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.

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