but that’s their problem.

      It may be better to avoid emotionally charged words like “stupid” to begin with, though. Word choice is important, and different words have different connotations. For example, your use of the word “pussies” in your post makes me think you’re either immature or insecure and trying to sound macho. I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I get from arbitrary and unnecessary use of misogynistic terms.

    • Jesse

      I think you have it that word choice is important. As is context, and a little bit of social intelligence.

      Here’s a typical domestic scene:

      Imagine Bob is busy mopping the floor. His wife Alice comes in and says “This place is a mess! We need to hire a cleaning lady”

      Now, how would you expect Bob to react? Most people in Bob’s place would take that as a direct attack.

      If Bob were not cleaning the floor, but watching TV, he might take it as an attack also but at least he might feel there was some justification for it. But when he is actively trying to remedy the situation a statement that is probably not so bad becomes the focus of a domestic dispute and people get mad.

      Too often, many atheists say “I’m just calling your argument stupid.” But an argument is made by a person, not a computer. Just like it’s a bit of an ego-blow when as a writer I get heavily edited and someone doesn’t like my work. I know, intellectually, that it has little to do with me personally but that isn’t the way human brains function unless you are autistic or something. Obviously I don’t cry if an editor comes back with something, but it is a bit of a confidence-denter.

      People identify with the things they say, with the arguments they make, with everything they do all day to one degree or another. I get tired of a lot of people — some atheists — pretending that that doesn’t happen. I used to do it alot, and I am not proud of this. I used to pick intellectual fights with the born-agains. Why? I felt pretty smug about it. I was being a dick.

      I see no profit in making someone feel worse (or trying to do so) about themselves than they did five minutes ago. It does not make me happy. So why do it?

      (I am a disciple of Wil Wheaton: Don’t Be A Dick.)

  • Laurance

    I sure don’t like to be called “stupid”. It doesn’t make me do any better or make me feel any better about the issue or the people I’m talking with.

    So I don’t call people “stupid” when they say something I really don’t go along with.

    Rather, I make no value judgement at all. Rather, I’d say, “I see things differently, and here’s why.”

    Years ago back in the Anita Bryant anti-gay movement, my neighbor came over to tell me why gay people have horns and a tail and should be banned from polite society.

    I listened to her, really listened. Then I said, “I understand why you’re afraid. As for me, these are my *friends* you’re talking about. I don’t see my friends constituting the danger to your young son that you see.”

    What happened is that we talked about it. Neither of us convinced the other in the end. But we kept lines of communication open. We did not demonize each other. I saw a woman who had almost lost her son to a disease, who had then gotten cancer herself, who had gotten religion in response to fear of loss and death, who seemed to me to have been frightened into not thinking clearly, who seemed to me to be grasping for security and comfort. Had I simply called her “stupid”, I would have alienated a dying woman and would have not accomplished a damn thing.

    Because I treated her with respect, she did listen to me, and we remained on good terms till she died later that year.

  • abb3w

    On #3, you seem to neglect the shift that while the average mind is religious, the average mind is less religious than the average religious mind. That the resulting intelligence gap is a fraction of a standard deviation and not “far less” can be argued to only mean that “theists tend to be stupid” is less accurate than “theists tend to be stupider than atheists”. A more effective argument might result from observing that among those who do believe, it is the more religious who seem to have higher general intelligence.

    On #10, why might you care about there being more atheists if they aren’t rationalists? Depends on the extent that you take a consequentialist approach. Fundamentalist theists, in part motivated by that theism, are choosing to make political efforts I suspect you consider “bad” — opposing acceptance anthropogenic climate change, trying to push creationism into science classes and evolution out, enshrine their sexual moral code and gender role norms in statute and case law, and so on.

    Certainly, it would seem preferable to have them become rationalists, in so far as this seems more likely to result in them making more frequent “good” choices in a wider variety of areas. However, it still may be an improvement in the consequences if they still make their choices irrationally, but in a pattern that reduces contribution to these particular problems (and, in turn, does not also produce a greater contribution to other problems). While my recollection of Nietzsche is rusty, it would seem possible to argue that being able to get someone to vote along side you is a means of increasing your personal political power, regardless of whether they now follow you from rational or irrational motives.

    That said, I’d concede it is not safe. In terms of social outcomes, my impression is that I’d rather have 25% of the country remain Biblically Inerrant Fundamentalist Theocrats than mutate into strong Randite Capitalist Atheists.

    And, more to your overall point, I’d tend to agree that calling people stupid is a tactic that is overused and rarely useful.


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